On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, attitudes toward the wartime Soviet leader are still ambivalent in the country that he once ruled with an iron fist.
During his three decades as dictator, Stalin presided over rapid industrialization and victories against the Nazis, and oversaw millions of deaths through purges, the Gulag labor camps, and starvation.
Stalin died March 5, 1953, at age 74. Although public memorials for the Soviet dictator remain mostly taboo, and streets no longer carry his name, in recent years his reputation has experienced a revival.
“Firstly, thank you for the victory (in World War Two),” said 21-year-old Madina in a typically mixed view of Stalin’s legacy among people on the streets of Moscow. “Secondly, he is a negative person for me because there were a lot of deaths. A lot of executions, shootings, expulsions, arts were banned, etc. So it’s impossible to have a clear position one way or the other.”
A 2021 survey conducted by the Russian Levada Center found that 45% expressed “respect” for Stalin, and 48% supported the installation of statues honoring him. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who presents himself as a heir to past czars, has offered measured assessments of Stalin, praising his leadership of wars while denouncing his domestic policies as “totalitarian.”
“Why should I have a bad attitude towards him?” said Moscow resident Andrei, 31, praising Stalin as a strong unifying personality whose war victory should be lauded.
Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin—arguing it is fighting Ukrainian neo-Nazis—has sought to reclaim Stalin’s wartime mantle, framing its campaign as ending the loose ends from the Second World War.
In February, Putin visited Volgograd—briefly renamed Stalingrad—to mark the 80th anniversary of a battle that was the turning point in the war.
“Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” he said.
In Gori, Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin, a plurality shares a positive assessment of the Soviet leader, although their country has broken with Russia, and there is wide support for Ukraine.
“The majority in Gori value Stalin, of course. As a historical figure, as a great man and a person who ruled with an iron fist,” said resident Jakob Kikriashvili, 48.
“But the attitude towards him is changing. The younger generation is more aggressive towards him.”
Born Ioseb Dzhugashvili in 1878 into an impoverished family, the young Stalin spent his childhood in Gori, then studied in Tbilisi, Georgia’s neighboring capital.
Today, Goris’ Stalin Museum, located on Stalin Avenue, is the town’s best-known tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world.
In 2010, the Georgian government ordered that the town’s statue of Stalin be removed, saying that it did not deserve to exist. Tsotne Gogiashvili, a Gori resident in her late 20s, said while older residents of the town still “honored” Stalin, younger generations had changed their minds: “Most young people did not like him, and I think it is a good thing”.