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    Tuesday, March 5, 2013

    "He's Still With Us"

    (Here's an article I wrote in March 2003, about how Russians were treating the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death. Sadly, much of it - although obviously not the lead paragraph - could be published again today.)


    In his palace in Baghdad, increasingly isolated from the rest of the world as war looms, Saddam Hussein is said to seek inspiration on his bookcase -- from the many volumes he treasures that contain the writing of another infamous mustached dictator.

    Joseph Stalin, the legend goes, is one of the few people Mr. Hussein looks up to. He sees his own story as linked to the former Soviet leader's -- Stalin survived famine and war and accusations that he was killing his own people to remain in power until the day he died.

    Half a world away in North Korea, as the sabre-rattling Kim Jong Il pushes his country toward a confrontation with the West, the Dear Leader basks in the constant adulation of his citizens -- a cult of personality consciously built on the Stalinist model. He has gone much further in his hero worship than erecting a few statues; since assuming power in 1994, Mr. Kim has imitated everything from Stalin's labour camps to his penchant for nuclear brinkmanship.

    It's perhaps no surprise that Mr. Kim, famously linked to Mr. Hussein in George W. Bush's "axis of evil," looks up to Stalin. His father was installed by Moscow in 1945.

    In her two-room Moscow apartment, 85-year-old Galina Ionova hugs a book praising the man she says saved the Motherland, and explains why she thinks that Stalin is still having an impact five decades after his death.

    "Stalin was a genius. None of us common people can understand what he was guided by," the retired history professor says, eyes glowing with an almost religious fervour. "Stalin is not our past. He's our present and our future."


    Next Wednesday will mark 50 years since Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- also known as Koba the Dread and Joseph Stalin -- died peacefully at his countryside dacha near Moscow, ending one of the more violent periods in Russian and world history.

    To most of the planet, Stalin's legacy is clear. He was a monster. The number of people executed by the secret police and other government organs during his 29-year reign is still being counted, but is known to be in the millions. Tens of millions more died during mass famines that he organized from his Kremlin office, ranking him with Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong as one of the bigger murderers in recent world history. Among his more minor crimes, Stalin bulldozed churches and sent entire ethnic groups into exile.

    But in Russia, the anniversary of Stalin's death will be remembered with deeply mixed feelings. He may have terrorized this country and killed millions of its citizens, but he also presided over a period that saw the Soviet Union transformed from a backward peasant state into an economic and military superpower, a time that inspires nostalgia for many.

    Many here believe that Stalin's crimes have been exaggerated by his enemies. Many, many more see him as the heroic figure who rallied the country when the Nazi army was at the edge of Moscow, and led the Soviet Union to victory in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. That single accomplishment, many say, balances or perhaps outweighs all the evil Stalin wrought.

    "We fought the war for the Motherland, for Stalin," Ms. Ionova's war-veteran husband, Alexander, says solemnly. "If he repressed so many millions, who was fighting in the war?"

    The centre of next week's celebrations will be the dictator's sleepy hometown, Gori, an hour's drive outside Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Although Stalin, who grew contemptuous of his fellow Georgians while in power, is believed to have visited only once after leaving the place as a teenaged troublemaker, the entire town has become a shrine to its famous native son, the only place in the former Soviet Union where a statue of Stalin still stands on the town's main square.

    But it is Gori's renowned Stalin Museum, housed in a marble neo-Renaissance palace near the centre of town, that will be the target of many a pilgrimage in the next few days. Its exhibits include poetry written by Stalin in his youth, the furniture from his Kremlin office, and the death mask that covered his face for his public funeral, when weeping millions converged on Red Square.

    What's missing from the museum's collection is any mention of the purges. Not one exhibit makes even passing reference to the millions who suffered in what author Alexander Solzhenitsyn later dubbed the Gulag Archipelago that stretched across the barren land mass of Siberia and present-day Kazakhstan.

    That suits Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, Stalin's grandson, just fine. A retired military colonel who cultivates his resemblance to his grandfather to the point of trying to grow an identical mustache, Mr. Dzhugashvili dismisses the charges that Stalin was a mass murderer as "all lies." The real culprit, he says, was Leon Trotsky, his grandfather's rival in the fight to take over the Bolshevik party after the death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin later had Trotsky assassinated.

