Penza, Russia — AT School No. 58 in Penza, a regional capital that is an eight and a half hour drive southeast of Moscow, the jury is still out on Joseph Stalin.
“He was a great man, unique in history,” Zhenya Viktorov, an 11th grader, told me on a recent visit. His classmate Amina Kurayev was more circumspect: “It wasn’t as terrible as they say.”
And what about the millions of Soviets who were shot or sent to the gulags? “No one was repressed for no reason,” Zhenya said. When I asked him how many political opponents Stalin killed, he told me “thousands,” and argued that the purges weren’t as “big or inhumane as the media likes to say.”
At least 15 million people were killed in prisons and labor camps under Stalin and his predecessor Vladimir Lenin, according to Alexander Yakovlev, who led a commission on rehabilitating victims of political repression under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Estimates vary, but Stalin’s victims alone certainly number in the millions. And yet views like Zhenya’s are becoming more common in Russia.