MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian communists paid homage on Friday to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, while liberals accused the Kremlin of conniving to whitewash the dictator.
Communist Party chiefs led a procession of largely elderly people across Red Square on the 57th anniversary of Stalin's death, laying flowers at his grave by the Kremlin wall.
The solemn visit is an annual tradition for communists steeped in nostalgia for the Soviet era. But this year, it comes as Russia's bitter debate over Stalin's legacy sharpens ahead of May 9 celebrations marking 65 years since the Nazi defeat.
For the first time in decades, Stalin's image may appear among the banners and posters that Moscow authorities put up for Victory Day, which will draw foreign leaders to Moscow as guests of the government.
City plans to set up 10 information stands describing Stalin's role in the war have deepened animus between Russians who loathe him and their compatriots who love him.
"Today ... the greatness of Stalin's era is self-evident even to his most furious haters," Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said after laying flowers at Stalin's grave.
"We liberated the whole world, ... we built a nuclear shield, we were the first to fly into space, and we created this (nuclear) parity that ensured stable peace for nearly 50 years."
Critics call Stalin a murderer for the millions of deaths in his forced collectivization and Gulag prison camps. They say victory in the war came despite mistakes that contributed to the devastating death toll of some 27 million Soviet citizens.
Memorial, a rights group that has documented Stalin's abuses, says it will put up its own stands.
"These V-Day posters will not only insult me but also soil the memory of my father, who died with the Second Strike Army due to Stalin's senseless and cruel orders," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a leading rights activist and Soviet-era dissident.
After his death in 1953, the Kremlin launched a campaign to discredit Stalin, and evidence of his abuses came pouring out during the era of openness under Mikhail Gorbachev before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
But Stalin's backers have become bolder in recent years, and praise of the iron-fisted leader more prominent.
Opinion polls show many Russians view Stalin as a talented manager and a tough wartime leader who defeated a strong enemy. Stalin was voted Russia's third most important historical figure of all time in a nationwide television show.
Since former KBG officer Vladimir Putin came to power a decade ago, Russia's beleaguered liberals have accused the Kremlin of helping to burnish Stalin's image in order to justify its own increasingly tight political control.
Alexeyeva, 82, a recipient of the European Parliament's top human rights award, called the sincerity of official statements into question. "I suspect they have sympathy for Stalin," she said of Russia's leaders.
Roy Medvedev, a prominent historian and author of many books on Stalin, said he saw Stalin as a negative figure who would never be absolved but could not be ignored.
"For some, Stalin is a criminal. For others, he led the state for 30 years. The state had achievements and faults -- it had it all," he told Reuters. "Can Churchill be deleted from Britain's history? Likewise, we cannot erase Stalin from ours."
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Steve Gutterman; editing by Jon Boyle