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.

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.

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?

Russian liberals, who back Novaya Gazeta, warn that under Mr. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, Russia has moved sharply in an authoritarian direction – accompanied by a growing tendency to reach back to Stalin-era “achievements” as a source of legitimacy. They point to small signals that seem to whitewash the old dictator, such as the restoration of a Stalinist mural in a Moscow metro station last month, and a new school text that describes Stalin as “an effective manager.”

More seriously, the Kremlin has established a special commission aimed at combating “historical falsifications,” which critics fear may be used to impose a pro-Stalin orthodoxy on the media and educational establishment.

“I think the authorities intend to change our constitutional system away from democracy towards authoritarianism,” says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who heads Russia’s oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group. She says the Kremlin is praising the positive achievements of the USSR while blocking exposure of the crimes that lay at its heart.

“This is not a simple dispute between generations,” she says. “People of my age remember how things were in Stalin’s times, but the youth doesn’t. It’s easier to deceive young people through propaganda, and some people are making good use of this.”

Lamenting the fall from superpower

Lined up behind Mr. Dzhugashvili is a coalition of old-time Communists and Russian nationalists, who argue that Stalin led the USSR to superpower status and national greatness, and that his successors wrecked the empire and turned Russia into a global laughingstock.

Denunciations of Stalin began in the USSR with a secret speech in 1956 by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, and reached a peak under the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

“For more than half a century, lies have been poured on Stalin’s name,” says Leonid Zhura, Dzhugashvili’s lawyer, who says he became an admirer of Stalin by studying the historical record. He says the upcoming trial is not simply about defending Stalin’s reputation, but about affirming his methods as legitimate.

“Russia’s development should be different from the Western, democratic, liberal way,” he says. “The discussion about Stalin’s role going on in society... is a dispute about the future development of humanity.”

A court decision affirming Stalin’s innocence might help the public see the inadequacy of today’s leaders, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, he suggests. “What are they as compared to Stalin?” Mr. Zhura asks. “They are so small.”

In a letter written on behalf of his father, Dzhugashvili’s son Yakov, a Tbilisi-based artist, told the Monitor that the main purpose of the lawsuit was to force Novaya Gazeta to provide documentary proof of its specific claims against Stalin. He blamed the media for spreading lies about Stalin, which sap the strength of society and play into the hands of Russia’s enemies in the West. “The elites of the West and Russia are terrified, and that’s why they are doing their best to prevent the truth about Stalin to penetrate into the media,” he insisted.

Some are hoping that Dzhugashvili vs. Novaya Gazeta, however it turns out, will begin a process in which the old dictator and his legacy can finally be put to rest. But pessimists worry that it may be too little, too late.

“Public condemnation of Stalin is ceasing, while glorification of him is going full speed,” says Ernst Cherny, secretary of the Committee in Defense of Scientists, a human rights group. “I fear [in this atmosphere] no one will even come to watch the trial at all.”

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