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Mixed Feelings, As Russia Marks 130 Years Since Stalin's Birth

Russian Communist Party activists lay flowers and wreaths at Josef Stalin's gravesite at the Kremlin on December 21.
Russian Communist Party activists lay flowers and wreaths at Josef Stalin's gravesite at the Kremlin on December 21.
MOSCOW -- Millions of Soviet citizens perished in prison camps and ethnic-deportation campaigns under the reign of Josef Stalin.

Nonetheless, he remains one of Russia's most popular historical figures, remembered fondly as a strong leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II.

"Comrades! The Great Patriotic War has ended with our complete victory," Stalin told Soviet citizens in a radio broadcast on May 10, 1945. "The period of war in Europe has come to an end. A period of peaceful development has now begun."

It was 130 years ago today that Stalin was born, as Iosif Dzhugashvili, in the Georgian town of Gori.

Russia's Communist Party is marking the anniversary with a wreath-hanging ceremony at Stalin's Kremlin gravesite and numerous marches in his honor.

"Between 3,000 and 5,000 people went. They kept coming and coming and coming, and we placed [flowers], and people were still coming," says Nikolai Kharitonov, a Communist lawmaker in the State Duma who was among those who went to Stalin's grave today. "That's why it's a holiday. I'm the son of an officer who served under the leadership of the Generalissimo Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin."

Communists handed out medals to a number of famous sportsmen, including former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, to commemorate Stalin's birth. Party members also called for a moratorium on criticism of the controversial leader to allow people time to reflect on his accomplishments.

Polling Well

A recent poll indicates that most Russians already view Stalin's regime favorably. The survey, by the VTsIOM center for public opinion shows that 54 percent of Russians view Stalin's leadership qualities favorably. Only 8 percent, by contrast, gave a low assessment.

Last year, Stalin placed third in a television poll to identify the greatest Russian ever, behind 13th-century warrior Alexander Nevsky and early 20th-century reformer Pyotr Stolypin.

The political resurrection of Stalin's legacy has coincided with the rise of Vladimir Putin during the past decade. Many critics say the Kremlin has purposely burnished Stalin's legacy to feed public enthusiasm for a new generation of strong leaders.

Such trends are deeply disturbing to activists like Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial, a human rights group formed to honor the victims of Stalinist repression.

"I think that you shouldn't do anything on this day, as it's not a special day," says Shcherbakova. "The fact that it has become a special day in Russia is a huge problem, and says a lot about the chaos in the minds of our people and society."

WATCH: Stalin is reappearing underground in Russia.

Stalin Returns To The Moscow Metro
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More than 30 percent of people say they would like to see Stalin as a leader today, according to the VTsIOM poll, a view that Shcherbakova calls "sad."

"It's not just that Stalin isn't leaving us, but that he appears again and again in people's consciousness, and as an alternative," Shcherbakova says. "It shows that people don't have a notion of the past, or the past is so mythologized and deformed that it has nothing in common with the real past of the country."

Official Cool

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev surprised many this fall by openly criticizing the Stalin regime.

Speaking in a video blog on Russia's day of remembrance for the victims of political repression, Medvedev called Stalin's repression "one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia" and said he was "convinced that no development, no successes or ambitions of the country can be achieved at the expense of human grief and losses."

The state response to the anniversary has been muted. Russian television had no leading coverage of the day's events. And a new exhibit at a central gallery, timed to coincide with the anniversary, is designed to show the dictator at his most spiteful.

The exhibit, entitled "Messages from the Great Leader," consists of a series of 19th- and 20th-century nude drawings by famous artists defaced by handwritten notes by Stalin, in an attempt to taunt his party comrades.

One expletive-filled comment scribbled across the leg of a male nude is directed at Karl Radek, the former head of the Comintern, the international communist organization, who was believed to have been shot dead by Soviet secret police in 1939 at the height of Stalin's Great Terror.

"Ginger bastard Radek, if he hadn't pissed against the wind, if he hadn't been angry, he would be alive," Stalin's scribbles read.

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