Russia unveils controversial 'Big Three' monument in Crimea

Yalta (AFP) - Russia on Thursday defied critics by unveiling a monument to the watershed 1945 "Big Three" Yalta summit, despite objections from an ethnic group persecuted under Joseph Stalin's rule.

The 10-tonne monument was inspired by enduring images of then Soviet leader Stalin, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill meeting in the Crimean peninsula town of Yalta to decide the fate of the post-war world.

But Crimean Tatars, a Turkish-speaking Muslim population, have been hostile to the statue because under Stalin they were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia. Many of them died of starvation and disease.

The unveiling of the bronze sculpture at the Livadia Palace, just outside Yalta, coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Yalta conference which took place from February 4-11, 1945, after Stalin insisted the leaders meet on Soviet territory.

Just like the famous pictures of the meeting, the sculpture by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli depicts the three leaders seated on chairs, a disabled Roosevelt between Churchill and Stalin.

The figures of the two Western leaders are 3.2 metres (10 feet) high, while the statue of the Soviet host -- who according to Western memoirs dominated the talks -- is ten centimetres (four inches) higher.

Tsereteli first hoped to see the monument installed a decade ago but Ukrainian authorities dropped the plan after outraged Crimean Tatars took to the streets across the peninsula.

- 'Typhus and deadly lice' -

Ahead of the ceremony, the Tatar assembly spoke out against the installation of the sculpture in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine last March.

"If the monument gets erected it would be an open demonstration of the attitude to the memory of Crimea and our people," said assembly member Abduraman Egiz.

The peninsula's 300,000 Tatars oppose Russian rule over Crimea and boycotted a referendum in which a majority of voters were reported to have chosen to split from Ukraine.

In comments at Yalta commemoration ceremonies, Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of parliament's lower house, said that as global powers seek to settle the Ukraine crisis the West should remember the lessons of the Yalta talks including "readiness for dialogue".

But analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, grandson of Stalin's foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, said it was hardly possible to stage a similar meeting now.

"The West lacks political figures of the calibre of Churchill and Roosevelt," he told AFP.

Ahead of the conference Churchill complained that the place was "good for typhus and deadly lice," according to State Department records.

With the conference happening just 10 months after the peninsula was liberated, hosting hundreds of guests was no easy feat.

"If we had spent 10 years on research we could not have found a worse place in the world than Yalta," Churchill was quoted as saying.