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21 Dec, 2009 16:24

Stalin: feared and revered

Today marks 130 years since the birth of Joseph Stalin, one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century.

At the Russian Communist party–inspired event, about 1,500 people came to the Kremlin wall on Monday to lay flowers on Stalin’s grave. All current communist leaders were also present. While the party is underway, many people still shudder at the very sound of Joseph Stalin’s name.

130 years after his birth, Joseph Stalin remains one of the most polarizing figures in Russia’s history, reviled as a mass murderer by some, praised as a savior by others. A person of humble beginnings, yet with a legacy that is larger than life.

“I don’t care what politicians are saying about him now. In several centuries, Georgia, the Caucasus, or Russia could disappear from the political map, but memories of Stalin will remain,” assures Grigory Oniani, chairman of Stalin society. “Scientists will be studying our era through Stalin as they did with Alexander the Great or Napoleon.”

Beaten as a child, neglectful as a husband, and distant as a father. Historians argue as to whether he was capable of loving. One way or another, he is held responsible for ruining the lives of millions.

One of them is Zorya Serebryakova, who was 13 years old when her father, a prominent communist, was sentenced to death as a traitor.

“We say 'Stalin's repressions, but we don't realize repressions are a form of punishment. My father was punished for a crime he could not and did not commit,” says Zorya Serebryakova. “Later, people were shot without trial, without paperwork or any explanation.”

With hundreds of thousands executed in the Great Purge, plus around 2 million perishing in labor camps, historians say Stalin brought more suffering to his people than any other Soviet leader.

But for his grandson, all these are lies. Evgeny Dzhugashvili’s father died in Nazi captivity after Stalin refused to bail him out. Yet, the family has always treated their Kremlin relative with awe.

“I’d never call him Grandpa, simply because I’ve never seen him in person. He’s always been Comrade Stalin for me,” says Stalin’s grandson Evgeny Dzhugashvili. “I have great respect for what he did for the country… As for the purges, we have to put that in context. The revolution had just happened, the country was awash with traitors and if Stalin hadn’t ordered the purges, Hitler would have reached Siberia within a month.”

It was Stalin’s role in the Second World War, his ability to mobilize resources and motivate troops that supporters usually cite as his greatest achievement. Adding to that his drive to modernize the country, some Russians go as far as to call Stalin an “effective manager”. But others disagree.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has officially condemned the purges, saying repression has no justification. “We still hear that the many victims of Stalin's regime were justified by higher state goals. I’m convinced that the country’s development, its success and ambitions cannot be realized at the cost of grief and loss. Nothing can be put above human life,” Medvedev said.

New facets of Stalin's personality are still being revealed, like his interest in sketches of nude models. His comments reveal a bizarre sense of humor.

“One thoughtful fool is worse than 10 enemies,” reads one inscription made by him. “If he hadn't pissed against the wind, he would’ve survived,” says another.

Historian Eduard Radzinsky says “Stalin had many sides to him. He could be rude – even profane – in his language, but he could also be charming and well-spoken. The most striking thing about him is that he didn’t believe people – probably because he understood himself too well.”

In Moscow, where monuments to Stalin were once must-sees, only three now remain.

Stalin was laid to rest twice. First, his embalmed body was interred in the Mausoleum on Red Square together with Vladimir Lenin, and then, eight years later, after his personality cult was denounced, he was buried next to the Kremlin walls. Yet, more than half a century after Stalin's death, his legacy continues, pitting Russians against one another: those who will not forget his grandiose achievements and those who cannot forgive his monstrous crimes.

Read also: Russians don’t need another Stalin today