The radiant golden domes of the newly constructed Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces loom high over Moscow’s Patriot Park.
Also known as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, the cathedral was originally scheduled for completion in time for a Victory Day parade on May 9. It was to have been a big celebration, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the parade and the cathedral’s inauguration were delayed until June 22 — a day of memory and sorrow marking the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the launch of the Great Patriotic War.
But even prior to its official dedication, the massive structure honoring both Christ’s resurrection and Russia’s routing of the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (Russian link) had turned into a source of controversy.
By April’s end, photos of the cathedral’s interior were leaked to the press. Its mosaics featured not only saints and ancient Russian war heroes, but also some familiar faces from the 20th and 21st centuries. Along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one can easily spot Joseph Stalin, the brutal Soviet leader who killed millions of his own citizens during a sadistic era of repression.
Stalin, a would-be priest who once studied in religious seminary in Tiflis (now Tbilisi, Georgia), was a determined enemy of the church and religion in general.
In 1931, Stalin ordered demolished the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a majestic Moscow fixture whose construction took 40 years and was initiated by Tsar Alexander I. It was turned into a swimming pool in 1958 by Nikita Khrushchev, and finally rebuilt between 1995 and 2000 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1932, Stalin launched a ruthless campaign for the eradication of religion. In 1937, the Great Purge, orchestrated by Stalin and executed by his loyalists, took the lives of millions of Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Tatar, Latvian, and Estonian men, women, and children, along with many others, including clergy.
Many Russian Christian leaders were signatories to a letter to the Bishop of Moscow protesting Stalin’s inclusion in the cathedral mural due to his crimes, but for some time the decision was defended by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the military.
By mid-May the images of both Putin and Stalin had disappeared from the mosaics. Some segments of the Russian public approved of the move, while many others expressed outrage. At the same time, the capitals of two pro-Russian entities — the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and South Ossetia — changed the names of their respective capitals, Donetsk and Tskhinvali, to Stalino and Stalinir.
A May 2020 conference entitled “Reading Stalin,” whose participants described Stalin as a great political and military leader, garnered nearly half-a-million views on YouTube in just a few days, and a new statue of Stalin was unveiled near the city of Kirov.
# Наверное, всем уже известно, что в Кировской области в честь 75-летия Победы был открыт памятник Сталину. Однако…
Despite Stalin being one of the darkest figures in Russian history, according to a 2018 poll, half of Russian youth up to age 24 had never heard of the atrocities committed under his regime. So why is he currently trending among millions of Russians?
And equally troubling: Why is the Kremlin promoting his image today, and how will this propaganda continue to affect and shape modern Russia?
Brutal tyrant or ‘effective manager’?
During the years of the perestroika from 1985 to 1991, when I was growing up in Moscow, it seemed that not a day went by without the release of a new memoir, interview or book about the repression, hunger, torture, and extermination of human beings under Stalin.
It felt like everyone had read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyin’s “The Gulag Archipelago” and the painful memoirs of Lev Razgon. Suddenly, things hardly whispered about for decades sprang to life. It became safe to speak about relatives who disappeared during the horrible purges of 1937, when people were arrested in the dead of night so as to avoid witnesses. After interrogations, torture, and speedy trials, some were executed, while others were sent to gulags — notorious forced labor camps in the Urals, Siberia, and other remote areas.
As the flow of this information increased, statues of Lenin and Stalin were toppled and broken, and people began to talk, reopening old wounds and reaching for forbidden memories.
This is how I learned about the fate of my own grandfather Constantin, my father’s father, who was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938, as well as the “Doctors’ Plot” of 1951 to 1953. The latter was a vicious, anti-Semitic campaign in which thousands of Jewish doctors — including my grandmother Victoria — were accused of plotting to poison Stalin. They lost their jobs and were preparing to be sent to Siberia, until a few weeks after Stalin’s death the new Soviet leadership declared the plot a fabrication.
My family’s story is shared by thousands, even millions, of other Soviet families. It is not unique — and this is what makes it even more terrifying.
Three decades after the perestroika, everything has changed. That era’s heroes are now seen as naive intellectuals or opportunists who destroyed what was left of the Soviet empire, while Stalin’s legacy regains its old popularity.
