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It may sound like a bad joke. A Russian court has agreed to hear a libel case brought by the grandson of Josef Stalin. He claims that a newspaper commentary damaged his grandfather's reputation. The commentary noted that Stalin ordered the killing of millions of Soviet citizens.

NPR's Anne Garrels has the story from Moscow.

ANNE GARRELS: With the fall of communism, the Russian government finally permitted historians and witnesses to publish searing accounts of Stalin's rule. Documents long hidden in closed archives were made available. Leonid Zhura, a former trade official and devoted Stalinist, persuaded Stalin's grandson to fight back. He's representing him in court.

Mr. LEONID ZHURA (Stalinist): (Through Translator) Stalin was a great leader who saved this country and led it to democracy. His constitution was the best ever written. Yes, many innocent people suffered and were killed, but Stalin was not responsible for this. Others were. It's time to put the record straight.

GARRELS: Sitting in a tiny apartment, surrounded by books on Stalin, 62-year-old Zhura says his beloved dictator never ordered the murder of Soviet citizens. He says documents that prove Stalin ordered the killing of 21,000 Polish prisoners of war in 1940 are fake. Historian Anatoly Yablokov, who wrote the newspaper article in question, says such claims would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Mr. ANATOLY YABLOKOV (Historian): (Through Translator) What has changed is the mood of society. Society is increasingly praising the Stalinist period. You see this in many ways. I fear this reflects a move towards totalitarianism.

GARRELS: Under Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, the image of Stalin is less clear-cut than it was when communism first crumbled 20 years ago. Archives which had been opened are now being reclassified as secret. Putin has endorsed a manual for history teachers that portrays Stalin as an effective crisis manager. It's the Soviet Union's role in World War II which is a particularly sore point. Many here feel the Soviet Union is not given full credit for its role in the liberation of Europe. An estimated 27 million Soviet citizens died during World War II.

President Dmitry Medvedev responded with outrage when the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently equated Stalin with Hitler as two regimes that brought about violations of rights as well as war crimes. Historian Yablokov argues Moscow's role was more complicated than the government would like to admit.

Mr. YABLOKOV: (Through Translator) We are looking for a national idea to inspire people, and one is the victory in World War II. It was an extraordinary victory, but the government wants to ignore any discussion of the beginning of the war: Stalin's pact with Hitler and the division of Europe after the war.

GARRELS: Gilded words of praise for Stalin were recently restored to the vestibule of a central Moscow subway station. Once again, passengers can read what had long been plastered over: Stalin reared us on loyalty to the nation. He inspired us to work and be heroic. Asked what they thought about these words, most passengers heartily approved or said they had no opinion one way or the other. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of Parliament and opposition commentator, says Prime Minister Putin would be happy with such responses.

Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Former Member of Parliament, Russia): (Foreign language spoken).

GARRELS: Ryzhkov says it shows Putin has succeeded in persuading people to leave government to others. Ryzhkov believes the rehabilitation of Stalin justifies the return of a strong government, which he says can interfere with citizens' rights.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.

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