Sixty-five years have passed since Nikita Khrushchev stood up at a closed session of the 20th Communist Party Congress to denounce Stalin. So shocked was the Polish communist leader Boleslaw Bierut to hear his former master so traduced that he had a heart attack and subsequently died. But this was just the beginning: Stalin’s mummified corpse was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square where it had been enjoying an eternal slumber party with Lenin; countless monuments were torn down; institutes and buildings were renamed; and Stalin’s books disappeared from shelves. The evil demiurge of the USSR was gone, never to return.
Or so Khruschev hoped. But Stalin, it turned out, could not be so easily forgotten. This June, Russians named him the “most notable” figure in history for the 10th year running; and now, a mere two months later, a new poll by the the Levada Center has found that nearly half of Russians want a Stalin statue to celebrate the USSR’s victory over the Nazis — a figure that has nearly doubled in the past ten years. Surprisingly, this is largely driven by people under the age of 40, among whom support for a monument has quintupled over the past decade.
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Around this point in articles on Stalin it is customary to observe that the Russians, unlike the Germans, have not reckoned with their dark past. But this comparison is not exactly apples with apples. If Stalin had killed himself in a bunker surrounded by Karl May novels after starting and losing a war that had led to the collapse of the Soviet regime then nobody would be talking about erecting a monument to him today. But Stalin won — beating Hitler, establishing a vast empire and making the USSR respected and feared in the process.
In fact, if Stalin is on the verge of making a comeback, then he is about the last significant figure from Russia’s past to do so. This is a country exceedingly keen on resurrection: it is, after all, the land that produced Nikolai Fedorov, a philosopher who believed that it was mankind’s duty to reconstitute the dead of all past generations, atom by atom, that they might live again and colonise space.
Indeed, I can’t think of another country that has destroyed or suppressed so much only to bring back so much. When Gorbachev implemented glasnost in the 1980s, the response of many was not to look ahead but backwards. Authors and artists who had been memory-holed were rediscovered and republished, while the crimes of Stalin, buried by Khruschev, were exposed. Suddenly it was possible to read Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov without fear of punishment; it is no coincidence that one of Russia’s main human rights organisations, founded during this act of unearthing, is called “Memorial”.
Then Russia’s imperial past was exhumed. Nikolai II, the last Tsar, was dug up months before the USSR collapsed. Leningrad became Saint Petersburg once again, Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod and countless streets reclaimed their pre-Revolutionary names. Monumental buildings destroyed by the Soviets reappeared as shiny replicas: I vividly recall my first day in Moscow in 1997, walking down the street to the school where I was going to be teaching English to New Russians, when suddenly I saw looming ahead of me the golden dome and concrete shell of the Church of Christ the Saviour, reborn on the exact spot where the original had stood before the Stalinist regime blew it up. This was not the only cloned old building in the area: half a mile away, the gates to Red Square which I thought were ancient turned out to be a replica, as was the nearby Kazan Cathedral.
New monuments commemorating figures from history also appeared. The most notorious was Zurab Tsereteli’s enormous statue of Peter the Great standing on a toy boat in the Moskva River; the story goes that he had originally pitched it as a sculpture of Columbus to the authorities in NYC, but when they rejected (presumably on the grounds that it was terrible) he simply placed a different head on the body and had his good friend the Mayor of Moscow commission it instead.
Later, Tsar Alexander II got a monument in the grounds of the church of Christ the Saviour, while Dostoevsky got a giant statue in front of the Lenin Library in central Moscow — thus the great critic of revolutionaries got to cast his shadow over a building named after the greatest revolutionary of all. Meanwhile, the last Tsar and (most of) his family were buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg in 1998, seven years after their exhumation. They were canonised two years later.
