'The best master': New Stalin Center evokes pride, and revulsion among Russians

BOR, Russia - A few dozen people crowded around a new monument to Joseph Stalin in this provincial town in central Russia.
As the local television news cameras rolled in, admirers praised the late Soviet dictator, and the event's organizers laid concrete groundwork to mark the Stalin Center, a museum and educational center that had a positive view of the Gulag creator and the architect of mass repression Russia's mid 20th century.
“Stalin was the best master. He won the war and built the country out of ruins, "Aleksey Zorov, 44, a local businessman who sponsors the new center, which opened on May 8, told NBC News.
The public restoration of Stalin's image reflects the social and political tensions that have gripped Russia in recent months. For some, the memory of Stalin hints at an era of national greatness, and President Vladimir Putin has promoted Stalin's image to divert criticism of his own leadership as he grapples with falling approval rates, a sluggish economy, and allegations of corruption.
For others, however, Stalin is an era of fear and oppression that seems all too familiar in Russia today. Putin's government cracked down on pro-democracy protesters when thousands of people took to the streets to support imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Image: People watch the laying of the foundation stone in the foundations of the Stalin Center, Bor, Nizhny Novgorod (Anton Belousov / for NBC News)
Zorov was 18 when he joined the Communist Party, which is still strongly supported by local residents. The Stalin Center would remind state officials that "they must fight corruption at the top," he said.
Under Stalin's rule, approximately 1.7 million Soviet citizens were evicted from their homes and sent to forced labor camps. About 690,000 were executed. In recent years, however, statues have been erected across the country celebrating the man as a national hero who defeated the Nazis and oversaw an era of modernization.
Opinion polls by the Levada Center, an independent electoral organization based in Moscow, have shown that around 70 percent of Russians approve of Stalin and his policies.
This comes as a shock to some Russians.
"I've spent my life destroying Stalin's totalitarian system, which killed hundreds of thousands, the core of the Russian elite," said Valery Borshchev, a former Soviet dissident who is now a human rights activist with the Moscow Helsinki Group, a Russian human rights organization .
PICTURED: Children play on a tank in the Museum of Military Equipment, Bor, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (Anton Belousov / for NBC News)
In supporting Stalin's image as a hero of the Russian people, Borshchev said Putin, a veteran member of the KGB, the former Russian secret police and the secret service who served as the director of his successor agency, the FSB. is working to rehabilitate the KGB's image and dampen criticism of its own draconian crackdown on political disagreements.
“Putin is pragmatic. He knows Stalin was an executioner, but he needs him now to save his own political career, ”said Borshchev.
Such efforts go beyond Stalin. In Moscow, prosecutors recently declared that the dismantling of a monument to the Soviet chief of intelligence, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was illegal. The statue stood in front of the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square, but was demolished in 1991. Now it can be resuscitated where it once stood.
For Putin's opponents, such monuments symbolize an era of brutal oppression and mass surveillance the danger and state-sanctioned violence to which they are exposed today.
In the past few weeks police have ransacked the offices and homes of Navalny's supporters.
Four editors of a Moscow student newspaper, DOXA, are currently facing a prison sentence of up to three years for “inciting” minors into anti-government protests that broke out in more than 100 Russian cities last winter.
Some organizers of pro-navalny rallies have fled the country, while many who stayed in Russia are now being prosecuted.
Moscow prosecutors are also trying to disband the Navalny nongovernmental group under a law against extremism. And Navalny went on a three-week hunger strike in prison that brought him close to death, his personal doctor said.
In Bor, lawyer Oleg Rodin, 26, heads the Yabloko branch, the only liberal party registered in Russia. The current generation of political dissidents are having a hard time in the face of the raids, he said, and Stalin's rehabilitation has underscored the need for Putin's opponents to run for office themselves. Rodin said he plans to seek election to the Duma in September.
"The return of Stalinism is terrifying," he said. But most of the Stalinists are older, he said, and it is the younger generation who represent "Russia's future".
While Putin may be promoting the restoration of Stalin's image in order to increase support for his own leadership, some of today's Stalin supporters are also openly critical of Putin.
In Bor, speakers at the Stalin Center mocked today's Kremlin as weak and submissive to Russia's enemies when flags showing Stalin's mustache-faced face fluttered in the wind. They characterized Putin's tough foreign policy as not sufficiently confrontational towards Western powers and criticized him for the country's current economic problems.
Putin is "an acrobat" trying to appease conservative voters while showing sympathy for his predecessor, Albert Karakhanyan, an activist in the local anarchist movement. Boris Yeltsin oversaw Russia's transition from the communist system after the fall of the Soviet Union, he added.
“Our slow economic growth is a shame! Our population decreased by 670,000 in the past year. Five thousand companies have closed in our region, ”said Vladislav Yegorov, the first secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party. Russia's oil-dependent economy fell into recession during last year's Covid-19 pandemic, and millions of Russians have fallen below the poverty line.
Image: Aleksey Zorov, a 44-year-old local businessman who is sponsoring the new center (Anton Belousov / for NBC News)
Yegorov also cited ways in which Russia had been insulted on the international stage. "They kicked us out of Prague," he said, referring to the Czech Republic's recent decision to expel dozens of Russian diplomats after the secret service reported that the Kremlin was behind a deadly explosion in a Czech ammunition depot in 2014. "Stalin would never allow that."
"Stalin, wake up!" shouted an old man in the crowd, as if turning to the statue.
Zorov, the center's sponsor, was equally critical. "Putin is falling behind," he told NBC News. “Our authorities are even afraid of the dead Stalin. You can only rob people. "
In Russia's current political climate, such criticism of Putin often leads to arrests. However, only one man was arrested at the ceremony for the Stalin Center: Andrei Sorochkin, a local liberal opposition activist, who protested the event and held up a banner referring to Stalin's atrocities.
"Only a moral freak can worship such a monster," read the banner.
The police later released Sorochkin after brief interrogation. It was the 10th time he has been taken into custody in recent years, he said.
For him, the links between the present moment and the earlier era of political oppression are unmistakable.
"The police are grabbing every single protester, giving prison terms for reposting on social media," and now Russian authorities are banning Navalny's movement as an extremist, he said.
Even without the statues that Stalin raised, he felt that the infamous leader had already returned. Under Putin it was as if he were witnessing "the reincarnation of the bloody dictator".

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