- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

MOSCOW | Yulia Khrushcheva sat in the afternoon shadows of her Moscow kitchen, her delicate fingers brushing back her silver-blond hair, talking of the anguish of seeing her family’s reputation under attack.

The 68-year-old granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev has filed a series of lawsuits against a state-owned TV network for airing a docudrama that, she says, falsely depicts her father, Leonid, as having been shot as a traitor in World War II.

These claims of her father’s treachery, which historians dismiss, have been published more than a dozen times in books, magazine articles and newspapers in the post-Soviet era, and sometimes she cannot bring herself to read them. “I am not that brave,” she says.

Some members of the Khrushchev family and others say the persistent rumor is part of a quiet battle of political symbols in which the champions of a strengthened state have tried to weaken democratic institutions.

The aim, they say, is to burnish the reputation of strong leaders, such as former President Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin, by tarnishing that of Khrushchev - who denounced Stalin’s mass arrests, executions and deportations in a secret 1956 speech to the Communist Party leadership that later became public.

The tactic, they say, is to smear the son with a bogus charge in order to defame his famous father and then to claim Khrushchev’s celebrated speech was actually motivated by a desire for revenge.

“This is not about Khrushchev or Stalin, it’s about the future of Russia,” said Sergei Khrushchev, Leonid’s half-brother and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

Irina Shcherbakova of the Memorial, a Moscow human rights group, said authorities “undoubtedly” help spread the rumors of Leonid Khrushchev’s purported execution as part of Russia’s epic struggle between authoritarianism and reform - of which Stalin and Khrushchev are the two icons.

“The reason these rumors persist … is rooted in the fate of the country, when reformers are considered to be weak and tyrants strong,” she said.

In an effort to rewrite history after a period of reform, she said, Russian autocrats traditionally have resorted to “banal myths, tabloid stories, loud TV talk shows.”

However, some political analysts see in the attacks on Khrushchev’s memory a settling of scores among the descendants of Soviet-era elites rather than any state-orchestrated campaign to undermine reform.

“I don’t think Khrushchev is of any interest to today’s Russian government,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, who has often been critical of the Kremlin.

Still, the celebration of state power has been a major theme in Russian arts and education in recent years. The country’s film industry, largely state-subsidized, has produced thrillers showing Russia under siege from the West, protected only by decisive czars, steely Communist Party first secretaries and vigorous modern presidents - essentially, Mr. Putin.

New textbooks praise Mr. Putin’s concentration of power and laud Stalin as a successful if brutal leader. Last year, Mr. Putin told history teachers that no one could make Russians feel guilty about Stalin’s crimes because “in other countries, even worse things happened.”

Russian television, which is mostly state-owned or -controlled, seems split over how to depict Stalin. Some recent entertainment programs, including a dramatization of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “First Circle,” have been critical of the dictator. However, viewers of a miniseries improbably titled “Stalin Lite” say it depicts Stalin as a hero.

In June, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, another Soviet-era reformer, urged the creation of a memorial to victims of Stalin’s gulag, lamenting those who think of him as a “brilliant manager” rather than a murderous dictator.

Khrushchev is generally recalled in the West as the shoe-banging Soviet leader who confronted a youthful President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. In Russia, however, he may be remembered best for the 1956 speech.

To those who defend Stalin’s memory, the story of LeonidKhrushchev’s supposed treachery suggests the speech was an act of vengeance.

According to official accounts, Senior Lt. Leonid N. Khrushchev, a fighter pilot, disappeared during an air battle near the town of Zhizdra, southwest of Moscow, on March 11, 1943. His fellow pilots presumed that the 26-year-old’s plane had been shot down and he had been killed. Neither he nor his aircraft was ever found.

His death certificate says he died on the day of the air battle. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Great Patriotic War.

William C. Taubman of Amherst College, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 biography of Nikita Khrushchev, flatly rejects stories of Leonid’s purported defection and execution. “I’m convinced Leonid was shot down and killed in the war and that he was neither a captive nor collaborator of the Germans,” he wrote in an e-mail.

However, a small but persistent group of authors have reasserted the claim repeatedly since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In a 2004 encyclopedia titled “The Epoch of Stalin: The People and the Events,” Vladimir Sukhodeyev wrote that Nikita Khrushchev fell to his knees and begged Stalin to spare Leonid’s life. “Stalin asked him to stand up and get a hold of himself,” Mr. Sukhodeyev wrote.

The author declined a request for an interview. “I have said everything in my book, there is nothing to add,” he said.

Khrushchev, who died in 1971, did not mention the rumors about the circumstances of Leonid’s death in his memoirs.

According to the Khrushchev family, the KGB spread rumors of Leonid Khrushchev’s execution as part of an effort in the 1960s to rehabilitate Stalin following Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster and the rollback of his reforms. Miss Khrushcheva said she first heard the tales when they resurfaced in the late 1980s, presumably as part of a campaign against Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms.

“It’s not the truth. It is rumor,” she said. “But then it became widespread.”

Sergei Khrushchev said he thinks the tales likely have at least the tacit endorsement of authorities. “Nothing happens in Russia without the support of the government,” he said.

Mr. Putin’s office - he is now prime minister - did not respond to a request for comment. Alexei Pavlov, a spokesman for President Dmitry Medvedev, said the Kremlin had no connection with the First Channel broadcast and could not comment.

For Miss Khrushcheva, the May 2006 miniseries “Stars of the Era” was the last straw. She filed a lawsuit against broadcaster First Channel accusing it of “degrading the honor, dignity and good name of Khrushchev, L.N.” The suit sought unspecified damages.

Russian courts so far have refused to hear the case, ruling that broadcasters have a right to air fictional accounts of historical figures. The miniseries was rebroadcast as recently as May on a different nationwide network.

First Channel repeatedly promised a response to AP requests for comment, but none was received.

Miss Khrushcheva has taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The court so far has not agreed to hear “Khrushchev vs. Russia.”

cAP writer Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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