The opening ceremony of a new monument to Joseph Stalin in Svetlograd, Russia, 2015

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It’s March 2016 and I’m standing on Lenin Square in Penza, a small city some 350 miles to the south-east of Moscow, and looking at a gigantic statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A short walk away, the Soviet-era hammer and sickle still decorates the city administration building. Its courtyard is dominated by a monument to socialist workers emblazoned with the inscription “Glory to the Soviet Constitution!” Up the hill, a recently unveiled golden bust of Joseph Stalin stands outside Russia’s very first Stalin Cultural Centre.

This provincial city’s enduring passion for all things Soviet is no exception. With thousands of statues and monuments, as well as names of metro stations, libraries, streets and squares continuing to pay homage to communist-era officials across Russia’s vast territory, it’s easy to imagine that the Soviet Union never collapsed. In Moscow alone, as the 25th anniversary of the demise of the world’s first socialist state approaches, there remain more than 80 Lenin monuments, including the statue of the father of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that keeps watch over the city’s bustling Kaluzhskaya Square. In Red Square, of course, Lenin’s embalmed corpse continues to attract visitors, more than nine decades after his death.

The Soviet Union doesn’t only live on in the country’s architecture. Opinion polls consistently indicate that millions of Russians not only continue to experience nostalgia for the Soviet era, but also desire its resurrection. In 2015, in a poll carried out by the Moscow-based RBK television channel – one of the few non-state-run, major media outlets left in Vladimir Putin’s Russia – just over 60 per cent of respondents indicated that the thing they wished for most for their homeland was the “rebirth of the Soviet Union”. (That poll was no one-off: this April, a public opinion survey by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Centre reported similar results.) A popular TV channel – named, appropriately enough, Nostalgia – taps into these widespread sentiments by broadcasting nothing but Soviet-era programmes. The channel’s motto: “For those who have something to remember.”

Further proof of the continuing popularity of the Soviet era can be found in the strength of the modern-day Communist Party, the second-largest in parliament after Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Some analysts even believe it would have triumphed at the most recent parliamentary elections in 2011, were it not for widespread vote-rigging.

Many non-Russians – and a fair number of Russians – understandably find all this near-incomprehensible. Wasn’t the collapse of the “evil empire” supposed to herald a new era of freedom for Russia? Even taking into account Putin’s clampdown on dissent over the past 16 years, why would anyone hanker after the Soviet past, with its gulags, censorship and deadly persecution of independent thought?

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Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has overseen a revival of Soviet-era symbols. One of his first acts as president was to reintroduce the Soviet national anthem, albeit with new words. Putin has also publicly defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the non-aggression treaty that resulted in the carve-up of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War. Most significantly, perhaps, he has overseen a revival of what the dissident Russian historian Andrei Zubov calls the Soviet-era “imperial consciousness” through his military interference in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014.

Yet, like the majority of Russians in the 1970s and 1980s, Putin was no fervent believer in the ideas of Karl Marx. Under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union’s “march to communism” ground to a halt in favour of “developed socialism” – in other words, maintaining the status quo and the power of the elite. Capitalism has been good to Putin and his inner circle. Their wealth and lifestyles far outstrip anything enjoyed by their Soviet-era predecessors. Yes, Putin once described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, but his reasons – families suddenly separated by swiftly drawn-up borders and a sudden descent into crippling poverty – was all but ignored by Western commentators. “Whoever does not regret the break-up of the Soviet Union has no heart,” Putin has said. “But whoever wishes its return in its previous form has no head.”

Putin’s war on his political opponents may be best described as Stalinist-lite, but he clearly has no desire to see a return to the days of a planned economy or the persecution of religious believers. In January, he told pro-Kremlin activists that while he believed in communist ideology during his time in the KGB, he understood that the reality was very different from the promised socialist utopia. “Our country didn’t look like the City of the Sun,” he said. He also criticised Lenin for ordering the execution of Russia’s last tsar and his family, sending thousands of priests to their deaths and placing a “time bomb” under the state by drawing up administrative borders along ethnic lines.

It is also important to understand the motivations of the millions of Russians who continue to vote for the Communist Party and experience nostalgia for the Soviet period. It is not gulags, compulsory lectures in Marxism-Leninism and shared communal apartments that the majority of these people are hankering after. The Soviet Union they miss is the one of state-subsidised, month-long holidays to Black Sea resorts, the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the comparative calm and lack of rampant crime. It is true that dissidents and critics of the Soviet regime were persecuted in the 1970s and 1980s but, unlike during Stalin’s era, there was no random, all-encompassing terror. Under Brezhnev, if you did not speak out, the KGB generally would not come for you. Leftist sentiments in Putin’s Russia are also encouraged by the country’s appalling record on wealth inequality, which the financial services company Credit Suisse describes as the highest in the world apart from those of Caribbean islands with resident billionaires.

But this reverence for the Communist era has a far darker side than family memories of frolicking in the warm waters of the Soviet Union’s southern shores, or singing along to socialist songs of praise at Young Pioneer camps. In Germany, the use of Nazi symbols, including images of Adolf Hitler, is banned but Stalin’s face is a common sight in modern-day Russia. As Russia’s relations with the West reach a post-Cold War low, images of the Soviet dictator seem to be everywhere. War veterans carry his portraits through Red Square, while state television broadcasts documentaries hailing his achievements as supreme commander-in-chief of the Red Army. Among the souvenirs on sale in Moscow are Stalin T-shirts, cups and decorative dishes. “He was a hero and a great man,” the guide at a Stalin museum in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, told me last year, as she stood next to a life-size wax figure of the Soviet leader.

