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Stalin casts long shadow ahead of Russian parade

08 maja, 2010

As Russia prepares to celebrate the anniversary of victory in World War II with a spectacular Red Square parade, the figure of wartime leader Joseph Stalin still casts a long and controversial shadow.

Stalin led the Soviet forces to victory 65 years ago but presided over a harsh authoritarian regime where millions died in prison camps and in a rapid collectivisation campaign.

The Kremlin has sought to sideline Stalin\'s role during celebrations Sunday, which this year will include guests from the Western Allied countries, but Moscow\'s mayor has stubbornly stuck to a plan to commemorate Stalin in posters.

Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced in February that posters showing Stalin would be hung around the city at the request of some veterans, prompting fury from human rights campaigners -- and veterans themselves.

"We consider this idea blasphemous," a group of veterans wrote in an open letter to Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

"The appearance of Stalin portraits on Victory Day insults the memory of the fallen," the Memorial human rights group said.

Moscow\'s mayor defended the reproductions of Stalin\'s image, saying he wanted to present a balanced picture.

"I\'m not an admirer of Stalin, but I am an admirer of objective history," Luzhkov said in March.

After a public furore and a rebuke from the Kremlin, Luzhkov decided to relegate the Stalin posters to 15 museums run by the city -- rather than hanging them on the street.

"The most important thing is that the authorities have given up on the mad idea of exhibiting portraits of Stalin as a war hero on the streets of Moscow," said Yan Rachinsky, the co-president of Memorial in Moscow.

"The story of the Stalin portraits in the streets has shown that society is not indifferent, there was a passionate debate," Rachinsky said.

In grass-roots gestures, Communist groups in Saint Petersburg and the Siberian city of Omsk have also hung posters featuring the moustachioed dictator.

In Saint Petersburg, a bus decorated with Stalin\'s face and the slogan "eternal glory to the victors," went on the road Wednesday, after a young blogger raised funding. It was promptly defaced with a splash of white paint.

"This is an insult to those people whose loved ones died in Stalinist repressions," Maxim Reznik, head of the Saint Petersburg branch of the liberal Yabloko party, told AFP.

The recent revival of Stalin imagery follows the disappearance of the leader\'s image after 1956 in a backlash against his cult of personality. His face was even erased from mosaics in the Moscow metro.

It also comes as Russia opens up about crimes sanctioned by the Soviet regime during the war.

In April, Russia\'s state archives published files on the 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn Forest -- one of the most notorious events of the Stalin era -- on the orders of President Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev gave his clearest condemnation yet of the crimes of Stalin in an interview with the Izvestia newspaper published Friday.

"Stalin committed a mass of crimes against his own people," said Medvedev.

"And despite the fact that he worked a lot, and despite the fact that under his leadership the country recorded many successes, what was done to his own people cannot be forgiven."

Stalin is only popular among a niche audience, human rights campaigner Rachinsky stressed.

"He is popular among the new nationalists and a part of the communists," he said. "He isn\'t popular among young people."

Polls by the independent Levada centre have shown a marked decline in public enthusiasm for Stalin, the director Lev Gudkov said.

Over the last eight years, "The number of those who say they are indifferent (to Stalin) has soared from 17 percent to 47 percent," Gudkov said.