The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
February 21, 2003
Stalin exhibition feeds on revived personality cult
Ben Aris in Moscow reports on the hankering for certainty
Ignored by the state but not forgotten by the people, Stalin is the subject of an exhibition that has opened at a Moscow museum to celebrate next month's 50th anniversary of the dictator's death.
Playing on the growing nostalgia for the dictator, the exhibition - Stalin: Man and Symbol - covers two rooms in the Museum of Russian Contemporary History, formerly the Moscow Museum of the Revolution.
They are filled with photographs, letters and gifts presented to him by workers and foreign dignitaries.
Yesterday a small group of middle-aged visitors shuffled past the cases containing books and pipes that once belonged to Stalin. A huge urn with Stalin's portrait on one side, a gift from the people of China, stands by the wall. A war veteran in a drab suit sporting his military ribbons bent over to peer more closely at a book containing hundreds of poems dedicated to the reclusive Soviet leader. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for more than three decades until his death on March 5, 1953. Tens of millions died in famines, purges or the Siberian gulags, but the effect of his propaganda and a hankering for the certainties of communism have fuelled nostalgia for the strong man of Soviet politics.
The walls of the museum are covered with the stark colours of propaganda posters of Stalin. In one he stands at the helm of a ship with USSR written on the wheel. In another his face dominates a cityscape that highlights Moscow's seven huge "wedding cake" skyscrapers, which he ordered built during his rule.
The entire end of the main room is stacked with garish china protected behind a glass wall. Everything bears either Stalin's name or his face.
The Bolsheviks made heavy use of propaganda, but Stalin took it to new heights with a personality cult that still influences politics today. In his last state-of-the-nation speech, President Vladimir Putin paraphrased several Stalin era slogans to strike a common chord with average Russians.
The museum's curator has dug out Stalin memorabilia from its rich archives. Many of the items on display have not seen the light of day since Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin after his death and exploded the personality cult by ordering investigations into the mass executions.
Tatiyana Kurmanovkaya, who organised the exhibition, said: "Russians have an ambiguous relationship to Stalin and he is not easy to judge. There was repression and the dark history of those times but his propaganda is still alive in the minds of people today."
The exhibition contains items not seen since major shows in 1939 and 1949 to celebrate Stalin's 60th and 70th birthdays. One case contains a collection of dolls dressed as labourers presented to Stalin on his 70th birthday by the workers of the Kosyakov factory. The dolls carry a red banner that reads: "Thank you, Stalin, for our happy childhood."
Despite Mr Putin's rhetorical nods to his predecessor, the Russian government is struggling to ignore its Soviet past completely and there are no official celebrations planned for the anniversary of Stalin's death.
But the Stalin cult is alive and strong. Many of those - now pensioners - who grew up under his rule always mark the anniversary of his death, gathering on Red Square and displaying flags and banners calling for a return to communism.
During the parliamentary elections in December 1999 a new Stalinist Bloc for the USSR was set up to contest for seats in the Duma. The dictator's face appeared on posters and banners all over the capital - weakly echoing those that bedecked the city in his heyday - and the party came within a whisker of the five per cent threshold needed to hold seats in the lower house.
Human rights groups are alarmed by a revival in Stalin's popularity - expected to reach a peak next week - blaming it on the lack of civil rights, corrupt officials and the government's indifference to ordinary people.
Ms Kurmanovkaya worries that the personality cult growing up around Mr Putin is a repeat of Stalin's.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a poster of Stalin and the words: "It must not be repeated."
The display organiser said: "The exhibition is supposed to show how far propaganda can carry people in the praise of one person.
"We have a similar situation in our country today and we hope that it won't end in the same way."