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Why the cult of Josef Stalin is flourishing

Anastassia Boutsko
March 6, 2023

The Russian state is promoting the Soviet dictator through new monuments, reversing the de-Stalinization process of the 1960s. Why would a country celebrate a mass murderer?

A view of the coffin with the body of Joseph Stalin surrounded by flowers.
Joseph Stalin's body during the funeral service on March 9, 1953Image: Nikolai Sitnikov/TASS/picture alliance

It was an unusually cold March, even by Russian standards. Following Josef Stalin's sudden death from a hemorrhagic stroke at the age of 74, four days of national mourning were declared ahead of his state funeral on March 9, 1953.

Despite the bitter cold, the population gathered in long queues to pay their respects to the sole ruler and dictator of the giant Soviet Union. So many people wanted to see the body of the "Father of Nations," as the Soviet press referred to him then, that hundreds of people were crushed to death on the day of the funeral.

Black-and-white photo of a crowd in Moscow's Red Square, with several wreaths piled up before the walls of the Kremlin
Crowds gathered in Moscow's Red Square on March 9, 1953Image: Russian Look/IMAGO

It took the Soviet leadership several years to distance itself from "Stalin's personality cult," and it wasn't until the 1960s that it was publicly stated for the first time who he really was: a mass murderer.

Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in Georgia, the professional revolutionary, whose pseudonym means "the steel one," was de facto ruler of the Soviet Union by 1923.

According to historians' estimates, up to 40 million people were victims of Stalin's terror during his three-decade rule. They were executed, sent to forced labor camps, or starved to death through famines he had engineered. There were mass deportations, and members of the intelligentsia — leading writers, poets, actors, scientists, directors — were denounced as "enemies of the people," tortured or killed.

From de-Stalininization to neo-Stalinism

"It may sound strange, but Stalin's death is my first conscious childhood memory," Irina Sherbakova told DW. The co-founder of the human rights organization Memorial received the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of 2022.

Irina Sherbakova, a woman giving a speech.
Irina Sherbakova, co-founder of the human rights organization MemorialImage: Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance/dpa

"I was a toddler then, in 1953, but I remember Stalin's death well," says the 72-year-old historian. "I perceived it in a childish way, especially the atmosphere: how the icy cold and fear — the last months of the Stalin era were very oppressive, very depressing — became an expectation of spring."

And spring indeed followed, as Soviet authorities uniformly condemned the tyrant a few years later and began a de-Stalinization process.

The dictator's embalmed body, which had initially been placed next to Lenin's in a mausoleum on Red Square in the center of Moscow, was removed from public display and buried outside the walls of the Kremlin in 1961.

Countless Stalin monuments and busts in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, formerly an integral part of the cityscape, were destroyed on a large scale — melted down, buried or thrown into rivers.

People walking around a damaged Stalin bust.
A Stalin monument being destroyed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956Image: akg-images/picture alliance

The Khrushchev Thaw period of the 1960s changed the country forever, laying the groundwork for perestroika policy reforms 20 years later.

Created in 1989, Memorial was an international network of human rights organizations whose main focus was addressing the impact of Stalin's terror. But it was shut down by Russia in 2021.

Greetings from Putin's Russia: Stalin strikes back

For a long time, a rebirth of a Stalin cult seemed unthinkable. But a trend in that direction "started around 2014, with the annexation of Crimea," according to Russian cultural journalist and author Irina Rastorgueva, who, like Sherbakova, currently lives in Berlin.

Author Irina Rastorgueva.
Author Irina RastorguevaImage: Privat

Rastorgueva told DW that in the 1990s and 2000s, there were already attempts to erect Stalin monuments or busts, especially in the provinces or in Stalin's birthplace of Gori in Georgia. Her colleagues working on the Russian-language Wikipedia have been keeping detailed records of all neo-Stalinist monuments.

She says that it evolved from individuals putting up busts of Stalin in their allotment gardens to monuments being set up in front of Communist Party headquarters. But what is happening now doesn't even compare, Rastorgueva notes: The Russian state itself is inaugurating new Stalin monuments in the center of big cities.

The latest Stalin monument was unveiled on February 1, 2023, in the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the battle of Stalingrad.

A bronze bust of Stalin with red flowers.
A new bronze bust of Stalin was unveiled on February 1, 2023, in VolgogradImage: AFP

The mayor of Volgograd stated at the inauguration ceremony that "certain countries want to erase the memory of the great victory of the Soviet army today," but they would not allow that to happen.

For the anniversary event, Volgograd was even renamed Stalingrad for a day. "They could have directly renamed the city Putingrad," says Rastorgueva, tongue-in-cheek. The monument stands for the current paradigm of how authorities are "interpreting history from above," she adds.

Putin is seeking to rehabilitate the dictator as the leader who fought off the Nazis and turned the Soviet Union into a major world power.

"The World War II victory is the last unifying denominator, the last trump card of Russian propaganda," explains Rastorgueva.

Amid losses in the war in Ukraine, it becomes all the more important for Moscow to promote the idea that, like Stalin in 1945, Putin is the one who will lead the country to victory, she adds.

What is new, according to Irina Sherbakova, is that the Second World War is no longer described as being won by the Allies, the Red Army or even by the "heroic Soviet people" — a label coined by Khrushchev in his anti-Stalinism speech in 1956 — but rather by Stalin himself, "which is also a notion that emerged recently under Putin," she notes.

Neo-Stalinism: No end in sight

Irina Sherbakova believes nothing will stop the neo-Stalinist cult as long as Vladimir Putin leads the country.

In fact, the country never completed its de-Stalinization process in the first place: "Our organization, Memorial, did a great job until it was shut down, but we were just an NGO. It should be the state's duty to confess to its crimes and the citizens' duty to recognize that they have lived in a criminal state," says Sherbakova.

The historian is convinced that, one day, there will be chapters on "Stalinism" and "Putinism" in Russian school books. "But before that happens, we will have to take responsibility for what's happening in Ukraine right now and pay the price. And that price will be very high."

This article was orginally written in German.

Victims of Soviet-era repression fight for justice