The Telegraph's Russia correspondent reports:
A couple of years ago I was in the Battle of Stalingrad Museum in the city now known as Volgograd.
On the wall of museum director Boris Usik’s office hung two paintings, one a delicate watercolour of the late Queen Mother, the other a heroic depiction of Josef Stalin in oils.
Seeing the old tyrant hung so prominently in a state official’s office was unnerving at the time. While the odd statue of Stalin had been restored in a couple of village squares, the man who subjected Russia to 31 years of terror had largely disappeared from public view.
Yet over the past couple of years it has once again become cool to revere Stalin, and so it was not much of a surprise to learn that the dictator responsible for perhaps 20 million deaths was leading early voting in a nationwide poll to decide the country’s greatest historical figure.
Even during his lifetime, Stalin enjoyed more public support in Russia than many in the West realise. After all, those who opposed him were dispatched to the gulags or their deaths. Others were terrified into silence.
But then, as now, a sizeable chunk of the population either swallowed the propaganda or genuinely believed that Stalin had reinvigorated a moribund nation, turning in to a great power while simultaneously saving Europe from Hitler.
For old Communists like Mr Usik, Stalin’s name is synonymous with stability in a country that has not had much of it of late. What has struck me, however, is Stalin’s cross-generational appeal. I’ve even heard bright young students praise his disastrous agricultural collectivization policies. Most Russians, even his supporters, acknowledge that Stalin had an awful lot of blood on his hands.
But they argue that it was a period in history when Russia needed a tough man at the top. And they argue that there is much more on the positive side of Stalin’s ledger, particularly in the Great Patriotic War.
While the Soviet Union’s role is often minimized in the West, many Russians are unaware of the role played by Britain and the United States in defeating Hitler. They believe the Second World War only began in 1941 and maintain that Russia fought alone for three years until Britain and the United States reluctantly joined the war during the D-Day landings of 1944.
Yet the fact that Stalin’s popularity has also grown in recent years – something attested to in opinion polls – is undoubtedly partly to do with an unofficial state campaign to rehabilitate his image.
A series of television documentaries, films and books released in recent years have proved little less than eulogies. Then the Kremlin began to attack the publishing industry for being beholden to Western grants.
Television news programmes, whose content is dictated by the State, regularly reported that the history text books used in schools had been distorted by the West to skew the representation of Russia’s Communist past.
So a new history guidebook for teachers was published last year which glossed over Stalin’s crimes and ultimately declared him Russia’s greatest leader of the 20th century.
Despite earlier denials that anything of the sort was planned, the work was republished as a children’s text book and while it has not become a mandatory set text most schools know they risk trouble if they try to teach from anything else.
Why is the Kremlin so intent on rehabilitating Stalin? Garry Kasparov, the former chess giant and opposition leader, reckons that by hamming up Stalin’s greatness, Russians will be more inclined to forgive the government’s march towards authoritarianism.
After all, as the old dictum states, he who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.