GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is little loved in Russia, but in one corner of the Caucasus mountains he holds the status of a national hero.
The mainly Muslim southern republic of Chechnya plans to build a statue in its capital to honor Khrushchev, 37 years after he died in obscurity after being ousted and shunned by the Communist Party leadership.
Khrushchev, known in the West for his eccentric behavior and blunt style, has a special place in Chechen consciousness — they were among the beneficiaries of his rehabilitation of those purged by his predecessor, Josef Stalin.
In 1956, he invited back those Chechens Stalin had banished to the steppes of Central Asia as punishment for an armed uprising against Soviet rule during World War Two. About 500,000 people — almost the entire population — were exiled.
Today, Chechnya is best known for two vicious wars since 1994 between Moscow’s forces and separatist rebels. The fighting has subsided and the region is rebuilding, allowing people space to reflect on Khrushchev’s role in their turbulent history.
“He’s the main reason we’re in Chechnya today,” said Said-Ali Dovtayev, an economics professor at the Chechen state university in Grozny. “Our parents thanked him for returning us to our homeland.”
Dovtayev grew up in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan, after his family was exiled by Stalin in 1944.
Chechnya has a long history of rebelling against Moscow. As German forces advanced towards the Caucasus region, the Chechens fought skirmishes with Soviet troops and some collaborated with the German military.
But the idea of erecting a statue to Khrushchev came from Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who now professes loyalty to the Kremlin.
“For Chechens he is a hero,” Kadyrov said last year after announcing the tributes to Khrushchev.
Kadyrov has also renamed a scruffy square on the outskirts of Chechnya’s newly rebuilt capital, Grozny, in Khrushchev’s honor.
“Without him nobody knows where we would be,” Dovtayev, the economics professor, said of Khrushchev.
Born into a family of peasants, Khrushchev’s combination of natural intelligence and apparently zealous devotion to Stalin propelled him through the ranks of the Communist Party. When Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev emerged as leader.
Three years later he denounced the ‘cult of personality’ that had surrounded Stalin. But he was to make his own mark, in a way that sometimes alarmed his own countrymen.
Russians looked on in 1956 when Khrushchev ordered tanks to roll into the Hungarian capital Budapest to crush an anti-Soviet uprising. An estimated 2,500 Hungarians died in the military action.
In 1960, Khrushchev memorably removed a shoe and angrily banged it on a table during a debate at the United Nations. He also took the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war with the United States during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Leonid Brezhnev deposed Khrushchev in 1964 while he was out of Moscow on vacation, and the KGB closely watched him until his death in 1971, aged 77.
While the Soviet Union honored its other leaders in death, Khrushchev’s legacy has been largely ignored and he was denied a burial place alongside other dead Soviet leaders in Red Square, where Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body still lies.
At the road junction where Kadyrov plans to build the statue to Khrushchev, a pair of traffic policemen flagged down cars to check documents — a routine procedure in a region that still sees occasional attacks by insurgents.
On one side stand new apartments partly paid for by the large Chechen diaspora in Kazakhstan, and on another, eerie rows of tall Chechen gravestones are a monument to those who died during Stalin’s purge of the Chechens.
But back along Grozny’s repaved roads, past reconstructed apartment blocks and the rebuilt stadium, 22-year-old student Isa Makhmudov said his generation’s view of history was still dominated by the conflict that had just ended.
“For my parents and grandparents he (Khrushchev) is a very important person,” he said. “But in the last 15 years we’ve seen more terrible things and haven’t had the time to consider that Khrushchev allowed us back into Chechnya.”
Editing by Alastair Sharp