MOSCOW -- A criminal complaint from a youth group that backs President Vladimir Putin has prompted an inquiry into an iconoclastic author over a novel that depicts sexual contact between Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.
Police opened the investigation after prosecutors found that parts of Vladimir Sorokin's 1999 book "Goluboye Salo" -- which can be translated as "Blue Lard" or "Gay Lard" -- are pornographic, Svetlana Petrenko, an aide to the chief Moscow prosecutor, said Thursday.
The investigation alarmed advocates of freedom of expression, who have long been concerned about the possibility of a return to censorship under Putin, a former KGB agent who was elected in part on the strength of promises to re-establish order in Russia.
Petrenko said prosecutors had an expert examine the book after a pro-Putin youth group, Walking Together, filed a criminal complaint last month accusing author Sorokin of disseminating pornography. She said the investigation also targets Sorokin's Russian publisher, Ad Marginem, and anyone who sells it.
According to a recent report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, authorities took an interest in the novel after someone called police to complain about a scene of sexual contact between the Soviet dictator Stalin and Khrushchev, his successor. Many older Russians do not like to see Stalin and other Soviet leaders criticized or ridiculed.
But the sharpest criticism of Sorokin's brash prose has come from the youth group. Last month, group members put on rubber gloves, tore up copies of his books and threw them into a big mock toilet bowl they set up in Moscow.
Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a Russian group that monitors freedom of expression, suggested the probe amounted to an attempt to censor authors.
"The problem is not whether or not Sorokin's books contain foul language, but that the criminal prosecution of any writer is very dangerous from the point of view of freedom of the press," Interfax quoted Simonov as saying. He said the investigation "is not so much a threat of possible censorship as an admission that such censorship does exist."
Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi also spoke out against the investigation. "I am not a fan of Sorokin but I would defend his right to express himself," he told RTR television.
Sorokin said he did not rule out the possibility that he would face "a show trial" -- a reference to political trials including those of writers and other artists under Stalin. "This may generate a trend that would signal a cleansing in literature and culture as a whole," Interfax quoted him as saying.
Sorokin could be sentenced to up to two years in prison if convicted of disseminating pornography.
The author also denied the accusation that the book is pornographic, saying its subject is the death of Russian literature. "Pornography is a specific genre, and pornographic works contain only pornographic scenes," he said. He defended his use of obscene words, saying that "in every civilized country such words have long since become part of the culture."
Alexander Ivanov, director of Ad Marginem publishing house, told NTV television that sales of Sorokin's books had quadrupled since the recent controversy.
Some Russian literary critics have complained that the quality of the books Russians write and read significantly deteriorated after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Several post-Soviet writers have won readers with works that mix literary style with profanity or graphic descriptions of sex.
Russia's official human rights ombudsman, Oleg Mironov, criticized foul language and pornography in the arts but said criminal prosecution would not solve the problem.
"Writers should speak of the reasonable and the eternal instead of cursing and describing improper scenes," Interfax quoted Mironov as saying.