Yet even as Russia was resurrecting symbols of its Tsarist and Orthodox past, so Soviet elements were already creeping back in. A monument to the Second World War-era General Zhukov was unveiled a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in 1995. When Putin became president five years later, he almost immediately brought back the Soviet national anthem, albeit commissioning new lyrics from the 87-year-old children’s author Sergei Mikhalkov (who had written the original words for Stalin in 1944, and a second set in 1977).
At the eternal flame by the Kremlin Walls, the “hero city” of Volgograd was commemorated by its old name, Stalingrad. By the time I needed to get a police report for my US green card application in 2005, a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, was waiting to greet me at Petrovka 38, headquarters of the Moscow police. There were also more innocuous manifestations of this fascination with the past — a TV channel called “Nostalgia” played back-to-back broadcasts from the USSR, while restaurants modeled on Soviet-era canteens were serving up compote and bowls of borscht.
No doubt this is all a response to the war on memory and culture that was waged by the Soviet elites against their own people for much of the duration of the USSR’s existence. But it is also the case that the Soviets themselves had a complicated relationship with what had preceded them and were also quite keen on resurrecting selected bits of it. To begin with, they would not let their founder die — rather they preserved his body in a glass box, and spent decades declaring “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!” And while the likes of Vladimir Mayakovsky composed avant-garde poems addressed to readers living in the future, the art that would dominate — Socialist Realism — owed much more to the 19th century novels and poems and paintings the regime’s leaders had enjoyed in their youth.
Yes, the Soviets destroyed a lot of churches (and other religious buildings), but they also assiduously maintained the cathedrals inside the Kremlin, preserved the painted interiors inside Saint Basil’s and collected the finest examples of icon painting in a dedicated museum in the capital of world communism. During World War II, Stalin rehabilitated Tsarist era generals such as Kutuzov and Bagrationov to inspire the war effort against Hitler. Post-war, the Soviets reconstructed historic buildings that that had been destroyed by the Nazis, preserved entire villages as open-air museums, published scholarly and popular collections of folk tales, and even formed “folk orchestras” to keep alive traditional songs. Thus, the new civilisation was obsessed with and beholden to the civilisation that had proceeded it, (although these acts of recreation also entailed mutation, needless to say).
Meanwhile Putin, now that he is ageing out of posing shirtless with tigers, has taken to penning long historical essays which are published on Kremlin.ru. In Russia, the past is always coming back. Viewed in that context, it’s as if the rising support for some sort of formal commemoration of Stalin is the terminal point of that urge towards resurrection, the last stage in a process that they can’t quite pull the trigger on.
You can understand why: Stalin was an evil, murderous bastard. But it’s important to realise that many Russians have reckoned with this: the Levada report notes that Stalin’s “repressions, executions and military blunders are well-known” and that “only a small number of Russians” would “completely deny these facts”. But Russia is also no stranger to monsters. Ivan the Terrible — who received his first monument in 2016 — murdered his son, murdered princes, slaughtered priests, massacred the population of Novgorod, implemented a reign of terror and invented the oprichniki, the prototypical secret police organisation. But “terrible” is a mistranslation of grozny, which in Ivan’s case might be more accurately rendered as “formidable” or “awesome.”
Now that the generation directly oppressed by Stalin is dying out, and a new generation raised on tales of heroism in World War II has come of age, it would seem that increasing numbers of Russians are coming to the conclusion that Stalin, like Ivan before him, was just one of those rulers who had to do terrible things to achieve great things. In fact, if you really want to see a monument to Stalin you don’t need to wait; according to Der Spiegel there are already quite a few busts and statues knocking about — they just tend to be out of the way. A Stalin in mosaic form very nearly made it into the Cathedral of the Armed Forces, which was inaugurated last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Included in the original plans for the interior décor, he was ultimately dropped.
For now, however, Stalin lacks a grandiose monument. Perhaps he will never get one. But the truth is, Stalin began his long comeback during Glasnost, when the archives were opened; he returned with his victims. From that moment on it became impossible to keep him buried. And so, despite Krushchev’s best efforts, the old man’s back again — whether we like it or not.