A Russian court ruled against Josef Stalin's grandson Tuesday in a libel suit over a newspaper article that said the Soviet dictator sent thousands of people to their deaths.

A judge at a Moscow district court rejected Yevgeny Dzhugashvili's claim that Novaya Gazeta defamed Stalin in an April article referring to the strongman leader as a "bloodthirsty cannibal."

A ruling against Novaya Gazeta would have been seen as an exoneration of Stalin more than 50 years after his death. It would have been a major setback to beleaguered Russian liberals who say the country must acknowledge the truth of its bloody past and accuse the Kremlin of whitewashing history.

The late-evening ruling was a rare victory for Stalin's critics in their fight against efforts to rehabilitate the dictator who, according to the rights group Memorial, ordered the deaths of at least 724,000 citizens during a series of fearsome purges that peaked in the late 1930s.

"Behind the plaintiff's bench are those who are throttling freedom ... and giving the country back to Stalin," defense lawyer Genri Reznik told the court during hours of tense proceedings Tuesday. Only a few journalists were allowed into the Basmanny district courtroom.

On the winning side, the mood was more of relief than celebration.

"What should have happened, happened," Anatoly Yablokov, the author of the Novaya Gazeta article and the newspaper's co-defendant, said before swiftly leaving the courthouse. "It's a decision based on the law."

Stalin's grandson, who did not attend the trial, had demanded a retraction, a public apology and monetary damages. He has five days to appeal.

"We are sure the judge decided this case in advance," plaintiff's lawyer Vadim Zhur said. He suggested there might be an appeal, accusing the judge of violating his client's rights in decisions on evidence and witnesses.

During the proceedings Tuesday, Zhur said Stalin's reputation has been wrongly besmirched.

"A lot of evidence is emerging that Stalin was the first democrat of our country," he said.

Dzhugashvili's lead lawyer, Yuri Mukhin, said the judge was wrong to allow Russian school textbooks as evidence of Stalin's repressions.

"How can a textbook prove that Stalin was a tyrant?" Mukhin told journalists during a break.

Ten elderly Stalin supporters gathered outside the courtroom Tuesday holding photographs of the dictator.

"I've come here to defend Stalin, to defend him against these terrible accusations," 77-year-old Vera Atomanova said. "He was a great man. He united the country and created a great superpower."

She and the others were reading the hardline communist newspaper Molniya, whose main headline said: "The myth of Stalinist repressions."

Stalin is revered by many in Russia who say he led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and turned a struggling nation into a superpower. Kremlin critics say Russia's leaders in the last decade have encouraged a more positive view of Stalin than their predecessors to justify their own retreat from democracy.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have mostly steered clear of open praise or criticism of Stalin, but have bristled angrily at any effort to equate him with Hitler.

Earlier this year, he was voted the third-greatest Russian of all time in a television poll. A plaque bearing Stalin's name that decades ago vanished from the vestibule of a Moscow metro station was recently restored. And former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last year denounced efforts to portray Stalin as a "brilliant manager" rather than a murderous autocrat.