The monument to Vladimir, the patron saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, about 100 yards from the Kremlin walls in Moscow. Critics view it as a thinly disguised homage to President Vladimir V. Putin.CreditSergei Chirikov/European Pressphoto Agency

MOSCOW — With President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia relying on resurgent nationalism as the bedrock of his government, on Friday he inaugurated what many consider to be a symbol of that policy: a colossal, much-debated statue of St. Vladimir, the patron saint of the Russian Orthodox Church who, of course, shares the president’s name.

Supporters hailed the statue as embodying Russia’s core identity as a robust state built around Christian values and under a resolute father figure.

Critics disparaged the work, which rises nearly 60 feet at a main crossroads here about 100 yards from the Kremlin walls, calling it an eyesore and a thinly disguised monument to the other Vladimir.

Whatever observers might think about the monument, there is no doubt that Russia has gone slightly statue mad. St. Vladimir is only the latest, most potent salvo in what might be called the Statue Wars, a battle over whether the proliferating figures across the country are being erected to represent something other than themselves or even than their historical periods.

Those against the spread of statuary consider the figures symbols of a creeping repression, of making authoritarianism more palatable by erecting monuments to bygone tyrants. “Metaphorically, it is a monument to Putin,” Mikhail Shevchuk, a journalist, wrote of the Vladimir statue.

The choices of those honored often horrify Kremlin opponents. For centuries, Ivan the Terrible was considered too bloodthirsty to warrant a monument — until a few weeks ago. Stalin all but disappeared after his death, but he is beginning to pop up in stone in towns around Russia.

Advocates of the new monuments, led by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, consist mainly of conservatives and nationalists eager to reaffirm a sense of Russian identity that they consider to have been lost in the collapse of the Communist state.

The skirmishing over the statues is not the stuff of obscure academic journals. The troika of St. Vladimir, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin gallop through Russia’s daily news cycle. Arguments rage on prime-time television talk shows and on op-ed pages.

Some analysts see the argument as a substitute for politics. With the future in question as democracy slowly suffocates, Russians instead focus on the past.

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Mr. Putin, left, with the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, during the unveiling of the monument to St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, in Moscow on Friday. CreditAlexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

“Any society needs a conversation, and in Russia’s case, history has become a conversation,” Maxim Trudolyubov, a newspaper editor and political analyst, wrote in a blog post. “The history of modern Russia, especially its 20th-century history, has taken the place of politics in most Russians’ minds.”

The debate is not limited to statues alone. A steamy movie called “Matilda,” which depicts the affair between the last czar, Nicholas II, and a ballerina, is due out next spring.

The Russian Orthodox Church, however, canonized Nicholas, and a young new member of Parliament from Crimea made a pre-emptive strike to block the movie’s distribution, claiming the film was an insult to the Orthodox faithful. (Besides the sex, one Orthodox organization complained that a German actor was cast as the czar, saying that was an insult to Russia’s historical memory.)

The unveiling of the St. Vladimir statue culminates a fight that lasted about two years. A far larger, 82-foot version was initially proposed for a hill overlooking the capital, near Moscow State University.

Environmental activists, preservationists and others started a successful protest movement. However, an only slightly diminished Vladimir ended up in an arguably more prominent spot, Borovitsky Hill, which looms over a stretch of central Moscow.

Unesco, the United Nations cultural body, objected. The organization was reportedly horrified that the gargantuan statue would overshadow the Kremlin walls, a World Heritage Site. So the sculptor lopped off more than 20 feet.

St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, was a warrior prince of mythic proportions who established both the Orthodox Church and Rus, the embryo of the Russian state. He compelled his subjects to convert to Christianity in 988 in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, which has its own outsize Vladimir statue.

That became problematic after Russian began a war against Ukraine starting with the March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Mr. Putin highlighted Vladimir’s baptism in Crimea, calling it sacred ground.

So the statue is a kind of three-for-one. Besides representing the Orthodox faith, St. Vladimir now embodies Crimea, a territory whose annexation prompted a huge outpouring of nationalist pride and the idea that Russia needed a strong leader.

“Any authoritarian leader sooner or later becomes sentimental and begins to believe in his higher purpose, connecting him directly to heroes of the past,” wrote Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist, during the initial fight over the Vladimir monument. “The monuments seem to shoot up by themselves. Later, they will most likely be torn down.”

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A statue of Ivan the Terrible in Oryol, Russia, 225 miles southeast of Moscow, that provoked an even louder debate. CreditHoward Amos/Associated Press

If anything, the fight over the statue of Ivan the Terrible provoked an even more vociferous debate.

Vadim Potomsky, the governor of the region of Oryol, decided to erect a bronze statue of Ivan, on horseback and wielding a sword and a cross, in the provincial capital, about 225 miles southeast of Moscow. Legend has it that Ivan founded the city of Oryol 450 years ago as a fortress.

Mr. Potomsky adopted the line taken by Vladimir R. Medinsky, the Russian culture minister, that Ivan basically suffered from a bad Western press.

He also linked the statue to Mr. Putin at its dedication. “We have a great, powerful president who has forced the entire world to respect and defer to Russia, like Ivan the Terrible did in his time,” Mr. Potomsky said.

On state-run television, guests on a talk-show segment devoted to the statue argued about what kind of leader modern Russia needed.

When one liberal politician suggested that the monument embodied the Kremlin’s desire for absolute rule, Aleksandr A. Prokhanov, a nationalist writer and proponent of the statue, bellowed that a muscular Russia required a strong chief.

“Weak leaders have ruined our country,” he said. “Alexander II freed the serfs and they came to the city and caused a revolution. Nicholas II was a weak czar and look what happened. Gorbachev was weak, and as a result, a great state collapsed.”

Vladislav Gultyaev, an artist in the Siberian town of Kansk, erected his own monument to Ivan, a sharp stake of the kind the former czar used to impale victims, this one splashed with red paint. “By agreeing to the installation of such monuments, we tacitly approve of repression, torture and executions,” he wrote.

Someone chopped the stake down.

Stalin, once denounced by the Soviet state he headed, is also making a comeback.

About 60 years ago, with memories of his bloody purges still fresh, his statues were knocked down.

Lately, though, others have been appearing, usually just modest busts on a pedestal. Fans hail him as a strong leader. Sure, Russians were sent to labor camps by the millions, but industrialization could not come cheap, they argue.

Those who abhor him have repeatedly doused the busts in red paint.

At an annual ceremony last month to read aloud the names of some of Stalin’s victims, Georgy Khositashvili came for the first time to say the name of his grandfather, a bookkeeper who was arrested on a collective farm in Georgia in 1937 and never seen again.

Mr. Khositashvili contrasted the monument to Vladimir with the reading of the names.

“Remember what Pushkin wrote: A monument not made by human hands is the greatest monument,” he said, “That we have come here and are reading names, I think there is no better monument.”

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