Honoring Stalin The Comeback of a Soviet Dictator
After he died in 1953, Stalin was quickly erased from the public eye in the Soviet Union. These days, though, he is making a comeback, with statues and plaques honoring the dictator going up throughout Russia. Why are people honoring a mass killer?
It's May 9 and around 200 people have gathered in a parking lot in Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia. They are here to dedicate a monument, with some waving World War II flags, including the flag of a rifle division that conquered the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. Veterans with medals covering their breasts sit in the first row.
Next to the monument, a man is waiting, a slip of paper in his jacket pocket on which he has outlined his speech. He has been waiting 20 years for this moment. A recording of Beethoven's Fifth plays as the man steps forward and, together with the mayor, loosens the red tape to allow the white covering to fall from the monument. The crowd cheers as Stalin is revealed in the glittering sunlight.
Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who later gave himself the name Stalin, or "Man of Steel," was the son of a shoemaker and attended church school. And, until his death in March 1953, he was the dictator of the Soviet Union -- and one of the biggest criminals of the 20th century.
The man who unveiled the monument to Stalin on this May afternoon in the parking lot of the Communist Party's regional headquarters is named Alexei Denisyuk. The 41-year-old is a lawyer and the editor-in-chief of a newspaper called Hammer and Sickle -- and he is convinced that he will live to see the return of the Soviet Union.
Denisyuk doesn't see Stalin as a dictator. Rather, he is the "banner of our victories," the great Vozhd, or leader. Audience members held up their mobile phone cameras as Denisyuk spoke. "Dear Comrades, the long battle to restore the good name of our Vozhd has finally been crowned with success."
There is a photo of Denisyuk from that day, showing him next to the freshly unveiled bust holding the white covering in his arms. The American magazine The Atlantic ran the image under the headline: "Is Stalin Making a Comeback in Russia?"
A Swelling of Imperial Fantasies
In a nationwide survey conducted in March, 70 percent of Russians said they believe Stalin played a positive role in history. It is the highest result ever for the question. And Novosibirsk isn't the only city that has erected monuments to the Soviet dictator. According to one count, more than 130 statues and plaques have been put up in the last 20 years.
Most of them can be found in smaller towns like Beslan, Ishim or Penza, with many having been put up following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, an event that triggered a swelling of Russian imperial fantasies. But for the last two years, there has also been a Stalin statue in Moscow on the Alley of Rulers, which also includes busts of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
Novosibirsk, population 1.5 million, is four hours by plane east of Moscow. For the last five years, the city has had a mayor from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The party, which honors Stalin's legacy, also holds 43 of 450 seats in the Duma, Russia's parliament, making it the country's second-largest party -- and in the last presidential election, the Communist candidate likewise finished second behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The man behind the statue in Novosibirsk, Alexei Denisyuk, isn't actually a member of the CPRF, belonging instead to a Stalinist splinter party for whom the Communists aren't sufficiently Stalinist. "We are the true Bolsheviks," Denisyuk says. He has little respect for Russian politicians, including the Novosibirsk mayor with whom he unveiled the Stalin bust. "Everyone else wants mini-reforms within the system. But we want to overthrow the system," he says. Denisyuk is head of the Initiative Group Stalin Monument in Novosibirsk and needed the mayor's help to get what he wanted.
Stalin admirers like Denisyuk are hardly a new phenomenon in Russia. But for decades, they shrouded their Stalin busts and portraits behind curtains. The mood changed, though, once Putin came to power. The Russian president, of course, isn't a Stalinist, but he is an able technician of power. Even though he dedicated a monument to the victims of Stalinism in the heart of Moscow, he has also helped promote the current Stalin cult by making the annual military parade held on May 9 a trademark of his presidency.
People like Denisyuk are not honoring the Stalin who threw millions of people into penal camps. Rather, they admire the decisive military leader who managed to help protect the Soviet homeland from fascism. In their eyes, World War II didn't end with one mass murderer defeating another, but with good prevailing over evil.
Fading from Memory
Stalin's crimes are fading from the country's memory. Four years ago, in fact, the Russian media supervisory authority actually censored a handbook for teachers about the Great Purge because, they said, it "endangered the psychological health of children." According to a survey conducted last fall, almost half of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 had never heard of Stalin's Great Purge. And children who now live in Novosibirsk can hardly escape Stalin, with men like Denisyuk carrying his portrait at demonstrations and pictures of Stalin hanging on fences and walls: Stalin smoking a pipe, Stalin with an AK-47, Stalin leading the charge. In winter, Stalin snowmen begin appearing while the faithful have Stalin icons made. On the way from the airport to the center of Novosibirsk, you pass by a village named Slavyanka where every single one of the 25 streets is named after Stalin: 1st Stalin Street, 2nd Stalin Street, 25th Stalin Street.
