MOSCOW Josef Stalin was in the dock on Monday 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 9.5 million roubles ($299,000) from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and 500,000 roubles from the author of 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.
"We want to rehabilitate Stalin," he told Reuters. "He turned populations into peoples, he presided over a golden era in literature and the arts, he was a real leader."
A phrase in the article saying Stalin and the secret police committed grave crimes against their own people caused particular offence, Zhura said.
The many sides of the Stalin myth -- bloody tyrant and war leader, pipe-smoking Kremlin puppet master and economic miracle worker -- are still the subject of a heated debate in Russia 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Gilded words of praise for the dictator were unveiled last week on the marbled halls of a central Moscow metro station and Stalin was voted Russia's third most popular figure in history in a nationwide poll last year.
MILLIONS DIED IN LABOR CAMPS
Russia buried last August Soviet-era dissident and author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was sent to a Gulag (labor camp) for making a joke about Stalin, in a religious ceremony which bore all the hallmarks of a state funeral.
But in the public arena in today's Russia, there is very little talk about the millions of Soviets who perished in Gulag labor camps or from famine during Stalin's rule.
Recent Russian teachers' manuals have described Stalin as an effective manager who acted rationally in conducting a campaign of terror to modernize the Soviet Union.
"There is a change in society's view of Stalin," Anatoly Yablokov, who authored the Novaya Gazeta article, said after the preliminary court hearing.
"We hear much more now about how much of an effective manager Stalin was, much more than in the 1990s, and much less about the repression," he said.
Stalin's opponents are enraged and say the change is being fueled by Kremlin leaders who want to forget the 1990s, when former President Boris Yeltsin spoke openly about some of the Soviet Union's darkest secrets.
"The authorities are trying to build a bridge to the Soviet Union over the Yeltsin years to idealize Stalin," said Nikita Petrov, an historian from the Memorial human rights group.
"They have decided it was too dangerous to delve into the horrors of our history. It is deeply sad. It is the football hooligan's view of history."
(Editing by Tim Pearce)