Law student Mikhail Kosyrev used to have a negative view of Stalin but his attitude has drastically changed in recent years, he said, insisting the wartime tyrant meant well.
“Over the past five years I’ve often watched documentary films about Stalin, about that time on television and learnt more about him,” the 29-year-old told AFP.
“And now I don’t have any negative feelings towards him. He had good intentions.”
Since President Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, there has been a growing chorus of Russians who take a positive view of the Soviet tyrant’s role in history.
Those attitudes have changed so dramatically on the back of a recent burst of patriotic fervour whipped up by state-controlled media that some analysts speak of a creeping rehabilitation of Stalin.
The palpable change in how Russians perceive the moustachioed despot has particularly come into stark focus in the run-up to Russia’s celebrations of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.
Banners featuring Stalin whose name is inseparably tied to the history of the 1941-1945 conflict known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War were spotted in Moscow and Magadan, a former transit point in a vast network of Stalinist labour camps.
A poster praising Stalin appeared in a Saint Petersburg high school last month, while Kremlin-backed military enthusiasts are preparing to open a museum dedicated to the Soviet dictator in a village west of Moscow.
In February, Russia unveiled a monument to the watershed 1945 “Big Three” Yalta summit that features Stalin along with US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, despite objections from Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group persecuted under his rule.
– ‘Unlearnt lessons’ –
“Stalin’s rehabilitation is being steadily implemented,” Nikita Petrov, a historian at Memorial, Russia’s most prominent rights organisation, told AFP.
“It’s a sign of unlearnt history lessons, a reluctance to look at yourself and honestly admit that we took the wrong path and that our country committed a host of crimes against its own people and the people of neighbouring states.”
He said officials, who are nostalgic for the superpower status of the USSR, have consciously been promoting Stalin as a tough leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in WWII and presided over the country’s industrialisation.
Those sentiments are now shared by many everyday Russians.
According to a study by the respected Levada Centre pollster, 45 percent of respondents said in March that sacrifices sustained by people under Stalin were justified by the country’s “great goals”, up from 27 percent in October 2008.
On top of that, the number of those who viewed Stalin negatively fell to 20 percent from 43 percent in April 2001, the pollster said.
Putin has been ambivalent about the role of Stalin, condemning the “ugliness” of state-sponsored terror but also saying his regime should not be compared to that of Nazi Germany.
“The Stalin regime never aimed to exterminate entire ethnic groups,” the Russian president said during his televised phone-in last month.
Nearly 60 years after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes and his “cult of personality” at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, the tyrant remains a hugely polarising figure in Russia.
– ‘Stalin in our genes’ –
“Stalin is still in our genes, it’s hard to be a boss without his methods,” said popular author Viktor Yerofeyev.
Writing in Ogonyok magazine, Yerofeyev said he had heard of two men with heart problems who died after having a heated dispute about Stalin in an intensive care unit after undergoing surgery.
The precise number of deaths caused by the Stalin regime remains a subject of debate.
According to Petrov of the Memorial rights group, which is dedicated to honouring the memory of Stalin-era victims, about ten million people died of starvation, more than five million were displaced, and about six to seven million were arrested for political reasons.
Many analysts warn that unless Russians get the Stalin cult out of their system history may repeat itself.
“As long as history in Russia is presented as a chain of triumphs and victories over enemies, without an honest attitude towards our forefathers’ mistakes and crimes, we will have no safeguards against a repeat of the purges,” the Gazeta.ru online newspaper wrote.
But law student Kosyrev appears unconvinced. He said that like Putin, who is locked in a battle of wills with the West, Stalin was also guided by the interests of his country.
“I see what is happening in Ukraine, how America is putting pressure on us over Ukraine and I think things back then were not easier and there was no other way for him.”