It’s not only images of Stalin gaining popularity. The language of Stalinist terror has made a startling return to Russian political life, with Putin labelling Kremlin critics as “national traitors” and a “fifth column”. Putin has praised Stalin’s wartime leadership and his postwar development of Soviet industry. The message has been getting through.

“Stalin may have carried out a campaign of political repression but he also oversaw a giant leap forward for the country,” says Sergei Padalkin, a spokesman for the Penza Communist Party, as I examine the Soviet-era vinyl, documents and newspapers at the city’s Stalin Cultural Centre. He grimaces when I counter that Hitler also made good roads and he shrugs when I ask if there was an outcry when the centre opened its doors late last year. “Some people were against it, of course,” Padalkin says. “Others were for it. But most people couldn’t care less either way.”

A snap poll of passers-by on the street outside the centre confirms this. Despite speaking to around a dozen people, I am unable to find anyone strongly opposed to the sight of a golden bust honouring the memory of one of the 20th century’s most notorious mass murderers. “It’s not like they put it up in the centre of the city or anything,” says a middle-aged woman, who gives her name only as Olga.

Earlier this year, another opinion poll by the independent Levada Centre – generally considered the most reliable indication of the public mood in Russia – found for the first time that a majority of Russians (52 per cent) believe Stalin’s bloody rule was “probably” or “definitely” a positive thing. Paradoxically, a majority (60 per cent) said they would not like to live or work in a country ruled by Stalin.

“The figure of Stalin is very contradictory,” Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank, told Russia’s Vedomosti paper earlier this year. “Russians believe that he won the war and battled against corruption, but they understand how frightening it would be to live under such a leader. They’d like to live in a computer game where Marshall Zhukov takes Berlin, but not in a country where they can drag you out of your apartment.”

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All this might seem incompatible with the resurrection of religious belief in today’s Russia, where some 70 per cent of people describe themselves as Orthodox Christians. During the Soviet era, millions of Christians were persecuted for their faith, while churches were frequently destroyed or transformed into warehouses, garages, or even museums of atheism. “The more representatives of the reactionary clergy we shoot, the better,” Lenin once said. Although Stalin permitted a carefully controlled revival of the Orthodox Church during the Second World War in an attempt to boost public morale, anti-religion propaganda remained common until the perestroika period.

None of which has prevented a startling symbiosis of the Soviet and Christian faiths from gaining pace in recent years. Last year, on the 145th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran Communist Party leader, compared Lenin to Jesus Christ. Speaking outside Lenin’s tomb in front of a crowd of red-flag-waving supporters, Zyuganov declared that both men had sought to “save humanity” with a message of “love, friendship and brotherhood”. He also said the Soviet Union had been an attempt to establish “God’s Kingdom on Earth”.

This fusion of two seemingly incompatible belief systems works both ways. Online footage of a Russian Orthodox priest singing a popular Soviet-era song at a church service recently went viral in Russia. Religious icons with images of Stalin are a common sight whenever the religious right rallies. An Orthodox Christian church has been built at Russia’s enormous memorial to the more than one million Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Stalingrad, ostensibly in defence of an atheist state. Late last year, Patriarch Kirill – an alleged former KGB agent – reminded Russians of the “positive” aspects of Stalin’s rule. In Penza, behind the city’s towering Lenin statue, the region’s flag – an image of Jesus Christ on a green and yellow background – flies proudly on top of the town hall.

This is not quite as absurd as it may initially appear. Although the Soviet authorities were outwardly hostile to religion, the early communists adopted and adapted many of Christianity’s symbols to mask the new ideology in familiar forms. In place of the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the communists offered Marx, Engels and Lenin. In many cases, images of these “sacred figures” of socialism simply replaced religious icons of the Trinity in Russian Orthodox homes after the Bolshevik Revolution. “Atheists also needed a god,” says Nina Koss­man, an author and translator whose grandfather was murdered by the KGB during Stalin’s Great Terror. “And he was right there, in the form of Lenin, on every classroom wall.” The decision to embalm Lenin’s body after his death in 1924 is reminiscent of the Christian tradition of preserving the remains of saints, while the compulsory visits by Soviet citizens to his Red Square mausoleum were remarkably similar to medieval pilgrimages. Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, has even referred to Lenin’s corpse as a “holy relic”.

Still, it’s difficult not to be taken aback at the sheer scale of change in Russia over the past few decades. In 1961, after becoming the first person to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was reported by state media to have said: “I travelled into space but I didn’t see God there.” (Whether or not he actually uttered these words is a matter of debate.)

In 2016, similar atheist statements could land you behind bars. In Stavropol in southern Russia, a 38-year-old blogger named Viktor Krasnov was charged earlier this year with “insulting the feelings of religious believers”. His crime? Writing “There is no God” during a heated online discussion. He faces up to a year in prison. Even before his case came to trial, Krasnov was forced to undergo a month-long psychiatric evaluation by a judge, who told him: “No one in their right mind would write anything against Orthodox Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church.” Lenin must surely be spinning in his glass coffin.