Defending History

Kathleen Conti '11 adds to public debate about Stalin's role in WWII

Kathleen Conti '11 stands near the bust of Stalin at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.  The bust was removed shortly after this picture was taken.When Kathleen Conti ’11 stepped to the microphone in front of a crowd of more than 100 people, she knew that her comments would not be popular.

A Randolph College global studies and history major, Conti was one of the youngest people to speak this summer during an open forum on the controversial installation of a bust of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. The majority of the crowd in attendance, including many veterans, was vehemently opposed to the bust because they felt it honored a dictator who committed atrocities against his own people during World War II and throughout his rule.

But Conti knew there was another side to the story.

“I heard people saying things that were incorrect,” said Conti, who spent six months in Russia studying the language during her junior year. “If Stalin had not engaged the German army on the eastern front, there would not have been a D-Day.”

Conti was neither for nor against the bust; she was just trying to present a historically accurate perspective.

“The crowd was not there to learn, they were there to express their own viewpoint,” said Gerry Sherayko, a professor of history who attended the forum with Conti. “Kathleen was poised, eloquent, forceful, and correct.”

While the controversy was brewing in Bedford, Conti was in the midst of researching Stalin as part of her Summer Research project with Mari Ishibashi, a Randolph political science professor.

During her trip to Russia, Conti discovered an inscription in the rotunda of Kurskaya Station in Moscow that praised Stalin. The marking led Conti to wonder why a nation that had tried so hard to expunge him from its collective memory was highlighting him in a new public project.

She and Ishibashi decided to study the issue with their summer research entitled “Memory as a Political Strategy: The Politics of Stalin Remembrance in Russia.”

Fireworks at St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.They found that Russian presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin had used selective references to Stalin to bolster nationalism in Russia—even while local Communist party candidates feared electoral backlash. In a similar fashion, the speakers at the Bedford forum that evening selectively commented on Stalin’s horrific deeds instead of his role as a war-time ally of the United States. It was a political issue that became very real and very local.

Conti’s response that night was born out of academic responsibility. The Stalin bust was removed in October, but she is continuing the research for her senior history honors project.

“The College fosters a sense that you have an obligation to yourself, the community, and the world,” she said. “It’s great to be a scholar and researcher, but you have to share it with the public.”