Russians debate the future of old monuments to the leader and their meaning for the present.
The organizers of the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, which marked the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, sparked a controversy earlier in the year when they announced that posters of Stalin would be put up in Moscow for the big day. Human-rights advocates were outraged, as were many politicians and journalists. Protest rallies were threatened, and the Memorial historical society promised to distribute alternative posters dedicated to the millions killed in Stalin’s concentration camps. The organizing committee was not deterred.
Many older Russians still revere Stalin as the Soviet Union’s great wartime leader. Monuments to him are regularly proposed—and just as regularly opposed by liberals.
There was, for example, the controversy over the Kurskaya metro station, which reopened in 2008 after restoration. Its ornate vestibule, returned to the splendor of past years, was adorned with these lines from the Soviet anthem: “Stalin our Leader with faith in the people / Inspired us to build up the land that we love.”
The inscription had disappeared from the station, together with a statue of Stalin, in 1956, after Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes. The statue couldn’t be found, according to metro officials, so its niche remained empty. But the words alone were enough to provoke an outcry. Even the conservative Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, expressed his disapproval.
Many of those who support the restoration of Stalin’s monuments say that they merely believe in an objective approach to history. In the midst of the uproar over the station, Alexander Kuzmin, chief architect of Moscow, insisted that the statue of Stalin be returned to the vestibule. “If we start restoration, we have to restore everything as it was created by the artists,” he said.
“I am not a Stalinist,” Kuzmin stated, “but I respect the creativity of those people who worked before me.”
The statue was not returned to the station. The inscription remained, but Dmitri Gaev, director of the Moscow metro, ordered that the words about Stalin’s inspirational role be neutralized by the addition of one more verse from the anthem, this one about Lenin: “Through days dark and stormy where Great Lenin led us / Our eyes saw the bright sun of freedom above.”
Less controversy accompanied the return, last December, of one of Moscow’s most famous monuments of Stalinist art, Vera Mukhina’s 82-foot-high Worker and Collective-Farm Woman, after a six-year restoration. The stainless-steel figures stride forward on a new pedestal, 113 feet high, that is vaguely reminiscent of the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition, for which the sculpture was created.
The idea of crowning the pavilion with a gigantic sculpture belonged to Boris Iofan, the most powerful Soviet architect of the period. Iofan also claimed credit for the subject, but he may have picked up the idea from the German Dada artist John Heartfield, who had used an image of a worker with a hammer and a peasant woman with a sickle in a photomontage poster.
The Soviet Pavilion stood near the Pont d’Iéna on the right bank of the Seine, facing the German Pavilion across the Place de Varsovie (Warsaw). This was cruelly ironic, since just two years later, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia would attack and dismember Poland.
The German Pavilion was designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, who boasted in his memoirs that he had seen the secret plans for the Soviet Pavilion. Thus he knew its height and, at the last minute, could make the German building higher by ten meters—about 33 feet. Nevertheless the composition of the Soviet Pavilion, with Mukhina’s dynamic figures complementing Iofan’s structure, was considered superior to Speer’s static vertical topped by an eagle and a swastika. The jury awarded gold medals to both pavilions.
Mukhina’s sculpture was a sensation, eclipsing the other monumental pieces made for the exposition, including Genius of Fascism by Georges Gori, produced for the Italian Pavilion, and Comradeship by the German Josef Thorak. The heroic worker and peasant seeming to soar into the future instantly became the symbol of Stalin’s USSR.
When the exposition ended, the sculpture was returned to Moscow and, in 1939, it was installed near the entrance to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, a showcase of Soviet agricultural progress. But its pedestal—slightly under 33 feet—was too low, so the heroic pair who had dominated the Paris cityscape were no longer as commanding. There they remained, slowly deteriorating, through the end of the Soviet Union, until 2003, when they were taken down for restoration.
The new pedestal elevates the sculpture to its original height. However, Russian critics have pointed out that it is “in the style of” Iofan’s structure, not an exact copy, and have questioned the extremely high price of $98 million for the entire project. Not surprisingly, Mayor Luzhkov entrusted the work to a division of the construction company owned by his wife, Elena Baturina, the richest woman in Russia. A Moscow journalist commented ironically that if the worker figure were furnished with a cloth cap—Luzhkov’s trademark—Mukhina’s creation would be the perfect monument to the mayor and his spouse.
The sculpture’s resurrection prompted discussion about the possible reconstruction of the monument to Feliks Dzerzhinsky, head of Lenin’s secret police, which stood in front of KGB headquarters on Lubyanka (previously Dzerzhinsky) Square from 1958 until August 1991, when it was toppled by angry crowds after the abortive coup against Gorbachev, as millions watched on television all over the world.
But the mood of the country has changed. Since 2003, various parties in the Russian parliament, along with the KGB veterans union, have been demanding the return of “Iron Feliks” to his former glory. Considering the current Russian leadership’s passion for the “objective approach to history,” it is not impossible that the former chief of secret police will one day regain his pedestal.
Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews.