Maloye Pizhalino is a small village 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Moscow. A handful of houses, most of them empty, are scattered among the birch trees, and the Volga River flows sluggishly through the valley below.
The godforsaken village doesn't even appear on any maps anymore. Its only remaining connection to the outside world is a dirt road. Anyone who managed to find a better life elsewhere moved away years ago, and even the kolkhoz, the local collective farm, has long been bankrupt.
The only sign of life is the cheerful music coming from the windows of house number 8.
Inside, a bizarre scene is unfolding in the middle of the abandoned settlement. Three old people are dancing inside the house. Vladimir Mirozhichenko, 86, who once fought at the front, wears an insignia that reads "We will triumph" and a portrait of Josef Stalin on his blue jacket, as well as two medals, the Red Star and a decoration "For the Capture of Kaliningrad." Valentina Trubinova, 70, also has various medals decorating her vest. She represents the Moscow Committee of War Veterans.
Finally, there is Anatoly Projdakov, the owner of the house, who turns 80 today. The guests are there to celebrate his birthday. Projdakov has spent half his life in Maloye Pizhalino, and he also served as a child soldier in the region, as part of a regiment that fought the Germans.
'Our Great Commander-in-Chief!'
"Here, in the battle of Rzhev, which was worse than the one near Stalingrad, we fought the 9th German Army for 15 months. We had to defend the position at all costs," says Mirozhichenko, who still has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. "But Moscow doesn't want to remember this battle, because it cost the lives of 1.5 million soldiers. And because we lost it."
The old people sigh over the gloomy memory, but then they begin to argue over who was at fault for the disaster. One of them mentions the name Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army's Western Front, while another says it was the fault of General Ivan Konev, who was in charge of the adjacent Kalinin Front. The three old people agree that both men made huge mistakes.
But one name isn't mentioned -- that of the man who sent entire armies to their deaths in the region, even dispatching soldiers without guns into the deadly firefight. That man was the commander-in-chief of the Soviet military, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.
In fact, the name Stalin is only mentioned when the three sit down for a festive meal, and then it sounds as if he had had nothing to do with the horrors of the war. "To Josef Vissarionovich, our great commander-in-chief!" Mirozhichenko proclaims. "To the organizer of the great triumph!" the others add.
Bitter Dispute over Stalin Images
On May 9, Russia celebrates the 65th anniversary of victory in what it calls the Great Patriotic War. Some 90,000 soldiers will march across Red Square in a parade, the likes of which Moscow hasn't seen in a long time. The country's military will participate with its latest missiles and 150 aircraft, as will soldiers representing Russia's former allies in World War II, the Americans, the British and the French.
Josef Stalin will also take part, and not just in the memory of the three old people in Maloye Pizhalino.
There has been a bitter dispute in Moscow for weeks over whether the city should be allowed to display images of the generalissimo to mark this anniversary and, if so, in which locations. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had announced his intention to have posters of Stalin mounted in front of the Bolshoi Theater, at Gorky Park and Victory Park, and at the sites where the people's militias congregated during the war.
A display of this magnitude hasn't happened since 1961, when Stalin's embalmed remains were taken from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried in a simple grave near the Kremlin wall. It was the same year Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev began his drive to remove his predecessor's influence from the public sphere, by changing the names of cities and places that had been named after Stalin.
The effects of Luzhkov's idea were explosive, and not just in Russia. US President Barack Obama canceled his attendance of the ceremonies, supposedly because of the Stalin posters. According to a German diplomat, Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to insist that he intervene in the Moscow city government.
But Stalin's genie had been released from the bottle long ago, and the headstrong mayor's poster campaign only served to stoke the flames of a debate that had been raging for months.
Some interpreted Luzkhov's decision as a long overdue act of liberation, and several other cities copied his idea. Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, already began decorating its streets with photos of Stalin last week, and other cities that intend to follow suit include the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Voronezh in southern Russia and the industrial city of Kirov in central Russia. In Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, there is even a soft drink on sale featuring Stalin on its label.
Even the parliament in liberal St. Petersburg debated over whether the "brilliant commander-in-chief" should be allowed to become part of the cityscape again. Members of the city council argued that under Stalin's leadership, Russia "rose from the ashes and became a major power." But the governor of the district rejected the idea. Now a private initiative has leased advertising space on city buses to display images of Stalin.
The local parliament for the Moscow region is even spending 45 million rubles, or more than 1 million ($1.3 million), to coin new copies of old war decorations, including a "J.V. Stalin" medal bearing the image of the former Kremlin chief and "coated with at least 0.012 mm (0.0005 inches) of silver."