'A real catastrophe': Russia's reverence for Stalin grows as memory of atrocities fades

A sculptor in Moscow hopes a memorial to Stalin's atrocities will reverse an ominous trend — a renewed reverence for the Soviet-era tyrant.

Trend takes hold as memorial to victims of the Soviet tyrant set to open in October

Joseph Stalin, one of the most murderous leaders in human history, is experiencing a resurgence of popularity in Russia as people in the country emphasize his accomplishments 2:27

On the corner of a busy intersection in Moscow, Georgy Frangulyan is creating an evocative memorial to the millions of Russians executed, starved or banished by Joseph Stalin. 

With painstaking care, he's carved hundreds of human forms into what amounts to a wall of suffering. Visitors are invited to stand within the curve of the wall and surround themselves with the weight of Stalin's crimes against the Russian people.

"They are tears," Frangulyan said of the shape of the heads and bodies on the wall. "They are victims — forms which convey a tragedy."

Stalin impersonators like this one — one of three spotted outside the Kremlin — are a big hit in Russia, part of a resurgence of appreciation for the former Soviet dictator. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Frangulyan is hoping his efforts will help reverse an ominous trend.

Reverence for Stalin — one of the most despised and notorious figures of the 20th century — is on the rise in Russia.

In fact, the totalitarian wartime leader has never been more popular.

"I think it's a real catastrophe," said Fangulyan. 

"It is a tragedy of the nation. I think its necessary to have such a monument as a guarantee this will never happen again."

Under Stalin's totalitarian leadership, between 1929 and 1953, as many as 10 million Soviet citizens were killed via executions, forced labour or famine, making him one of history's worst tyrants. Opponents were eliminated, dissent was suppressed and history books were rewritten to his liking.

It has taken sculptor Georgy Frangulyan two years to carve hundreds of human forms out of stone to memorialize Stalin's victims. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Hero status

And yet, as the years go by, in the minds of a growing number of Russians those atrocities are fading. Abhorrence for his crimes is slowly being replaced by appreciation for his role at winning the Second World War, rebuilding the country's economy and making Russia a military and industrial force to be reckoned with.

As Americans weigh the appropriateness of tearing down statues of Confederate leaders who espoused racist thinking, the trend appears to be going the other way in Russia.

Greatest Russian

Pollsters at Moscow's independent, non-governmental Levada Center have been tracking the dictator's rehabilitation.

When polling first started in 1989, says director Lev Gudkov, Stalin came out at the very bottom of the list of most important Russians, scoring just 12 per cent. But by April 2017 he'd risen to the top, with an approval rating of 38 per cent.

As many as 10 million people in the former Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's repression. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

For the past five years, Stalin has been firmly planted atop the institute's surveys as the greatest political leader in Russian history.

"Since Putin came to power, the repressions were pushed aside and what emerged instead was an image of a great leader," said Gudkov of Stalin.

The memory of Stalin serves a useful purpose for Russia's government, said Gudkov, in that it connects Russians to the time they were an undisputed superpower.

"They feel proud, they feel self-respect, and [it] gives them a status among other countries. For this, people are willing to forget the victims of this regime," Gudkov said.

In surveys of Russians, Stalin has ranked as the most outstanding leader for five years in a row. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The Kremlin has let Gudkov know it's not happy with his line of questioning — on Stalin and many other issues.

In September 2016, Russia's justice ministry classified the Levada Center as a "foreign agent" for its close ties to U.S. and other overseas universities — making it difficult for the group to raise money and conduct business in Russia.

Nonetheless, Gudkov has continued with his polling and also his warnings about where admiration for Stalin could be heading.

"It's the restoration, in part, of a totalitarian regime," he said.

Night wolves

Evidence of Stalin's resurgence is abundant in Russia's media.

At an event over the weekend in Crimea, the Putin-connected biker gang called Night Wolves paid tribute to Stalin during a nationalistic on-stage performance of bike tricks. A Stalin impersonator waved to a large crowd to the sound of patriotic music from Soviet times.

Around Moscow's Red Square, other Stalin look-alikes do a brisk business, and a street vendor tells CBC News that Stalin T-shirts are big sellers. 

The contrast with other murderous dictators is striking. In Berlin, for instance, it's unimaginable — and illegal — for tourists to pose with Hitler impersonators.

Stalin selfies

"Stalin was a hero!" said one costumed Stalin as he posed with tourists who paid several dollars a click to take selfies with him.

"He brought the Soviet Union to victory! Don't forget that!"

For vendors in Moscow, Stalin T-shirts are top sellers. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Zakir Ramazanov, who owns a nearby shoe-shine business, said Stalin, who died in 1953, has had a bad rap in the decades since.

"Today many are trying to rewrite history," Ramazanov says, "but we think first and foremost he mobilized the country."

Scythe of death

Frangulyan's design for a memorial to remember the victims of Soviet oppression was chosen from more than 300 entries. It's set to open officially on October 30, a day that's been set aside every year since 1991 to remember victims of political oppression in the Soviet Union.

"It's like a scythe of death," he says of the curved shape of his wall that symbolizes Stalin's legacy.

"It went through and cut people's lives."

But in Russia these days, fewer and fewer people are choosing to see it that way.

The design for Moscow's new memorial to remember the victims of Soviet oppression was chosen from more than 300 entries. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.