Icon of Stalin Draws St. Petersburg Church's Ire

Soviet leader Josef Stalin might seem like an unlikely subject for an icon, but one priest disagrees -- and his stance has sparked an angry response from the church.

The St. Petersburg Metropolitanate of the Russian Orthodox Church said Friday that it had reprimanded a priest who displayed an icon depicting Stalin in a church in a nearby town.

"We took him to task, and he was so frightened that he became ill," a spokesman from the St. Petersburg Metropolitanate said Friday.

Father Yevstafy Zhakov, priest of St. Olga's Church in the Leningrad region town of Strelna, recently put up an icon showing Stalin standing before the Blessed Matrona of Moscow, a 20th-century saint.

Father Yevstafy said that, according to legend, Stalin would often talk to the woman and that she gave him advice on how to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. Yevstafy said this is the scene depicted in the icon.

Father Yevstafy has been quoted in the media in the past calling Stalin one of the nation's fathers and saying he didn't think Stalin was an atheist.

"[Stalin] is in part my great father also," Yevstafy said, Noviye Izvestia reported. "He didn't abandon me during my whole life."

"I mention Josef Vissarionovich in all my services, when it is appropriate, especially on the date that he died, on his birthday and on those days when he celebrated the victory of our people," he said.

A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate said Father Yevstafy had not displayed an icon of Stalin.

"It was not an icon of Stalin, but there were two images in the picture representing the subject of Stalin speaking with the Blessed Matrona," the spokesman said.

The Russian press reported that church visitors had asked Yevstafy to stop mentioning Stalin in his prayers and to take the icon down.

Yevstafy first placed it in a remote corner of the church. After further complaints, he took it home.

A spokesman for the St. Petersburg Metropolitanate, who did not give his name, said Friday that Yevstafy had simply slipped up.

"He is an old man, and he just made a mistake," the spokesman said. "He didn't expect the event to be covered by the media."

The controversy over the Stalin icon comes at a time when a slight rehabilitation of the leader's image is being pushed for from different quarters.

In July, the St. Petersburg branch of the Communist Party asked the Orthodox Church to canonize Stalin if he won a television poll to declare him the greatest Russian in history. The result of the poll will only be known at year's end, but Stalin seems to be already out of the running.

Millions of people were executed under Stalin, and many died from abuse or disease in the gulag system of prison camps. According to historians, he is responsible for between 20 million and 40 million unnecessary deaths -- with victims ranging from monarchists and priests to the upper ranks of the military and the Bolshevik old guard.

"Even to suggest that Stalin is a saint is blasphemy," a spokesman for the Orthodox Church said.