In 1989, Joseph Stalin came a distant 10th in the list of Russia’s greatest historical figures, but last year he was voted the third best Russian leader of all times.

After 50 years of official oblivion, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin received a birthday present from the Russian authorities for his 130th anniversary marked for next month. A verse lauding Stalin has been reinstated in the newly restored entrance hall to one of Moscow’s busiest metro stations. A rotunda in the renovated Kurskaya station again bears a line from the 1944 version of the Soviet anthem: “Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism.”

This marked a high-profile return of Stalin 56 years since his death. Stalin’s name and image were erased from streets and buildings across Russia after Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced his “personality cult” and massive reprisals in the famous speech at the historic 20th party congress in 1956. Stalin’s embalmed body was taken out of the Kremlin mausoleum where it lay beside Vladimir Lenin’s, and Stalingrad stripped of its name despite its World War II heroic fame. Numerous monuments to Stalin were pulled down and his name was officially mentioned only when victims of his endless campaigns were remembered. Nobel winning Alexander Solzhenitzyn and other Soviet authors portrayed Stalin as a tyrant, giving detailed accounts of the systematic imprisonment and murder of millions of Russians in the infamous Gulag labour camps.

However, Stalin has staged a remarkable comeback over the past 20 years. Ironically, the process started when the Communist regime he fortified crumbled. In 1989, Stalin came a distant 10th in the list of Russia’s greatest historical figures, but last year he was voted the third best Russian leader of all times. Moreover, at some point in the six-month nationwide poll he took the number one slot and could have finished first had not the organisers appealed to people to vote for someone else.

It is a bewildering turnaround. The answer for this paradox is to be found in the deep trauma the Russian national psyche suffered when the Soviet superpower collapsed and Russia was plunged into a profound economic, social and moral crisis. No matter how hard liberal historians argued that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was inevitable, many Russians pinned the blame for the downfall on the inept and corrupt leadership.

According to Sergey Kurginyan, a political scientist, the current support for Stalin represents “a striving to escape the idiocy that the country was forced into” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As a blogger by the name Valery wrote, Stalin’s achievements were “only three”: “Strong economic growth in the USSR; victory in WW2 and freedom for Europe; nuclear weapons NOT ONLY for the U.S. And no big wars — for 50 years. And no more Hiroshimas/Nagasakis.”

“Was not Stalin the greatest Russian,” the blogger asked rhetorically.

By contrast, there is little Russians can take pride in in the two decades of post-communism. Shock therapy reforms under the former President, Boris Yeltsin, ruined the economy and created oligarchs by giving away the country’s wealth. Bureaucratic lawlessness and total corruption under his successor Vladimir Putin have only made people more nostalgic for the Soviet past. “Public opinion embraces the view that the Soviet elites, for all their shortcomings, worked for the state, whereas today’s elites work only for their own pocket,” said pollster Leonty Byzov.

As memories of Stalin’s atrocities fade away with the demise of his victims, what stays in people’s minds is what Winston Churchill said about him: “Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of nuclear weapons.”

Stalin’s growing popularity is also a reaction to western assertions that he shares the blame with Hitler for starting World War II. Russian delegates to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe stormed out of its annual parliamentary meeting in July after members passed a resolution equating the roles of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union in unleashing WW2. Russians, who hold sacred the memory of 27 million compatriots killed in the war, see such claims as a crude twisting of history designed to malign both the Soviet Union and Russia as its successor.

Bookstores across Russia today offer numerous political biographies and histories that depict Stalin and his era in a predominantly positive light. Statues of Stalin have begun to reappear in provincial towns, the first private museum devoted to him has opened in Volgograd, former Stalingrad, and the city legislature in Oryol a few years ago voted an appeal to the Kremlin leadership to rehabilitate Stalin, arguing that it had never been proved that he was responsible for the death of millions.

Stalin’s resurrection in the Moscow metro, however, provoked a particularly bitter dispute in Russian society. Many historians and human rights activists accused the authorities of trying to whitewash history. They recalled that when Prime Minister Putin was President, the Kremlin commissioned a manual for history teachers that balanced Stalin’s atrocities with praise for his achievements. The manual described him as “the most successful Soviet leader ever,” and suggested that his repressions were an instrument for achieving “maximum efficiency of the ruling elite in mobilising society to accomplish unattainable tasks.” Moscow’s chief architect said there was no hidden agenda in restoring the Kurskaya metro station to its original shape as it was built in 1949. Moreover, he did not rule out returning the Stalin statue which adorned the station.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church was split on the issue. An official spokesman for the Patriarchate of Moscow said there should be no public recognition of “those who are guilty of killing large numbers of innocent people.” However, other clerics said the criticism was misplaced. “Stalinism should be fought against, not in the metro, but in our heads, through literature, cinema, TV and the school,” Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev argued.

Communists, while approving Stalin’s reappearance, saw it as part of a campaign by the ruling United Russia party headed by Mr. Putin to lure traditional Communist supporters by exploiting their nostalgia for the Soviet past. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said his party was going to celebrate Stalin’s 130th birthday in a big way, with rallies and meetings where 50,000 activists would be decorated with a commemorative Stalin medal, especially minted for the occasion.

President Dmitry Medvedev joined the debate in a way that allowed analysts to detect differences and even strains in his power tandem with Mr. Putin. On the day Russia marked the Remembrance Day of the Victims of Political Repression (Oct. 30), Mr. Medvedev went to his video blog to condemn Stalin’s political terror that “wiped out entire strata and classes of our society.” He said it was impermissible “to sanction, under the guise of restoring historical justice, any justification of those who destroyed our people.”

The strong-worded statement signalled a distinct departure from the ambivalence of Mr. Putin, who during his presidency criticised attempts to “impose a feeling of guilt” on Russians for their past. “We did have some terrible chapters in our history … but other countries have had even more terrible histories,” he said at a meeting with history teachers two years ago.

Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin said Mr. Medvedev’s unequivocal condemnation of Stalin pointed to friction in the Kremlin tandem. “This is a signal that there’s a growing gap in values between Putin’s elite and Medvedev’s elite,” the Moscow-based analyst said. “Medvedev has resorted to the oriental tradition of invoking symbols of the past to send a message about the present. It is in the same way that the Chinese invoke Confucius in their political debates.”

Analysts said Mr. Putin had encouraged a subtle burnishing of Stalin to promote the idea that Russia needs a strong leader, a centralised government and the monopoly of one party. “Medvedev apparently does not believe in this concept of development, he favours demonopolisation and competition, and this is the message he sent through his denunciation of Stalinism,” Dr. Oreshkin said.

Even those who take a more benign view of Stalin do not fancy a return to Stalinism. Rather, the debate is on what should be supreme as Russia pursues modernisation — the state or the individual. Mr. Medvedev votes for the individual.

“I believe that no progress of a country, none of its successes or ambitions can be achieved at the price of human losses and grief,” the President said in his video blog. “Nothing can take precedence over the value of human life.”

But the debate is far from over. Pollsters say Russians have an ambivalent attitude to Stalin. According to the independent Levada Center, nearly 70 per cent agree that Stalin was “a cruel tyrant guilty of destroying millions of innocent lives,” and about the same number believe that no matter how many crimes he committed, what counts in the final analysis is that “under Stalin’s leadership Russia won the Great Patriotic War.”

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