Much has been said about the City of Moscow’s plan to include Stalin in the 65th-anniversary celebrations of Victory Day. The idea, though, seems to have extremely weak public support. So why would Mayor Luzhkov sponsor a project with only limited appeal that was sure to raise a controversy? Answers to this question have been few and far between, as journalists have preferred to dramatize the story, opting instead for a broader discussion of Stalinism.
So how does the Russian media explain Luzhkov’s behavior?
First, let’s recap some of the basic facts:
Beginning in April, the city will display exactly 2,000 banners and billboards featuring personalities from the Soviet high command during WWII. Of those materials, exactly ten banners will display Stalin’s image, along with a caption containing “neutral information” that explains his role in the war. The posters’ dimensions will be one-by-one-and-a-half meters, and they’ll be placed at central locations in Moscow. Luzhkov’s point man on this project has been Vladimir Makarov, who says the content of the materials will be sent for approval “either to the Defense Ministry’s Institute of Military History or to the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow.”
According to a recent Levada poll, only 12% of Russians favor the city’s plan. More than half the country says that the costs of Stalinism do not justify the gains of rapid industrialization.
The only political figures to support the project have been the leaders of KPRF and Vladimir Dolgikh, head of the veterans’ group that lobbied the mayor’s office to adopt the plan in the first place. (Mr. Dolgikh, incidentally, is the same veteran who led the charge against the Anti-Sovetskii café in Moscow last year.) People against the plan include all the usual suspects (Mitrokhin, Gorbachev, and so on), but this time they’re joined by United Russia itself. First, Gryzlov went public (as I’ve already noted), and Viacheslav Volodin joined him next.
Mr. Volodin, United Russia’s Secretary of the General Council Presidium, told the media that two of his grandfathers, one of whom was a priest, were both victims of Stalin’s repressions. He articulated the party’s opposition more elaborately than Gryzlov, making it clear that this was the party line, not any single member’s personal opinion. Volodin’s message was this: there are three categories for assessing Stalin’s role in Russian history: historical, political, and moral.
The political assessment of Stalin’s role in history was already laid out by his supporters last century. The historical assessment should be left with the historians. Concerning moral assessments, it’s necessary to respect the feelings and opinions of a large number of people, whose families suffered as a result of Stalin’s repressions.
So the people are widely against it, and so, too, is the political establishment. Why would Luzhkov attach his name to this?
Here’s what the mayor himself had said about his motives:
I myself am not an admirer [почитатель] of Stalin, but I am a supporter of objective history. And objectivity demands that, of everyone who led the government during the Great Patriotic War, we neither remove nor exclude but evaluate their role in the war and the postwar efforts to rebuild the national economy. We will display Stalin’s image and a written explanation of his role — not as propaganda [без перебора], but in the necessary proportions. We owe it to God to get this right. [Не дай нам бог ошибиться.]
Alexander Arkhangelsky at Russia Profile thinks this is evidence that Luzhkov has perhaps gone partially insane:
The authorities have to be sane as well — that is, they shouldn’t claim the right to say that some research findings are true and others are false. If the authorities lose their common sense (as happened to Viktor Yushchenko) and start passing their own judgments of history, then there will be protests. Not against science, but against the authorities.
Yuri Pankov at Nezavisimaia Gazeta believes that Luzhkov wouldn’t have attempted ‘Stalin Booths’ without some kind of tacit agreement with Putin, alleging “cunning conversations in the government about the supposed ‘ambiguous role of Stalin in our nation’s history.’” The notion here seems to be that the authorities are acting out a fake public disagreement in order to perpetuate the “неоднозначность” (ambiguity) of Stalin’s legacy. The next step, imaginably, would be to promote the idea that Stalin was in fact a positive historical force, and to somehow profit from this shift. (Pankov also has a great deal to say about “cultured nations” and “intelligent peoples,” not to mention his theory that Stalin’s failure to sign the League of Nations Treaty was partly to blame for Soviet soldiers’ bad fortunes in Nazi POW camps.)
Forgiving the Underpants Gnomes logic at work here, this assumption that the Kremlin is behind the Stalin Booths project is not unique. As I’ve mentioned before, Vladimir Kara-Murza ties Putin into the mix by rehashing his “greatest geopolitical disaster” remark about the fall of the Soviet Union, adding a prediction that “witch hunts” against democrats are about to about to begin.
Aleksandr Podrabinek wrote a characteristically winded article in Ежедневный Журнал, asking (rhetorically) why, in the interests of “historical objectivity,” Russia shouldn’t also celebrate its serial killers (like Andrey Chikatilo) or Ivan the Terrible functionaries (like Malyuta Skuratov). He finishes with this:
It seems to me that Yuri Luzkov has a personal interest in all this history. They will say later: he was the mayor of Moscow, after all! Some thought him a corrupt thief, but others – the man who built the roads and distinguished himself as Moscow’s chief beekeeper. An ambiguous figure, as they say. But, nevertheless, a figure deserving some kind of monument.
One possibly interesting bit of information that Yulia Balashova at Novaya Gazeta dug up is that the City of Moscow spent 15 million rubles ($500K) on medals for the Victory Day celebrations, some of which will have Stalin’s image on them and the words “За вклад в развитие законодательства” (for a contribution to the development of the law). The city placed its order last December, more than a month before either Luzhkov or Makarov announced the ‘Stalin Booths’ plan. There’s not enough money here for this to amount to some kind of financial conspiracy, but it does seem to support the idea that the city is pandering to veterans eager for one last embrace with Uncle Joe.
That analysis, however, is clearly incomplete. There are fewer WWII veterans and elderly Communists every year, so there is no point in taking political risks to appease this faction. The public is generally uninterested in rehabilitating Stalin as a personality, even if they (quite naturally) wish to continue nostalgically celebrating the grandeur of Soviet times.
So in response to the question with which I began (why is Luzhkov promoting this?), the only honest answer I can give is that nobody seems to know.
The lack of reasonable explanations is no surprise, though, given that so few people seem to be looking at Luzhkov specifically in this story. Why write an article about Moscows’s mayor, after all, when you could instead fulminate against ten years of Putin and twenty years of Soviet nostalgia?
A note to the reader: I’d be interested to know what you think about Luzhkov’s motives. If you have a moment, please leave me your ideas in the comments section.