Vladimir Putin called Josef Stalin a tyrant in a newspaper interview released Thursday and then said separately at the Kremlin that the Soviet dictator's notorious purges failed to destroy the "viability" of Russia.
Putin rarely criticizes Stalin, who is widely considered responsible for millions of deaths before and after World War II. Many of them took place during the Great Terror of the 1930s and during sweeping purges that decimated top Soviet military leadership.
The comments come days before Putin hosts world leaders Monday for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
The Stalin reference came about in a joint interview with German Top
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when the two leaders were asked how they felt given that one's father had fought for Stalin's Soviet Union and the other's for Hitler's Germany.
"I can't understand you equating Stalin and Hitler. It goes without saying that Stalin was a tyrant, whom many call a criminal. But he wasn't a Nazi," Putin said.
Russians have stressed that Stalin should not be equated with Hitler.
The interview was to be published in Friday's edition of the popular German newspaper Bild. The newspaper released the comments Thursday. Putin's press service said it also would be posted on the Kremlin Web site Friday.
At the Kremlin ceremony, state medals were handed out to about 40 people, including World War II veterans, cosmonauts, teachers and scholars, four days ahead of the Victory Day celebrations.
"Our country, our people, our society were viable in 1941, in spite of all the attempts by the regime at the time to destroy this viability through repression," he said, according to a Kremlin transcript of his comments.
"It is difficult to find a more sacred and unifying day than May 9," Putin said. "We have no right to simply forget about the sacrifices that were made for the fatherland and for world civilization by our nation."
Putin has stressed the major role that the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Germany during World War II, but he has made little mention of the Soviet government's persecution of its own people and those from eastern and central Europe following the war.