Stalin's Cult of Personality Rises Again in Russia

The visage of Joseph Stalin once blanketed Moscow. But in the years since he died, his successors have relaxed official adoration of him and even allowed some criticism. The result: he was completely banned from the public space. A few attempts from provincial governments to erect statues of him caused immediate public protest. In recent years, though, with Moscow preparing to commemorate the 65th anniversary of its victory over the Nazis this week, Stalin is back—and he seems to be everywhere.

It began 2007, when Stalin's popularity got a fresh boost after new high-school history textbooks praised his work industrializing Russia; that praise was repeated on TV. But things really turned around in 2008 when a social poll—run by a state TV talk show called The Name of Russia—showed that Stalin was considered the nation's leading historical figure. Polls show that 16 percent of Russians consider Stalin their idol, and 54 percent speak highly of his leadership qualities. People who dislike him have shrunk from 18 percent in 2001 to 13 percent today.

Then, in the run-up to the V-day anniversary, his countenance began its comeback. Last year, Kurskaya Metro station's ceiling regained its original quote written across the round ceiling: "Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labor and heroism." This year at least four Russian regions expressed their willingness to install statues of Stalin on their streets. Today, Moscow's city hall is decorating 10 of Moscow's districts with Stalin portraits. His black and white smile beams at crowds from the walls of at least four prominent and well-trafficked Metro stations (Arbat, Kievskaya, Chekhovskaya, and Frunzenskaya). About a dozen replica Soviet posters, dated 1942, feature a Metro train arriving at a station with a Stalin portrait affixed to its side.

Unsurprisingly, Russian liberals are not taking Stalin's rehabilitation well. Yan Rachinsky, the chairman of the Memorial human-rights center, suggests that this is an excuse for the Kremlin to legitimize Russia's authoritarian past in order to justify its current government. "The powerful are using the V-day anniversary as a reason to pull Stalin's dusty ghost into the light and pack him up in holiday wrapping," says Rachinsky. "They say he was the one who won that war…[but] close to 12 million people fell victim to Soviet repressions, most of them killed by Stalin's regime. In 1937 and 1938 alone, Stalin ordered the execution of 700,000—half a million of them were draft age."

Even some veterans are not thrilled about this turn of events. Vasily Reshetnikov piloted 307 missions in his Antonov during the war and was later declared a Hero of the Soviet Union. "I remember: Stalin killed most of the Soviet army commandership," he says. "There's only one word for him—despot." Almost 70 years have passed, but Reshetnikov remembers the day in 1937 when a handsome and heroic commander called Yakov Alksnis landed his shining R-5 at Reshetnikov's pilot school to speak to his future airmen. A year later, Alksnis was accused of homosexuality and espionage and shot by NKVD, the KGB's predecessor. That was only the beginning, Reshetnikov says: "Then the director of our school disappeared. And then the commander of our escadrille vanished. The heroic Soviet people won the war despite Stalin destroying more than 80 percent of the army commandership right before the war," Reshetnikov says.

Another former soldier, Anatoly Tomin, a senior adjutant for Marshal Georgy Zhukov, remembers 1937, too. That year, he and his parents were called from Mongolia, where his father served in the army, back to a Moscow hotel to await Stalin's ruling on an accusation that he had betrayed the motherland. "We waited for a year. My sister and I could not go to school, as our father was 'under a question.' We played with other kids, whose fathers, Soviet Army commanders disappeared every morning," Tomin says. Unlike many other fathers in that hotel, Tomin's father survived.

But politicians are well attuned to trends, and Stalin's cult has been on the rise, especially among midlevel bureaucrats and police officers. They put his portrait on the walls of their offices and wear wristwatches with his countenance on the face. "If, 10 years ago, our foreign clients bought watches with Stalin's portrait at $500 per piece at exclusive souvenir saloons, this year you find a watch like that at any Russian market for $20," says Sergey Bobovnikov, an expert on Soviet realism. "Watches, prints, and kitchen magnets—Stalin's become a trend for mass production."

That's why Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the man officially behind Stalin's return, had cover to make his decision sound firm and crisp: "We will place billboards about the war featuring the man who was the commander in chief at the time." Following his lead, the Russian Communist Party will cover 1,000 billboards this week with Stalin's mustachioed face and his saying, "The Victory is up to us! Communist Party of Russian Federation." It's not just in Moscow: two huge portraits of him in his medal-clad uniform hang outside government buildings in Vladivostok. "Stalin is our father, our idol," says Sergei Obukhov, a communist parliamentarian. "The historical truth should be glorified."