ZAPORIZHYA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukrainian Communists on Wednesday unveiled the first monument in Ukraine’s modern history to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, fuelling tension between the country’s pro-Russian east and nationalist west.
World War Two veterans wearing medals and waving red flags sang patriotic songs as the 2.5 metre monument, showing Stalin from the waist up on a granite block, was unveiled near the regional Communist Party office in the mainly Russian-speaking city of Zaporizhya in eastern Ukraine.
Stalin is a symbol of Russian oppression, particularly in the Ukrainian-speaking west and centre of the country, because of his role in the mass famine in 1933 which killed millions of Ukrainians — including in Zaporizhya.
But he is feted by some older people in the mainly Russian-speaking east and south as the heroic leader of Soviet forces in World War Two. The 65th anniversary of that victory is to be celebrated on Sunday.
The statue, the first public monument to Stalin to be unveiled in decades, was cast at the initiative of local Communists, financed by donations from war veterans and set up on private land.
Its creation has gained added resonance since the election in February of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, who last month gave in to a key Russian demand by extending the lease on a Russian naval base until 2042.
The unveiling of the statue is likely to deepen the east-west divide in Ukrainian politics, said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst with the Penta think-tank.
“We have immortalised a figure linked with many tragic pages of Ukrainian history,” he said. “It’s a reason for further political confrontation.”
Ukraine’s new leaders have tried to distance themselves from the erection of the statue of Stalin, who remains a highly divisive figure even among Ukraine’s Russian speakers.
“We should not establish monuments for tyrants,” said Justice Minister Oleksander Lavrynovich. “We must know about them and know about them very well. We have to learn from the lessons of history to avoid its repetition.”
The unveiling could spark a sharp reaction from people in western Ukraine, whose view of Soviet history differs sharply from that of many living in the east.
Pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko sparked the ire of east Ukrainians earlier this year by posthumously declaring wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a Hero of Ukraine.
The decree has been declared illegal by a court in the east, but Yanukovich has not yet taken steps to undo it.
Fesenko said the Stalin statue could spark a new ‘war of monuments’. “As an answer to the Stalin monument, new monuments to Bandera could appear in western Ukraine,” he said.
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev