Restoring Stalin

The House on the Embankment

Seventy years after his death, the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin was unexpected. Yet however you analyse it, when a government spends decades glorifying a genocidal dictator and only later admits their crimes, we shouldn’t be surprised by a comeback.

Father of the nation. Stalin Museum, Tbilisi.

In light of growing nostalgia for the Soviet era in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s deployment of the Stalin playbook makes sense.

I first understood how memory could be manipulated when the Russian human rights NGO Memorial was founded during Gorbachev’s glasnost period.

It was the first time Stalin’s crimes against the population had been publicly acknowledged.

Memorial caused a stir and inspired a lot of optimism. It was a sign that the USSR was finally coming to terms with its past, and the people who had been erased under Stalin’s reign of terror could, at last, be remembered.

Almost immediately, little old ladies rallied to defend the former leader: Stalin was a good man; he defeated the Nazis and saved the country from fascism. He was the father of the nation.

At first, I was astounded by their impassioned defence. But then the penny dropped.

As survivors, and perhaps even beneficiaries of Stalin’s regime, to disavow him and his misdeeds would have been to admit that their whole life had been a lie.

And so, they defended the good old days and held onto the myth that Uncle Joe had been the nation’s saviour.

Hence, the Kremlin’s closure of Memorial, just as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine.

Not long after the NGO was founded, a museum opened in a famous apartment block on the river Moskva, just across from the Kremlin.

The House on the Embankment was built in 1931 to house senior officials, members of the intelligentsia and their families. A huge, constructivist complex, it contained spacious luxury apartments, a food store, a communal dining room, a club and a cinema.

During the ensuing years, its residents systematically ‘disappeared’ as they fell out of favour or came under suspicion.

The museum was established to remember 800 of its residents who were executed, sent into exile, to orphanages, committed suicide, or died under investigation, as well as those killed in WWII. In 2017 it became part of the GULAG History Museum.

The House on the Embankment takes its name from a short novel which was published in 1976, by Yuri Trifonov. Its story is inspired by his experience of living in the infamous house from 1931-1937 until his parents were arrested and he was taken to live with his grandmother.

Trifonov’s father was shot, and his mother was sent to a camp. She survived and was released and rehabilitated in 1955. His widow, Olga Trifonova, author of The Only Wife of Stalin, became the museum’s director.

Another notable cultural reference is the 1994 award-winning film by director Nikita Mikhalkov. Set in 1936, Burnt by the Sun tells the story of a Red Army colonel and his family whose idyllic life is shattered when his past and proximity to Stalin catch up with him.

Its opening scene is set in the House on the Embankment and chillingly recreates the climate of fear of those years.

I also have a personal reason to remember the House on the Embankment: I worked out of its newly converted offices from 1996-1999. There was an enthusiasm for breathing new life into the legacy structures of the Soviet Union. We felt in good company.

ELLE magazine had taken up occupancy just across the corridor. We occasionally ate in the wood-panelled dining room overlooking the river, with red velvet furnishings and inedible food. Black coffee and sugar were always available, however, and so we drank in the atmosphere.

If you want to continue a cultural retrospective into Stalinist Russia, the New Tretyakov Gallery is just a little further along the embankment. In the adjacent park, toppled statues of former Soviet heroes lay in the grass, seemingly abandoned. Consigned to history, or so we thought.

If you looked up, there were towering Stalin-era ‘wedding cake’ skyscrapers that punctuated the Moscow skyline. And below ground, everywhere in the metro, art and architecture from the thirties. Joseph Stalin’s legacy was everywhere.

A decade after I left Russia, I happened upon one of Putin’s national rallies, live-streamed on TV.

I was shocked to see the old figures of Soviet Russia given a platform: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the arch-populist and firebrand parliamentarian who once dragged a female MP by her hair; Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party that had been briefly outlawed in the 1990s, and who we all assumed would fade into irrelevance.

I hadn’t expected them to be alive, never mind spouting nationalist nonsense at the invitation of the post-Soviet Russian president. Zhirinovsky subsequently died from Covid-19 in April 2022.

There were also some more surprising supporters: the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, once sidelined in Soviet times, now giving their blessing to Vladimir Putin in a quest to revive the patriarchy of Russia. They set alarm bells ringing.

“Have you seen this?” I asked my husband. “Listen to what they are saying.” It was like going back in time to witness those rabble-rousers being given a platform again. It was dangerous and could only lead to division.

But we had left the Russian world behind us and so paid only fleeting attention.

My next encounter with Stalin was in Brussels, in the European House of History, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

An exhibit of Stalin memorabilia caught my eye, evoking the archetypical symbols of those years. Another cabinet displaying symbols of fascism also held my gaze. I hadn’t realised there were so many. Now the letter Z should be added.

So how has Putin achieved the trick of rehabilitating Stalin after those years?

By banning organisations dedicated to historical truth and remembrance, categorising anyone with links abroad as a foreign agent, returning to the statute books legislation reminiscent of the purges, and invoking the threat of Nazis and the sacrifice of Soviet citizens in WWII.

It’s not difficult to understand when you think that Russians have always revered strong leaders. From Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin and now Vladimir Putin, it’s about respect for power.

One of the most striking images of Tsarist Russia is a painting by Ilya Repin of Ivan the Terrible, bloody and wild-eyed, despairingly cradling his dying son who he himself attacked. It speaks to the shocking consequences of being prepared to use absolute force to assert personal authority.

This image came to mind when Putin’s ultranationalist advisor, Alexander Dugin, looked on in similar horror at his daughter’s body, thrown from his car by a bomb blast intended for him.

Seventy years from now, what will Putin’s legacy be? Will he be revered as the powerful leader who battled Nazis and restored order in a post-Soviet empire?

Or will he go down in history as an international war criminal responsible for a new world order that left hundreds of thousands dead?

The jury is out.

Photograph courtesy of Marc Cooper. Published under a Creative Commons license.