MOSCOW - The imminent opening of a museum devoted to Josef Stalin has stirred outrage among relatives of the millions he persecuted and prompted claims that Stalinism is again on the march.

After a number of delays, the "Stalin Museum" dedicated to the once-venerated Father of the People is due to be opened at the end of March in Volgograd, the World War II "hero city" once known as Stalingrad.

The project is being privately financed by local businessmen but will controversially enjoy pride of place in the official complex that commemorates the epic Battle of Stalingrad.

The museum will boast a writing set owned by the dictator, copies of his historic musings, a mock-up of his Kremlin office, a Madame Tussauds-style wax representation of him and medals, photographs and busts.

Svetlana Argatseva, the museum's future curator, told Ogonyok magazine she felt the project was justified.

"In France people regard Napoleon and indeed the rest of their history with respect. We need to look at our history in the same way."

But Eduard Polyakov, the chairman of the local association of victims of political repression, is among those who believe the project is an insult to the millions who suffered in Stalin's purges and died in the Gulag.

"I don't even want to hear about this," he said. "In the Stalingrad area 100,000 families suffered political repression and were forcibly resettled because of their ethnicity. How can people spit into our souls like this?"

The scandal comes half a century after Stalin's cult of personality was officially dismantled and the crimes "Uncle Joe" perpetrated against his own people exposed.

February 25 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the "secret" speech made by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 denouncing Stalin, an event that ushered in "de-Stalinisation" and saw monuments to the Georgian-born autocrat torn down across the country.

Ironically, however, the former dictator appears to be enjoying a mini-revival. Actors playing Stalin are in serious demand as television and theatrical productions about the era flourish, while the modern-day Russian Communist Party says his crimes were "exaggerated".

The "comeback" of a man whose bloodied hands are often compared to Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong has alarmed the more liberal wing of Russia's political class.

The Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has warned that neo-Stalinism is on the march again, and Russia's first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, has said he can't understand why Stalin is still so popular.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of poll respondents regularly rate Stalin's achievements as "positive" and a survey last year named him the most revered Communist leader the Soviet system had produced.

Admirers cite his turning the Soviet Union into a superpower, the country's defeat of fascism and the "order" he enforced.

According to Gorbachev, Russia is going through a dangerous period.

"We can see what was seen in the 1930s even now," he said this month.

"Portraits of Stalin and a renaissance of Stalinism can be observed in the mass media and in theatres. Some attempts are being made to preserve Stalinism and this is very serious.

"Russia today is reminiscent of the Brezhnev era which led to neo-Stalinism - Stalinism without political reprisals but with persecution and total control."

Stalin, who ruled the USSR from 1924 until his death in 1953, ruthlessly purged the Communist Party and the armed forces and effected rapid industrialisation at huge human cost.

The total number who died under his regime is disputed but Western historians put the figure at 20 million. He once said that one death was a tragedy, but one million was a statistic.

- INDEPENDENT