    "They always call them Stalin's repressions. Yes, there were mass repressions and the best people of the country were killed or exiled, but they were organized by Trotsky and his gang. It's not Stalin who blew up the churches, it was Trotsky," argues Mr. Dzhugashvili, who tried to become Georgia's president, but couldn't because he's a Russian citizen.

    Instead of being condemned, he says, his grandfather should be praised for tracking down the "Trotskyists and Jews" behind the purges, and bringing them to justice in the infamous show trials of the 1930s.

    "Stalin punished them for those repressions and he did it with open trials, publicly," he explains. "If they were not guilty, they were released, gradually. [Stalin's] enemies don't have any conscience and they invent any figures, like Solzhenitsyn, who named 110 million victims."

    He says he even admires the way his grandfather allowed his oldest son Yakov -- Mr. Dzhugashvili's father -- to die. An artillery lieutenant, Yakov was captured in 1943 by German troops who offered to trade him for a captured field marshal. Stalin refused.

    "War is war," he supposedly said. "All soldiers are my sons. What am I going to say to other mothers? I don't exchange a soldier for a field marshal." He even had Yakov's wife interrogated, bizarrely fearing it was all a plot to embarrass him. The Germans left Yakov's bullet-riddled body hanging on a barbed-wire fence for the advancing Red Army to recover.


    Diana Suvarova was eight years old in 1937, when the knock at the door that all Soviet citizens feared came. A year later, her father, Mikhail Suvarova, was executed by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police.

    "Nobody knows why they chose him," the 78-year-old retired librarian now says. "It was totally unexpected. They just came one night and took him."

    The crimes he was accused of were many. While he was a farmer, the police said, Mr. Suvarova had been poisoning the wells and killing cows. Later, when he worked on the railway near the city of Kursk, he had been "organizing train wrecks." According to the case file, the NKVD also believed the elementary-school graduate had been spying for an unnamed foreign country.

    Ms. Suvarova says her father, like many of Stalin's victims, was a good Communist who taught his children to look up to their country's leader.

    She got the same sort of education at school. Stalin, she learned, was a selfless man who did everything for his country and his people. Ms. Suvarova learned this lesson so well that when her father disappeared, she believed he must have been guilty of some crime.

    After his arrest, the whole family was tainted for being associated with an "enemy of the people." Thrown out of their comfortable apartment in central Moscow, they moved to the outskirts of the city, and her mother kept her job only because her employer took a personal risk and chose to look the other way. People on the street shunned them, not wanting to raise the suspicion of the NKVD. "Even when I was a child, people would cross the street so as not to meet a child of an enemy of the people," Ms. Suvarova recalls.

    For years, the family believed her father was just in prison, and that all would be made well as soon as Comrade Stalin realized how his secret police were running out of control. Right to the end, Ms. Suvarova believed that Stalin was unaware of the terror his thugs had unleashed. She cried on March 5, 1953, when she heard that he had died, grieving for the man who was ultimately responsible for her father's death.

    "We really believed, like good young Communists. Despite what happened to our parents, we believed in him, we loved him. That's how we were educated. We thought maybe he didn't know."

    Arseny Roginsky has devoted his life to proving just the opposite. Born to two political prisoners in a camp near the northern city of Archangelsk, he now heads Memorial, a Russian human-rights organization dedicated to chronicling the true extent of Stalin's crimes.

    Memorial has compiled a list of 12 million victims of the gulags, and another one million who were executed by the secret police. Documentary evidence shows Stalin personally signed off on at least 40,000 of the murders.

    For Mr. Roginsky, the painstaking work is a way of trying to understand his own past. His father was arrested for anti-Communist activities in 1938, just before the war. His mother endured the "900 days" Nazi siege of Leningrad, then travelled to the Velsk prison camp, whose supervisor gave them special dispensation to live together since the father's sentence was formally over, even if he was not yet allowed to leave.

    Being born in a prison camp, Mr. Roginsky says with a smile, had its advantages. The people Stalin terrorized the most -- because he saw them as potential threats to his power -- were the intellectuals. As a result, many of the country's top doctors were in the camps, to the extent that average citizens often asked to be treated at prison hospitals.

    His father was eventually released, only to be arrested again a few years later. He died during his second stint in the gulag. It was 1951, two years before Stalin's death. Thirty years later, near the end of Leonid Brezhnev's reign as Soviet leader, Mr. Roginsky himself was arrested for trying to research Stalin's crimes, and sent to a labour camp not far from the one in Velsk where he'd been born. He was released four years later, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev took over as Communist Party boss.

