Joseph Stalin - he’s back and divisive as ever
One man admires Stalin’s new statue, while another recalls days of hunger and cannibalism
A middle-aged man ascends the steps towards the monument to his hero, places a bunch of flowers beneath it, then bows his head in silent respect as he stands before the statue of a man who many see as one of history's worst dictators: Joseph Stalin.
The metallic figure of Stalin holding his trademark pipe is the first monument to the former Soviet leader to be erected for decades in Ukraine, and it has caused controversy in a country which remains divided about its history.
The man who laid the flowers had no doubts, however: Stalin built a great empire, and led the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, he insisted. "For me, Stalin is the greatest person of all time," he said. "In world history, he is the number one.
"Some people say he made some mistakes. No, Stalin never made a mistake in his life everything he did was flawless."
He then proudly flourished his Communist Party membership card, which even more bizarrely - showed his name was 'Georgiy Stalin'. He changed his surname because he loves Stalin so much.
The new statue was inaugurated at a ceremony in the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia earlier this month. Hundreds of Communists came to wave red flags, hear the Soviet anthem and listen to recordings of Stalin's speeches.
"He was unique," said Aleksandr Zubchevskiy, a local Communist official. "The country made colossal progress while he was in office; he inherited an undeveloped country and left it with nuclear weapons."
But other locals were disgusted. Vitaliy Podlobnikov, from the nationalist Svoboda Party, described the inauguration as a crime. "It's like putting up a monument to Hitler in Israel or in Germany," he said. "Six members of my family died because of Stalin."
Millions of Ukrainians starved to death in the 1930s during a mass famine known as the 'Holodomor', which was caused by Stalin's agricultural policies. The issue has again highlighted the deep differences between the nationalist west of Ukraine and its pro-Russian east.
Some Ukrainians believe that the famine was an officially-sanctioned act of genocide. But the country's new pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovich, has said that although Stalin's "totalitarian regime" was responsible for the famine, it was a tragedy which affected several Soviet nations, so didn¹t constitute genocide.
Volodymyr Tkachuk was eight years old when the famine started, and he watched some of his relatives die of starvation. He says he will never forgive the Soviet regime. In the village where he lived, a horse-drawn cart would arrive every morning to pick up the bodies of those who had collapsed in the streets as they searched for food, and take them to mass graves. "There was no family in which nobody died," he said.
But even more horrific were the stories of those who were driven mad by hunger and resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive. Tkachuk remembers seeing one young boy go into a neighbour's house, and never come out alive.
"We went closer, and we saw that the walls and the ceiling were covered in blood," he recalled. "We saw that the boy had been cut into pieces and then put into cans. One of the cans had already been boiled on the fire. The woman had boiled it and eaten it."
In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the Museum of Soviet Occupation aims to preserve the memories of men like Tkachuk. The museum is run by Roman Krutsik, who has spent years documenting Soviet atrocities in Ukraine.
Krutsik believes that the country's new pro-Russian government which replaced the pro-Western administration swept to power by the 'Orange Revolution' in 2004 - gave the Communists the confidence to erect the new Stalin statue. But he said that any attempt to rehabilitate the image of the former Soviet leader will not succeed.
"The truth will prevail," he insisted. "We will never forget those crimes that Stalin committed, those millions of people who died because of his leadership - especially in Ukraine." ·
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