MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday (Oct 30) unveiled the first national memorial to victims of Soviet-era political repression, but critics accused him of hypocrisy over a continuing crackdown on activists.
The Wall of Grief, a large bronze relief of human figures in central Moscow, opened following decades of efforts to create such a memorial starting under dictator Joseph Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev.
"The opening of this monument is particularly important a century on from the 1917 revolution," Putin said at a meeting ahead of the unveiling.
"I hope that this date will be used by our society to draw a line under the dramatic events that divided our country and our people, and will become a symbol of the overcoming of this split."
The anniversary should be an occasion to accept "our history as it is, with its great victories and tragic pages", the president added.
But an open letter signed by around 40 former political prisoners called the unveiling of the monument "untimely and cynical".
"A memorial is a tribute to the past, but political repression in Russia is not only continuing but growing," said the letter signed by Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, amongst others.
"Those currently in power in Russia, who back the opening of this monument, want to make it seem as if political repression is a thing of the distant past...(but) Russian political prisoners today deserve our help and attention just as much as victims of the Soviet regime deserve our remembrance and respect."
DAY OF REMEMBRANCE
The unveiling also comes following official efforts to focus on Stalin's role in winning World War II and downplay the millions of people executed and sent to labour camps during his rule.
Last month a bronze bust of Stalin was unveiled outside a Moscow military history museum during a ceremony attended by lawmakers, alongside statues of other Soviet leaders including Khrushchev and Vladimir Lenin.
Since Putin took power in 2000, there has been a growing chorus of Russians who take a positive view of the Soviet tyrant's role in history.
The opening of the Wall of Grief comes on Russia's official day of remembrance for victims of political repression.
Sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, who created a monument to the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin, won a competition to design the memorial which sits at the junction of Moscow's central ring road and an avenue named after the dissident Nobel Peace Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov.
The project has received state backing and been supported by groups including the Solzhenitsyn Foundation headed by the widow of "Gulag Archipelago" author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Memorial, a prominent organisation that works with Stalin-era archives but also campaigns against human rights violations under Putin.