    Although Mr. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost,or openness, made it possible to discuss Stalin's crimes frankly, many Russians still choose not to listen. A poll conducted this week asked 1,500 people what they think of Stalin, and 36 per cent, the largest share, feel the dictator did the country more good than harm. Another 29 per cent disagreed with that statement, while the remaining respondents were so split on how they felt they couldn't answer one way or the other.

    Forty-five years after Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin in his famous "secret speech" to the 20th Communist Party Congress, it's clear that many Russians are either unconvinced by the evidence, or believe that whatever Stalin did, he did for the good of the country.

    Mr. Roginsky thinks that it's the latter phenomenon -- and that many Russians today still believe in the idea of a "Great Russia" that personal sacrifices must sometimes be made for.

    Unlike in Germany, or post-apartheid South Africa, there has never been a concentrated attempt to prosecute those who knowingly took part in crimes against humanity. There has been no public discussion of compensating victims or their families. Stalin's grave remains on the Soviet Walk of Heroes along the Kremlin wall. A fresh rose is place on it every day.

    "The official history still remembers Stalin as the great commander-in-chief who defeated Hitler," Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada and one of the chief architects of glasnost, said in an interview last year.

    "No one wants to face the fact that he killed 30 million of his own people, most of whom disappeared without a trace. No one has apologized for what they did, and most people do not seem to care whether we confront this chapter in our history or not."

    Mr. Roginsky sees something more sinister than a collective wish to forget in Russia's unwillingness to deal with its past. To him, it's proof that some of the traditions Stalin initiated -- notably, the idea of putting the needs of the state ahead of the rights of the individual -- still hold sway in the Kremlin today.

    "It's not that Stalin, this short, plain man matters much anymore, it's what he left behind, his legacy," Mr. Roginsky says. "The spirit of Stalinism stayed with us. It's around us. . . . Physically, we outlived him, but he's still with us."


    Tamara Shumnaya, director of Moscow's Museum of Contemporary History, is taking fire from all sides right now because of an exhibit entitled, "Stalin, the Man and the Symbol."

    No one objects to the subject matter. It's just that no one is satisfied with what she and the museum staff decided to include. Some see too much about Stalin the great ruler, and not enough about the executions and the gulags. Others have exactly the opposite complaint. The exhibit "should have helped people remember the greatness of the country and the greatness of the people under strong leadership," reads one of the more tame entries in the museum's guestbook.

    Ms. Shumnaya says she expected nothing less. "Fifty years ago, there were different, controversial opinions about Stalin, and there are the same opposing perspectives now, too. We wanted both opinions represented here. To be objective."

    The exhibit opens with thick books that list the victims of Stalin's purges, which are in a display case alongside a simple green banner that reads "our parents don't have graves." On the wall above are photographs from the gulags.

    The next room, however, is where most museum visitors spend a lot of time -- among the photographs and propaganda posters of Stalin at the height of his power. The most jarring display features a group of dolls in a case, against a background painted to resemble Red Square, holding aloft a banner: "Thank you Stalin for our happy childhoods."

    Eventually, visitors gather around a small TV set in the corner to watch a black-and-white video of the scene in Moscow the day of Stalin's funeral. It's a short loop, and many of those staring and remembering watch it three or four times, as though comparing every detail with their memories of that day. Asked what they are thinking, they burst into lengthy personal stories, as though they've just been waiting to release pent-up emotion.

    "I listened to the funeral on the radio. All the people were crying," 75-year-old Yuri Timofeyev, a retired metal worker, says as tears well in his eyes at the memory. "He was a great leader. It was a great loss."

    Like many older Russians, Mr. Timofeyev is dismayed at how society has become more cutthroat since communism ended and a wild breed of capitalism swept into Russia to take its place. Life was much better under Stalin, he insists, gesturing sheepishly at his tattered clothes.

    "It was a good time for us. We could study and we could learn and we were never hungry. There were no bandits, no hooligans -- there was order. It would be a good thing to have that order now. I will toast him on March 5th."

    Standing two paces away, 54-year-old Ludmilla Shumskaya has the opposite reaction. "He was a bloody monster. He destroyed all the talented people, and all the witnesses of his crimes." It's clear she has a personal story beneath her rage, but she says she's still not ready to talk about it, even half a century later.

