JOSEF Stalin was in the dock yesterday when a Russian court held a preliminary hearing in a libel case brought by his grandson over a newspaper story which said the tyrant had ordered the killings of Soviet citizens.
Rights groups say the case shows a creeping attempt in modern Russia to paint a more benevolent picture of the Soviet Union's most feared leader, under whose rule millions perished.
Stalin's grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, is seeking $300,000 from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper for an article published last April claiming Stalin personally signed politburo death orders.
Leonid Zhura, a convinced Stalinist who is representing Dzhugashvili in court, said that the article – based on declassified Kremlin documents – damaged Stalin's reputation.
"Half a century of lies have been poured over Stalin's reputation and he cannot defend himself from the grave so this case is essential to put the record straight," said Zhura.
A phrase in the article saying Stalin and the secret police committed grave crimes against their own people caused particular offence, he said.
Stalin was voted Russia's third most popular figure in history in a nationwide poll last year.
"There is a change in society's view of Stalin," Anatoly Yablokov, who authored the Novaya Gazeta article, said after the preliminary court hearing.