My family’s story is shared by thousands, even millions, of other Soviet families
According to a 2019 poll conducted by Russia’s nonprofit Levada center, a record 70 percent of Russians approved of Stalin’s role in Soviet and Russian history. In 2016, that number stood at 54%.
“By 2010 we already felt the influence of pro-Stalinists on our society, and we sort of understood what was going on,” said Irina Sherbakova, a Russian historian, author, and founding member of human rights organization Memorial, which has been following the rise of Stalinism in Russia for years.
“One of the participants in some discussions that we held was a girl whose grandfather was once forcefully exiled by Stalin from Lithuania to Siberia,” Sherbakova said. “She mentioned that in her opinion, Stalin was an ‘effective manager.’ This was at a time when Putin used to speak a lot about the need for a strong state with an effective manager — and Stalin quickly became a symbol of such a state, a leader whose authority was unlimited.”
There has been talk of strong figures since the time of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Sherbakova said, but even Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible didn’t resonate like Stalin. This is because Stalin is able to represent strong anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiments without alienating older people who, frustrated by economic decline and corruption, still support a left wing Leninist ideology, she said.
Stalin is able to represent strong anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiments without alienating older people
“Even the church adopted Stalin as a ‘powerful state’ symbol, hence the decision to include him in the cathedral, and the icons that bear his image as if he were a saint,” Sherbakova said.
Each year on October 29, the official day commemorating the victims of Soviet repression, members of Sherbakova’s Memorial organization gather near Lyubyanka — the imposing building in Moscow that once served as KGB headquarters — and read names of the victims out loud.
“We need to gather permits from 12 different offices, and each year it becomes more and more difficult, but we come back there and read the names of those who were starved, tortured, incarcerated, and murdered,” said Sherbakova.
The poignant ceremony draws a growing crowd each year. At the same time, more and more flowers appear every day by Stalin’s grave near the Kremlin walls.
A different spin
“I have a theory about this kind of Stalinism – when people wear t-shirts with Stalin’s image and say that under his rule we were a great empire,” Olga Bychkova, an influential Russian journalist and host on the Echo of Moscow radio station, told The Times of Israel.
“I believe that it’s not necessarily real fascination with Stalinism, but rather a dissatisfaction with today’s reality,” Bychkova said.
Conditions in Russia are currently dire, she said, and people are close to despair — but their dissatisfaction with the status quo can’t be addressed by the authorities, who support Putin unconditionally.
Infatuation with Stalin is a sublimation of this dissatisfaction
“In a way, infatuation with Stalin is a sublimation of this dissatisfaction,” Bychkova said. “There is no plan today, and nothing better awaits people in the future. So they fantasize about the mythological Stalin, whom they deem to be a just leader, who rightly punished the bad guys.”
Her own family barely survived an encounter with this “justice.”
“My family had no warm feelings for Stalin,” Bychkova said. “My grandfather Matvei Glikshtein was a military doctor. He was recruited and sent to war in 1939 during the war with Finland, participated in the liberation of Bucharest and Budapest, and returned home only in May, 1945. His whole family was murdered by the Nazis in the city of Rostov in 1942.”
Bychkova said that during the Doctors’ Plot in 1952, all of her family’s friends were fired from their jobs and some were arrested. Despite her grandfather’s medals and wartime bravery, he was also fired and never regained his former status.
Bychkova’s great-uncle was arrested in 1937 for telling a joke about Stalin. The family still doesn’t know what the joke was, she said. He was only released from the camps in 1953, after Stalin’s death. It was there at the camps that he met his wife, who was sent to the gulags at age 17.
“There are not enough words to describe what they did to her there,” Bychkova said.
What they don’t know still hurts them
The 2018 poll by the VCIOM public opinion research center that found that nearly half of young Russians had never heard of Stalin’s purges, can partly explain the late despot’s growing approval rate.
Some had never met a relative who lived through that terrible time; many never learned about the repression, intentional starvation of peasants, persecution of prisoners of war who were arrested for “being spies” when they returned home after the end of WWII, horrific anti-Semitic campaigns, and the regime of fear that ruled the country for so long.
By 2010 many Russian universities were using a textbook that excused the Soviet repression as a “necessary measure” and included a false quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Stalin received Russia with a plow and left it armed with a nuclear weapon.”
After a public outcry this book was removed from the curriculum, but many others depicting Stalin as an “effective manager” with some anger issues remained.
