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A Political Act of Volcanic Proportions

part 1, 2, 3

Monument to Stalin in Moscow, Russia
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

In the center of Moscow, there's a park where people gather to sing songs, to relax, and mostly, to reflect. A performer is singing about a man who lacks the inner strength to stand up for his convictions. It's a bit of poetic irony, for this place is the graveyard of monuments, the final resting ground for all those statues of Lenin, Marx and other Soviet icons who squelched the convictions of independent thinkers. There's a statue of Joseph Stalin here.

"We're all for Stalin!" these old ladies say. "He was a good man, a man with a capital M . He did a lot of good for the people. Not like the Putin gang."

A group of students sits at a nearby bench. "Stalin was a tyrant," they say. "He destroyed his own people. He was a terrorist."

The old ladies eavesdrop and disagree. "These young people are idiots!" they say. "They watch too much TV. Our TV is influenced by America, you know."

But the debate is not entirely along generational lines. One of the folk singer's friends, a young man in his mid-20s, offers his opinion.

"I relate positively to Stalin," he says. "He did much good. Of course many innocent people suffered. But as they say, you can't make an omelet without cracking eggs."

Joseph Stalin's statue may have been stripped from a once proud pedestal and mothballed in a Moscow park, but the man has managed, still, more than 50 years after his death, to tug at the soul of Russia.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. A fierce contest for power ensued among top Kremlin leaders. It was like lions circling gladiators. Nikita Khrushchev emerged as first among equals, but he still needed to consolidate authority. The opportunity would come in February 1956.

A Soviet newsreel welcomed hundreds of comrades to a regularly scheduled political gathering, the first since Stalin's death. It was the 20th Communist Party Congress.

"The party congress was supposed to be, in theory, the highest legislative body of the communist party," says William Taubman, a Professor of Political Science at Amherst College and author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. He says party congresses had always glorified the Soviet Union. "In effect, it was a rubber stamp for the top party leadership."


Continue to part 2