updated 3/26/2007 10:00:48 PM ET 2007-03-27T02:00:48

Authorities in an eastern Ukrainian city took down billboards and ended television advertisements on Monday featuring Soviet dictator Josef Stalin exhorting residents to pay their utility bills on time after protests from rights groups and nationalists.

Irina Taran, a spokeswoman for the governing council in Donetsk, said dozens of billboards featuring Stalin appeared in the city last week; television advertisements featuring old film clips of the Soviet leader also appeared. Ukrainian media reported that the mayor's office initiated the move, but then backed down in the face of protests.

One billboard shows Stalin holding a piece of paper and saying "Comrades! This isn't a film! This is life!" In the television ad, Stalin is shown in grainy black-and-white footage being applauded by hundreds of party members as a dubbed-over voice says: "Those who don't pay for their heat should be punished!"

Critics said it was shameful for authorities to be using an image of a man whom many Ukrainians blame for killing one-third of the country's population during the famine in the 1930s.

"We were surprised by these billboards ourselves. We have nothing to do with it," Taran told The Associated Press.

Donetsk mayoral officials could not be reached for comment, but one utility official told Russia's NTV television that the company was struggling with a serious backlog of unpaid bills.

"Stalin is used here not as a historical personality, but more as a symbol of inevitable punishment. Failure to pay for one's (utility) services is a serious wrongdoing," said Alexander Semchenko, deputy chief of the Donetsk City Heating Network Company.

Utilities rates markedly increased across the country late last year and many residents stopped paying them as a result — some in protest, some simply unable to afford the higher rates.

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