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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin welcomed on Tuesday the publication of a school version of Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," calling it essential reading.
Solzhenitsyn's monumental chronicle of suffering in the Gulag labor camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was banned in the Soviet Union after its 1973 publication in the West.
"This book is much-needed," state television showed Putin telling Solzhenitsyn's widow Natalya, in unusual remarks for the former KGB officer who has credited Stalin with turning the Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse.
Natalya, who was widowed two years ago, has created an abridged version for Russian school children which is a quarter the length of the multi-tomed original. State media said it would be mandatory to teach it to 16 and 17 year-olds.
"Without knowing what is laid out here, we will not have a full understanding of our country and we will have difficulty thinking about the future," Putin told Natalya.
Natalya, with grey hair and black clothes, said an initial 10,000 copies have been made for schools and libraries.
Russian rights campaigners have been alarmed by what they see as an attempt by some officials -- especially during Putin's years as president from 2000-08 -- to play down Stalinist atrocities by focusing on his achievements.
Last year activists and Western diplomats condemned a new school textbook compiled with the help of an historian from Putin's ruling United Russia party, which mentions the repressions under Stalin but also depicts him as a good manager.
Like many Russians, Putin has said Stalin deserves praise for his victory in World War Two, but has criticized his vast purges of opponents. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has condemned Stalin's rule.
For more than 20 years, Solzhenitsyn, a bearded World War Two veteran who spent eight years in labor camps for criticizing the Soviet government, became a symbol of intellectual resistance to Communist rule.
He attracted international attention after the publication in 1962 of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," which chronicled the life of a labor camp prisoner, and in 1970 won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship in 1974 and he moved to Europe and then on to the United States.
Solzhenitsyn surprised western intellectuals when he returned to post-Communist Russia in 1994 and became patriotic.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Noah Barkin