Earlier in December, big billboards appeared in the western Russian city of Voronezh inviting locals to a free party. A birthday party for Josef Stalin.
Not everyone in the city of about 1 million, however, is flattered by the invitation to celebrate the 140th birthday of the late dictator, who was responsible for the persecution and killing of millions of his own citizens when he ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953.
The celebration is being organized by the local branch of the Communist Party and is slated to be held in the local House of the Actor, the city's center for the theatrical community. And that community is waging a campaign to pressure the venue to cancel the event by gathering signatures on an online open letter.
"Stalin has become a source of discord within the Russian nation, of arguments and disputes," the letter states. "We side with those who condemn him as a tyrant and who rehabilitated the victims of his repressions. We do not think it is morally possible to watch calmly as people honor, within the walls of [a center of] human culture, a man whose deeds brought so much misery to our people."
The letter was the initiative of Boris Alekseyev, artistic director of the city's Nikitinsky Theater. On December 12, the daily Kommersant reported that about 1,000 people had signed it so far.
The event is set for December 21, the 140th anniversary of the official date of his birth used during his lifetime -- December 21, 1879. After Stalin's death, however, historians established that his real date of birth was December 18, 1878.
The 10 large billboards feature a uniformed, stern-faced Stalin against the background of the Soviet hammer and sickle, with the slogan "The 140th anniversary of the leader of a great power."
"We invite you to a celebratory gathering on December 21 at 1 p.m. at the House of the Actor," the billboards state.
Local Communist Party secretary Sergei Rudakov defended the billboards in comments to Kommersant. "We wanted to remind city residents of this round anniversary and invited them to the celebratory gathering," he said. "We need to mark important [historical] dates."
'If You Don't Like Stalin, Don't Come'
Communists in other Russian cities are also reportedly planning events to mark Stalin's birthday. Earlier this month, a library in the southern city of Stavropol postponed a December 11 event scheduled to mark the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago and other writings vividly exposed Stalin's crimes. Instead, on the same day, local communists met in the library in one of a series of events dedicated to Stalin's anniversary.
A Communist Party official in Stavropol, Viktor Lozovy, was quoted in local media as saying the event was "exclusively a history event without banners or Communist Party flags."
"If you don't like Stalin," he said, "don't come and don't listen."
When the national Communist Party approvingly posted photographs of the Voronezh billboards on its VK social-media page, hundreds of commenters urged other branches of the party to follow the example.
"Why don't we place such billboards in Moscow?" one commentator wrote.
"And why is this only in Voronezh?" asked another.
Activists seeking to preserve the memory of Stalin's victims and ensure history is not repeated say that Stalin's reputation has been gradually rehabilitated in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, with state media and officials often presenting the dictator as "an effective manager" whose leadership was crucial to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Various monuments to Stalin have popped up in numerous cities across Russia, usually at the initiative of local Communist Party chapters.
Under Stalin, millions of people were executed, sent to labor camps, or starved to death in famines caused by forced collectivization. During World War II, entire ethnic groups were deported to remote areas as collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
Communists in Voronezh launched a similar campaign 10 years ago in a bid to mark Stalin's 130th birthday. However, the billboards were taken down after a few days following a public outcry that Voronezh Communist Rudakov said was "primarily initiated from abroad."
Voronezh municipal lawmaker Andrei Pomerantsev, of the Communist Party, told the Regnum news agency that he was surprised by the scandal. "We are planning to start by relating the story of the historical personality of Josef Stalin," he said. "Then there will be a music-and-dance presentation. We live in a democratic country and everyone can express their opinion."
"What's wrong with Stalin anyway?" Pomerantsev asked.