In the week that some Russians are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of former Soviet leader Stalin, others in places like Kazakhstan denounce what has become known as Stalin’s rehabilitation.
In the northern Kazakh village of Dolinka, a cemetery marks the spot where ethnic Germans and other prisoners deported from the Soviet Union died in labour camps. In one field, hundreds of children are buried.
A museum has also been built to remember the victims of Stalin’s purges.
German researcher Achim Schmillen said: “I wouldn’t say it’s definitely a taboo issue, but it’s not discussed much, though it is of great historical significance.”
When Stalin died in 1953, most of what were known as gulag camps were closed down. Millions of ethnic Germans and Soviet dissidents died in camps scattered from Russia’s arctic tundra to the Kazakh steppe. Debate continues about Stalin’s role in Soviet history: he was a hero for some, a villain to others.
Yekatarina Kuznetsova, an expert on the gulag camps, said: “The present political situation in Russia – the quiet, creeping rehabilitation of Stalin, the promotion of his name, this constant wish for a ‘strong hand’ for order, let’s say – this is a big worry, because a strong hand never means freedom.”
Last week hundreds of people in Kazakhstan held a protest, accusing their government of putting good relations with Russia ahead of doing more to address historical grievances.
Labour camp survivor Mikhail Shmulyov said: “On the 1st of May people carry portraits of Stalin and Lenin. Young people march with them. It’s shocking. They need to know, we need to tell them, who these people really were.”
Russia denies accusations that it is attempting to whitewash Stalin’s legacy. In October the Russian President paid homage to the victims, saying the crimes of the past should not be forgotten. But pro-Stalin events are becoming more visible in Russia.