By Lidia Kelly
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Relatives of Josef Stalin's victims commemorated the Soviet dictator's repression on Tuesday and many condemned Russia's leaders for not taking part.
Millions of people were executed or sent to prison camps under Stalin's rule but while thousands paid tribute to the dead at annual ceremonies on Monday and Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin stayed away.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev condemned Stalin in a blog, saying: "Josef Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet state at the time deserve the harshest assessment. It must remain in the annals of our history so that it never happens again. Because war with one's own people is a very serious crime."
But Medvedev, too, did not attend any ceremony, revealing the problems Russia has coming to terms with Stalin's three-decade rule until his death in 1953 when the Soviet Union was the only global superpower to rival the United States.
"Our government does not like this kind of memory and that is why it keeps silent," said Anna Volkova, a 31-year-old teacher attending a ceremony on Monday outside the Lyubanka building in Moscow that once housed Stalin's security police, the KGB.
"It's uncomfortable to live with such history."
Memorial, a rights group that has archived Stalin's repressions, has proposed that all political leaders mark the day, which has been held each year for two decades.
Yelena Sus, 24, whose grandfather was executed in 1938 and whose mother was born in a prison for political criminals, called for a gesture to acknowledge the crimes.
"Our country's leaders have not yet apologized for this nightmare," she said, while waiting her turn to read out her grandfather's name, a candle in her hand.
"In our country we keep saying 'Nazis tortured people' - but we were no better."
Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 2000, has condemned the crimes of the Stalin era and described the Soviet system as totalitarian.
He took part in a 70th anniversary commemoration of a 1940 massacre by Soviet troops of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn forest in what was then the western Soviet Union.
But Putin has also praised Stalin's role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two. Other Russians still laud him for the country's rapid industrialization.
More than a third of Russians either do not believe the political repressions happened or are not sure, according to a poll by the FOM research group, and only 43 percent hold Stalin personally responsible.
Nearly half of Russians regard Stalin's historical role as positive, according to another poll. Only 22 percent said his role was very negative - a third of the number 25 years ago.
Leonid Gudkov, head of the Levada Center which conducted that poll, says melodramatic movies and books in recent years have trivialized the Stalin era. He also criticized history education.
A high-school textbook, compiled with the help of a historian from Putin's United Russia party, says repressions were a common occurrence under Stalin but also says that a lack of democratization after 1945 was a consequence of threats from the West during the Cold War.
Some Russians at the ceremonies said Russia continued to have a climate of political repression, citing the jailing of the Pussy Riot punk band over an anti-Putin protest in a church, and growing pressure on the opposition.
"If I were taking part in a public meeting today as a high-ranking official, I would be afraid to talk to people, who would ask me .... what about the current political repressions?" said Valentin Gefter, a member of the Kremlin's council on human rights.
Some Russians demand more openness about the past and more freedom in the future.
"The authorities must explain the fate of every person who went missing," said Viktor, an 82-year-old whose father disappeared in 1937. "We are intimidated - we were born trembling and we tremble now."
(Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski and Thomas Grove; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Robin Pomeroy)