On the wall of the apartment building at No. 10 Bolshoi Gnezdnikovsky Lane in central Moscow, a paper sign commemorates the life and death of Trofim Yurkevich, a professor who was born in 1891, arrested on March 22, 1938, and summarily executed on July 10 of the same year.
Immediately beneath the sign, a second, handwritten notice begs passersby not to tear down the first one.
“This is a replacement for an approved plaque that was destroyed by vandals,” the notice reads. “Have a conscience.”
For almost a decade, activists with the Last Address project have been installing modest commemorative plaques on the facades of buildings where some of Stalin’s millions of victims lived. Since May, they say, incidents of vandalism against the memorials have been on the rise, particularly in Moscow but in other cities as well.
“I can’t say what the number of incidents is,” said Moscow-based Last Address activist Oksana Matiyevskaya, who called the vandalism a “targeted attack” on the project. “But now practically every week we learn that one has disappeared somewhere.”
Although the project has encountered vandalism and other forms of resistance from the beginning, the recent incidents seem different.
“This isn’t a coincidence,” Matiyevskaya said. “We understand perfectly well why this is happening. There is a new reality here compared to 10 years ago when the project started…. Everyone understands what is going on and why this is happening at this moment.”
Stalin’s reputation has been steadily rehabilitated under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative. This process has accelerated in an atmosphere of jingoistic patriotism since Moscow’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the consequent harsh repression of dissent in Russia.
The human rights group Memorial, which documents and studies Stalin’s repressions and which was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with two other recipients, has been shut down and many of its activists have been imprisoned or forced to flee the country.
Civil society activists report that 110 monuments to Stalin, including 22 full-scale statues, have been erected in Russia, 95 of them since Putin came to power in 1999. In August, a Russian Orthodox priest blessed a statue of the tyrant in the Pskov region town of Velikiye Luki by saying that, thanks to him, “we have a large number of new martyrs to whom we now pray and who now help us in our lives.”
Journalists have documented at least 11 cases in recent months in which monuments to victims of Stalinist repressions — in which millions were killed or had their lives torn apart — were dismantled or substantially altered.
In the Perm region, in April, unknown people dismantled an unofficial memorial to Lithuanians and Poles who were forcibly resettled there under Stalin in a forest near the settlement of Galyashor.
In June, grave markers for similarly resettled Poles in two villages in the Chelyabinsk region were removed, while in Buryatia a memorial to resettled Poles was also quietly dismantled.
While in most cases, it is not known who removed the monuments, in the Irkutsk region village of Pivovarikha, authorities acknowledged removing a similar monument to repressed Lithuanians and Poles, saying it had been “taken into storage.”
Matiyevskaya says the removal of such monuments has been carried out on the initiative of the authorities, perhaps in retaliation to the dismantling of Soviet war memorials in the Baltic states and other Eastern and Central European countries.
“Vandals couldn’t dismantle entire monuments without being noticed,” she argued. “Of course, with the Last Address plaques, it is much easier. I don’t think any order has been given regarding them. It just a desire to please the boss on the part of individuals who understand the dominant mood these days.”
“But I’m absolutely certain these are related phenomena,” she said. “It is a sign of what is going on in society: triumphal ignorance, a reluctance to face history, a desire to view history through a particular lens, and ressentiment that has been transformed into a cult.”
On Stoleshnikov Street, Matiyevskaya said, two Last Address plaques were replaced by a sign for a security firm that had been clearly sized and placed “with particular cynicism.”
An employee of the Aris security firm who identified himself only as Aleksei told RFE/RL that he knew nothing about the removal of the Last Address plaques. The next day, however, the security firm’s sign had been removed.
Matiyevskaya said her organization was working to restore the tributes to Stanislav Kozlovsky and Yelena Makovetskaya as soon as possible. Kozlovsky was arrested in 1938 and died in a Far North labor camp in 1942. Makovetskaya was arrested in August 1937 and executed on November 15, 1937, at the age of 49.
The handwritten sign on the building on Gnezdnikovsky Lane is an indication of what Matiyevskaya calls “a grassroots resistance” that has arisen in response to the vandalism targeting Last Address.
“Where some of the plaques have been removed, handmade duplicates have appeared,” she explained. “This is a completely independent initiative that is not connected with Last Address. It is just people who saw that there was a plaque and now there isn’t.”
“This means a lot to me,” she added. “The reaction of such people is much more important, it seems to me, than these acts of vandalism.”
Eventually, she said, all the plaques will be restored, since the information has been preserved in the project’s database.
“Maybe a year will pass, maybe two or five or 10,” Matiyevskaya said. “We will restore them. Replacing a steel plaque is not hard, but the human life behind it is irreplaceable. Our main goal is to preserve the memory of these innocent, persecuted people.”