MOSCOW (Reuters) - Supporters of former Communist dictator Josef Stalin laid flowers on his grave Tuesday to mark the 131st anniversary of his birth in a show of support at a time when his legacy is hotly debated in Russia.
A crowd of about 500 mostly elderly citizens waved red hammer-and-sickle flags gas and cheered as speakers denounced Kremlin moves to balance Stalin's hero status with reminders of the oppression and violence that marked his rule.
"Again we reaffirmed that Stalin's era was the most productive, victorious and unique in the history of our state," Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov said.
President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to launch a new "de-Stalinisation" drive in January to battle the Soviet leader's lingering cult status with an education campaign on the millions who died in purges, forced collectivization, and Gulag hard labor camps under his orders.
But his legacy remains one of the most sensitive issues in Russia and rights groups have voiced alarm over attempts by officials, especially during Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency, to whitewash his crimes in textbooks and play up his role in industrializing the country.
For the nostalgic supporters who filed onto Red Square on Tuesday, Stalin remains revered for his almost 30-year rule when he led Russia to the status of a great power and defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. He died in 1953.
"I spit in the faces of anyone who talks to me of de-Stalinisation," said Vladimir Markov, a doctor who worked with the Soviet space program.
"Stalin was our atom and our universe. Stalin was our path to the stars. My generation has him in their blood. You see wisened, courageous faces of these old people."
Some sang Soviet military marches, others held Stalin portraits and banners lambasting Russia's ruling elite aloft, as they laid red carnations at Lenin's Mausoleum and Stalin's granite tomb.
The Georgian-born Stalin was voted Russia's third most popular historical figure in a 2008 nationwide poll.