On the night of August 4-5, 1943, an event happened that would indelibly mark the history of the Russian village of Khoroshevo, in Tver Oblast near the city of Rzhev.
An old, unmarked train pulled into the station and Generalissimo Josef Stalin appeared on the platform. He was whisked off to an ordinary wooden house in the village, where he spent the night in a Spartan room, in a bed placed near a window overlooking the Volga River. It was the closest Stalin came to visiting the front during the Great Patriotic War.
Rzhev, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war between January 1942 and March 1943, had been liberated from German occupation some five months previously.
The next morning, Stalin walked around the garden, received reports about Soviet victories in Oryol and Belgorod, more than 600 kilometers away. He made the command decision to celebrate the victories with an artillery salute in Moscow, got back into his train, and returned to the Kremlin.
Now, the Russian Military-Historical Society, which is headed by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the Communist Party of Russia (KPRF), and the local administration of the Rzhev district plan to open Russia's first Stalin Museum in the little wooden house where the dictator passed that single night. The exhibition is scheduled to be open to visitors in time for the May 9 celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day.
"It will be a full-fledged exhibition devoted to the supreme military commander," said Artem Goncharov, an official with the Tver Oblast branch of the Communist Party, in a statement posted on the KPRF website.
'Symbol Of Soviet Success'
But "full-fledged" does not mean "warts and all." The museum's proposed 14 exhibits will cover topics such as "Stalin's role in the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church," "Stalin's contribution to victory," and "Stalin's role in evacuating Soviet industry." The final exhibition will be titled "Stalin As The Symbol Of Soviet Successes And Victories."
Nothing will be said about the Great Terror, the Gulag, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin's years of collaboration with Hitler, and other less-flattering topics.
"When we read the plan for the museum, we were very upset," says Sergei Gluzhkov, a member of the Tver branch of Memorial, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to studying and commemorating Stalin's Terror. "We decided that such a museum now is absolutely inappropriate and impossible, a museum distorting history and celebrating evil."
Stalin has undergone a steady rehabilitation in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who has personally praised Stalin as an "effective manager." Russians on both the far left and the far right of the political spectrum regularly demonstrate holding Stalin's portraits, and his busts are for sale in stores around the country, often side-by-side with busts of Putin.
A recent Levada Center poll found the highest percentage of Russians in the post-Soviet period -- 57 percent -- saying they had a positive view of Stalin's role in Russian history.
It is an ominous development, says Memorial's Glushkov.
"This is a very dangerous moment because the figure of Stalin today provokes very different responses," Glushkov says, adding that opening the museum is "an inflammatory step" that is "dividing society."
"People might simply begin attacking one another," he says. We must act very carefully. Of course, we do not want to provoke any conflict or push the supporters and opponents of Stalin to begin attacking each other. I have the impression that that is exactly what someone wants, that this is a provocation."
Russian journalist and analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote similarly in recent column for Gazeta.ru.
"As the 70th anniversary of victory approaches, they are going to promote Stalin, Stalinism and the social policies associated with him as much as they can. And those who come out against this will be declared falsifiers of history," he wrote. "Because the 70th anniversary of victory is becoming a sort of free pass for neo-Stalinists. They are privatizing the victory [in World War II]."
'An Insult To Their Memory'
The story of the house in Khoroshevo where Stalin stayed is instructive. In 1947, it was turned into a rural library named in honor of Stalin. Later a small exhibition devoted to Stalin and his visit to Khoroshevo was set up in part of the library. But the exhibition was closed down during Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign.
The building continued to be used as a library. In 2000, when Putin first took over as president, the exhibition dedicated to Stalin's visit was quietly set up again. Aleksandr Korzhakov, President Boris Yeltsin's chief of security, reportedly donated a tea service to the exhibition that had been used for Kremlin receptions during the Stalin era.
The new museum is slated to open its doors on May 9, as part of the Victory Day commemoration.
According to the statement on the Communist Party's website, "organizers plan to include the museum in the tourist programs for Tver Oblast."
According to the statement, about 80 percent of locals support the museum. Memorial's Glushkov is not so sure.
"Many people here in Tver view this with dissatisfaction, particularly those who remember relatives who were victims of the repressions," he says. "There are quite a lot of people who view a Stalin museum as a personal affront, as an insult to the memory of their loved ones, including in Rzhev."