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Russia's Stalin revival

But Moscow's little-visited Gulag Museum tells a darker history of the Soviet Union and Josef Stalin.

Communists lay a wreath at the grave of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin marking the anniversary of his birthday at the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Dec. 21, 2008. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — Twelve massive black-and-white photographs line the outer brick walls of a building in central Moscow — 12 sets of sunken cheeks and soulless eyes that stare beyond the barbed wire to visitors below.

These are, a sign says, “12 among millions” who entered the Soviet Union’s dreaded network of hard labor camps, known as the Gulag. Millions died there. Millions more were scarred for life.

As Josef Stalin, the ruthless dictator who oversaw the Gulag’s most active and arbitrary use, enjoys a revival as hero of the Russian people, this small museum devoted to victims of Soviet repression is a lonelier place than ever.

“If we don’t exhibit this material, then the view that Stalin was a good manager and great war hero will win,” said Oleg Kalmykov, the museum’s archivist.

No history is set in stone, but the rhetoric about Stalin’s role in Russia’s past and present has taken such a concerted turn toward the positive that people like Kalmykov fear the horrors he committed will be whitewashed from history.

“History is something that people think they can’t learn. But then everyone goes on their own path and ends up in the same place. That’s what happening now,” he said.

Outside Russia, the legacy of Stalin, who ruled as a dictator from the 1920s until his death in 1953, is pretty clear. Killing millions of his own people landed him in the pantheon of the world’s worst dictators, alongside Hitler and Pol Pot. His name conjures images of domestic terror, nighttime arrests and a megalomaniacal paranoia that prompted fatal campaigns against perceived enemies.

Inside Russia, the story is more complicated. He was, according to a school textbook adopted last year and endorsed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a “competent manager” who committed atrocities at home out of necessity. Earlier this year, Stalin nearly won a nationwide call-in poll asking people to vote for the person who best represents Russia.

Stalin's grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, is fighting the claim that Stalin was directly involved in the Gulag deaths. He has launched a libel suit against Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, seeking more than $300,000 in damages for saying that Stalin had personally signed execution orders, according to declassified documents.

And last month, in an audacious move, the Moscow metro opened a refurbished station bearing a massive inscription glorifying the dictator. “Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation, inspired us to labor and great deeds," reads the saying, which adorned the original station but was removed after Stalin’s death in 1953.

It would be tough to dream up a more apt symbol for Stalin’s rebirth.

For the most part, average Russians approve.

“I think it’s great,” said Raisa Zheleznyak, 67, standing in the metro’s gilded hall. “We lived during those times and the Soviets gave us everything — education, culture. And it was all thanks to him,” she said, pointing at Stalin’s name.