Stalin Controversies Abound in Victory Day Run-Up

Vandalized Stalin bus in St. Petersburg. Source: Zaks.ruThe prominent Russian human rights organization Memorial is asking St. Petersburg city authorities to remove a gigantic picture of Josef Stalin that appeared Wednesday on a public bus that runs along the city’s famed Nevsky Prospekt.

According to the news site, the bus in question belongs to a private company that lacks a contract with the city and is basically bankrupt. A group of activists paid for advertising space on the side of the bus and put up a collage featuring Stalin’s face instead of an ad.

Viktor Loginov, who headed the movement to place the collage, says that his group only “fulfills the wishes of veterans.” He specified that the adorned bus will run for two weeks in honor of Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.

Memorial Director Irina Filge said that “the public demonstration of Stalin’s image – with the obvious goal of glorifying this historical figure – is leading to a schism in society.” Far from fulfilling anybody’s wishes, the picture not only inflicts moral trauma onto victims of the dictator’s repressions, but is offensive to veterans of the war and survivors of the Leningrad Blockade, the director added.

The bus did not last long before unknown persons vandalized it on Wednesday, painting over Stalin’s face but leaving the rest of the bus untouched. The bus, however, was quickly cleaned off and put back into service on Thursday.

At the same time, RFE/RL is reporting that city authorities are refusing to display anti-Stalin posters reading “For a motherland without Stalin.”

Yevgeny Vyshenkov, the deputy director of the Journalistic Investigations Agency that helped prepare the anti-Stalin poster, told RFE/RL that the company responsible for placing posters in St. Petersburg said the issue should be discussed by the city’s Media Committee.

Committee officials have said that the anti-Stalin poster cannot be placed in public places due to some “discrepancies” in the poster’s colors.

Also on Thursday, Ekho Moskvy radio reported that members of the liberal opposition party Yabloko are asking Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to officially denounce Stalin in a public address. The president has spoken out against the Soviet leader’s crimes before, but his most noticeable statements were in the form of a video blog. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin said that such an address would only have value if done officially and directly to the nation, not through the internet or in an interview.

Both controversies come on the heels of the public release of documents directly implicating Stalin in the 1940 Katyn massacre in World War II, in which the Soviet secret police executed close to 22 thousand unarmed Polish army reservists. As the Telegraph puts it: “The sight of Stalin’s signature on what amounts to a collective death warrant quells decades of debate on the massacre and gives the lie to claims by die-hard Stalinists that their idol did not personally sanction the killings.”

Stalin’s legacy has been a divisive topic in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but particularly so in recent months as the country has prepared to celebrate the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II. Veterans groups, human rights organizations, and oppositionists alike have criticized a number of initiatives to use Stalin’s picture as part of national celebrations. The most notable debacle was in Moscow, where a city design committee issued plans to erect informational posters complete with the dictator’s portrait in chosen parts of the capital. The plans were eventually dropped after criticism from both rights organizations and the Kremlin itself, but not before Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov promised to make Stalin’s image a fixture of future city celebrations.

Russian human rights advocates worry that any continued glorification of Stalin could lead people to forget that the dictator was responsible for the estimated 30 million lives lost as a result of repressions and widespread famine in the 1930s and 40s. “Stalin was a criminal, and his regime, which killed millions of people, is utterly disgraceful to publicize,” former Soviet dissident and prominent rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva said last March in reference to the Moscow poster plans. “It’s the same as glorifying Hitler in Germany.”