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By Conor Humphries
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Supporters of Josef Stalin denounced "lies" about the Soviet dictator at a Moscow court on Thursday as his grandson sought to clear Stalin's name after an opposition newspaper accused him of killing Soviet citizens.
Two dozen elderly Russians, some holding photocopied portraits of the dictator, hurled abuse at an opposition journalist as the court began to hear evidence that an article he wrote detailing Stalin's crimes was libellous.
Stalin's grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, is seeking 10 million roubles (209,000 pounds) from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper over the article, published last April, which said Stalin personally signed politburo death orders.
"We came to defend Stalin," said Nina Vlasenko, 78, clutching a biography of the Soviet leader. "There have been so many lies. It's a relief someone is protecting him here."
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.
Lawyers for Novaya Gazeta argued they did not need to prove the "widely recognized" fact that Stalin killed millions of his own citizens and ordered the killing of 20,000 Poles in Katyn forest in 1940
They read from a Russian history textbook to back up their case.
Representatives of Dzhugashvili, who has not appeared at the court, said the official history was biased and argued that Novaya Gazeta should offer evidence that Stalin personally knew about the killings.
Stalin's rule, which left millions dead but set the Soviet Union on course to superpower status, is still the subject of a heated debate in Russia 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Stalin was voted Russia's third most popular figure in history in a nationwide poll last year and an epigraph praising him was recently restored on the wall of a Moscow metro station.
But in the public arena in today's Russia, there is very little talk about the millions of Soviets who perished in Gulag labour camps or from famine during Stalin's rule.
"There is a soft rehabilitation of Stalin, which is why his grandson decided to come forward with this initiative," said Nikita Petrov, an historian from the Memorial human rights group. "There is a gradual revision of the past."
(Editing by Charles Dick)

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