Is Stalin Making a Comeback in Russia?

A statue of the Soviet dictator in Russia’s third-largest city says much about the country today. But it’s not necessarily a win for the Kremlin.

A new Stalin bust in Novosibirsk has led locals to consider the Soviet ruler's legacy.
Alexei Denisyuk (left), an activist, and Novosibirsk Mayor Anatoly Lokot (right) at the unveiling of the Stalin bust in early May (Courtesy of Eva Hartog)

NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia—To find Joseph Stalin here in Russia’s third-largest city, drive down the main thoroughfare, Red Аvenue, past Lenin Square. At the Ob River, turn left on Bolshevik Street until you reach a two-story wooden building with traditionally carved window trimmings.

There, at the Communist Party’s local headquarters on a sunny day in May, the city’s mayor unveiled the bust of the “Generalissimo” to the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth.

In the same courtyard stands a giant head of Vladimir Lenin, another anachronism in this neighborhood of new high-rises. But while Lenin’s ubiquity across Russia has, paradoxically, made him practically invisible to the eye and Russian consciousness, where Stalin reappears, controversy never trails far behind.

The Soviet dictator remains a complicated figure in Russia: He presided over an era of brutality marked by purges, persecution, and famines that affected millions of people—actions that were subsequently denounced by his successor.

Yet his victory over the Nazis also broke the back of the German military in World War II, a narrative the Kremlin has capitalized on, fetishizing past military and industrial achievements while skimming over the daily horrors of Soviet life.

The unveiling of the bust this month in Novosibirsk, which served as a transit point for millions of people sent to gulags or forcibly deported in the Stalin era, has broader echoes across Russia, where supposed grassroots movements to glorify Stalin almost always have the support of authorities. It is part of an effort by the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify his “own authoritarian ruling style,” says Alexander Rudnitsky, the head of the local branch of Memorial, a human-rights organization.

The tactic seems to be working: The statue’s unveiling came not long after a survey by the Levada Center, a reputable polling organization, reported that 70 percent of Russians had a positive appraisal of Stalin’s role in history. But if Novosibirsk’s example is any guide, Stalin’s political resurrection is more ambiguous than it is made out to be.

Alexei Denisyuk, who lobbied for the statue of the Soviet dictator for more than a decade, was quick to claim a political victory. “Dear comrades, the long battle to restore the good name of our leader has finally been successful,” he told the small gathering at the unveiling. It took Denisyuk, the leader of a fringe group of radical communists called the All-Union Communist Party (not to be confused with the Communist Party), years of political maneuvering to get the Stalin bust on its six-and-a-half-foot pedestal.

He first pitched the idea to city hall in 2008, but was turned down. Then, in 2014, Novosibirsk’s incumbent mayor lost to the Communist Party’s Anatoly Lokot. Sensing his chance, Denisyuk resubmitted his proposal. Lokot, the new mayor, took up the role of arbiter, commissioning two polls: The first, in 2017, concluded that 60 percent of respondents said they didn’t want or care about the statue; the second, last year, asked residents to write to city hall with their preference for where to place it.

It was at this point that Andrei Pozdnyakov, whose great-grandfather was sent to a labor camp, took action. In a self-described act of desperation, he launched an online petition against the bust. “I couldn’t believe they were debating where to put Stalin,” he told me. As thousands signed his protest petition, city hall made public its own findings. A cultural venue connected to the military was the most popular proposed site, it said, while hinting that the poll might have been rigged. Then, late last year, the Defense Ministry took the location out of the running, citing renovation plans and Stalin’s “controversial role in history.” A second proposed venue also pulled out.

Just as the plan for Stalin’s bust was about to end in failure, Lokot came up with a proposal: The Stalinists could have their statue, but it would stand on private property, in the courtyard of his party’s headquarters, away from the bustling center.

I met Pozdnyakov at the leafy Narymsky Square, where a huge boulder lies at the center of a temple-like granite structure. The stone was brought here in 2003 from the nearby town of Iskitim, where Soviet convicts were forced to do backbreaking, and often fatal, work in quarries. A small plaque commemorates the victims of political repression. For people like him, the memorial is a lone source of comfort in a city replete with tributes to their relatives’ killers in the Bolshevik leadership. For years there was an unspoken agreement, Pozdnyakov says: “The old statues could stay, but there wouldn’t be any new ones.” The Stalin bust has disrupted that fragile balance.

In a bellicose speech at its unveiling, the mayor described the bust as “the people’s decision.” But his own poll contradicts that view. The reality is that without Lokot’s 11th-hour intervention, the saga would probably have hit a dead end. Rather, political pragmatism was likely at play here. Within Russia’s hierarchical system, the local mayor’s ability to effect change is limited. And amid grievances over issues ranging from potholes to an increase in energy prices and a higher age for pensions, this was one question the mayor could resolve.

Stalin also provides a population eager for some good news with a dose of triumph. By no coincidence did the unveiling of the Stalin statue fall on Victory Day, which marks the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and which, under Putin, has seen military pomp eclipsing commemoration. At the ceremony for the unveiling of the bust, veterans sat in the front row.

But just as different tiers of government have varying reasons for supporting Stalinists, so too do Stalinists have different reasons for worshipping his image: Some see the dictator as a panacea for societal and economic ills. For others, it’s one way to express an anti-government sentiment. “Our industry, our agricultural sector—it’s all in ruins,” Denisyuk told me. “This bust is not about honoring Stalin. It’s about resurrecting and furthering his cause.”

In today’s Russia, then, Stalin seems to be a double-sided puppet—at times a conduit for patriotism, at others the bogeyman who can scare the lazy and corrupt to attention. This elicits the question, How much can one really glean from poll results that show that 70 percent of Russians see Stalin in a positive light?

Many within Russia’s intellectual circles have criticized the Levada Center’s poll as playing to the Kremlin’s narrative, which pits grand victories such as winning a war against human rights. Grigory Yudin, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says his own research shows that a growing number of people reject a polarized view of history in favor of an approach that focuses on the stories of their family or community. When they agree to participate in polls, this group will try to remain noncommittal in their answers about Stalin. Yudin says it’s not as if these people have an affinity for Stalin; it’s just that “they are opting out of the state narrative.”

Meanwhile, among young Russians, approval of Stalin can be partly attributed to ignorance, some pundits argue. Students learn about Stalin the modernizer, not about his reign of terror. Data show that nearly half of Russians ages 18 to 24 don’t know about the repression, but they are also more active protesters against the government than other Russians. Many of them are going online for a more balanced view of the past.

Still, the next generation will grow up in a world of mixed messages.

Pozdnyakov lives on a street and in a district named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, who is infamous for his ruthlessness. There is also a Dzerzhinsky statue in the neighborhood. One day, Pozdnyakov says, his 5-year-old daughter will inevitably ask him about the name.

“I’ll tell her he was a crazy maniac who was responsible for many deaths, including those of our forefathers,” he says. “Her next question will be, ‘Why, then, are so many landmarks still named after him?’ And I won’t know the answer.”