Kazakhstan: The Ups and Downs of Comrade Stalin
Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
So distraught were the villagers by the toppling of the statue in last year’s hurricane that they raised the money to restore and reinstall it themselves, including through a social media campaign and a fundraising drive among local businesses.
Local authorities were not so keen to see Stalin rise again, however. “One official asked me: What are you fussing over this Stalin for? […] The Stalin era’s long past,” recalled villager Murat Yuldashev. “I told her: It’s not about the era – my dad erected this monument. Let it stand; it’s not for us to throw it away. When we’re gone, let our children decide.”
Yuldashev is the son of the collective farm chairman who had the original statue put up in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. “I was 11 years old,” he recalled. “We rejoiced so much, it was the first ever monument in our village!”
Two years later, after the official denunciation of Stalin had begun in the Soviet Union, officials arrived in Stariy Ikan to tear the statue down, but backed off in the face of resistance from the villagers.
Stalin, who built himself a reverential cult of personality during his long rule, is still revered by some in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including his birthplace of Georgia, which boasts a Stalin museum.
But he is reviled by many for causing the deaths of millions of people in his political purges – known as Stalin’s Terror or the Great Terror – which left a devastating legacy in Kazakhstan as elsewhere.
During his rule, Kazakhstan also suffered a pitiless famine in which at least 1.5 million people – a quarter of the population at the time – perished.
Stalin “is one of the most evil figures in the history of humanity, who should not be forgotten, but [should] not [be remembered] by putting up monuments,” said Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Kazakhstan’s most prominent human rights campaigner, in remarks quoted by the Kursiv newspaper.
“Hitler also provided jobs, developed industry, and built roads in Germany, but it doesn’t enter anyone’s head to put up monuments to him.”
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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