MOSCOW: Russia on Tuesday marked the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, with the nation divided about whether to view him as a tyrant who slaughtered millions or a saviour who helped turn the country into a global superpower after World War II.
Hundreds of people 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 the 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 under Stalin 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.
“I haven’t heard anything about victims. Those in prison then were criminals,” added 25-year-old Marat Muzayev. “Stalin is victory in the war… He symbolises love for the motherland and the government.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president between 2008 and 2012, has said he views Stalin’s legacy “negatively” and even attempted a destalinisation campaign. President Vladimir Putin, however, has avoided any evaluation of the Soviet leader.
In an opinion poll this month by independent Levada Centre, 49 percent of Russians said they viewed Stalin’s role as positive, while 32 percent disagreed.
Fifty-five percent 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 percent said they associated the date with the loss of a great leader.
The poll also found that 55 percent 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.”