Artists take on the new cult of Stalin

Attempts in Russian society to rehabilitate the despotic leader have provoked rebellion. Shaun Walker reports from Moscow

"Not a step back!" shouts the poster's caption, echoing the famous wartime cry of Joseph Stalin. But the image alongside the text in block capitals is not a patriotic depiction of the Soviet war effort, instead it's a downtrodden prisoner struggling under the weight of a statue of Stalin.

The poster is one of many anti-Stalin artworks that make up an exhibition that opened in Moscow this week aimed at commemorating the dictator's purges, and hitting back at what the organisers say is a rehabilitation of the despot in Russian society.

The exhibition is part of a campaign organised by Snob, a magazine and internet site aimed at Russia's business and cultural elite, to raise awareness among Russians about Stalin's crimes. It abandons the ambivalent language of much official Russian discourse surrounding the Stalin period, and paints the dictator as an unequivocal villain. At the launch of the exhibition, 75 years to the day since a decree was signed establishing the "troikas" that were one of the key elements in Stalin's purges, people who lost relatives in the repression wore white ribbons bearing the names of the dead.

The troikas were three-man tribunals with powers to sentence those accused of crimes to lengthy imprisonments, or more often death by shooting. The use of the troika peaked in 1937, the most ruthless year of Stalin's purges, when it is estimated that well over half a million people were killed, most of them with a bullet to the head.

The exhibition was prompted by a renewed pride in Stalin among Russians, which many say has been fostered by Russian authorities. Two years ago, the dictator came third in a television poll to name the greatest Russian of all time, and this year the Moscow mayoralty planned to display portraits of Stalin across the city as part of a celebration of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. The decision was rescinded only at the last minute.

"Five years ago, we thought this was all in the past," said Marat Guelman, who runs the gallery where the exhibition took place. "People who loved Stalin were just a few weirdos who hung out on the internet – like paedophiles, or cult members. But over the past five years there has been a strange mutation in society, and suddenly Stalin has become a symbol." He said it was important that Russians who know the truth about Stalin don't remain quiet, and begin to educate the masses.

Others praised the sentiment but doubted that it would help significantly. "I'm not sure how much of a difference this will make," said Andrei Bilzho, a well-known Russian satirist and cartoonist, who had a series of Stalin-themed cartoons on display as part of the exhibition. Both of his grandfathers were killed during the Stalinist repressions. "In many ways, this is by people and for people who already understand everything about Stalin. It won't make much of a difference to those who still respect him. What we need is for the political leaders to come out and say with 100 per cent certainty that Stalin was evil. That would help people change their minds."

Part of the problem is that Russia has never come to terms with the dark chapters in its past in the same way Germany has. There have never been proper trials of those accused of crimes, nor has there been any serious attempt at reconciliation.

Even the organisers of the exhibition doubt that Russia could set up a tribunal to attribute blame for those behind the crimes of the Stalin era – after all, the boundaries are blurred, and the purges were so vicious that many of those responsible for repression were later accused and shot themselves. But there is a sense among the Russian intelligentsia that a more unequivocal stance needs to be taken by the country's political leaders in regard to the personality of Stalin.

Vladimir Putin, previously the President and currently Prime Minister, has never directly endorsed Stalin as a positive figure in Russian history. But on several occasions he has displayed an ambivalent attitude to the dictator, saying that nobody should make Russians feel guilty for their history. While he was President, an infamous school textbook referring to Stalin as an "effective manager" was released. Mr Putin has made the Soviet effort in the Second World War one of the key building blocks of a new national pride. Victory Day on 9 May has become one of Russia's most important national holidays. "We won the Great Patriotic War," said Mr Putin last year. "Even if we look back at the casualties, you know that no one can throw a stone at those who organised and led that victory, because if we had lost that war, the aftermath would have been much more catastrophic."

Many descendants of those who died in the purges came to the exhibition as a mark of respect to their lost relatives. "My mother became an orphan at the age of three and a half," said Alexey Nikolov, the deputy editor-in-chief of Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed television channel. "My grandfather was one of the top cultural officials in Leningrad and was accused of sabotage in 1937. I requested the files from the archives – it was awful. He denied all the charges, and then in later questioning, obviously after being tortured, he admitted he was guilty. The signature on the confession is written in a trembling hand."

Mr Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has been far more forthright about Stalin's crimes. In an interview he condemned the period, but said it was natural that some people still respected the leader and that "everyone has the right to their own opinion" about Stalin.

"When people say they love Stalin, they don't really mean it," said Mr Guelman. "What they mean is that they are unhappy now. They don't like capitalism. They don't like the fact that there are a few rich people in Russia while they are poor. And hankering for Stalin is a convenient way to voice this."

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

SCO Supervisor Electrical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices