MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned Russians on Wednesday of the risk of a rebirth of Stalinism, saying their country was in danger of forgetting its tragic past.
"We should remember those who suffered, because this a lesson for all of us," Gorbachev told a conference marking 70 years since the start of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror.
"We must squeeze Stalinism out of ourselves, not in single drops but by the glass or bucket," Gorbachev added. "There are those saying Stalin's rule was the Golden Age, while (Nikita) Khrushchev's thaw was sheer utopia and (Leonid) Brezhnev's neo-Stalinism was the continuation of the Golden Age."
During the Great Terror, 1.7 million Soviet citizens were arrested between August 1937 and November 1938, of whom 818,000 were executed, the human rights group Memorial said.
Historians estimate that up to 13 million people were killed or sent to labour camps in the former Soviet Union between 1921 and 1953, the year Stalin died.
Despite Stalin's record, recent polls have shown many young Russians have a positive view of the former Soviet leader and there have been attempts this year to play down his excesses, which have found an echo among the country's youth.
Fifty-four percent of Russian youth believe that Stalin did more good than bad and half said he was a wise leader, according to a poll conducted in July by the Yuri Levada Centre.
A prime-time television documentary drama series at the start of this year drew critical fire by attempting to portray Stalin in a new light, as a man with a conscience who sought a relationship with God in his final days.
President Vladimir Putin has never praised Stalin. However, he stirred controversy at a meeting with teachers when he appeared to play down the Great Terror, saying Russia "must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us" and adding that the country had "not had such bleak pages (in history) as was the case with Nazism".
A new history teaching manual partly authored by Putin's chief political strategist Vladislav Surkov and unveiled in June described Stalin as brutal but also "the most successful leader of the USSR".
It gave few details of the Great Terror, instead emphasising Stalin's achievements in rebuilding the Soviet economy after World War Two and industrialising the country.
"It was namely during his leadership that the country's area was expanded to the borders of the former Russian empire (and sometimes beyond them), victory was gained in the greatest war -- the Great Patriotic War, industrialisation was achieved and cultural revolution accomplished," the textbook says.
Gorbachev, praised in the West as a man who ended the Cold War but vilified by many Russians for presiding over the Soviet Union's chaotic collapse, triggered a heated discussion at the conference about the new history manual.
"A massive campaign to revise the collective memory is under way," said Irina Shcherbakova, a Memorial project coordinator. "We plunge them (Russia's younger generation) into half-lies, half-truth, and in the end we get ready-made cynics."