Asia Crisis

Putin calls for balanced assessment of Stalin

* Putin lauds Stalin's industrialisation projects

* Praises his role in defeating Nazism

* Says achievements came at unacceptably high price

(Adds Putin's quotes, details, background)

By Dmitry Solovyov

MOSCOW, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed into a fierce national debate on the legacy of Soviet leader Josef Stalin on Thursday, calling for a balanced assessment and saying he was not all good or bad.

Russians historically yearn for strong rulers and many still feel deep sympathy for the Georgian-born iron-fisted leader. They like Stalin for turning an illiterate peasant nation into an industrialised nuclear superpower and for crushing Nazism.

The Communists, Russia's largest opposition party, plan lavish celebrations of Stalin's 130th birthday later this month and his grandson recently sued a newspaper for accusing Stalin of ordering mass murders.

"If you say you are positive (about Stalin's rule), some will be discontented. If you say you are negative, others will grumble," Putin said during an annual marathon question-and- answer session with the Russian people.

"It is impossible to make a general judgment. It is evident that, from 1924 to 1953, the country that Stalin ruled changed from an agrarian to an industrial society."

Echoing millions of Russians, Putin praised Stalin's leading role in winning World War Two.

"You know, if we return to the issue of human losses, noboby can now throw stones at those who organised and stood at the head of this victory, because if we'd lost this war, the consequences for our country would have been much more catastrophic."

A new school textbook, compiled with the help of an historian from Putin's ruling United Russia party, mentions the repressions but also depicts Stalin as a talented manager.

Admitting achievements under Stalin, Putin, who served in the feared KGB secret police in Soviet times, also scolded him for his bloody purges and his decimation of the peasantry as a class during his forced collectivisation.

"The positives that undoubtedly existed were achieved at an unacceptable price. Repressions did take place. This is a fact. Millions of our fellow citizens suffered from them," Putin said.

"Such a way of running a state, of achieving results is unacceptable, this is impossible. We have not only lived through the personality cult but also witnessed mass crimes against our own nation."

Soviet-era dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was sent to a Gulag labour camp for making a joke about Stalin, was buried last year in a religious ceremony which bore all the hallmarks of a state funeral.

But shortly afterwards Stalin was voted in a nationwide televised show Russia's third most popular historical figure of all times, and a Moscow metro station restored a phrase praising him which ran around the cupola of its roof. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Tim Pearce) ((; +7 495 775 1242))