But Putin's view of history appears to have undergone a startling transformation. Last month, the Russian leader praised the 1939 nonaggression accord with Hitler as a clever maneuver that forestalled war with Germany. Stalin's 29-year reign, generally seen by Russians in recent years as a dark and bloody chapter in the nation's history, has lately been applauded by Putin and his supporters as the foundation on which the great Soviet superpower was built.
Across a resurgent Russia, Stalin lives again, at least in the minds and hearts of Russian nationalists who see Putin as heir to the former dictator's model of iron-fisted rule. Recent tributes celebrate Stalin's military command acumen and geopolitical prowess. His ruthless repression of enemies, real and imagined, has been brushed aside by today's Kremlin leader as the cost to be paid for defeating the Nazis. As Putin has sought to recover territory lost in the 1991 Soviet breakup, his Stalinesque claim to a right to a "sphere of influence" has allowed him to legitimize the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and declare an obligation to defend Russians and Russian speakers beyond his nation's borders.
Putin's embrace of Stalin's power-play tactics is applauded by many Russians and other former Soviet citizens as the sort of decisive leadership they longed for while watching communism collapse around them. To the proponents of a reinvigorated Russia, reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, are seen as having submitted Russia to Western domination. A poll this spring by the independent Levada Center found 39% of respondents had a positive opinion of Stalin. As to the millions killed, 45% of those surveyed agreed that the deaths could be justified for the greater accomplishments of winning the war, building modern industries and growing to eventually give their U.S. nemesis a battle for supremacy in the arms race and conquering outer space.
The share of Russians who look back approvingly has been increasing steadily in recent years, and the segment of those who tell pollsters they have no opinion on his place in their history has shot up even more sharply, said Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center. He points to this year's massive Victory Day events as the Kremlin's message to ungrateful neighbors that they owe their peace and prosperity to the wartime deaths of more than 20 million Soviet citizens.
"The figure of Stalin is being justified through the war," Volkov said. "There is an attitude now that, yes, there were repressions and, yes, there were huge losses, but we won the war after all."
Victory exonerated Stalin's excesses, just as it does Putin's "strongman" posture toward neighbors and former Soviet subjects now outside the Russian Federation's borders, Volkov said.
Stalin has weathered more than six decades of historical revisions to maintain his standing as a rival to the West, "which is the context in which he interests Putin," said Nikolai Svanidze, a writer and historian whose grandfathers died in Stalin's political purges.
"Just as Stalin defeated the West 70 years ago by capturing half of Europe," Svanidze said, "we are defeating the West again today. Crimea is our Berlin, our Reichstag, and there is no way it will be restored to Ukraine in the foreseeable future."
Svanidze also predicts there will be no more credible elections as long as Putin chooses to stay in power. That, he said, is another parallel with Stalin's lifetime sinecure as Soviet leader.