MOSCOW, Russia — Twelve massive black-and-white photographs line the outer brick walls of a building in central Moscow — 12 sets of sunken cheeks and soulless eyes that stare beyond the barbed wire to visitors below.
These are, a sign says, “12 among millions” who entered the Soviet Union’s dreaded network of hard labor camps, known as the Gulag. Millions died there. Millions more were scarred for life.
As Josef Stalin, the ruthless dictator who oversaw the Gulag’s most active and arbitrary use, enjoys a revival as hero of the Russian people, this small museum devoted to victims of Soviet repression is a lonelier place than ever.
“If we don’t exhibit this material, then the view that Stalin was a good manager and great war hero will win,” said Oleg Kalmykov, the museum’s archivist.
No history is set in stone, but the rhetoric about Stalin’s role in Russia’s past and present has taken such a concerted turn toward the positive that people like Kalmykov fear the horrors he committed will be whitewashed from history.
“History is something that people think they can’t learn. But then everyone goes on their own path and ends up in the same place. That’s what happening now,” he said.
Outside Russia, the legacy of Stalin, who ruled as a dictator from the 1920s until his death in 1953, is pretty clear. Killing millions of his own people landed him in the pantheon of the world’s worst dictators, alongside Hitler and Pol Pot. His name conjures images of domestic terror, nighttime arrests and a megalomaniacal paranoia that prompted fatal campaigns against perceived enemies.
Inside Russia, the story is more complicated. He was, according to a school textbook adopted last year and endorsed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a “competent manager” who committed atrocities at home out of necessity. Earlier this year, Stalin nearly won a nationwide call-in poll asking people to vote for the person who best represents Russia.
Stalin’s grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, is fighting the claim that Stalin was directly involved in the Gulag deaths. He has launched a libel suit against Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, seeking more than $300,000 in damages for saying that Stalin had personally signed execution orders, according to declassified documents.
And last month, in an audacious move, the Moscow metro opened a refurbished station bearing a massive inscription glorifying the dictator. “Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation, inspired us to labor and great deeds,” reads the saying, which adorned the original station but was removed after Stalin’s death in 1953.
It would be tough to dream up a more apt symbol for Stalin’s rebirth.
For the most part, average Russians approve.
“I think it’s great,” said Raisa Zheleznyak, 67, standing in the metro’s gilded hall. “We lived during those times and the Soviets gave us everything — education, culture. And it was all thanks to him,” she said, pointing at Stalin’s name.
The Gulag Museum tells a different story.
The entrance mimics the gates of an average labor camp. Inside, scores of documents detail the Soviet leadership’s decision to set up the prison network to purge society of perceived enemies and provide a free workforce for the massive infrastructure projects that would industrialize the nation.
There are boots and chains from Magadan, the site of Russia’s most notorious camp. One wall is devoted to the tale of Georgiy Zhzhyonov, a famous Soviet actor imprisoned for speaking to an American on a train. Another is devoted to Bulat Okudzhawa, Russia’s Bob Dylan, who lost most of his family to the dreaded Gulag system.
“The museum is devoted to the people who suffered in the camps, for no reason. Many have yet to be rehabilitated,” Kalmykov said.
It was opened in 2004 by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, the son of Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, one of the fathers of the Bolshevik Revolution who was killed during Stalin’s purges in 1938. The son was arrested two years later, at the age of 20, and interred in the Gulag until Stalin’s death in 1953.
About 30 people visit the museum every day, and it stands a small testament to the suffering of millions. It is not a federal museum, approved instead by city authorities.
Passing through a model of an average Gulag camp room, with a hard wooden bed and snowy scene painted on the windows, Kalmykov got a call from a Spanish tour group due to visit the site the following week.
“I wish more Russians would come to the museum,” he said. “It’s we that need to learn history.” Remembering Stalin’s crimes doesn’t suit the national project to re-write Soviet history as one of glory, both at home and abroad. As European nations gathered in Poland last week to commemorate the start of World War II, Russian officials caused an uproar by praising Stalin and releasing documents that allege that Poland started the war.
Russians — both officials and average citizens — have reacted particularly harshly to a resolution passed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in July, which condemned both Nazism and Stalinism equally.
Few can answer why the cult of Stalin is being reborn now. Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent human rights activist, said it is the cult of authoritarianism being promoted by Putin, its latest Russian incarnation.
“To revive a totalitarian regime, they need to hold Stalin up as its shining star,” he said.