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MOSCOW (AP) — A series of busts of the nation’s Soviet-era leaders, including Josef Stalin, were unveiled Friday by a Russian government-sponsored association, in a move that has drawn criticism from those who see it as part of efforts to whitewash his crimes.

The Russian Military-Historic Society, an organization founded by President Vladimir Putin and led by his culture minister, unveiled the sculptures in order to expand its “alley of rulers” at a Moscow park, which until now had featured busts of Russian monarchs. It described the new display as part of efforts to preserve Russian history.

The Kremlin has distanced itself from the move with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying he was unaware of it and referring all questions to the organizers.

Putin, a former KGB officer, has avoided open public praise or criticism of Stalin, but he has restored Soviet-era symbols and focused on the nation’s Soviet-era achievements rather than Stalinist crimes.

Over recent years, many in Russia have been dismayed by government-sponsored school textbooks that paint Stalin in a largely positive light and by the reconstruction of a Moscow subway station that restored old Soviet national anthem lyrics praising Stalin, as part of its interior decoration.

Kremlin critics have denounced such moves as attempts to whitewash Stalin’s image and part of Putin’s rollback on democracy.

Stalin led the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in World War II and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn the brutal purges that killed millions.

Polls show that a rising number of Russians now admire Stalin as a strong leader. Earlier this year, Stalin came out top in a survey of the most outstanding figures in Russia’s history, with 38 percent support. The nationwide poll by the Levada Center of 1,600 people had a 3.4-percent margin of error.

Yevgeny Tupitsin, a military veteran who attended Friday’s opening, welcomed the display of Soviet leaders’ busts, including that of Stalin.

“It inspires us to remember the history the way it is, with all the good and bad, positive and negative factors,” he said. “History can’t be changed, it can’t be falsified. It all happened and passed.”


Iuliia Subbotovska in Moscow contributed to this report.