MOSCOW -- Amid controversy over his own methods of maintaining control over Russia, President Vladimir Putin has unveiled a memorial dedicated to victims of Soviet-era government repression and said the years of suffering at the hands of the state must never be forgotten.
Putin spoke at the opening ceremony for the Wall Of Sorrow on October 30 as part of the official Day Of Remembrance For Victims Of Political Repression -- an event first held in 1991, the year the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
"This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory -- let alone justified in any way -- by any so-called higher good of the people," said Putin, who came to the site after a meeting of his Human Rights and Civil Society Council focusing on state policy on the remembrance of victims of political repression.
A group of Soviet-era dissidents and human rights activists spoke out against the memorial, saying it is wrong to support the "hypocrisy" of a government that is unveiling such a monument while carrying out what they called its own political repressions decades later.
The dissidents, now critics of Putin, said that "current political prisoners in Russia deserve our help and attention no less than the victims of the Soviet regime deserve commemoration and respect."
"It will never do to divide victims of political repressions into those who deserve memorials and those whom it is possible to ignore for the time being," said the statement, signed by nearly 40 people including Vladimir Bukovsky, Aleksandr Podrabinek, Mustafa Dzhemilev, Arina Ginzburg, Igor Guberman, Pavel Litvinov.
"It will never do to take part in commemoration events organized by the authorities who say they regret the victims of the Soviet regime, but in fact continue implementing political repressions, cracking down civil freedoms in the country," it said.
"There is no doubt that a memorial to the victims of political repressions must be opened in Moscow, but only when there are no political prisoners in the country, when executioners are punished, and when political repressions stop being leads in news reports and become exclusively the subject of historians' research."
The massive memorial wall is located at the intersection of Moscow's Garden Ring road and an avenue named after Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet-era physicist and dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Its opening came a day after several hundred people gathered near the former KGB headquarters in central Moscow to honor the memory of thousands of men and women executed by the Soviet authorities during dictator Josef Stalin's Great Terror.
Speakers at the unofficial, daylong ceremony at the Solovetsky Stone memorial on Moscow's Lubyanka Square read aloud the names, ages, occupations, and dates of executions of some 30,000 Muscovites -- only a small portion of the estimated 1 million or more killed by Soviet authorities in 1937-38.
Among those attending were Russian Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova, liberal opposition Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, and TV personality and presidential hopeful Ksenia Sobchak.
Memorial, a widely respected human rights group, has held the ceremony every year since 2006 at the site near the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor.
Memorial said it would organize a similar event for St. Petersburg on October 30.
Putin's Praise For Stalin
The events come against the backdrop of controversial comments made by Putin earlier this year.
On June 15, the Russian president said the "excessive demonization" of Stalin "is one means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia."
Putin said Russia's critics use Stalin's legacy "to show that today's Russia carries on itself some kind of birthmarks of Stalinism."
The Russian president did not elaborate on what he considered to be "excessive" criticism of Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953 and who was responsible for the deaths of 15 million to 30 million Soviet citizens through executions, labor camps, and avoidable famines.
In the past, Putin has praised Stalin as an "effective manager," and Stalin's reputation in Russia has been growing steadily since Putin came to power in 2000.
Critics say Putin and other Russian officials have made significant efforts to rehabilitate Stalin's image over the past two decades, and polls show Russians' antipathy to the Soviet dictator has decreased since Putin came to power nearly 18 years ago.
A poll in April by the independent Levada research center found that 25 percent of Russians consider Stalin's repressions "historically justified," while another 13 percent said they knew "nothing" about Stalin's crimes.