MOSCOW — Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for three decades, turning it from a backward agrarian country into a nuclear superpower — and a land of mass murder, political repression and gulags. After his communist successors acknowledged the brutality of his reign, Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in a Red Square mausoleum and buried under the cover of darkness beneath the walls of the Kremlin.
The harsher details of that history lesson might be lost on some Russian students, however, now that Stalin's face graces the covers of school notebooks that recently went on sale in Moscow and have become an immediate bestseller.
In his generalissimo uniform with a chest full of medals, Stalin now proudly stares from notebook covers on a shelf of the Pedagogical Book House store in downtown Moscow less than a mile from the Kremlin. Customers, mostly adults, are snatching up so many copies that the store runs out of stock each day.
"This edition of notebooks comes in the series of great personalities in the history of Russia like Peter the Great, [composer Sergei] Rachmaninoff, space designer [Sergei] Korolyov and many others," said Olga Utesheva, deputy commercial director of the Moscow Book House, a chain of popular bookstores that runs the pedagogical books retailer too. "Stalin is one of the most popular figures among the people who left a trace in the history of our country and there is no propaganda here."
True, the explanation in the back of the 48-page notebook presents the basic facts about Stalin, portraying him as "the symbol of both the USSR's greatest achievements and its darkest sides, both its heroic accomplishments and the monstrous catastrophes."
The Alt publishing company, which produces the notebook, couldn't be reached for comment.
Stalin as a historic figure hasn't quite suffered the fate of his onetime ally and later archenemy, Adolf Hitler, whose ideas and image have largely been banished from public life in Germany. Stalin's heritage is still discussed and evaluated, with roughly half of Russians regarding his role positively, sociologists say.
Pensioner Vladimir Ivanov, 72, who bought two copies of the Stalin notebooks for his great-grandchildren, doesn't see anything bad in Russia's former ruler, calling him "the best friend of generations of Soviet children."
"The man created a superpower and made its army and industry one of the best in the world and then won the Great War and deserves an honorable memory at least," Ivanov said. "But for Stalin, today's children may not have come into existence at all, and this is why they should know all about the great leader."
But Yekaterina Romanova, a 40-year-old pharmaceutical doctor who works in Germany and was in Russia on leave, said it was unthinkable that notebooks bearing Hitler's portrait would sell in Germany.
"I don't see any difference between Stalin and Hitler, as both were mass murderers and committed crimes against humanity," she said, looking in amazement at the Stalin notebook on display at a shop. "I will never buy this for my children and I can't imagine a normal parent wanting his child to use a notebook with this devil on the cover."
Russian Education Minister Andrei Fursenko denounced the project but said nothing could be done to legally prevent it. "I regard this as a bad and wrong phenomenon, but notebooks are not an instructing material," he said at a news conference this week.
"I can't help feeling that somebody is trying to impose this idea on our immature teenagers that Stalin is one of the symbols of our state," said Sergei Kazarnovsky, director of Moscow Class Center School No. 686. "There are no notebooks with portraits of [Mikhail] Gorbachev, or [Boris] Yeltsin or [human rights champion Andrei] Sakharov on the cover for some reason."
Kazarnovsky said he has to discuss with teachers how to contain that threat of "this creeping hero-ization of Stalin."
This is not the first attempt to bring Stalin back into public education. In 2009, the Education Ministry approved a history teachers' manual depicting Stalin as an "efficient" manager whose goal was "to politically and territorially re-create the Russian empire."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, soon to be inaugurated as president, stopped short last year of denouncing Stalin as ultimately evil, praising some of what he did for Russia while noting that "all these positive things were achieved at an unacceptable price."
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov accused the Kremlin of promoting the idea of a strong hand in governing the state and thus "encouraging the theory of the naturally continuing positive historic development of Russia under such leaders as Ivan the Terrible, then Lenin and Stalin and now Putin."
Russian conservatives and nationalists, however, praise the reemergence of Stalin.
"Democratic Russia has failed to invent a new ideology that most of the society can accept," said Alexander Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist Zavtra newspaper. "This is why the society, whose significant part still adheres to the old Soviet ideology, can't live without Stalin as a symbol of all that was good in our past."