Russian state-controlled media must stop whitewashing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's image, and the government should take a stand on his crimes, human rights activists and historians said Wednesday.

Nearly 60 years after his death, Stalin remains a divisive figure in Russian society, with some crediting him with leading the nation to victory in World War II and turning it into a superpower, and others condemning him for purges that killed millions of people.

Russia's state-run TV stations have recently turned Stalin's name into a favorable brand, thanks to "very talentedly executed propaganda," Alexander Drozdov, director of the Boris Yeltsin Center, said at a news conference.

Nationwide, television stations have aired many movies and programs casting Stalin in a positive light.

He was voted as Russia's third-greatest historical figure in a prime-time show in 2008, garnering more than 519,000 votes. Recent polls have shown that from one-third to one-half of Russians have a decidedly or at least a mildly positive view of Stalin.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who served as president in 2000-2008 and is all but certain to reclaim the top job in March's election, has avoided open public praise or criticism of Stalin. But his opponents have accused the government of burnishing Stalin's image as part of its efforts to justify its own retreat from democracy.

Stalin critics have been outraged by a high school textbook that describes the dictator as "an efficient manager" and by a restored Moscow subway station that includes old Soviet national anthem lyrics praising the dictator in its interior decoration.

Stalin led the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. During that time, millions of people died in political purges and in prison camps. Countless others were deported or exiled to remote areas.

Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human rights ombudsman, decried any attempt to give Stalin credit for the economic growth of the 1930s.

"Thanks to heroic efforts and a total disregard for humanity, our country managed to evolve from a backward agrarian country into a backward industrial one during the Stalin era," Lukin said.

Arseny Roginsky, head of the Memorial rights group, said the least the Russian government can do now is "give a legal appraisal to the crimes of the Soviet regime." Roginsky's group has offered a comprehensive package to help raise public awareness of Stalin's crimes, including suggestions for school curriculums.

Andrei Sorokin, director of the Russian State Archives of Social and Political History, warned that Russia will have no future if it fails to assess its difficult past.

"Russian society has been living in a crisis of public consciousness for the past 25 years," he said.

"Any forward movement or attempts to modernize Russia will fail if we don't work out a consensus on our attitudes toward the Soviet past."