MOSCOW – School notebooks with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on the cover have been causing a controversy in Russia since they went on sale this week.
While human rights activists and historians have warned that the notebooks wrongly instill a positive image of Stalin in children's minds, eager customers have been snapping them up in Moscow bookstores.
In response to numerous pleas to take action, Education Minister Andrei Fursenko said that he disapproves of the notebooks, but has no legal way to stop their publication or sale.
Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953, is a controversial figure in Russia today. Although he was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens, Stalin is still highly regarded for having led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and overseeing its rise as an industrial and military superpower.
The notebooks are part of a series called "Great Russians," which places Stalin among famous composers and czars. He is featured on the cover wearing an army uniform studded with medals.
"When children see this magnificent cover with handsome mustachioed Stalin, they perceive him as a hero," Nikolai Svanidze, a television journalist and historian, said in a statement posted on the website of the government's Public Chamber.
Artyom Belan, art director of the Alt publishing house that produced the notebooks, described the series as an "educational endeavor" and said Stalin deserved to be included as a major figure of the 20th century.
"If we do a series of great Russians, should we strike the 20th century from the list altogether?" Belan asked.
An information page at the back of the Stalin notebook mentions the hundreds of thousands of people who were executed during his purges and the millions who were sent to labor camps, but it also praises the Soviet Union's achievements under Stalin's leadership.
Russian textbooks also have taken a more positive view of Stalin since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Putin, who has been prime minister for four years and returns to the presidency in May, has worked to restore Russians' pride in their country and its history as a great power.
A large Moscow bookstore that specializes in textbooks ran out of the Stalin notebooks by Wednesday afternoon and was awaiting a new shipment.
The Stalin notebooks "sell extremely well," said Yelena Shurukova, an employee at Pedagogical Books. Most are bought by adults, she said.