In Siberia's hinterlands, some would vote for Stalin

Russians head to the polls Sunday to elect a new Duma.

Tamara Sazhina knew she was stirring up trouble when her "Committee to Study Stalinist Heritage" persuaded city chiefs in this western Siberian town to resurrect a bust of her hero, discovered buried underground.

Few symbols tap so deeply - or controversially - into Russian desires for a strong state and law and order, as that of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

"Should we clone Stalin?" coos Ms. Sazhina, a devoted pensioner, who has a small statue of Lenin on her desk, and a Stalin calendar on her wall. Never mind that some 20 million died during Stalin's systematic repressions. For Sazhina, three decades of the dictator's rule brought victory in World War II and transformed a land of peasants into the Soviet superpower.

"We witnessed all of it - I saw it with my own eyes," Sazhina says. "Even in wartime, prices went down and salaries went up...."

As Russians go to the polls Sunday to elect 450 deputies to the lower house of parliament, or Duma, the theme of authoritarianism has resonance.

There is little doubt that victory is assured for the "United Russia" party, which has the support of President Vladimir Putin. On the eve of the vote, Mr. Putin's approval ratings are soaring above 70 percent, though he is widely seen to be increasing his own firm grip on Russia.

But for some of the people of Ishim, about 1,250 miles southeast of Moscow, Putin's policy of "managed democracy," which includes a tighter leash on the media, may not be firm enough.

The view on Russia from Moscow may be one of a surging economy and progress. But out in impoverished provinces like these, conditions can be dire enough to prompt worship of one of the bloodiest figures of the 20th century.

"Stalin led us from one victory to another," says Erdinya Dogdaev, a decorated World War II veteran who survived major battles at Stalingrad and Kursk and is Sazhina's husband. "Putin is leading us to the collapse of Russia."

Riding those sentiments is Victor Rein, the Ishim city administrator for the last 13 years, who is running for a Duma seat. He brokered a compromise that will incorporate the three-foot-high Stalin bust into part of a refurbished square to honor the war effort.

"If it were a proper monument, victims of the repression might have protested, but it's only a bust," says Mr. Rein, whose city office plies visitors with leaflets about his candidacy. "This small category of people really want this strong hand - they would take stones into their hands to restore Soviet power.

"Everyone knows we can't turn the clock back," adds Rein. "There should be a strong leader, and he can exist, but in a normal, democratic state. What we mean by a 'strong hand' is order in the country and laws."

But local Stalinists would prefer to look back. They want to officially mark the centenary of Stalin's alleged sojourn in this town by placing a plaque on the cell door of the town jail, where local lore has it that the future strongman was locked up by tsarist police on his way to exile in 1903.

But Nadezhda Proskuryakova, a researcher at Ishim's local history museum for 11 years, has made it her business to try to debunk local views of Stalin as hero.

"We were born in a different country. We studied in a different country, and now we must live in different conditions," she says. Locals must wake up to the facts of Stalinist repression - including deep-pit mass graves in the countryside near here, Ms. Proskuryakova says.

Like many in Ishim, she was offended that the Stalin bust was unveiled on Oct. 29, the day before the annual Day of Mourning for Victims of Political Repression, when descendants of the dead gather by the mass graves.

But while Proskuryakova disagrees vehemently with the Stalinists, she says she plans to vote communist in the coming election.

Putin's leadership has been a disaster, she says, and the communists are the only party with the interests of the Russian people at heart.

"What's happening is a kind of genocide of the nation," Proskuryakova says. "Young people are getting drunk, and not getting educated. The culture of the nation is being destroyed. Everyone is shocked that the oligarchs got everything for free, and the money of our nation goes abroad."

Also distressed at both the country's direction and the nostalgia for Stalinist times, are the broadcasters of local Red Army radio, an independent and alternative station with an office in the basement of the former prison - just a couple of steps from Stalin's purported cell door.

"Everyone knows that under Stalin there was order, a strong country, a strong army, lower prices, jobs, free education - and the gulag," says Mikhail Zuykov, a program director. "We don't want this kind of order," adds Irina Logunova, commercial director of the station.

But in Russia's neglected provinces, today's crumbling infrastructure, unemployment, and increasing poverty contrast sharply with a rosy view of the past, when, for many, the USSR's grimmer aspects were offset by predictability, patriotism, and a greater sense of equality.

Today, says Mr. Zuykov: "The authorities are rich. People are poor. People have eyes. And people remember the 'good old times,' and remember them with hope."

The bust of Stalin was dug up by chance in 1999, in a local garden where it had been hidden after Krushchev put an end to the personality cult of Stalin.

"[Russians] worship people with authority, if they use that authority wisely," says Mary Chernjawski, an American who runs a Russian Orthodox convent in Ishim, and has lived here eight years. Members of her aristocratic family were forced to leave or killed during the Bolshevik revolution.

"Stalin was very different in the war from the Stalin [of the repressions] - he played on people's patriotism," she says. "The people who put up the statue are survivors of the war, and he means something different to them. Over time, Stalin's crimes are shunted to the background."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.