by Claire Bigg
Like many pensioners in Russia, 63-year-old Maria Vinokurova keeps fond memories of the Stalin era.
More than anything, she longs for what she describes as superior living standards under the long-time Soviet ruler. She says she would like to see a monument to Stalin erected in Moscow, a desire that is becoming a reality in a number of Russian cities.
"He hasn't done anything bad to me. Everything was cheaper then, the pensions were enough to live on, and salaries were not bad. What can I say about him? I've never seen him from up close, only on television. I have a good opinion of him. For me, he was a decent person," Vinokurova said.
Russian pensioners, whose living standards have been plummeting since the collapse of the Soviet Union, are looking back to the Stalin years with growing nostalgia.
For many communists and war veterans, the Soviet leader is regarded as a hero who led the country to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
In the confusion of post-Soviet Russia, however, nostalgia for Stalin's iron-fisted rule is also finding an increasingly receptive audience among younger Russians disillusioned by market economy and Western values.
Algis Adomavichus is a 52-year-old driver of Baltic descent who lives in Moscow. He says he is grateful to Stalin for making Russia into a superpower. "Stalin got a country that had nothing and left it with nuclear weapons and all the rest," he said. "Such a leader would be desirable [today]. The regime is following this same path now anyway. He doesn't disturb me."
Viktor Ninashvili, a middle-aged man working in the sports industry, also describes Stalin's role as positive. He doesn't see anything "evil" about erecting a statue of Stalin in the Russian capital. "Despite all his shortcomings, he played a positive role," he said. "World War II showed that."
Rights groups have voiced concern over the growing public approval of Stalin in Russia.
Today, many Russians only softly condemn the massive Stalin-led purges that took tens of millions of lives. Some Russians even deny the purges took place.
In an indication of Stalin's growing popularity across the country, three cities have announced plans to erect monuments to Stalin in recognition of his wartime achievements. Almost all his statues were pulled down during the de-Stalinization campaign spearheaded by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev.
A movement is afoot in Volgograd to restore the city's previous name, Stalingrad, and a recent poll has shown that nearly half of Russians view Stalin in a positive light. One in four respondents said they would vote for Stalin if he were running for office today.
The festivities held in Moscow on May 9 to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II have been an occasion for Stalin supporters to once more hail his historical role.
Speaking at a huge communist rally in central Moscow on 9 May, Communist Party chief Gennadii Zyuganov praized Stalin as a "great leader and supreme commander."
The same day, at the official parade on Red Square attended by over 50 foreign heads of state, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no public mention of the Soviet wartime leader. But critics say that Putin's reluctance to speak about Stalin -- particularly to criticize his authoritarian rule -- does nothing to quell the nascent cult of Stalin in Russia and may even encourage it.
Aleksandr Cherkasov, a leading expert at the Memorial human rights group, says Putin in his own way is tapping into Stalin nostalgia in hopes of consolidating his own power.
"In the 1990s, nostalgia for Soviet times arose as a way to reject post-Soviet reality," Cherkasov said. "Nowadays, it is the authorities who are in charge of history. In the past, Putin declared that the future of Russia is its great past. He is rationalizing this nostalgia for the past and trying to place it at the base of his political program."
Cherkasov says that the reemerging glorification of Stalin is a sign that what he describes as the Kremlin's "political PR" in favor of Stalin is starting to bear fruit.
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