- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

MOSCOW Fifty years have passed since Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, but many Russians still revere him as a great leader who defeated Hitler and made the Soviet Union a superpower, despite his devastating purges that killed millions of people.
Opposite Moscow's Lubyanka, the headquarters of Stalin's secret police where political prisoners were tortured and interrogated before being herded like cattle onto trains to labor camps in Siberia and the far north, stands a small black-stone memorial to his victims.
But Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov provoked liberal fury last year by proposing to restore in the same place a huge statue of Lenin's secret police chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky who also carried out mass executions that was torn down by pro-democracy crowds in 1991.
Inside the Kremlin walls, President Vladimir Putin, a career officer in the KGB who later headed its present-day successor, the Federal Security Service, has spent the last three years trying to bring back his ideal of a strong state inspired by the Soviet past.
"Putin has sympathy for the view that Stalin made this country great, although the repressions were unfair," said Arseny Roginsky, whose father was shot under Stalin and who now heads Memorial, the Russian human-rights organization.
"Russia will not be able to reconcile itself to this period of history anytime in the near future. It will take decades in the best-case scenario," he said.
A dictator who cast a shadow over the 20th century comparable to Hitler in world history books, Stalin's nearly 30-year reign of terror reached a peak in the late 1930s, when mass trials were held to liquidate all opposition.
Documents officially recorded 800,000 people shot during the Soviet period, but up to 30 million people are estimated by Western historians to have died between 1918 and 1956 in Stalinist repression, civil war, famine and collectivization.
Yet today in Russia, the "father of the people" is widely remembered not for the staggering human cost of his rule but for making Moscow a leading world power through rapid industrialization and victory in World War II.
Stalin should be praised for pulling off a monumental task in dragging his vast, backward country into the modern era, said Communist Party historian Alexander Senyavsky, who pointed out that at the start of the 20th century in Russia, 85 percent of the population were illiterate peasants.
"Without collectivization and industrialization at this forced pace, we couldn't have defeated Hitler. You cannot equate Nazism, which tried to make one race dominate the entire world, with a regime that pursued, even with harsh methods, justifiable aims," he said.
After a decade of turmoil and economic hardship since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Stalin's time also has become a nostalgic memory, sociologist Boris Dubin said.
Russia's Public Opinion Foundation found in a recent poll that 36 percent of Russians thought Stalin "did more good than bad for the country," while 29 percent disagreed with that statement.
A poll conducted in 1994 showed that 26 percent had a favorable impression of Stalin.
"If you go away from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the provinces, you will hear only good things about Stalin," said Yury Zhukov, a historian from the Moscow Institute of Russian History.
"For ordinary people, the 1930s is a period when life began to improve. They don't think about the victims of repression; it didn't affect them," he said.
The Russian government has shown a reluctance to condemn Stalinism, despite the famous 1956 speech by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, before the 20th party congress criticizing the excesses of Stalin's rule, and the freewheeling public debate during glasnost in the late 1980s.
The government has never compensated the surviving victims of Stalinism and relatives of those who died in the repression, although Russians who served as slave labor under Nazi Germany received payments from a German compensation fund.
Under Mr. Putin, the attitude toward the Stalinist past has taken a step backward. The current president has restored several Soviet symbols, including Stalin's national anthem (with new lyrics) the same tune played to wake up prisoners in Stalinist labor camps.
If Russia is to overcome its ambivalence about the crimes of Stalin, the government must lead the way by publicly condemning Stalinism, making schools teach about it, funding nationwide exhibitions and erecting memorials to the victims across the country, says Mr. Roginsky of Memorial.
Until this is done, the damaging legacy of Stalin will continue to haunt Russians and keep them submissive toward a state that disregards its citizen rights, he says, pointing to the authorities' handling of the Moscow hostage crisis in October.
Of the 800 hostages seized by Chechen guerrillas in a Moscow theater, 129 died during the three-day siege all but two of them killed by a powerful sleeping gas used by Russian special forces in a rescue operation.
"Stalin and the Stalinist mentality is everywhere. The idea that the state is everything and the individual nothing is still all-pervasive," said Mr. Roginsky.
Susana Pechuro, 69, who spent five years in prisons and labor camps, says the lesson of totalitarianism is that the individual has to earn his own freedom.
"I think that Stalin was unavoidable for us like Hitler in Germany. It wasn't some external evil, it was a reflection of our system and mentality.
"People say Stalin was guilty for everything, but that takes away society's responsibility. There's no point in demonizing him. You have to think about how to change this country," she said.

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