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.
Read: Understanding Stalin
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.