Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is fierce debate over the legacy of one of its most brutal dictators.
Josef Stalin, who ruled from the 1930s until his death in 1953, is held responsible for the deaths of millions of his countrymen. Yet, an opinion poll last year crowned him as the country’s most outstanding historical figure.
Russia’s recent decision to ban the satirical British film “The Death of Stalin” appears to have fueled divisions over the legacy of the dictator.
The Gulag State Museum in Moscow attempts to convey the scale of the atrocities carried out under Stalin’s rule, alongside the individual tragedies. Anyone deemed “an enemy of the people” — from petty criminals to political prisoners — could be condemned to years of forced labor in concentration camps known as gulags, which were established across the Soviet Union.
“Twenty million people came through the concentration camps. Over a million were shot, and 6 million were deported or re-settled by force,” said museum director Roman Romanov.
Stalin is lionized by many Russians for leading the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany. His reign of terror led to the deaths of millions of his countrymen.”This was no natural disaster. This is a well-planned crime by the state against the people. And now, people do not want to accept such an idea, because people do not like thinking this way about their country, about their government,” Nikita Petrov, vice chairman of the human rights group Memorial, told VOA in a recent interview.
“Every year, resentment against studying this subject [of Stalin’s atrocities] increases, because it hinders the glorification of the Soviet period of history.”
From the dozens of monuments to memorial plaques that are springing up in towns and cities across Russia, critics say Stalin nostalgia is permeating everyday life. In St. Petersburg, young Russian political blogger Victor Loginov organized the funding for a privately run bus emblazoned with a portrait of a smiling Stalin. It has not been universally welcomed — the bus has been vandalized several times, and the portrait painted over.
Loginov denies he’s glorifying Soviet history.
“While Stalinism was undoubtedly and endlessly cruel, without this repression, and this shocking number of victims, there would have been no transformation of this country’s civilization — its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial nation, from economically backward to developed,” he said.
Romanov said younger generations are not taught the reality of Stalin’s rule.
“There are people still alive who came through the concentration camps, and I felt there is such gap between us. With all the programs we pursue in the museum, we try to make a sort of ‘small bridge’ between the generations.”
Deep divisions remain. During a recent debate on Stalin’s legacy aired on Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda radio, two prominent journalists began brawling after one accused his opponent of “spitting on the graves” of Soviet World War II soldiers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has in the past called Stalin a “complex figure.” The president opened a monument last October to the victims of Stalin-era repression, warning that “this terrible past must not be erased from Russia’s national memory.”
Meanwhile, critics accuse him of cynicism and claim political freedom is once again under attack in modern Russia.