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Moscow (AFP) - Russia plans to unveil a bronze "Wall of Grief" in Moscow next year in its first tangible condemnation of Stalin-era crimes but critics accuse the government of playing a double game.
The national memorial, backed by President Vladimir Putin, comes as authorities play down the horrors of Stalin's purges and revive some of the Soviet Union's ideology and traditions.
The wall, with its large-scale relief of human figures with the inscription "Never Again", will be located in a small park.
The government has earmarked a dreary but central spot near an exhaust-filled highway and opposite an abandoned construction site and blocks of 1970-era utilitarian flats.
The idea for such a memorial was first conceived under Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev, who exposed some of the crimes of his predecessor and began rehabilitating -- or acquitting -- those unjustly prosecuted.
Putin last month praised the plan as "evidence of maturity of society and government, their readiness and ability to develop."
"This is one of the most bitter, tough pages of our country's history," Putin said of the repressions under Stalin, who died in 1953.
The monument is part of a wide-ranging government plan approved this year to commemorate the victims of political purges and bolster instruction on them in schools, museums and state media.
It condemned "mass repressions, which took the lives of millions of people," saying this included those who died during Soviet Union's "violent collectivisation" of agriculture in the 1920s and 30s, which led to hunger and deaths of "millions."
Russia "cannot become a truly lawful state" without remembering Stalin's victims, the government said.
- Stalin's popularity -
The Moscow authorities said the new memorial will go up next year, but the sculptor, Georgy Frangulyan, told AFP he had not yet received the funds to begin work.
Frangulyan, who has also created a monument to the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin, said he initially disliked the location near a busy highway but later decided this was for the best, because people would have no choice but to look at the memorial.
"Repressions are not in one particular place, they are everywhere, they are among us," he said, inviting those who deny the purges to come stand near the wall and "feel themselves among the victims."
To Roman Romanov, who heads Moscow's gulag museum chronicling the brutal prison camp system that flourished under Stalin, the latest government initiatives are a "breakthrough."
"They couldn't make it happen under Khrushchev, they couldn't make it happen during perestroika (under Mikhail Gorbachev), but now it is happening," he told AFP.
"To me, it is clear that there is progress."
The state-run gulag museum has been overseeing the monument project together with Memorial, a prominent organisation that works with Stalin-era archives but also campaigns against human rights violations under Putin.
While the government recently helped the gulag museum move into a refurbished high-tech building, Memorial is now battling against accusations by the justice ministry that it is seeking "undermine Russia's constitutional order."
And despite government moves to commemorate those executed after Stalin's show trials, the authorities still portray Stalin as a wise leader who led the country to triumph against the Nazis during World War II.
Since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Stalin's rating in opinion polls has improved dramatically: the percentage of Russians who believe his purges were "justified" has grown from 25 percent to 45 percent, according to Levada Centre, an independent pollster.
Thousands gather every year on October 30 to commemorate those unlawfully arrested and shot under Stalin by reading out their names, but Putin, who sets the political agenda, has never taken part.
- 'Pride in the past' -
When Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin posted a photograph of his grandfather "repressed in 1937" on Twitter, he received dozens of critical comments with some calling his ancestor an "anti-Soviet Russophobe."
Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, said the government's contradictory stance on the Soviet repressions showed that "the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing."
Earlier this month, Gudkov, whose great-grandfather was a victim of the purges, submitted a bill to ban the glorification of Stalin at public events and punish politicians who justify or deny his repressions.
It is not clear yet when it will be debated in parliament.
People associate Stalin with a form of hardline management that keeps order amid chaos, Gudkov told AFP, an attractive concept as life becomes increasingly unequal and corrupt.
"The authorities create an atmosphere in which people start looking for justice and pride in the past rather than the present... so they try to justify Stalin's crimes," he said.