Don’t Speak, Memory

How Russia Represses Its Past

Sorry not sorry: Putin at the Wall of Grief, Moscow, October 2017. SPUTNIK PHOTO AGENCY / REUTERS

Every spring, buses covered in portraits of Joseph Stalin appear on the streets of Russian cities. His face replaces ads for cell phones, soft drinks, laundry detergent, and cat food. With each passing year, the dictator gets more handsome and more glamorous; a portrait of him in his gorgeous white generalissimo’s jacket has become especially popular. He casts his stern gaze on the citizens, as if to say, “Remember me? I’m here, I didn’t go anywhere—and don’t you forget it!” 

The ads aim to remind the country of the dictator’s role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. For those who would rehabilitate Stalin, that victory is their final argument, their last chance to drag the tyrant out of oblivion and put him back on his pedestal. They use it to make excuses for the dictator, to wash his hands of the blood he shed, and to recast him as the savior of the motherland during the hardship of the war years. The victory, in this version of history, legitimizes and justifies the entire repressive Soviet regime.

In the eyes of the Stalinists, admiration for the tyrant ought to be public and compulsory. That’s why they’ve chosen such an assertive way to inject the dictator into public space. Many want to go even further. There’s talk of erecting monuments to Stalin. There are annual calls to restore the city of Volgograd’s Soviet-era name: Stalingrad. Newly published histories in Moscow’s bookstores perpetuate the mythologized image of Stalin as a strict but fair ruler. Their titles—The Other Stalin, Stalin the Great, Stalin: Father of a Nation—say it all. There is even a new popular literature attempting to justify the actions of Viktor Abakumov, Lavrenty Beria, and other odious leaders of Stalin’s secret police. The monsters of Stalin’s era are coming back from the dead. And some of Russia’s leaders, including President

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