Russia has marked the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, with the nation divided on whether he was a tyrant who slaughtered millions or a saviour who created a superpower after World War II.
Hundreds of people on Tuesday laid red carnations at the Red Square grave of the Soviet ruler, where his body was buried in 1961 after being displayed for several years alongside Lenin in Moscow’s Mausoleum.
“There were repressions, but they should not overshadow the greatness achieved by the country,” said 48-year-old businessman Roman Fomin. “For many Stalin means victory, economic growth and prosperity. Many people would like his return.”
Stalin’s role in Russian history has split society for decades.
His image is openly used in Victory Day celebrations for the end of World War II while the 1930s-era purges, the murderous collectivisation of the peasantry, and the feared network of Gulag camps that together claimed millions of lives are largely absent from public discourse.
“I flew in from Kamchatka,” said Larisa Tokunova, a 50-year-old lawyer from Russia’s easternmost region, calling Stalin a “genius” who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower.
“If we manage to restore our country, it can only be according to his plan,” she said.
Stalin is often praised for creating the post-war Soviet empire that stretched from the Baltic states to the Caucasus, Central Asia and beyond to the Pacific coast.
Even in Georgia, the dictator’s birthplace where the pro-Western government has instituted reforms aimed at erasing pro-Stalin propaganda, scores of people rallied on Tuesday, praising his glory.
Around 100, most elderly, Georgians gathered outside the small wooden hut where Stalin, an ethnic Georgian whose real surname was Dzhugashvili, was born in Gori, 76km from the capital Tbilisi.
“Stalin is not part of our past, he is the future of the whole of humankind,” 84-year-old Arhil Jirkvelishvili said, still furious that Stalin’s monument had been dismantled in Gori’s central square in 2010.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president between 2008 and last year, has said he views Stalin’s legacy “negatively” and even attempted a “de-Stalinisation” campaign.
But current President Vladimir Putin, who once called the breakup of the Soviet Union one of history’s great tragedies, has avoided any evaluation of the Soviet leader.
In an opinion poll this month by the independent Levada Centre, 49 per cent of Russians said they viewed Stalin’s role as positive, while 32 per cent disagreed.
Fifty-five per cent said his death on March 5, 1953 marked the end of terror and purges and the return of many wrongly convicted people from the camps. Only 18 per cent said they associated the date with the loss of a great leader.
The poll also found that 55 per cent were against a proposal from the Russian authorities to return the Soviet-era name of Stalingrad to the city of Volgograd, site of a defining World War II battle.
Stalin died at the age of 74 at his dacha outside the capital, but information about his death was not communicated by the authorities for hours, and many conspiracy theories suggest that he was murdered by his inner circle.
His body was later displayed in Moscow, and hordes of people attempted to get one last glimpse of the leader. Thousands are believed to have been crushed to death by the crowd during his funeral, although official figures have never been published.
National channel NTV began airing a six-part historical documentary series titled “Stalin is with us” over the weekend.
“Stalin is always with us and divides us as if he were standing for elections tomorrow,” the show’s narrator said.
“Attempts to deny the crimes of the Soviet state are doomed to failure,” business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial on Tuesday.
“But there is still no agreement regarding the significance of the Stalin period in Soviet history.”