By Alexei Anishchuk
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin likes to deny that he is taking Russia back to the USSR, but on Wednesday he dusted off another communist relic by restoring a labor medal introduced under Josef Stalin.
A week after telling the nation there was nothing in Russia that smacked of the late Soviet dictator, Putin pinned the Hero of Labour award on five recipients in St Petersburg, the cradle of the 1917 revolution that swept communists to power.
The name has changed slightly from Stalin's Hero of Socialist Labour, which rewarded outstanding work for the Soviet nation. But the award is clearly back, more than two decades after it seemed to have died with the Soviet Union.
Putin has made no secret of his attempt to appeal to the conservative values and patriotism of the working class, his main power base, and counter the threat of the mainly middle-class demonstrators who led protests against him last year.
"The Hero of Labour title is ... a step towards resuming the continuity of traditions, tighter ties between eras and generations," Putin told a ceremony on May Day, the traditional workers' holiday and an important date in the Soviet calendar.
"We need to cherish our historical memory, keep in our hearts our pride for the people that built a great country."
The medal, a golden five-pointed star bearing the Russian two-headed eagle, hanging from a white, blue and red ribbon, bears a striking resemblance to the Stalin-era award, except that this had a red ribbon and a hammer and sickle on the star.
The winners included a coal miner, a lathe operator, a brain surgeon, an agronomist and the star conductor Valery Gergiev.
The Hero of Socialist Labour award was won by more than 20,000 people and was a huge honor, intended to encourage industrialization and glorify Soviet achievements. Famous recipients included the composer Dmitry Shostakovich and the rifle maker Mikhail Kalashnikov.
ORDER AND DISCIPLINE NEEDED
Putin has already brought back the Soviet national anthem and Soviet-style military parades, and critics accuse him of using Soviet tactics to stifle dissent, although he denies this.
"Stalinism is linked to the cult of personality, massive legal violations, repressions and labour camps," he told his annual question-and-answer session, broadcast live last week across the country of about 142 million.
"There is nothing like that in Russia and I hope there never will be again," he said. "But this does not mean that we should not have order and discipline."
Putin has long spoken ambiguously about Stalin, admiring the strides the Soviet Union took to industrialize during his three-decade rule until his death in 1953, but condemning the methods he used, including repression that killed millions of people.
Six decades on, Stalin's legacy remains the subject of bitter debate and broad interpretation in Russia, where many still believe he did some good, not least in repelling and defeating Nazi aggression in World War Two.
Putin hopes to tap into this sort of nostalgia as he looks for ways to lift his popularity ratings.
The idea of bringing back the medal appears to have been raised last year by Igor Kholmanskikh, a former tank factory worker who said he would go to Moscow to back Putin against the protesters and later became a presidential envoy.
Although Putin's ratings are still high by Western standards at more than 60 percent, they are lower than they were during his first spell as president, from 2000 until 2008.
An opinion poll last year indicated that more than two-thirds of Russians agreed Stalin was "a cruel, inhuman tyrant, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people".
But at the same time, 47 percent agreed Stalin was "a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity".
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Timothy Heritage)