Yet on the eve of the parade, the atmosphere in St. Petersburg is far from cloudless. Since May 5, a bus adorned with an advertisement depicting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been traveling the city’s streets and stirring controversy.
The main initiator of the campaign is Viktor Loginov, who wrote on his LiveJournal blog that he was inspired by “jealousy toward Moscow,” as St. Petersburg is always “calm and boring.” Loginov has gathered more than 50,000 rubles ($1650) through social networking sites to pay for two weeks of commercial advertisement on a bus operated by the Network of Passenger Transports (SPP).
An earlier version of the image quoted Stalin as saying “I want to drink to the health of the Soviet people, and in particular the Russian people," but it was rejected by the operator.
The NGO Memorial, well known for its extensive investigations into Stalinist crimes (Loginov called the organization “hysterical” on his blog) sent a petition to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko to protest the ad. The St. Petersburg section of the liberal Yabloko party has also officially denounced the so-called Stalinobus. On May 5, two Yabloko activists defaced Stalin with grey paint, but supporters of the campaign managed to clean it up by the next day.
According to the Petersburg-based portal fontanka.ru, there is another intriguing dimension to this story. The Stalinobus operates on St. Petersburg’s main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt, where only noncommercial, unitary enterprise-run (basically state-run) bus companies are officially allowed to operate. None of the six legal transport companies wanted to have the Stalin ad on their bus, but SPP agreed as it “has nothing to lose,” according to fontanka.ru.
In 2005, the company was denied the right to carry passengers by the City Committee on Transport. A series of lawsuits between SPP, the city, and creditors followed, but quasi-bankrupt SPP kept transporting passengers in St. Petersburg with the knowledge of the City Committee. Officials told fontanka.ru all legal measures will be taken to remove the bus, but so far neither the City Committee on Transport nor the traffic police has a legal basis to do so.
But why has the city been unable to remove a bus line that lacks an official license? St. Petersburg is, after all, the city where the renowned European University was almost closed down because it allegedly did not fulfill fire safety laws. And in April, RFE/RL Russian Service commentator Viktor Shenderovich was nearly barred from appearing at a theater, which -- obviously fearing outspoken political statements -- announced it had to carry out “regular” inspections of the building shortly before the Sunday evening event. In both cases, public protests have prevented things from getting worse.
Polls show that the Russian nation is split over depictions of Stalin in public during the VE-Day holidays, and so apparently is the political leadership. Political will to prohibit public portrayals of Stalin is still weak, and officials keep sending conflicting signals.
Although Moscow initially banned posters of Stalin, City Hall today decided to allow them. And for the time being, Stalinobus is still cruising Nevsky Prospekt.
-- Fabian Burkhardt