On a recent Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, a dozen people, mostly elderly, gathered in front of an elegant apartment building on a sun-dappled street in central Moscow.
Ksenia Polunina stepped up to remember her father Sergei Polunin, a scientist who was hauled from the building, her childhood home, on a February night in 1938 — and then shot by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police.
“I was seven years old. Everybody thought that I was sleeping, but I heard everything,” Polunina told the small crowd. “He came to my bed, made the sign of the cross and kissed me. I pretended that I was asleep.”
Polunina leaned on her cane and squinted, as if she were living that terrible night all over again. Two months after her father’s arrest, the Communist secret police — then known as the NKVD — returned to the building to arrest and later execute Vladimir Lyubarsky, a microbiologist, and Kronid Milov, himself an NKVD officer.
The three neighbors had become victims of what Russians call “the Great Terror” of the late 1930s, when Stalin purged the ranks of the Soviet elite in a bid to wipe out his enemies, real and imagined. Over his three decades at the helm of the Soviet Union, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens.
Now, more than half a century after his death, many Russians look up to Stalin as the leader who defeated Nazi Germany and transformed a backward nation into a nuclear superpower. In the 20 years that he has been in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II into a celebration of national pride, raising Stalin’s stature at the same time. On the Victory Day holiday in May, the Communist Party erected a bust of Stalin in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
A civic initiative called Posledny Adres or “Last Address” is doing its part to defend the memory of the voiceless victims of Stalin’s crimes. Supported by the human rights organization Memorial, it has put up more than 900 plaques on buildings across the former Soviet Union, memorializing those who were unjustly arrested and murdered by Stalin’s security services.
After the metal plate with her father’s name had been screwed into the wall next to the doorway of her childhood home, Polunina examined it with satisfaction. It is no bigger than the cover of a paperback book and states her father’s name, profession and dates of birth, arrest, execution — and rehabilitation following Stalin’s death.
“I’m very thankful that we’ve finally entered this building with this plaque,” she said. “I’m so happy, because it didn’t happen right away.”
Mikhail Sheynker, a researcher for Last Address, says not all of the building’s residents approved of the modest memorials.
“Some people were really puzzled and asked: ‘Why is this necessary, why stir up the past?'” says Sheynker. “They weren’t even categorically opposed, and in the end, they just said: ‘Whatever, I don’t care.'”
Sheynker, a literary critic, says most Russians are too preoccupied with their daily lives to spend much time delving into their country’s dark past. So the plaques serve as small but constant reminders of the horrors the Soviet authorities imposed on their own people, he says.
Putin, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, a successor organization of the NKVD, embodies his fellow citizens’ ambivalence toward Stalin. In 2017, Putin opened the “Wall of Grief,” an outdoor memorial to the victims of Stalinist repressions in downtown Moscow. But in a film by Oliver Stone that came out that same year, Putin appeared to defend the dictator.
“It seems to me that the excessive demonization of Stalin is one way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia — to show that Russia still bears the birthmarks of Stalinism,” Putin said in the film. “We all have some birthmarks, so what?”
Putin went on to say that Russia had changed completely since that time, which doesn’t mean that the horrors of Stalinism should be forgotten. He called Stalin a “complex” historical figure.
Russian attitudes toward Stalin have been changing since Putin came to power. In a poll published by the independent Levada Center, 70% of Russians said they believe Stalin played a positive role for the country, a record response since the question was first asked in 2003.
Lev Gudkov, a sociologist who heads the Levada Center, is not surprised.
“There’s been a quiet rehabilitation of Stalin on the part of the government,” he says.
Gudkov says that Putin has three goals in resurrecting Soviet glory: legitimizing his own regime as a continuation of the Russian Empire and Soviet superpower, discrediting liberal critics and Western values, and justifying his own authoritarian style of rule.
Official gestures toward Stalin’s victims, such as the Wall of Grief, are cynical attempts by the government to control both sides of the debate over Stalin’s legacy, Gudkov says.
A refurbished Moscow museum dedicated to the gulag, Stalin’s vast system of prison camps, is an admirable achievement, he says, but cannot alone change public opinion.
“The worst thing is that young people don’t know anything about the past,” Gudkov says. “That means that to a large extent, the Soviet worldview is being replicated.”
Roman Romanov, 36, the director of the state-financed Gulag History Museum, disagrees. He says history doesn’t repeat itself — and that his generation will be the first to call unequivocally what Stalin did to his own people a crime.
“The difficulty lies in the fact that we did this to ourselves,” says Romanov. “We are the accused and the prosecutors and the victims. The path to understanding takes years and generations.”
When Russians began openly discussing Stalinist repressions in the late 1980s, Romanov was just a boy. He says people his age and younger now have enough distance to take a clear-eyed view of the past — and that they are curious about what happened.
Most of the visitors to the museum’s modern but grim exhibition halls are young people, Romanov says. Further evidence he cites of young people’s interest in the subject is the success of a film on the gulag by journalist Yury Dud, which has had more than 15 million YouTube views since April.
The small memorial plates on buildings around Russia are also playing their part.
Sheynker of Last Address is not worried that Stalin is experiencing a lasting revival.
“He will leave our consciousness as something accidental, superficial and temporary,” he says.
People who glorify Stalin today are substituting him for something that’s missing in their lives, he says, and within 10 to 15 years the glorification of the Soviet dictator will vanish — along with the generation that still clings to him.