MOSCOW – A small courtroom victory has Russian liberals breathing a tiny and momentary sigh of relief.
A Moscow judge on Tuesday ruled against Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the grandson of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who had attempted to sue the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta for $320,000 in damages over an article that accused Mr. Stalin of being a "murderer" who ordered the execution of his political foes.
Though the trial received little coverage in Russia's state-dominated media, it has been breathlessly watched by liberals and human rights advocates, who fear that Russian history is being reshaped in order to whitewash Soviet-era crimes and curb criticism of latter-day Kremlin authoritarianism.
The judge at Moscow's Basmanny District Court refused to consider any testimony or evidence concerning Stalin's historical role, and made the narrow ruling that historian Anatoly Yablokov had the right to characterize Stalin as a "bloodthirsty cannibal" amid a discussion of recently declassified documents that show the dictator personally signed death orders for thousands of political opponents during the 1930s.
Both sides say they're disappointed that the court refused to consider any wider historical evidence.
"We had hoped to turn this trial into a larger examination of Stalin, but the judge just ruled on my article," says Mr. Yablokov. "Still, that's a necessary outcome. I'm prepared to fight this to the bitter end."
Mr. Dzhugashvili's lawyer, Leonid Zhura, insists that the trial was fixed by Russian authorities who fear a public discussion about the "greatness" the country achieved under Stalin, and says he has already filed an appeal.
"It was an awful trial, a travesty, and we were not allowed to speak," Mr. Zhura says. "We don't understand how a person [Stalin] can be declared a criminal without any evidence?"
Russia's beleaguered liberals have been appalled by what they see as an effort by today's Kremlin leaders to downplay Stalin-era crimes while using the reflected glory of Soviet past achievements to burnish their own images.
"A very large section of Russian society views Stalin with respect, because he's a symbol of glorious history, particularly the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"Some mid-level officials make use of this, because it's a unifying theme in a very disunited country. In any case, no Russian leader today is in a position to denounce Stalin for his crimes. That would be very unpopular," he says.
The editors of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining critical news outlets, have argued that Russia needs an equivalent of the "Nuremburg trials," where Germany's former Nazi leaders were judged, before Russia's legal climate and political culture can be changed.
"We don't believe Russia can move forward, even economically, until we have cleared Stalinism out of our system," says Oleg Klebnikov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta. "This was a fair judgment, but we want to see Stalinism condemned."
"There was a window of opportunity to deal with the baggage of the past in the early 1990s," after the USSR collapsed, says Mr. Petrov. "But now it's practically impossible."