A Moscow court began hearings Thursday in a libel suit brought by Stalin's grandson against a Russian newspaper that he claims called into question the Soviet dictator's honor and dignity.
The grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, is demanding 10 million rubles ($340,000) compensation from the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. He contests its claims in an April 22 article that Josef Stalin personally signed execution orders for thousands of Soviet and foreign citizens.
The article, titled "Beria Found Guilty," cited what it said were recently declassified Soviet archive documents that Stalin signed and handed to feared secret police chief Lavrenti Beria.
The plaintiff, who was not present at Thursday's hearing at Basmanny District Court, also is demanding monetary compensation from the author of the article, Anatoly Yablokov.
Recent years have seen an escalation in efforts to rehabilitate the dictator who, according to the rights group Memorial, ordered the deaths of at least 724,000 citizens during a series of purges that peaked in the late 1930s.
Earlier this year, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian of all time in a television poll. A plaque bearing his name that decades ago vanished from the vestibule of a Moscow metro station was recently restored. And former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last year denounced efforts to portray Stalin as a "brilliant manager" rather than a murderous autocrat.
"There are some people in power who want to see the history of the country as entirely glorious, as a step from victory to victory," said Genri Reznik, Novaya Gazeta's defense lawyer. The Kremlin's goal, Reznik said, is that "nothing must darken the attitudes of our people, and all negativity ... plays into the hands of our enemy."
Plaintiff lawyer Yury Mukhin disagreed.
"Stalin for many people is the symbol of an honest and fair leader," he said. A victory in the libel case would vindicate that version of history, he said.
At the courtroom, a gaggle of retirees showed solidarity for Stalin. They carried his portraits and derided his critics, eulogizing the dictator for fending off the Nazis in World War II.
Nina Vlasenko, a 78-year-old retiree, said: "If there had been no Stalin, then we would not have won the war. Look how the war was going. All Europe was under the heel of Hitler. And now Hitlerism is compared with Stalinism. We do not agree. Stalin didn't attack anyone, he just freed us."
Nina Khrushcheva, the great granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, said she was "absolutely on the side of Novaya Gazeta." Her ancestor first exposed Stalin's crimes and allowed the 1973 publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" exposing Stalin's network of slave labor camps.
Khrushcheva, who teaches in the international affairs program at the New School in New York, told The Associated Press that the lawsuit is evidence that at least some Russian officials are determined to promote what she called the myth of Stalin as a wise if strict leader. "The fact that in 2009 we're still unable to separate facts from fiction is mind-boggling," she said.
The trend toward a softer portrayal of Stalin was apparently bucked by the introduction of "The Gulag Archipelago" as required reading in schools this year.
Khrushcheva described the authorities' treatment of history as "schizophrenic."
The government in recent years has tried to control how history is taught, dumping textbooks that deviate from the new official line. In 2003, authorities banned a history text that was critical of Stalin.
Novaya Gazeta, meanwhile, also is fighting a libel action filed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Russia's southern republic of Chechnya. Kadyrov denies the paper's allegation of his involvement in the murder of one of his former bodyguards in Vienna, Austria, earlier this year.
"These lawsuits are contributing to an oppressive climate of intimidation," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "They also highlight how two subjects - the Soviet past and the situation in the Russian Caucasus - are being steadily and silently turned into taboos."