Sunday, June 14, 2015

Stalin Again?

By Stephen Wilson

Joseph Stalin

(Moscow, Russia) - 'Do you know that the building we are studying in is said to be haunted by the ghost of Stalin?  People who work here claim to have seen his ghost here...' proudly smiled my charming student of English, Lena,
while we were in a monotonously wooden labyrinth of dimly lit corridored buildings where rooms were leashed out to small firms. The room we held our studies only added to the grim atmosphere. All around us were framed photos of crashed trains. I wondered what kind of oddball would collect such photos? The building was within the vicinity of the Kremlin and next to the GUM shopping mall!

The incident occurred years ago, but over the past few days I have noticed Stalin's presence has surfaced beyond just haunting dull and shadowy offices. For what we are witnessing is an attempted rehabilitation of Stalin where he has almost become a 'respectable' symbol of the the new Russian political landscape. What was largely unthinkable 20 years ago, has now become reality. Stalin is now lauded as a great poet in his youth, a strong leader who won the war
and accomplished the feat of transforming Russia into a great power.

Stalin has even been 'humanised' for having a sense of humour.

When I dropped into 'Dom Knigi', in Sokol, I found one bookshelf crammed with books on Stalin. You could read 'Young Stalin', 'Stalin Jokes', 'The sayings of Stalin', 'How Stalin won the war' and so on. One book titled by 'Stalin Laughs', The Humour of the leader of the people', by Khokhlov, Moscow 2015, is full of amusing anecdotes. For example, one day Stalin lost his favourite pipe. He looked everywhere but could not find it. Stalin suspected someone had stolen it and lamented that 'I would give anything to find it'. After three days Beria arrested ten thieves, and each of them confessed to stealing the pipe which all this time had simply fallen behind Stalin's sofa and lain in his room.

The presence of Stalin is not only conspicious in old offices and bookshops  but even school textbooks. A mid-2000 college textbook praises Stalin for progressively industrialising Russia. While visiting a block of apartment I could help myself to a free copy of reprinting of the 10th of May 1945 issue of Pravda, where a huge portrait of Stalin
looms up over the front page.

While travelling on the Moscow metro, I read a poster with a letter from Stalin stating, 'My friendly regards and gratitude from the Red Army in raising 706,000 rubles for the construction of an armoured train. The wishes of the metro workers will be carried out.' You can also read in the metro how one of Stalin's sons shot down two German planes.


Only recently, an attempt was made to rename Volgograd, Stalingrad again. Putin had even agreed to allow the residents of the city to take  a vote on it. Yesterday I met a security man who was from Volgograd. I asked him, 'How many people want to city to be changed back to Stalingrad?' He told me, 'Most of the city. About 60% are for while 40% are against it! We did not manage to rename it because the economic crisis meant we didn't have the resources to hold a
referendum.' However, many of the locals are calling it Stalingrad already and one wonders whether a referendum is
necessarily at all!


According to a recent opinion poll, most Russians consider Stalin a great wartime leader. His popularity has been rising rather than diminishing. However, we should not overstate this trend. Although many Russians appreciate his role as a wartime leader, some will insist they don't condone his role in repressing people. For example, a 15-year-old student told me, 'I think that We could not have won the war without Stalin but I don't agree with how he repressed so many people.' Russians can express a highly ambiguous view of Stalin. That the rehabilitation of Stalin has not been given complete
backing is indicated by two incidents. Volvograd has not been renamed Stalingrad and an attempt by the grandson of Stalin, Yevgeny Dzhugashvii, to take journalists to Court in Russia for libel, was thrown out. Dzhugashvii then took his case to the European court of Human Rights only to have his plea utterly rejected. He had claimed that the original Russian court's decision violated article 8 of the Russian constitution and his right to respect for his private and family life'. If Yevgeny Dzugashvili has won his case against Novaya Gazeta's journalist, then any criticism of Stalin's historical role would be under threat. Academic freedom would have ceased to exist (the journalist had described
Stalin as a bloodthirsty cannibal for his role in massacring the Polish army during the war).


