MOSCOW - MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian Communist Party asked the nation Monday for a daylong moratorium on criticizing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as they celebrate his 130th birthday.
Despite overseeing political purges and widespread famine that killed millions of Soviet citizens, Stalin is still embraced by many Russians nostalgic for Soviet times.
His popularity has even risen in recent years amid a Kremlin-backed campaign to burnish his image as the man who led the nation to victory in World War II.
"We would very much like for any discussion of the mistakes of the Stalin epoch to be silenced today, so that people could reflect on Stalin's personality as a creator, a thinker and a patriot," Communist deputy parliament speaker Ivan Melnikov said on the party's Web site. The Communists represent the country's second most powerful political party after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia.
Hundreds of Communists on Monday laid flowers at Stalin's grave on Moscow's Red Square, and about 3,000 people attended an evening concert in his honor. In his home town of Gori in what is now independent Georgia, a few hundred admirers including his grandson marched to a towering statue of the dictator in the main square.
Stalin — born as Josef Dzhugashvili on Dec. 21, 1879 — was among the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, and maneuvered to discredit his rivals and consolidate control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after the 1924 death of its first leader, Vladimir Lenin. Stalin ruled with an iron fist until his own death in 1953, having unleashed brutal purges which killed millions of people. Millions more died in a famine triggered by his brutal collectivization of agriculture and confiscation of grain to fund the frenetic industrialization drive.
His legacy of repression and persecution, however, only became fully known in Russia after the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, lifted the taboo against criticizing Stalin as part of the 1980s perestroika campaign of political and economic reforms that precipitated the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse.
A core of followers, mainly elderly people educated before perestroika, nevertheless upholds that Stalin was a valiant leader whose iron grip on the nation was needed to ensure security and industrial growth.
"In Stalin's name, our grandfathers and grandmothers went into battle, they died with his name on their lips. They built our country's industry, so for them Stalin means a lot," said Yevgeny Teterev, a member of the Young Communist Organization laying flowers at Stalin's grave.
"What does he mean for me? First of all he is a great personality of global dimensions," Teterev said.
Most Russians — 54 percent — have a high opinion of Stalin's leadership qualities, according to a survey released Friday by state-run polling agency VTsIOM, while only 23 percent rate his personal character traits as below average. The survey questioned 1,600 people nationwide Dec. 5-6 and gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Putin, like the Communists, has made efforts to rehabilitate Stalin's image, lauding his drive to industrialize the Soviet Union and his victory over the Nazis as deserving of respect despite the human cost.
"In my view, you cannot make one gross assessment," Putin said during his annual live radio and TV call-in show on Dec. 3. "Any historical events need to be analyzed in their entirety."
Some have criticized Putin's drive as an effort to whitewash history and paint Stalin in a positive light in order to justify the Kremlin's own growing power and retreat from democracy.
Even President Dmitry Medvedev has taken a more critical stand against Stalinism — a sign that the issue is still debated both among Russia's political elite as well as its populace.
"It is impossible to imagine the scale of the terror inflicted on the people of our country," Medvedev said in his video blog on Oct. 30, the day commemorating the victims of Stalinist repression. "I am convinced that no national development, no success, no ambitions can be achieved at the price of human suffering and death."
The remarks represent perhaps the Kremlin's strongest condemnation of Soviet repression since Putin, Medvedev's predecessor, became president almost a decade ago.
The leader of the opposition Yabloko party, Sergei Mitrokhin, warned against reading too much into Medvedev's more liberal rhetoric. "This statement had appeal on the day of remembrance, but he has never followed with any actions or a united program of de-Stalinization in the government," Mitrokhin said Monday.
At the time of Stalin's birth, Georgia was part of the Russian Empire and was later absorbed into the Soviet Union.
On Monday about 300 mainly elderly people carrying Soviet flags and copies of Stalin's portrait gathered in his home town of Gori to praise Stalin for transforming the country from an agrarian society into an industrial superpower.
Associated Press Writer Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed reporting from Gori, Georgia.