Stalinist memory politics: Putin’s Russia grapples with double-edge sword

Despite official ambivalence and a revisionist historical trend, commemorations continue

Books about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on display at Biblio Globus, one of Moscow's biggest bookshops.
Matthew Luxmoore

MOSCOW — On the night of March 5, 1938, Mark Podzemsky was arrested for the final time.

He was ready. As they took him away, he produced out of his pocket a receipt from the local watch repair shop and handed it to his wife. She never saw him again.

Each previous time, Podzemsky had paid Stalin’s enforcers off – with money, furniture, or whatever else – but by 1934 a file with his name on it lay in the offices of the NKVD, the secret police. Having profited during the Soviet Union’s early days from opportunities for private commerce made possible by Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he and other businessmen then became subject to harassment from a regime hostile to the activities of their class.

That spring, he and eight colleagues were charged with membership in a fascist counter-revolutionary group working to overthrow the Soviet government and carry out terrorist acts. Podzemsky was placed in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison, headquarters of the NKVD, never to return home.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1956, Nina Podzemskaya received her father’s death certificate. The document stated he died in 1944 of heart failure, but the place of death was not listed.

Only in 1992 did the family receive written proof of his dismal fate. “Cause of death: shooting. Date: July 4, 1938. Place: Moscow.” That summer day, a single bullet had been delivered to Podzemsky’s head as he stood shoulder to shoulder with fellow enemies of the state at the Butovo firing range south of the capital – a place where 20,000 political prisoners were similarly executed during a period known as the Great Terror.

At left, photos of Mark Podzemsky at the time of his arrest, and at right, just before he was killed.
Matthew Luxmoore

Two prison photographs were taken of Podzemsky, one at arrest and one just before his execution. The latter shows a drastically changed man.

“The difference is striking. My grandfather had lost a lot of weight. He had grown a big beard, and looked markedly older. But there’s a certain dignity, you can see it in his eyes,” recalls Nadezhda Podzemskaya, as she sifts through photographs in the kitchen of the apartment that same grandfather bought in 1922.

But that is not the end of his story. Nor of many other Soviet citizens just like him.

On Dec. 6, a small metal plaque was affixed to the side of that very building on Moscow’s Myasnitskaya Street, one of six such memorial markers commemorating victims of persecution who once called this place home. Podzemsky’s name, date of birth, arrest and shooting are engraved on it. In place of a photograph is just a square-shaped hole.

The initiative is part of a civic project called Last Address, launched in December 2014 by journalist Sergey Parkhomenko to honor victims of political repression. On a visit to Frankfurt in 2013, Parkhomenko had come across brass plaques called stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) embedded in the pavement, part of a project commemorating Nazi victims started in 1996 by German artist Gunter Demnig. Back in Moscow, he approached Memorial, an NGO which gathers records on political repression, to propose an analogous initiative in Russia.

“We have our own Holocaust, comparable in scale to that which took place in Germany. I realized we should try and do something similar here,” Parkhomenko told Al Jazeera, referring to the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Historians still often debate whether Stalin was “worse” than Hitler.

To have a plaque put up on their building memorializing a victim, residents file an application on the Last Address project’s website. The approval of all those living at the property is sought. Delays often arise, as disagreements among residents are routine. Nevertheless, since its launch, Last Address has put up more than 160 plaques across Russia. Despite major inflation over the past year, it has not raised the 4,000-ruble ($50) price applicants pay, although Parkhomenko admitted this might soon be necessary as the Russian currency continues its slide.

From the busy road, the six plaques on Myasnitskaya Street are hardly visible, blending in seamlessly with the grey concrete of the façade. But for Parkhomenko, each issues a powerful reminder of the significance of human life at a politically uncertain time.

“The Soviet government practiced a deep disdain for human life, and today’s is no different. Geopolitics, the economy, national interests and security are prioritized above the individual,” he said. “But these plaques come alive. Out of these primitive metal objects, a human life and a fate emerge. In that sense, our project goes completely against the grain.”

Commemorative plaques posted by Last Address on the exterior of the building where Podzemsky once lived.
Matthew Luxmoore

Last Address activists say they hope to move public discussion back to a focus on the individuals harmed by the ideals to which Stalin supporters hark back. But their work taps into memories that have for decades split Russian society. Twenty-five years after the Soviet collapse, the country is struggling to incorporate the dark pages of its history into a narrative of the past, and Stalin’s legacy divides opinion like nothing else.

In a January 2015 survey by independent pollster Levada Center, 52 percent of respondents – the highest proportion since such surveys began – judged as positive Stalin’s role in Russian history. Against the backdrop of events in neighboring Ukraine, whose new government Russian media consistently portray as fascist, the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII – celebrated last year – refocused attention on Stalin’s role in halting Germany’s advance. Books whitewashing the atrocities of his regime and calling for a reassessment of his legacy – with titles like “How They Slander Stalin” and “How Stalin Defeated Corruption” – fill bookshop shelves across Russia.

Some activists see this revisionism taking hold in Russia’s education system. Nikolai Ivanov, a 42-year-old art history teacher who runs the St. Petersburg chapter of Last Address, said only a third of his students have heard of Stalinist injustices, and an even smaller number condemn them.

“Schools have stopped talking about Stalinist repressions. We now have a generation of teenagers who simply don’t know about them,” he said.

It’s unclear how representative that sample is, however. The federal curriculum for secondary schools devotes two history classes per year to the topic: one on Stalin’s personality cult and one on the origins and nature of the totalitarian system he built. According to Tatyana Uvarova, a history teacher at north Moscow’s School No. 1551, the topic still features prominently. Yet she admits more class time was given to it in the 1990s.

“The topic of Stalinist repressions is still covered, and teachers don’t have the right to ignore it. The question is how they teach it – and that depends entirely on the teacher,” she said.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Stalin’s memory continues to divide Russian society. Professor Olga Malinova of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, who has written extensively on the politics of post-Soviet memory, identifies three categories of people in Russia: those who worship the myth of a strong, just leader who turned Russia into a superpower; those who insist on a critical treatment of the Soviet past; and the undecided. She describes Stalin’s legacy as the “central symbolic conflict in Russia’s memory politics”.

For its part, the Kremlin has been ambivalent, at best, with its official line on the issue. In September, Putin signed off on plans to place a memorial to victims of political repression in Moscow, although little news has emerged about the plans since. Meanwhile, local Communist Party divisions have erected monuments to the dictator in cities like Lipetsk, and even a center devoted to Stalin in Penza. The Kremlin has neither obstructed nor actively aided such projects.

“All these initiatives have come in the past year. The government tries to avoid this topic, but as a large part of the electorate sympathizes with the memory of a strong leader, they don’t shy away from exploiting it,” Malinova said. “Putin doesn’t pass up on occasion the chance to remind people of the achievements of the Stalinist era.”

Last Address is thus tapping into memories that many Russians prefer to let lie. Even so, the project’s controversy did not come as a surprise. Prior to its launch, leading historians, journalists and activists gathered in Moscow for two weekend-long seminars to discuss how best to approach the lack of consensus in Russian society. And those enduring divisions continue to split communities.

Podzemsky’s is a case in point. Podzemskaya, the granddaughter, filed an application to Last Address in April 2015. It was then vetoed by the head of the building’s homeowner association, who argued that it conflicted with plans to establish a museum to the merchant who had had the house built. In a telephone conversation with a Last Address employee, she defended her stance. “We want to emphasize grandeur, not repressions, and your somber plaques to unknown people conflict with that,” she said, according to Podzemskaya.

In October, after efforts from neighbors sympathetic to the cause, the elderly lady conceded.

But a compromise had to be reached on the location, leaving the six plaques underneath an archway and largely hidden from pedestrians’ view.

Despite the obstacles, Last Address continues its work. It has volunteers in several major Russian cities, who offer their help at the local level, and plans are afoot to expand the project to include other parts of the former Soviet Union. Activists in three Ukrainian cities have expressed interest in the project, but Parkhomenko says its status as a federally registered entity in Russia means the Ukrainian government is unlikely to lend its support at a time of strained bilateral relations.

There’s also a fear closer to home. Last Address functions in a legal grey zone not covered by laws on commemorative plaques, and Parkhomenko is pessimistic about the project’s chances of survival. He says official initiatives honoring repression victims, like the Moscow monument, are just another way for the government to regulate the sphere of memory politics. He believes Putin’s government is not against civic initiatives or art, but merely wants to control them.

“One day we’ll wake up, and a car will have driven through Moscow and removed all our plaques,” he said.

“But it’s not the plaques that matter, it’s the individuals they represent. By that point we will have infected society with the memory of those people.”

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