MOSCOW — Josef Stalin is speaking to his son Yakov, who has just telephoned to say that he will soon head off to battle the Nazi invaders.
"I sometimes was not fair to you. Forgive me. I devoted little time to you," the Soviet dictator apologizes. "Son, go and fight. This is your duty." He then switches to Georgian, the language of his childhood, and adds with even greater feeling: "If you have to die, do it with dignity. And you must be confident that your father, Stalin, will do everything for our victory."
The poignant scene -- for viewers who can stomach it -- is part of a controversial 40-episode TV drama, "Stalin Live," now airing on a nationwide network here. The show's structural device is an elderly Stalin, in the last weeks of his life, recalling episodes in his younger days, most presenting him in a favorable light.
For Stalin admirers, of whom there are many in Russia, the series is an entertaining and educational look at the man who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower. To critics, it is a dangerous distortion of history that threatens to misinform a younger generation about a leader responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and reinforce a trend toward greater authoritarianism in politics.
Among the show's fans is car repairman Viktor Kurenkov. "Under Stalin we had the best weapons, the best planes, the best tanks," Kurenkov said. "He built the country that was the first to send a man into space. As for the repressions attributed to him, their scale was always exaggerated."
Estimates of the number of Stalin's victims vary widely, but most historians say that 10 million to 20 million people died in purges, famines, deportations and labor camps as a result of his policies from the time he rose to power in the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. In addition, the Soviet Union suffered at least 20 million troop and civilian deaths in World War II. Among them was his son Yakov, who died in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Critics say that "Stalin Live" ignores the dictator's worst crimes and treats him far too sympathetically.
"In the show, Stalin is portrayed as the savior of the people, the country and all of civilization, the leader who destroyed fascism," complained Daniil Dondurey, editor in chief of Cinema Art, a monthly journal. "Not for a split second do we see Stalin soaked in blood up to his elbows, as he really was."
Opinion is roughly split
Surveys conducted two years ago on the 60th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany showed a nation roughly divided between the pro- and anti-Stalin camps, with those sympathetic to the dictator holding a modest edge. In a poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 20% of respondents described his role as "very positive," and 30% called it "somewhat positive." Only 12% described it as "very negative."
Stalin's admirers insist that his achievements outweigh his faults. Among them is David Giorgobiani, the Georgian actor who plays Stalin in the series.
"Many more years have to pass before we can make an unbiased judgment on that great man," he said. "One hundred years from now, no one will pay attention to the fact that so many people perished and the costs were so terribly high. But everyone will remember that such a great country was saved."
A major obstacle
Critics say the failure of many Russians to look honestly at Stalin's crimes is a major obstacle to democratic development.
Dondurey noted that NTV, the network carrying the series, which runs through April 4, is owned by the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom. Early episodes drew a strong rating of 19% of all television viewers, according to figures reported by Itogi magazine.
Dondurey charged that by broadcasting the program, the government sought to encourage authoritarian trends in today's political life.
"The message is clear: Russia needs a wise leader," he said. "The main goal of this show is to preserve and nurture in the people the desire to obey a supreme leader, to take pride in having a supreme leader, to see no alternative to this model in the development of society."
Alexander Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist newspaper Zavtra, also saw political implications in the show, but positive ones. The series promotes "a new myth of Stalin which replaces the ugly de-Stalinization-era myths, which narrowed the role of this great person to that primitive image of villain, small-time hooligan and paranoid murderer," he said.
Prokhanov expressed hope that the show could contribute to greater rehabilitation of Stalin's image, and that such a development would boost Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's power in a way that would promote a crackdown on corruption within the Russian economic and political elite.