NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia -- For more than a decade, a determined group of locals in Russia's third-largest city has pushed to install a monument to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin without success.
But in April 2014, Novosibirsk unexpectedly elected a communist mayor, Anatoly Lokot, and since then the Stalin advocates have seen an opportunity finally to get their way. They stepped up their campaign, and now it appears to be zeroing in on success.
"Considering the indisputable services performed by Josef Stalin in organizing the victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War, we propose creating a monument to Generalissimo Stalin in a historically significant part of the city, next to the House of Officers," Aleksei Denisyuk, head of the monument's initiative group, told RFE/RL. "We demand the restoration of historical justice."
Denisyuk's group has raised 450,000 rubles ($6,800) for the project and has already created the bust for the monument.
Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in March 1953. Through his policies of forced collectivization and industrialization, mass deportations, and political repressions, he was responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions of Soviet citizens. Descendants of many of those exiled under Stalin still populate Siberia and the Far East.
Late last month, the Novosibirsk mayor's office published the results of a "public discussion" period for the proposal.
According to the protocol, the office received 243 comments on the proposal, 155 of which were in favor and 85 opposed. However, 97 of the letters in support of installing the monument and placing it in front of the House of Officers, the mayor's office noted, featured "identical texts."
The summary of the arguments of those in favor also mentions the "indisputable services" of the dictator and the "restoration of justice."
The summary of the 85 messages opposing the monument says they "did not agree with the political decisions of Stalin" and that "in their opinion" he was a tyrant and an executioner. "Some of the participants in the discussion who opposed the installation, are the relatives of citizens illegally repressed during Stalin's reign," the memo notes.
One of those relatives was local marketing specialist Andrei Pozdnyakov. His great-grandfather was arrested and disappeared in a labor camp; he was posthumously rehabilitated in 1961. One of his great-grandfather's sons was also arrested. He spent the war in a punishment battalion. Although he miraculously survived the war, he was sent into internal exile in the settlement of Narym in Tomsk Oblast. Ironically, Stalin himself had been exiled to Narym under the last tsar.
"I honestly consider all supporters of comrade Stalin to be the same sort of animal and bastard as he was himself," Pozdnyakov wrote on Facebook. "And if a monument is erected in Novosibirsk, I will deface it for as long as I am able.... I don't care about any criminal or administrative laws."
Pozdnyakov has launched a petition on Change.org opposing the monument that has garnered more than 5,000 signatures.
The city administration has now called for a mail-in public vote to select among the three possible sites approved by a municipal planning commission: the one in front of the House of Officers and two on the outskirts of the city. The proposed ballot does not include the option of voting against the monument entirely, which opponents say indicates that the city government has green-lighted the idea.
'Controversial Role In History'
On November 3, however, pro-Stalin activist Denisyuk posted a statement from the Central Military District of the Defense Ministry, which owns the House of Officers, that asserted the ministry does not consider it possible to erect the monument at the proposed site.
"We believe that, in making any decision about memorializing the memory of Josef Stalin, his controversial role in the history of the country, which has still not been resolved, must be taken into consideration," the statement said.
It is not immediately clear how the Defense Ministry's position will affect the campaign to erect the monument, but members of the group unanimously noted in comments to the post that they are undeterred.
Novosibirsk Mayor Lokot has said he personally "is positively disposed toward the activity of this leader of the party and the state and the country's commander in chief." However, he insists that the opinion poll on where to place the bust is being conducted at the demand of the public.
"As the citizens of Novosibirsk decide, so it will be," Lokot told RFE/RL. "If necessary, we'll discuss it another 10 years."
Local activist Timur Khanov said the proposed opinion poll is illegal and cannot give a useful result.
"The people participating are not identified and there is no defense against manipulation," he said. "There is no mechanism for citizens to control that their letter doesn't get lost or misprocessed. One person -- who might not even live in Novosibirsk -- could send hundreds of letters under various names."
He has written to the mayor and asked that the discussion of where to place the monument be canceled and a poll conducted on whether to erect such a monument at all.
'Desecration Of The Memory Of Victims'
On October 30, opponents of the Stalin bust held a rally near the city's monument to victims of political repression. Although the demonstration was approved for up to 200 people, only about 30 showed up.
"The very idea of a monument to Stalin is a desecration of the memory of the victims of state terror and of the people whose fates were crippled by illegal arrests, years of imprisonment, and exile," Aleksandr Rudnitsky, director of the Novosibirsk branch of the Memorial human rights group, told the gathering.
"We must not erect in Novosibirsk monuments that insult human dignity and public morality," he added. "Thousands of people live here who are officially recognized as victims of political repression and there are many, many more who -- although they don't officially have such status -- remember the deaths and senseless suffering of their relations."
The Novosibirsk city planning commission is scheduled to make a decision on placing the Stalin monument at its meeting on November 9.