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Lawsuit to defend Stalin divides Russia

The Soviet leader's grandson is accusing an opposition newspaper of publishing lies about the controversial figure, in a case that opened in Moscow Tuesday.

By Correspondent / September 15, 2009

MOSCOW – Both sides are hoping that a lawsuit that opened Tuesday in a Moscow court will turn into Russia’s trial of the century – of the last century, that is.

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On first blush, it’s a simple libel case. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, grandson of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, alleges that Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, falsely accused Mr. Stalin of signing “death lists” and committing “crimes against [his] own people” in an article last April by historian Anatoly Yablokov. He is suing for $300,000 in damages. Novaya Gazeta stands by its publication, and its editor, Dmitri Muratov says the paper is ready to take part in any legal action “because we are anti-Stalinists,” dedicated to establishing the historical truth.

Both sides say they are ready for a long and tough court battle. They believe any judgment rendered will have sweeping social repercussions, and be seen – rightly or wrongly – as an indication of where today’s Kremlin stands on this most sensitive of historical issues.

Stalin’s legacy: Golden age or nightmare?

Though Stalin died more than half a century ago, his legacy remains the focus of fierce controversy, both in Russia and among its former Soviet-dominated neighbors.

Many Russians still view the Stalin years as a golden age, in which the USSR was transformed from a backward peasant nation into an industrial dynamo, defeated Nazi Germany, developed the A-bomb, and rose to become a global superpower. Others associate Stalin’s rule with the horrors of collectivization, the gulag prison camps that swallowed up millions at their peak in the 1930s, mass executions by the Soviet secret police, catastrophic mistakes during World War II, and an authoritarian hangover that lingers in Russian political culture.

An early September poll released by the independent Levada Center in Moscow shows the public almost evenly divided on how to view the record of the man who iron-fistedly ruled the USSR for three decades, with 38 percent agreeing with the statement that Stalin was a “state criminal” and 44 percent disagreeing.

Some experts believe the dispute is rooted in a generation gap that will fade as elderly Russians, many of whom are nostalgic for the old days, pass away.

“Even though my own father was repressed [in the purges]. . . I believed in Stalin and thought he was a great leader,” says Roy Medvedev, Russia’s leading historian of the Stalin era. “A considerable part of the older people, like myself, cannot accept condemnation of Stalin. In Stalin’s times they lived, they went to war, they thought they lived in a great state. Later, under [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Russia’s first president Boris] Yeltsin, they had a hungry life, full of humiliations,” he says. “So, they have nothing left but Stalin.”

‘Propaganda’ to justify the present?

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