Alexei Denisyuk lives in a late-Soviet concrete block building in the north of Novosibirsk, a dark apartment with a worn carpet and peeling paint in the bathroom. An empty terrarium stands in the living room -- and in Denisyuk's bedroom, there are six portraits of Stalin.
Denisyuk has no wife or children and lives in the apartment with his mentally handicapped brother. His parents were both engineers and admired Stalin's vast construction projects. His father never found his way in the new Russia and died of a heart attack. When he was 18, Denisyuk read Marx's "Das Kapital," Lenin's "The State and Revolution" and Stalin's "Concerning Questions of Leninism." From Denisyuk's perspective, Stalin established the most advanced and fairest country, one which he only knows from books, but pines for just the same.
To overthrow a system, of course, it is necessary to have allies, followers and, especially, support from the younger generation. To this end, Denisyuk holds countrywide Skype conferences with students during which the fundamentals of Leninism and Stalinism are discussed. But his favorite student and assistant lives in Novosibirsk and is just 15 years old.
Alexei Denisyuk together with Ruslan Laptev at a fundraiser for a Stalin statue in Novosibirsk.
The boy's name is Ruslan Laptev. He rides around on a motorcycle even though he doesn't yet have a license, enjoys playing "Grand Theft Auto V," posts videos of himself frying eggs on his YouTube channel and doesn't yet have a girlfriend. A wispy moustache is just starting to grow on his upper lip.
He is a boy looking for heroes of the kind you can essentially design on your own if you don't take the history books too seriously. His excitement for Stalin seems to indicate that the mass-murdering dictator will continue to have followers for many years to come.
'The Qualities of a Leader'
Denisyuk met Laptev on Lenin's birthday on April 22, 2018, a day he remembers well. Denisyuk had unfurled a red banner on Lenin Square bearing the following Lenin quote: "General belief in revolution is already the beginning of revolution." He was holding it with a couple of retirees when, he says, the boy approached him and asked if he could help too.
On the photo that Denisyuk posted to the Russian social medial site VK, Ruslan Laptev is standing in the middle, his thick eyebrows drawn together, his mouth half open. He is holding a red carnation in his hand. "Ruslan has a good heart," says Denisyuk. "He is a good speaker but knows when to be silent. He has the qualities of a leader."
On the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, on May 9, 2018, Laptev dressed up as a Red Army soldier and joined another Denisyuk demonstration. This time, Denisyuk posted a photo of Laptev with a Soviet military cap covering his brown locks. Beneath the image, he wrote "Stalin's eaglet," and he gave Laptev a red flag and a copy of the Stalin book "The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union." A few days later, Laptev posted a Soviet propaganda poster: "Be prepared for the battle of the legacy of Lenin and Stalin!" It was a time when he was posting frequently to social media: Laptev speaking with a woman at a demonstration, bearing the caption: "Political discussion with the people." Laptev speaking with a teenager. Laptev being interviewed on local television.
Denisyuk's new protégé was soon able to reel off the fundamental evils of capitalism, including the bourgeoisie's exploitation of the working class and the accumulation of wealth. He wants a different Russia, one where ships return to the port of Novosibirsk, where the elderly no longer have to beg in front of the church and where students have a job to go to after finishing school instead of turning to alcohol.
He wants a world that is easily understood, one where there is a clear hierarchy of heroes of the kind on the Russian propaganda posters that Laptev likes and shares on social media. He points to his Samsung smartphone and says: "Why don't we have Russian mobile phones and Russian cars? It's Putin's fault. Putin has transformed Russia into a colony."
Many Stalinists hate Putin. Indeed, they believe that the more closely you look at Stalin, the more corrupt and inept the current president seems. One bumper sticker depicts Stalin smoking a pipe along with the words: "We wouldn't be dealing with this shit if I were in charge."
Fund-Raising for Stalin
"Putin should be shot," says Laptev. "Publicly. On Red Square."
Not long after meeting him, Denisyuk told Laptev of his plan to erect a Stalin statue in their city, whereupon the protégé immediately joined the initiative group and spent the ensuing months accompanying Denisyuk to demonstrations and helping him raise money.
