Hearings began today in a libel case brought by the grandson of Joseph Stalin against a prominent Russian newspaper. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the Soviet dictator’s grandson, took offence at an article published by the liberal paper Novaya Gazeta that accused Stalin of personally signing death warrants for thousands of people.
The article referred to declassified documents which the author claims bear Stalin’s signature. Mr Dzhugashvili, who did not show up in court today, says that this is a lie, and denies that his grandfather ordered any murders. He is seeking 10 million roubles (£200,000) of damages from the newspaper and demanding the retraction of several quotes from the article.
A small group of mostly elderly Stalin supporters gathered outside the central Moscow courtroom as hearings began, some of them bearing photographs of the dictator on their lapels. Both sides have requested previously classified documents to be brought before the court to help them make their case.
That the court is even hearing the case is bizarre, as almost all serious historians agree that Stalin was responsible for monstrous crimes. Orlando Figes, a British historian of Russian has compared the case to a holocaust denier in Germany being allowed to bring a case against a newspaper that wrote that Adolf Hitler was responsible for the deaths of Jews.
“This case is practically a trial of Stalin himself,” says prominent liberal journalist Anton Orekh. In Russia, there have been no official trials or public soul-searching over the darker elements of the country’s history.
The Kremlin has avoided making direct statements about Stalin in recent years, but many have observers have noted a subtle rehabilitation of Stalin during the Putin years. This court case comes at an interesting time, as liberals claim that the state is attempting to silence critics of the Soviet period and make Russians proud of their history. There was an uproar when a recent renovation of a Moscow metro station was revealed to have restored an inscription praising Stalin that had been removed after his death. In recent weeks pro-Kremlin youth activists have hounded a journalist who criticised supporters of the Soviet Union. They asked him to apologise or leave the country, and set up a picket outside his house.