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Stalin's Appeal Surging Among Russians, Opinion Poll Suggests

A volunteer cleans a bust of Soviet leader Josef Stalin during a community work day in the Muzeon Park of Arts in Moscow on April 13.
A volunteer cleans a bust of Soviet leader Josef Stalin during a community work day in the Muzeon Park of Arts in Moscow on April 13.

Respect among Russians for Josef Stalin rose sharply in the past year and hit its highest levels since at least 2001, according to an opinion poll that could fuel concern that President Vladimir Putin's government is rehabilitating the Soviet dictator blamed for the deaths of millions of his own country's citizens.

A total of 70 percent of the Russians surveyed said that Stalin played a completely positive or relatively positive role in "the life of our country," a jump from the 54 percent recorded in 2016, according to results released by independent pollster Levada Center on April 16.

Only 19 percent said Stalin played a relatively negative or sharply negative role, compared to 30 percent in 2016.

Answering a separate question, more than half of the respondents -- 51 percent -- said they had a positive personal opinion of Stalin.

That figure -- including 4 percent who felt admiration, 41 percent who had respect, and 6 percent who voiced a "liking" for the late autocrat -- was up from 40 percent a year ago and was the highest recorded by Levada since it began conducting such surveys in 2001.

Levada, the only major independent opinion pollster in Russia, questioned 1,600 adults nationwide on March 21-27 for the survey, which was one of several indications that Stalin's popularity has been rising in recent years.

The poll had a margin of error of up to 3.4 percentage points.

'Human Casualties' Vs. 'Great Goals'

Asked whether the "human casualties suffered by the Soviet people in the Stalin era" were justified by "great goals and the results that were achieved in a short period of time," a total of 46 percent of those polled said they were justified completely or to some degree, up from 36 percent in a poll two years ago.

Forty-five percent said they could not be justified, down from 49 percent in 2017.

Historians and Kremlin critics say that under Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, the Russian authorities have sought to play down Stalin's crimes.

While he has criticized Stalin at times, Putin praised the dictator at least once in the past as an "effective manager" and said in June 2017 that the "excessive demonization" of Stalin is "one way of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia."

Hundreds of thousands of people were summarily killed during Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s and millions were sent to the gulag -- camps notorious for their harsh conditions and brutal treatments of prisoners -- under his rule.

Three years after his death in 1953, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's cult of personality and his crimes, which have been documented in more detail and scope since the glasnost era of the late 1980s and the Soviet collapse of 1991.

'Mythological Image'

In October 2017, at the opening ceremony for a Moscow monument called the Wall of Sorrow, Putin said that the "horrific past" of Soviet-era government oppression must not be forgotten and cannot be justified.

Last year, he skipped a ceremony there and made no statement marking the annual Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions.

Arseny Roginsky, an activist who was chairman of the respected rights group Memorial and died in December 2017, accused the authorities of trying to push the memory of Stalin's abuses -- which Memorial has doggedly sought to document -- "to the distant periphery of the consciousness."

Remarks by sociologist Leonty Byzov suggest that enthusiasm for the Soviet leader may not be good news for Putin and his government, even though it is based on a "purely mythological image of Stalin," because it appears to reflect disaffection with those in power now.

"Stalin is seen in society as a defender of the oppressed. The population now feels increasingly abandoned," Russian news outlet RBK quoted Byzov, a researcher at the Sociology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying. "The figure of Stalin is starting to be perceived as a symbol of justice and an alternative to the current authorities, who are judged to be unfair, cruel, and uncaring about the people."

With reporting by RBK and the Moscow Times

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