On a sunny afternoon in early April of this year, just a few weeks before the unveiling of the monument in the Communist Party's parking lot, Denisyuk and Laptev meet up on Lenin Square, across from the opera. They set up a small, red tent, unfurl a portrait of Stalin and erect a banner reading: "Donate to the Stalin monument."
It is a windy day in Novosibirsk, and with Stalin smiling his Stalin smile from the portrait, dust begins swirling and the banner slams to the ground. A half-dozen retirees help put up the tent and then begin chanting "every donation counts! The papers are free, read about our Generalissimus!" One of the retirees is wearing a red Soviet star on his Puma cap.
Laptev, for his part, is wearing mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses, a hat and a leather bag of the kind carried by Soviet military officers. "Your star is crooked," he says to the retiree in the Puma cap. The man leans his head toward Laptev, who straightens it.
Denisyuk smiles proudly as Laptev carefully lays out the newspapers, setting a stack of Hammer and Sickle to the left of the donation box and The Revolution to the right. "Stalin is shit," calls out a tattooed girl as she walks past. "Let him rot in his grave." Her purple ponytail disappears into the subway entrance and Laptev takes off his sunglasses to watch her go.
Shortly after he first met Denisyuk, Laptev joined the youth wing of the Communist Party. It was a tactical move since it is the party to which the mayor belongs. According to the party, the youth wing of the CPRF continues to grow from year to year and currently stands at 25,000, with chapters in 80 cities around the country.
'I Carried Out a Purge'
Laptev quickly demonstrated his leadership abilities, becoming the head of a youth cell. On the social media channel VK, he posted a picture of himself wearing an ear-flapped hat and looking thoughtfully into the mid-distance. Beneath the image, he wrote: "Europe is trembling now that it knows who Putin's successor will be."
"How's it going?" Denisyuk asks him in front of the red tent. He is referring to Laptev's party responsibilities.
"I carried out a purge," says Laptev, his voice both hoarse and proud, as though he has just finished cleaning his room. His teenage voice breaking, he goes on to explain that he forced out some cell members who had questioned his leadership.
"Very good," says Denisyuk. "Youth work isn't easy."
A few days later, Laptev gathers his cell, sitting at the head of a makeshift table beneath a white statue of Lenin. His deputy, who is also 15, reads out the day's agenda from his mobile phone: "Item one, cadre membership. Two, organizational. Three, military patriotism. Four, other."
Natalia, a retiree, is sitting to Ruslan's left. She is here to keep an eye on Laptev, as is standard in the Communist Party. Natalia has broad shoulders and just won the senior powerlifting championships. In front of her lies a gray book, Stalin's speeches and orders, printed in 1947.
The first item has to do with a boy who wants to join the cell and Laptev asks him to state his case. "I'm Alexander," the boy says, "14 years old." He falls silent, his nose is running.
Not a Game
"What do you like to do? Where do you go to school?" Laptev asks. The boy says he is looking for friends and wants to get politically involved and stuff. Nobody votes against him and there are no abstentions. Laptev leans back fiddling with his pen and then nods to his deputy.
Organizational. Planning is ongoing for a drawing and Play-Doh competition, with Laptev and his comrades seeking to create the best likeness of Stalin.
Military patriotism. Natalia speaks of her aunt who has kept a newspaper from March 5, 1953, the day Stalin died. "We are going to frame it. You'll be able to touch it."
The gathering on this afternoon seems like child's play, but it is serious. And reporters who try to find out more about Denisyuk's protégé have to play by the rules that Laptev, who is in the eighth grade, lays out: No home visits, no meetings with his parents, no interviews at school.
But he does send over a photo via WhatsApp, unsolicited. It shows him as a six-year-old with his hands on his hips, his head thrown back and a Stalin moustache sticking to his upper lip. Who took the picture? "My mother, says Laptev. His parents are no longer together and Laptev lives with her. He invites me on a walk through the Garden for the Victims of the Russian Civil War, located behind a concert hall.
"Is your mother a Stalinist?" I ask him. "On the contrary," replies Laptev. "She wants a parliament, democracy and all that."
Laptev refuses to pass along his mother's telephone number, but calls her on his own phone and hands it over. How do you see Ruslan's future, I ask. "I don't know," replies a tired voice. "He's still trying to find himself. He doesn't listen to me." What is your view of Stalin? "A dictator like Hitler, but Ruslan loves him. He doesn't know what life was like back then." Ruslan said you didn't want to talk. "He's probably ashamed of me."
