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Amid Protests, Stalin Posters Pulled From V-Day Celebrations In Moscow

  • Brian Whitmore

A Communist Party supporter waits to pay her respects recently at the grave of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, at the Kremlin wall on Red Square in Moscow.

A Communist Party supporter waits to pay her respects recently at the grave of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, at the Kremlin wall on Red Square in Moscow.

During the Great Patriotic War, Olga Kosorez volunteered for military service, was stationed on the western front as a radio operator, and participated in the final Soviet assault on Berlin in May 1945.

Kosorez is now one of Russia's surviving World War II veterans looking forward to May 9, when Russia will mark the 65th anniversary of the war's end. But not all of the lavish celebrations planned in the capital, Moscow, were to her liking.

As part of the festivities, Mayor Yury Luzhkov had planned to adorn the city with portraits of wartime Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The move sparked howls of protests -- including from Kosorez, who was among a group of nine veterans who penned a letter to Luzhkov's government opposing the posters.

"Friends! Veterans! Come to your senses! Have you lost your self-esteem?" Kosorez told RFE/RL's Russian Services. "Do you want to give our victory -- a victory for millions of our brothers flattened on the battlefield -- to this uneducated seminarian who didn't see you as people or as citizens, but simply as cogs in the state machine?"

Kosorez, moreover, disputed the popular claim that Stalin should be given credit for the Soviet victory in the war, pointing to his secret 1939 pact with Adolf Hitler and his prewar purge of the military elite.

"All the literate and educated generals who were preparing the army for war were declared enemies of the people and shot. The army was decapitated," Kosorez said. "The Father of the Peoples did not believe our intelligence officers' warnings that war was coming. He only believed in his agreement with the fascist Hitler."

The rising public outrage appears to have forced Moscow officials into a corner. Russia's "Kommersant" newspaper, citing Moscow Deputy Mayor Lyudmila Shvetsova, said the city had decided against displaying the Stalin posters on the streets of the capital during the Victory Day celebrations.

Instead, several of the posters will be relegated to more discreet indoor locations -- like the Poklonnaya Gora WWII museum. Shvetsova says the decision was in response to the threat of vandalism and the chance of bad weather.

Cynical Tactic?

The controversy over the posters, like all discussion of Stalin's role in history, exposes a deep rift in Russian society. Critics point to the gulag, the millions who perished in the mass purges known as the Great Terror, and the Stalin-Hitler pact that left the Soviet Union unprepared for the Nazi invasion in 1941 and the death of more than 15 million soldiers and citizens in the war. His supporters, meanwhile, say despite his heavy-handed methods, Stalin industrialized what was a backward country and ultimately led it to victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

The dispute also exposes an ongoing political struggle between Luzhkov, who is seen as ruling Moscow as a personal fiefdom for nearly two decades, and the Kremlin, which would like to remove him from power. And it comes as the Kremlin itself is backing away from its onetime embrace of Stalinist symbolism.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Luzhkov's original plan to display the posters looked like an attempt to shore up support among elderly and traditional Muscovites who are favorably disposed toward Stalin.

"Luzhkov loses by abandoning his plan to display the Stalin posters," Oreshkin said. "He didn't get the support of the conservative voters, who will not forgive such weakness. And he didn't get the support of those who do not like Stalin. This is a sign of Luzhkov's weak political position."

Plans to display the posters provoked predictable opposition from rights groups, cultural figures, and pro-democracy activists.

Nikolai Uskov, editor in chief of the Russian-language edition of men's magazine "GQ," posted a message on the LiveJournal blogging site calling on citizens to tear down the posters as a demonstration of civil disobedience.

In his post, Uskov pledged to "destroy these portraits" and urged "all decent people to unite with me, to avenge those killed and mutilated by Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe."

The rights group Memorial, for its part, had planned to counter Luzhkov's efforts with a Stalin poster campaign of its own.

"We must respond to this stupid initiative by the Moscow authorities," Memorial board member Jan Rachinsky vowed before the poster plans were abandoned. "Our posters will show the real role the Leader of the Peoples played in the history of the war. They will show how many millions of lives could have been saved if it were not for his ignorant and criminal prewar policy. We will try to place our posters in the most prominent places possible."

Plenty Of Fans

Stalin retains a reservoir of support in certain sectors of Russian society, including older citizens and die-hard Communists. War veterans were far from unanimous in their opposition to displaying the posters.

In St. Petersburg, where local authorities had not planned to display Stalin posters, some veterans' organizations said they planned to do so themselves. City officials in the Far East city of Vladivostok said they were planning to hang Stalin posters for Victory Day, in response to veterans' requests.

According to a public opinion poll conducted in December by the state-controlled agency VTsIOM, some 37 percent of Russians have "positive" feelings toward Stalin. The same December 2009 poll showed 54 percent of Russians rating Stalin's leadership skills either above average or very high, a slight drop from the 61 percent that he scored in a 2000 poll.

In 2008, Stalin was nearly voted the greatest Russian of all time in a television contest modeled on the BBC's "Great Britons" series. In the end, Stalin -- an ethnic Georgian -- placed third, just 5,500 votes behind Aleksandr Nevsky, a 13th-century prince who defeated German invaders and was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. (Pyotr Stolypin, the pre-revolutionary reformist prime minister, came in second.)

Vladimir Makarov, the chairman of advertising and information committee of the Moscow mayor's office, defended the city's initial decision to display the posters. He stressed that, like it or not, Stalin is a key part of the history of World War II.

"If a person was commander-in-chief during the war, then that information should be probably be conveyed to the people," Makarov said. "There are portraits of Stalin in the textbooks. His tomb is on Red Square. To erase him from the history of the Great Patriotic War would be just plain wrong."

The Kremlin, which is undergoing its own rethink about Stalin's legacy, kept largely silent during the controversy in Moscow.

During Vladimir Putin's presidency, the ruling elite had sought to use Stalinist symbolism as part of an emerging ruling ideology. Stalin was lauded on state television for leading the country in World War II and school textbooks downplayed the repressive aspects of his rule.

The trend was spearheaded by Vladimir Surkov, the deputy Kremlin chief of staff and the regime's informal ideologist, but ran into fierce opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church.

No More 'Mr. Nice Guy'?

Analysts say that the Kremlin recently decided to back away from its tentative embrace of the Soviet dictator, and has shown other signs of willingness to contemplate less than glorious chapters in the country's wartime history.

Authorities, for example, allowed Russian television to air "Katyn," a film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda depicting the World War II-era massacre of thousands of Polish military officers on Stalin's orders. In March, Putin joined Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at a ceremony commemorating the officers, a tacit admission of Kremlin responsibility for the mass executions.

This week -- in the wake of the early April air crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other top Polish officials en route to a 70th-anniversary Katyn commemoration -- Russia opened secret files on the Katyn massacre to the public for the first time.

But the Kremlin's changing view of Russia's World War II history seems increasingly at odds with that of Moscow Mayor Luzhkov. Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal "Russia In Global Affairs," said that in proposing to display the posters, the Moscow mayor was seeking to "advance his own political goals and was not getting any support for this from the Kremlin."

Lukyanov added that "attempts by the authorities to use World War II and the Soviet past for internal political goals have proven to be ineffective" and that the Kremlin has decided to abandon the practice.

"The authorities understand that the potential to use these ideological concepts has been exhausted and that will not lead to anything positive," Lukyanov said. "Instead of consolidation we got an endless return to these fruitless and tortuous arguments over Stalin and the Soviet Union."

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Salome Asatiani and RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Kristina Gorelik contributed to this report

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