Man claims Russian paper libeled Stalin

MOSCOW — 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 $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.