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As museum prepares to open, Russians debate Stalin's legacy

VOLGOGRAD, Russia—May brings out some of Russia's best traditions—and one of its fiercest debates: the legacy of Josef Stalin.

Finally, the weather is warm enough to turn fountains back on, and the month starts with two popular holidays, Labor Day on May 1 and Victory Day on May 9, which celebrates the day in 1945 when Russians learned that Nazi Germany had surrendered.

But the ghost of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union to victory over the Nazis but whose three-decade rule cost millions of Russians their lives, always lurks to spoil the springtime mood.

All the more so this year in this city of 1.4 million, where the imminent opening of the Josef V. Stalin Museum has renewed the argument between those who glorify Stalin as a genius and those who detest him as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

The debate is especially bitter in this city, which as Stalingrad bore the dictator's name until in 1961, when Soviet officials renamed the city Volgograd.

Located on Mamayev Hill, the private museum is devoted to the Battle of Stalingrad, which broke the back of the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union. The battle lasted six months and cost, by local estimates, more than 3 million lives. Even now, human remains are sometimes found when ground is broken for a new building project.

The museum's exhibits will include a life-size wax figure of Stalin, who died in 1953, a replica of his Kremlin office, personal gifts he received, telegrams he wrote and documents he signed.

The front lobby features a stand for a bust of Stalin underneath one of his famous quotes: "I know that after my death, on my grave, a heap of garbage will be dumped. But the wind of history will mercilessly blow it away."

People who work with the museum's director, businessman Vasily Bukhtiyenko, said that he has postponed the opening several times, ostensibly because the exhibits aren't ready. But some think he's fiddling with dates to test public reaction and that he and his partners are nervous about being in the "business of bones."

Finding out the truth from Bukhtiyenko is difficult, however. He doesn't sit for interviews.

When approached at the cafe he owns, Bukhtiyenko, who also publishes a pro-government newspaper that promotes the museum, at first denied his identity. Then he scurried into the Stalin Museum's entrance after instructing a security guard not to let a Knight Ridder reporter inside. Later, he drove away in a Mercedes.

Bukhtiyenko's assistant said the museum is now scheduled to open on May 15.

Stalin's fans praise the Soviet supreme commander as a wartime genius who industrialized an illiterate peasant nation. Some, including veterans of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, say the museum is long overdue recognition.

"I think the museum will be excellent," said Vladimir Turov, 86, a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad. "One cannot diminish the role of Stalin in establishing the Soviet state and in winning the Great Patriotic War and in restoring the economy after the war."

As for the dark side of Stalin's record, Turov said emphatically: "He did not conduct mass repression. He got rid of those doing harm."

All of which is bunk to people such as Eduard Polyakov, the director of the Volgograd Regional Association of Victims of Political Repressions. "This museum is insulting the millions of people who died in camps and in exile," Polyakov said.

Polyakov, 70, said Stalin richly deserves his place in history as one of the world's great mass murderers, responsible for the millions of people who died in labor camps or were shot to death.

Polyakov's father, Ivan Alyokhin, was one of Stalin's victims. In 1937, shortly after Polyakov's birth, a government firing squad killed his father at age 28 as an "enemy of the people." It took decades for Polyakov, who adopted another surname in childhood to avoid reprisals, to learn of his father's fate.

In 1962, during the waning period of Nikita Khrushchev's rule, Polyakov obtained a government order that rehabilitated his father's reputation with a finding of "absence of crime."

Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, has so far documented 1.3 million murders under Stalin's regime; Polyakov believes that as many as 40 million people fell victim. Most estimates are closer to the lower figure.

"Everything was founded on terror," Polyakov said. "Everyone was under fear of being shot."

Polyakov sides with historians who say Stalin's wartime blunders inflicted millions of needless Soviet casualties. As for economic achievements, Polyakov said dismissively: "He built 500,000 factories with slave labor."

As the number of people who lived during World War II and Stalin's rule dwindles, the debate each year becomes more of a tug-of-war over the hearts and minds of Russia's younger generations. It's a battle with current relevance, as Russians debate President Vladimir Putin's commitment to democracy.

People who want Stalin condemned as a sadist have reason to be discouraged, said Svetlana Argastseva, the deputy director of Panorama, the city's riverfront museum to the Battle of Stalingrad. The municipal government museum is providing the Stalin Museum with some of its exhibits.

"Young people want to see Russia strong. They associate Stalin with the image of a strong Russia. Unfortunately, it is so," Argastseva said. "Stalin's was a totalitarian regime, and totalitarianism is in Russia all the time."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-STALIN

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