An Icon of Stalin

Stalin as Saint?
Stalin as Saint?


A rather bizarre episode has unfolded in a little church 20km outside St. Petersburg. Not just an icon, but an icon with the picture of Stalin was hung up in the church of the Holy Olga in Strel’na and presented to the parishioners for worship. Although it is officially an icon dedicated to the Blessed Matrona of Moscow (1885-1952), who was canonized despite significant protest, Matrona is seen only in the background, while Stalin is centrally depicted in full posture. The icon pictures an episode from one of the legends that were created around Matrona, according to which Stalin came to see her for advice related to the German invasion in 1941.

Apparently, the local priest Evstafij, who is a distant relative of Lenin, regards Stalin not just as a believer, but also as the savior of Russia. “I commemorate Stalin during all the services where it is appropriate, especially on the days of his death, his birthday and the day when he celebrated the victory of our people.”

Earlier, the same priest had posted another controversial icon in the iconostasis of the church of Znamenko where he served before, which depicted the soldier Evgenij Rodionov in an army uniform with a Kalashnikov, as a tribute to his supposed martyrdom for the faith in Chechnya, which later proved to be unfounded.

The icon of Stalin caused strong protest of some parishioners who did not want to worship the dictator. Now different versions are circulating on what happened to the icon and the priest. According to some, the priest is still serving and the icon is still hanging in the church, although at a less visible place. Another version says that the priest was encouraged to ask for his resignation and the icon has been taken out of the church. In any case, the Russian Orthodox Church has made it clear that the priest Evstafij has violated its disciplinary codes by hanging an icon of an uncanonized person in his church.

This episode is closely linked to the request of Sergej Malinkovic, leader of the organization “Communists of St. Petersburg and surrounded region”, to the Moscow Patriarchate to canonize Stalin as the leader of the holy anti-Hitler coalition and as a proponent of social justice. The Communist organization is also behind the initiative to produce 10,000 little icons of Stalin and distribute them. The Patriarchate, however, has not yet forgotten the destruction of churches and the mass persecution of priests under Stalin, and replied with a very clear “njet”. The official press-secretary of the MP has made it very clear that discussions about the holiness of Stalin are absolutely blasphemy.

One Moscow priest deeply regrets the confusion and forgetfulness of the people in Russia, referring to elderly people who walk in protest marches holding both icons and pictures of Stalin.

For some, these and other phenomena are related to the absence of repentance in Russian society, which is, by the way, also absent in the Russian Orthodox Church. Remembering is one thing, but some form of repentance is certainly crucial for change in the future.

These signs of forgetfulness in combination with absence of repentance should be worrying against the background of general tendencies of Russian society today. It goes without saying that the direction in which Russia is moving politically and geo-politically, both on the national and the international scene, is not in accordance with the general Western understanding of law, democracy and human rights. It has also become very clear what the impact is of this direction on the civil society and the work of NGO’s and media in Russia. The last remaining widespread opposition journal Novaya Gazeta, for which the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya was working, is reported to be threatened with closure and so are other interesting initiatives which had been set up in the 1990s. One political party is consolidating its social pressure throughout the system. The society is characterized by worrying trends of social indifference, individualization, militarization, xenophobia and intolerance, crime, violence and aggression, widespread corruption, unlawfulness, the harassment of human rights defenders and journalists, etc. Leading civil society actors have observed that in Russia nobody really talks with one another, groups and organizations are poorly connected with one another, the society is very individualized and basically everyone is trying to safe oneself. Russian society seems to be in the grip of money and individual survival.

The shallowness and individualization in Russian society are the ideal breeding ground for the indifference and “we did not know” justifications of violence on massive scales, as seen in history. It reminds me of a famous Russian anecdote: “When they took away the merchants, I did not speak. When they took away the Jews, I did not speak. When they took away the communists, I did not speak. When they took me away, there was nobody left to speak up.”

The trends in Russian society are all too familiar. It is not excluded that some level of forgetfulness of the Soviet past is welcomed by certain groups in Russia today in order to consolidate their power. I think most are very much inclined to believe that common sense will prevail and Russia will not repeat the mistakes of the past. But it has always been said that it is impossible to understand Russia with the mind.

© Marc Gopin