Looking Into Stalin's Eyes
Laptev's mother proposes a meeting to talk about Stalin, about the picture of her son with the Stalin moustache, about Denisyuk and about her son. But Laptev grabs the phone: "Mom, that's enough. We're in a hurry."
The Stalin bust in Novosibirsk was unveiled on Victory Day, May 9.
Laptev and Denisyuk managed to collect more than half a million rubles for their Stalin monument, according to Denisyuk, the equivalent of almost 8,000 euros. He also wants to commission two plaques. He drives to the stonecutter at the cemetery and Laptev skips school to see the bust. At the sculptor's studio, located in a disused factory in the city's north, Laptev pushes his way through a turnstile, climbs up a flight of stairs and crosses a dark corridor.
The Vozhd is wearing his Generalissimus uniform, his right eyebrow raised slightly. The bust is sitting on a stool near the window so Laptev can look into Stalin's eyes. He steps up to the statue, carefully lays a hand on the shoulder, traces the wrinkles on his face with a finger and gently wipes dust from his nose. Then, almost as an expert might, he knocks gently on the breast -- with Stalin emitting a dull, hollow noise. The bust, after all, is made of synthetic material, painted to look like bronze. There wasn't enough money for more than that.
"What did you do with the plaster template," Laptev asks. "I destroyed it," the sculptor says. Laptev sighs.
The mayor of Novosibirsk was initially reluctant to allow the Stalin statue a prominent place in the city. During Stalin's reign, several labor camps were established in the region and the children and grandchildren of the victims are still alive. Ultimately, the mayor decided to put the bust on display at party headquarters on Bolshevik Road, just outside the city center. The parking lot is monitored by video cameras.
Denisyuk and Laptev agreed, even though the latter found the mayor's caution to be cowardly. "He is Putin's puppet," he says. "He has betrayed Stalin's legacy." "But we need him, Ruslan," Denisyuk replies.
Just before the monument is to be dedicated, the mayor sets up a meeting with the Initiative Group Stalin Monument at party headquarters to discuss final details, though he sends a deputy rather than attending himself. Laptev arrives from school, where he had gotten into a fight, his officer's bag is torn. Denisyuk is smoking a cigarette outside the door as an excavator tears down the rotten fence and topples trees to make way for the monument. The removal of the fence, though, has revealed a dilapidated shed. Denisyuk asks what the plan is for the shed.
A Toast to the Fatherland
You won't be able to see it, the mayor's deputy assures, explaining that a brick wall is to be built and new trees will be planted. On the slight rise where the trees are to be planted sit two men in rubber boots, drinking alcohol from plastic bottles and swaying slightly.
"What about the dumpster?" asks Denisyuk. "It stays," the deputy replies. "It has to go," says Denisyuk. "Stalin can't be looking at garbage." "The dumpster stays."
As dusk approaches, Denisyuk, Laptev and the retiree in the Puma cap walk to the subway. "I would have insisted more forcefully," says Laptev, balling one hand into a fist as he walks.
When May 9 finally arrives, the day on which all of Russia celebrates the victory over Hitler with parades, fireworks and tears, the Stalin monument is dedicated in Novosibirsk. The dumpster is gone, and fir trees have been planted on both sides of the Stalin bust. Songs from the Stalin era are playing: "Let's drink to the Fatherland! Let's drink to Stalin!"
Denisyuk shakes hands, Stalin receives roses and carnations as Mozart's "Requiem" plays from the speakers. A reception follows, with Denisyuk eating and drinking with Communist Party officials. A fireworks display lights up the sky above Novosibirsk as darkness falls -- white, red and yellow bursts in the heavens.
Two days later, Denisyuk can be found enjoying a bottle of port wine with his breakfast before driving to party headquarters and taking photos of the Stalin bust from a number of different angles while smoking a cigarette. He asks me to take a photo of him together with Stalin.
A few weeks later, Ruslan Laptev also posts a photo of himself with the statue. In the image, Denisyuk's protégé stands at attention, eyes squinted. He is wearing a T-shirt with two crossed rifles, the head of a bear, an ammunition belt and the message: "The harder the hunt, the sweeter the prize."
It has been almost three months since the dedication of the statue and Denisyuk is satisfied. Stalin is back and finally has a place in his city. But his fight continues. He has called another meeting of the Initiative Group Stalin Monument for the first weekend in August and the agenda is extensive. He wants the statue to be recognized as a cultural monument, he wants to install lights to illuminate the bust at night and he wants steps to be built.
More than anything, though, Denisyuk wants to once again begin collecting money with Laptev's help. For a new monument. Made of bronze.