    While most of those taking in the exhibit one afternoon this week are older Russians personally connected with the Stalin era, a few backpack-toting students show up after school.

    "The idea is to form our own impressions," says 19-year-old Anatoli Balykin as he and two friends pause by a poster that reads: "Glory to Lenin, Glory to Stalin, Glory to the Great October."

    The history books he is given in school offer a "neutral" portrait of the former dictator, mentioning both the days of the Red Terror and Stalin's role as a successful wartime leader, Mr. Balykin says. "Many young people respect him," he adds, and some of his classmates regard the evidence that millions were executed and sent to the gulags as "just some figures."

    His friend, Artiom Dojev, also 19, says Russians alone have the right to judge Stalin. "It's interesting that in the West he is considered a monster, but nobody there suffered because of him. Here, people suffered, and they still admire him."


    "Stalin wasn't just a symbol," the daily newspaper Kommersant declared last week. "He continues to exist in mass consciousness, not like a historical figure, but like a folklore image, someone like Dracula. Such persons are doomed to be liked by the masses."

    Of course, they're also doomed to be imitated. An acquaintance of the young Saddam Hussein said the future Iraqi ruler used to sleep on a cot under bookshelves that sagged with books by and about Stalin. "One could say he went to bed with the Russian dictator," the friend famously quipped.

    Since taking power, Mr. Hussein has repeatedly showed what he learned from his readings, ruthlessly using terror and frequent purges to keep a firm grip on power, staging phony elections and mass executions.

    Meanwhile, his alleged "axis of evil" partner Kim Jong Il has modelled his entire state on the Stalinist vision. Run down a list of notorious dictators -- from Fidel Castro in Cuba to such lesser lights as Turkmenistan's Sapuramad Niyazov and Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko -- and each could cite the Soviet icon as as a leading influence.

    But in Russia, even a dozen years into its experiment with democracy, the echoes ring eeriest. Every year, it seems, Russia has taken another small step toward embracing a past that most countries would be ashamed of and apologizing for. This pattern has accelerated since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, took office as president. In the past four years, he has issued a set of coins commemorating Stalin as war leader and unveiled a Kremlin plaque in his honour. The tune of the old Soviet anthem was brought back, albeit with new words, and most recently the red star was reinstated as the symbol of the Russian military.

    While political opponents accuse Mr. Putin of being a closet admirer of Stalin, it's likely that much of his desire to turn back the clock stems from the popular support for doing so. Communists remain the country's single biggest political party, and their current leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has won points with his largely rural following by praising the Stalin era as a "great period" and denouncing the allegations against him as "slanderous."

    Mr. Putin also is the focus of a growing personality cult that makes some observers nervous. The President's likeness now can be found everywhere -- on matryoshka dolls, T-shirts and photographs hanging in homes and offices. A recent pop hit referred to the need for "a man like Putin." Entrepreneurs across Russia have tried to name everything from restaurants to a new breed of tomato after him. Some are reminded of a time when Stalin's image hung on every wall.

    Mr. Roginsky of the Memorial group says that "I don't blame Putin. He's not the guilty party in this; he's just a creation of the system. He's like Russian leaders always have been. Most people don't share democratic ideals. They just want order, no corruption, security and social justice. They think it's as simple as some nice guy, some strong leader, coming in and doing it."

    One young man has a much more basic interpretation of what's going on. Yakov Dzhugashvili, 30-year-old son of Yevgeny, believes that, having kicked away at his great-grandfather's reputation for 50 years, history is taking a fresh look.

    Unlike his father, he doesn't believe that everything Stalin did was right. Embarrassed by his ancestry for years, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art under a false name. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his native Georgia's spiral into chaos and poverty, he says he has come to understand why his great-grandfather did what he did.

    "He was right in having ideals. Bad or good, people had aims to reach in his time. Now, we don't have any ideals at all, and that's very bad. The deeper the crisis in Georgia gets, the better I understand that Stalin wanted society to be perfect. He wanted people to live better."

    On Wednesday, he says, his family will gather to toast Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- who will be back among them. Yakov's father Yevgeny explains that he insisted his infant grandson be given the name his famous forefather had been born with, and changed as a young revolutionary.

    "I wanted to bring back the name of Stalin," he says, "so it will live forever."

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