03.10.23 Ideologies Review

Monumental Re-Stalinisation: Russia is systematically demolishing the monuments to victims of repression, while erecting dozens of monuments to Stalin


Since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has embarked on a systematic campaign to dismantle monuments dedicated to the victims of political repression. Reports indicate that at least 11 memorial sites honouring repressed Poles and Lithuanians have been demolished, along with monuments to foreign soldiers who perished within the territory of the former USSR. The authorities have refrained from commenting on these demolitions, but it seems unlikely that such a move is spontaneous. The demolition process requires extensive technical work, and at least some of the monuments are ostensibly protected by law. In Moscow, plaques from the 'Last Address' project, which memorialises victims of repression at their former residences, are also systematically disappearing. At the same time, Russia is witnessing a surge in the number of monuments dedicated to Stalin. The 'We Can Explain' project has identified 110 such monuments, with 95 of them erected during Vladimir Putin's rule, and over half of appearing since 2014. Notably, Putin personally participated in the unveiling ceremony of one of these monuments. These seemingly disparate symbolic gestures collectively form part of a semi-official ideological campaign that seeks to rehabilitate Stalinism and the legacy of imperialism.

Since the commencement of the full-scale war in Ukraine, the destruction of memorials to victims of political repression in Russia has taken on a systematic character. An investigation by the BBC Russian Service has documented 15 such cases: 11 memorials dedicated to foreign victims of repression and four monuments to foreign soldiers have been razed. These actions often occur covertly, with local authorities remaining unresponsive to such news and denying any involvement. In Yakutsk, a monument to exiles from the Tsarist era and victims of repression during the Soviet era, including Poles, has vanished without a trace. According to Sakhaday, not a single stone remains at the site. First, the monument was surrounded by a fence, and then the plaques were removed. Local authorities have claimed to be unaware of who was behind the destruction of the monument. On November 11th, Polish Independence Day, three monuments to repressed Poles in the Tomsk region were vandalised. In Belostok village, a prominent monument commemorating the victims of the 'Polish Operation' by the NKVD, during which the male population of the village was executed on suspicion of espionage for Poland, was desecrated. Similar incidents have been reported in the Sverdlovsk region, Buryatia, and St Petersburg.

The primary targets for demolition are monuments dedicated to Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian victims of repression during the Tsarist and Soviet periods. For example, in April, a monument to deported Lithuanians in northern Perm Krai was demolished: unknown individuals, using heavy equipment, dismantled the stele bearing a Catholic cross and the names of 89 special settlers. As reported by 'Nastoyashchee Vremya’ has reported, in the Irkutsk region, a monument to 32 repressed Lithuanians was removed. Thus, the monument demolition programme represents not only a partial reassessment of attitudes towards repression but also a rehabilitation of imperial heritage, notes Alexander Polivanov, a representative of the 'Memorial' organisation, in an interview with the BBC.

Monuments to foreign soldiers have also been removed, but in this case, it is often done with the official approval of the authorities. For instance, this past winter in Primorsky (Leningrad Oblast), a monument to Finnish soldiers who died during the Soviet-Finnish War and World War II was dismantled by court order. The Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat noted that the monument was removed immediately after Vladimir Putin's visit to St Petersburg. There have been similar cases in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions.

Such large-scale works cannot be carried out spontaneously. Clearly, there is a campaign underway, likely under the patronage of some influential entities, yet this campaign seeks to avoid public attention.

The second front in the 'monument war' involves the removal of plaques from the 'Last Address' project, which are affixed to the homes of Soviet citizens, who were victims of repression. Oksana Matiyevskaya, a representative of the 'Last Address' foundation, stated in an interview with Radio Liberty that these plaques had been removed in the past, but recently, such instances have been occurring with 'alarming frequency'. It is difficult to estimate the total number of plaques that have been removed; there are approximately 700 in Moscow alone, and their disappearance only becomes apparent if a resident reports it to the 'Last Address.'

At the same time, there is a growing trend in Russia towards erecting monuments to Stalin. The 'We Can Explain' project has identified 110 such monuments across Russia, including 22 monumental statues. These monuments are spread across 40 regions and 107 localities, with 15 of them located in regional capitals. Approximately 10 of these monuments, typically located in small villages, have survived from Soviet times. The emergence of 95 of these monuments occurred during Putin's presidency, with 50 appearing in the last decade alone (2014-2023), including four after the full-scale invasion. The leaders in terms of the number of monuments to Stalin are North Ossetia (24), Dagestan (9), and Yakutia (8). Approximately half of these monuments (49) were erected on the initiative of the authorities, while the rest were established based on the wishes of local residents or through private initiatives. Official figures often avoid attending the unveiling of monuments to Stalin, although this has been happening more frequently of late. The most well-known instances of official endorsement of such monument unveilings include the presence of the current president and then-Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky at the opening of a Stalin monument in the Tver region and the visit of Alexander Bloshkin, the chairman of the Volgograd Regional Duma, at the unveiling ceremony of a bust of Stalin in Volgograd.

This resurgence of Stalin monuments does not appear to be part of an official campaign. Instead, it seems more like a number of semi-official initiatives supported by mid-level administrative bodies or certain institutions. The installation of monuments to Stalin also reflects regional variations, with 43 regions having none at all while in others such monuments seem to grow like mushrooms. For instance, in Yakutia, there are eight monuments to Stalin, with four of them erected in 2019-2020.