The attempted rehabilitation of Stalin hardly seems news. What strikes some observers is the unexpected and eccentric means of doing this.

For example, I switched on the television channel Zvesda, and watched a documentary called 'Young Stalin'. In this programme, a young Georgian was allowed to recite some of Stalin's poems which he had written while he was a young man. The programme claimed Stalin had great merit as a poet, was an outstanding student and attained the highest marks.

Later, I dropped into a local Orthodox church's bookshop where I acquired a dated copy of an obscure journal ''The Sixth Sense'.

I read an intriguing interview with a famous Georgian actor called 
David Giorgobiani titled, 'Was Stalin a tyrant or sent by God to punish Russia.?' The article concluded that Stalin was sent on a mission to do God's work in punishing Russia. A view of Stalin seen through the lens of religious folklore has emerged. The view goes that Stalin was never a genuine atheist, that he once stated, 'I was never a revolutionary' and  that he had officially revived the Orthodox church in 1943. Stalin even repented his sins! He returned to his old Orthodox beliefs. According to David Giorgobiani, 'There exist recollections, that he (Stalin), while in the Kremlin, often dropped alone into the Uspensky cathedral and would not let anyone else into the building. I ask you, what did Joseph Stalin do in the Uspensky Cathedral, where he was alone?

He did not do anything else but pray.Yes, he was sent by God to punish Russia for her sins.' We now find that Stalin has begun to play a newly defined role in Russian religious folklore as a repentant sinner, who returned to the Orthodoxy. There is even a story that when his grandmother visited him and asked what his new job was he explained, 'I'm the president of Russia. I'm a kind of Tsar.' His mother
was not impressed and retorted, 'It is a pity you never became a priest'.

Another story confirmed by the wartime British leader, Churchill, recalls how Churchill once asked Stalin, 'Will you ever forgive me for opposing your government?' Stalin laconically answered, 'God will forgive you'.

A less flattering folklore might have emerged which depicted Stalin as a demon. Many religious people once claimed the proof that Stalin was evil lay in aspects of his physical appearance which coincided with Russian popular belief in demons. They claimed that Stalin's limp, his six toes on one foot, his small poxed scarred face and anomalous physical appearance proved he was a demon! According to popular
beliefs, anyone born with six fingers or toes belongs to the supernatural world and is endowed with second -sight. Those deformities were seen as a sign of someone who would become a priest or shaman! This view of Stalin, which was held by some Orthodox during Stalin's time never quite caught on. However, the view that Stalin had become a repentant Marxist who revived the Orthodox church and thus saved Russia during the war has increasingly won favour. It is a great irony that one of the greatest persecutors of the Orthodox church is now being perceived as one of its staunch guardians!

Stalin has almost entered into the mythology of the Moscow metro, which is currently celebrating its 80th anniversary. The story goes that once he was chairing a meeting of architects and planners about how the metro should be lain out. The participants were discussing this plan and that Stalin stood there, puffing away on his pipe, listening intently. He also was drinking a mug of coffee. Stalin lost patience and slammed his mug on to the centre of the Moscow map.

When he removed his mug everyone could see a dark circle left by coffee stains. Stalin stated, 'That is how we will plan the Metro.

It will be based on a brown circle at the centre...'

Stalin is not the first historical personage whose role has been reinterpreted by Russian folklore. An American folklorist, Jack Haney, stated that Russian folk-tales depicted Ivan the Terrible as a kind tsar and friend of the peasant who defended them against the shamelessly oppressive boyars. Russian folk storytellers might tell entertainingly alluring stories. However, they make poor historians.

A historian's role is not to flatter, populise or entertain people. His role is to tell the bitter truth. However, historians can't  help agreeing with Stalin's mother that he should have become a harmless priest.

More is the pity!

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