Stalin was not a popular man. Indeed, according to the display in Russia’s State Museum of Political History in St Petersburg, Stalin’s regime was an abomination. Through films, posters, contemporary documents and a life-size mock-up of a family’s squalid living quarters, visitors are left in no doubt – from the perspective of the museum’s curators, Stalin’s policies led to poverty, terror, persecution, starvation and mass murder. Officially, his was a regime that led to the most terrible suffering.
Well, that is the ‘State’ view; outside the museum his public position is changing. With Putin as President, Stalin is being slowly rehabilitated. He is, it now appears, not so bad after all. Yes, he did some terrible things but, overall, he did more good than harm. In a recent poll, the majority of Russians saw him as playing a ‘positive’role in Russian history and, in one school textbook, he is depicted as the great ‘industrialiser’. In keeping with these changes there is a popular move in Russia to once again call the city of Volgograd, ‘Stalingrad’ – it was Stalingrad from 1925 – 1961.
It is against the background of these polarised positions that this year I made several Russians very happy; well, two in particular, and each for their own very different reasons. At an evening meal in St Petersburg, Tania suddenly had a giggling fit, bordering on uncontrollable laughter. Across the table this normally staid, liberal-minded, middle-aged woman, was rocking back on her chair, spluttering her food and holding her sides with laughter. The cause – my wife Rohan had just told her how the ‘Joseph’ in my name was in honour of Joseph Stalin. Never before had Tania met, or heard of, anyone in this position and certainly no one who confessed to it. In Russia, even if someone had once been named Joseph, it would soon have been changed. The idea of someone bearing his name was so unthinkable it was laughable, hence her outburst.
Although extreme, Tania’s was not the only such reaction. On hearing the origin of my first name, two of our guides had a similar response, although theirs was more muted.
A few months later, it was not laughter but an outpouring of warmth and relief that greeted the revelation. This time we were in France where we met Lara, a Russian woman in her sixties on holiday from Siberia and staying in Brittany. Stalin is Lara’s hero and on hearing my story she stood up and, beaming from ear–to-ear, came over to shake my hand. When we left, she embraced me warmly and told me how much pleasure the story about my name had given her. We met again on several occasions and each time the warmth shown was the same. I had, it seems, allowed her to express her passion for Stalin. Amongst the French generally, not only would her position have been seen as reprehensible, even as a betrayal, it could well have attracted overt scorn.
The story of my being named after Stalin has been repeated umpteen times at family gatherings and at dinner parties and has always been seen as amusing. For me the idea is interesting, even quirky but no more and, until recently, I have seen it as apocryphal – a tale that was unverified and unverifiable. Now, however, things have changed.
My mother – Patience Collier – was a respected actress and, in the early 1980s she spent hours telling her life story to her potential biographer. The book was never written, but many of the preparatory notes taken by Audrey Postgate, the would-be author, have been discovered and recently a further hoard was found. In a small cardboard box containing around fifty handwritten index cards, one entry referred to my birth in January 1942 in Manchester. Audrey’s verbatim transcription, taken at a session with my mother, reads – “Joe was born at two in the morning. We said he will be called Joe after Joe Stalin. It was the thought of having Joe not in an air raid. We owed it to Stalin; with his second front, he stopped the war for us”.
Both my mother and my father were communist sympathisers, and her position was understandable and, to an extent, realistic. No matter the background – here it was in black and white, their son would be named after Uncle Joe.
After years of being the butt of jokes based on what others saw as an amusing anecdote, I am now fortified by knowing the truth. Yes I am Stalin’s namesake. I found my mother’s note with its explanation not only a great help but very moving; it felt as though I was getting a message from her in person. What a pity it has taken so long.
For help in writing this blog I would like to thank James, Jenny, Vanessa, Sarah, Vivien and Rohan.
The illustration shows a poster distributed in the summer of 1941 showing ‘Stalin’s preparations for an offensive war’.