“My daughter went to school in the 2000s and her textbooks claimed that the victory in WWII was achieved only due to Stalin’s talent and stamina. The kids who read those textbooks are now 25 or 30 today, and if no one told them better, that’s the knowledge they have,” said Bychkova.
Sherbakova agreed. “There is a problem with how they teach history. If the narrative is ‘reforms that coincided with repressions,’ there is a problem,” she said.
If textbooks used in schools and universities imply that the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin paled in comparison to such achievements as creating “the most beautiful metro in the world,” and victory in the Great Patriotic War, how will young Russians be able to learn about their country’s dark past, especially in an age of fake news and alternative facts?
Facts are still under wraps and even the official numbers of gulag prisoners and people who were summarily executed are unavailable.
Some historians believe that 5.5 million Soviet citizens went through the conveyor belt of speedy trials, gulags, and executions; others claim that if one were to include all those forcibly deported and exiled, starved to death, interned in psychiatric hospitals, and maimed, that number would be closer to a stunning 100 million people.
In Facebook groups such as “Reading Stalin,” however, there are no trace of these numbers. In thousands of posts, Stalin is portrayed as a strong and just leader who often intervened on behalf of the “common people” and even saved them from injustice.
In one such post (link in Russian) the author describes how Stalin stepped in to help the starving peasants after receiving a complaint from renowned writer Mikhail Sholokhov.
This is historical revisionism mixed with longing for a mythical, strong-but-just brother-leader who wasn’t corrupt like the current leadership
This is historical revisionism mixed with longing for a mythical, strong-but-just brother-leader who wasn’t corrupt like the current leadership. A simple web search will lead the reader to the horrific details described by Sholokhov — babies who died from the cold, people blamed for hiding flour and forced to die of hunger, and the brutal policies spearheaded by Stalin that led to all this suffering.
Perhaps it was exactly this sort of curiosity that drove Russian YouTube star Yuri Dud to explore the connection between Stalin, repression, and gulags. In his powerful 2019 documentary, “Kolyma: The Birthplace of Our Fear,” Dud says: “I wanted to understand — where does the older generation’s fear come from? Why are they convinced that acts of courage, no matter how small, are bound to be punished?”
The documentary was viewed by millions on YouTube and was soon at the center of a vivid discussion on Russia’s past.
Steps to bridge knowledge gap
Dud’s generation might know little, but they want to know more, said Sergei Bondarenko, a historian at Memorial who researches the circumstances of arrests and executions during the Stalinist repression of the 1930s.
“What we witness today is an attempt to normalize this past and to make a label out of Stalin. Dud’s generation, very young people, naturally protest against authority — any authority. If this symbol is fed to them, they want to know why and what he’s all about. That’s why this documentary was born,” said Bondarenko.
Another recent series, “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes,” aired on the state-run Channel 1, tells the story of uprooted Tatar woman who was exiled to Siberia. It also puts Stalin’s brutality on display and has added more fuel to an already heated discussion.
In the 30 years since I left Russia, many things have changed. Old, forgotten symbols were resurrected from the ashes of once-powerful forces. Today I wonder: Will Stalin, the brutal dictator who built a sophisticated machine of death, torture, and forced labor to promote his nationalist agenda, be normalized and accepted by the Russian people and establishment?
Sherbakova doesn’t believe so. “[The authorities] cannot go on like this for long. They cannot offer real ideology, because in order to mobilize people one needs power and faith, and we have none today. They also cannot recreate Stalin’s system of repression — again, due to lack of massive support and faith. I believe that the surge of Stalin’s appeal is past us already,” she said.
Perhaps. While working on this feature, I asked my Facebook friends to send me their personal accounts from Stalin’s time. Within an hour I received hundreds of stories that included chilling details about arrests and gulags, fearing for loved ones, and broken lives and families.
For the sake of all of Stalin’s victims and their families, for the sake of my own grandfather — who will forever remain a 40-year-old and whose grave is unknown — I do hope that Sherbakova is right. I fervently hope that nostalgia for the “glorious past” and the narrative of an “efficient manager” will not be able to silence the truth.
Former MK Ksenia Svetlova is a journalist and an analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy and Mitvim Institute. She contributes regularly to Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel and Al-Monitor.