Portrait of Stalin stirs mixed emotions among Russians

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Under a lowering sky, the visage of Joseph Stalin gazes down from the Byelorussian train station near the center of Moscow. The massive portrait -- part of the set for a 1940s-era film -- stirs decidedly mixed emotions from the onlookers below.

``He was a villain,'' says one white-haired man, old enough -- and fortunate enough -- to have survived the Stalin era.

``There's nothing special about it,'' says another older, heavy-set man in a beret. ``It's only a film. And besides, he was the leader of our state.''

Recommended: Chechnya: How a remote Russian republic became linked with terrorism

The public display of his portrait stands as one of the most vivid examples to date of how the Soviet Union, in 1985, is once again acknowledging Stalin's three-decade rule over this country.

The disparate comments from the Muscovites who see the portrait indicate that the country is still struggling to come to grips with Stalin's mixed legacy of wartime leadership and widespread terror, of admiration and fear.

At one time, such massive outdoor portraits of Stalin were almost as common as street lamps. For 31 years after he came to power in 1922, Stalin ruled by this country as a dictator, altering virtually every aspect of Soviet life.

His excesses -- secret arrests, forced relocations, and summary executions -- held this country in a grip of fear. Yet his iron will also helped engineer not only this country's victory in World War II, but also the rapid industrialization that transformed a backward nation into a front-rank economic power.

In 1956, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's ``violence, mass repression, and terror,'' his violations of ``all existing norms of morality.'' Stalin's embalmed body was later removed -- literally overnight -- from its resting place alongside Vladimir Lenin in a red granite mausoleum in Red Square. Stalin was expunged from most of the official history books, leaving a 30-year gap in the record.

It was perhaps inevitable that Soviet authorities would have to acknowledge Stalin during this year's 40th anniversary observances of the end of World War II.

Yet on May 9, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev mentioned Stalin's name during a Victory Day speech, he was forced to pause by sustained and enthusiastic applause.

That is testament to Stalin's impact on this society, even after years of attempts to deny it.

It is perhaps ironic that the making of a film named ``Testament'' required his portrait to be hung atop one entrance of the Byelorussian station. A large black-and-white photo of him stands on a sandwich board at another entrance.

An old ZIS truck stands in front of the station. (The initials are an acronym for the Stalin truck factory.) Scores of Red Army troops, dressed in World War II olive drab, mill about. Muscovites throng the site, and their gaze inevitably settles on the arresting image of the man they were supposed to forget.

``He was powerful,'' is the laconic comment of one man.

``He was worthless,'' inserts the white-haired man, the only one of a number of people questioned who is willing to criticize Stalin openly.

He says the real credit for the victory in World War II should have gone to Marshal Georgi Zhukov, deputy commander of Soviet forces. Indeed, Marshal Zhukov's role in the war has garnered far more official attention than Stalin's during this year's anniversary observances.

But clips of Stalin -- or actors impersonating him -- have appeared in a number of films and in various magazines and journals. They have had an undeniable impact, especially on younger generations.

Does 7-year-old Alyosha know the name of the man in the picture over the railway station?

``Stalin,'' he replies with a smile.

How has he learned that?

``From the films, from the books. About the great victory,'' says his father.

A middle-aged woman, upon hearing the white-haired man denounce Stalin, hastily assures his questioner that such excesses are part of the past. ``It's not like that now,'' she stresses.

But a collective memory dies hard. What does Alyosha's father think of Stalin?

Upon hearing the question, heads turn. People within earshot fall silent and fix their gaze upon him, awaiting his response. He stares woodenly at the questioner, uttering not a word.

Then he takes up his child's hand and says quietly, ``It's time to leave.'' With that, he quickly walks away.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...