"The Gulag Archipelago" is essential reading for Russian students, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday _ unusual words of praise from a former KGB agent for Alexander Solzhenitsyn's explosive book on the crimes of the Soviet regime.
Putin spoke at a meeting with Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalya, to discuss a new edition of "The Gulag Archipelago" that was made part of required reading for Russian high schools. The inclusion of the book in the school curriculum, and the words of praise from Putin, contrasts with his previous efforts to inculcate pride in the country's Soviet past.
The move could be an attempt by Putin to deflect claims by critics who have accused him of whitewashing history and encouraging a more positive view of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during his eight-year presidency.
"Without the knowledge of that book, we would lack a full understanding of our country and it would be difficult for us to think about the future," Putin told Natalya Solzhenitsyn, who prepared an abridged edition of the massive three-volume work.
Putin hailed the school edition's publication as a "landmark event," adding that it comes shortly before Russia marks a day commemorating victims of Soviet political repression this weekend.
Putin, a former officer in the secret service, has avoided open praise or criticism of Stalin. Three years ago, however, he joined public commemorations for victims of Stalin's purges, warning against political ideas that are "placed above basic values."
Putin's opponents dismissed that as a public relations stunt and accused the government of burnishing Stalin's image by sponsoring textbooks painting the murderous ruler in a largely positive light. To the outrage of critics of the Communist past, old Soviet national anthem lyrics praising Stalin were restored to a Moscow subway station in 2009.
Historians estimate that more than 700,000 people were executed during the purges that peaked during the Great Terror in the late 1930s, and tens of millions of people were sent to prison camps where millions of them died of harsh labor and cruel treatment.
Solzhenitsyn, who had won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, drew on his own experiences as a prisoner and on the testimony of hundreds of other Gulag inmates to chronicle the horrors of the sprawling Soviet prison camps system, known under its Russian acronym, Gulag.
First published in the West in 1973, "The Gulag Archipelago" prompted furious Soviet leaders to expel Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union in 1974.
Following his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn and his wife led a secluded life in Vermont and the author surprised many by becoming harshly critical of the West's permissive ways.
After returning from exile in 1994, he expressed disappointment that most Russians hadn't read his books. Solzhenitsyn's met with Putin and praised him despite Putin's KGB background. Solzhenitsyn died in August 2008 of a chronic heart condition at the age of 89.