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Stalin’s Afterlife

The Soviet Union's greatest mythological figure is 100 years old this week.

It has been called the “accursed question,” like serfdom in prerevolutionary Russia. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, from 1929 to his death at the age of 73 in 1953. For most of these years, he ruled as an unconstrained autocrat, making the era his own—Stalinshchina, the time of Stalin. The nature of his rule and the enduring legacy of Stalinism have been debated in the Soviet Union for more than another quarter of a century, first in the official press and since the mid-1960s in samizdat. And yet it remains the most tenacious and divisive issue in Soviet political life.

Stalinism was, to use a Soviet metaphor, two towering and inseparable mountains: a mountain of national accomplishments alongside a mountain of crimes. The accomplishments cannot be dismissed. During the first decade of Stalin's leadership, memorialized officially as the period of the first and second five-year plans for collectivization and industrialization, a mostly backward, agrarian, illiterate society was transformed into a predominantly industrial, urban, and literate one with many of the benefits of a modern welfare state. For millions of people the 1930s were a time of willingly heroic sacrifice, educational opportunity, and upward mobility. In the second decade of Stalin's rule, the Soviet Union destroyed the mighty German invader, contributing more than any other nation to the defeat of fascism; it also acquired an empire in Eastern Europe, and became a superpower in world affairs.

But the crimes were no less mountainous. Stalin's system of mass terror—arrests, torture, deportations, and executions by the NKVD or MGB (as the political police was variously known), and the murderous forced labor camps of the Gulag archipelago—victimized tens of millions of innocent men, women, and children for more than 20 years. Judged only by the number of victims, and leaving aside the important differences between the two regimes, Stalin's policies created a holocaust greater than Hitler's, Twenty million deaths resulted from his forcible collectivization of the peasantry in 1929-33 and the terror that continued almost unabated against officialdom and society alike until 1953. This figure does not include millions of unnecessary casualties that can be blamed on Stalin's negligent leadership at the beginning of World War II, or the eight million souls (a conservative estimate) who languished in Soviet concentration camps every year between 1939 and 1953.

Yet today most Soviet officials and ordinary citizens, probably the great majority, still speak mostly, or even only, good of Stalin, It is true, of course, that official censorship has deprived many citizens of a full, systematic account of what happened. But much of the story did appear, however elliptically, in Soviet publications by the mid-1960s. Moreover, most adult survivors must have known or sensed the magnitude of the holocaust, since virtually every family lost a relative, friend, or acquaintance. Why then don't most people share the unequivocal judgment once pronounced, even in censored Soviet publications, that “there is no longer any place in our soul for a justification of his evil deeds”?

Two categories of Soviet citizens had an intensely personal interest in the Stalin question after 1953: victims of the terror and those who had victimized them. Most of the victims were dead, but many remained to exert pressure on high politics. Millions of people had survived—some for 20 years or more—in the camps and in remote exile. Most of these, perhaps seven or eight million, were freed after Stalin's death. They began to return to society, first in a trickle in 1953 and then in a mass exodus in 1956. To salvage what remained of their shattered lives, the returnees required, and demanded, many forms of rehabilitation—legal exoneration, family reunification, housing, jobs, medical care, pensions. Their demands were shared by millions of relatives of those who had perished in the terror. The community of victims had direct and indirect access to the high leadership. Returnees from the camps became members, and even heads, of various party commissions set up after 1953 to investigate the Gulag system, the question of rehabilitations, and specific crimes of the Stalin years. Quite a few returnees resumed high positions in military, economic, scientific, and cultural life. Some returnees had personal access to repentant Stalinists in the leadership (such as Khrushchev), whom they lobbied and influenced. And other returnees, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, made their impact in different ways.

Their adversaries were no less self-interested, and far more powerful. The systematic victimization of so many people had implicated millions of other people during the 20-year terror. These included Politburo members who directed the terror alongside Stalin, party and state officials who had participated in the repressions, hundreds of thousands of NKVD personnel who arrested, tortured, executed, and guarded prisoners, and the plethora of petty informers and slanderers who fed on the crimson madness. Millions of other people were implicated by having profited (often inadvertently) from the misfortune of victims. They inherited the positions, apartments, possessions, and sometimes even the wives of the vanished. Generations built lives upon a holocaust. The remote specter of retribution was enough to unite millions who had committed crimes, and also those who only felt some unease about their lives, against any revelations about the past.

Unavoidably, Stalin became a symbol for both the friends and foes of change, reformers and conservatives inside the Soviet bureaucracy. Khrushchev set the pattern in the 1950s. His official de-Stalinization efforts after 1956 were stymied by deeply ingrained popular attitudes. The expression “cult of Stalin's personality” became, after 1953, an official euphemism for Stalinism, but it had a powerful resonance. For more than 20 years, Stalin had been glorified publicly in grotesquely extreme ways. His name, words, and alleged deeds were trumpeted at every level and in every corner of the country. His photographed, painted, bronzed, and sculpted likeness were everywhere. The cult became a religious phenomenon. When the government assaulted the Stalin cult, first obliquely and then with revelations that portrayed “the father of the peoples” as a genocidal murderer, it caused a crisis of faith. For every person who repudiated Stalin and what he represented, there were others who could not make the psychological adjustment.

BY REMOVING THE autocrat who had dominated the system, Stalin's death was the first act of de-Stalinization. It also dealt an irreparable blow to the divinity of the cult; gods do not suffer brain hemorrhages, enlargement of the heart, and high blood pressure. The second important act of de-Stalinization came from the people who had been most constantly vulnerable to the terror; those who had risen highest under it. Khrushchev spoke for the whole ruling elite when he said “All of us around Stalin were temporary people.” Even Politburo membership had provided no protection. Several had been shot, one as recently as 1950; the wife of another (Molotov) was in prison camp; and the whole Politburo had come under Stalin's morbid suspicion toward the end. The experience of living so long under a terroristic and capricious ruler united his successors (except one), probably for the last time, on a major reform; the partial dismantling of the powerful terror machine and the restoration of the Communist party to primacy in the political system. By April 1953, Stalin's last terror scenario, the “Doctors' Plot,” had been disavowed. By June the political police had been brought under party control; the chief, Lavrenti Beria, had been arrested along with a few henchmen; and a few hundred prominent camp inmates had been released.

None of these partial repudiations of the past extended publicly to Stalin himself, except by inference. The revised version of his official reputation that emerged in 1953-54, and prevailed until 1956, was still highly laudatory. Though no longer the “driver of the locomotive of history,” Stalin was still the “great continuer of V. I. Lenin's immortal cause” who had led the party and the country in all victories since the 1930s, including the destruction of “enemies of the Party and of the people.” But this reformulation of Stalin's greatness was unstable. Stalin's reduced status ironically posed a grave danger for his successors by elevating Marxism-Leninism and the party system to joint responsibility with him for all of the deeds of the past, including the bad ones.

The era of official anti-Stalinism began the night of February 24-25, 1956, with Khrushchev's dramatic “secret” speech to a closed session of the 20th Party Congress. Speaking for four hours before about 1500 hastily reassembled delegates, in effect the country's ruling elite, Khrushchev delivered a stunning blow to the official myth of Stalin as a great and benevolent leader. He assailed Stalin's autocratic rule with vividly detailed accounts of the dictator's personal responsibility for “mass repressions,” torture, “monstrous falsifications,” and his own glorification. And he flatly blamed Stalin for a succession of Soviet disasters in World War II. Khrushchev's words, spiked with long quotations from pleading, agonized letters written by tortured victims in their jail cells, were plain and rarely euphemistic. Nor was the speech really secret. Although never published in the Soviet Union, it was read to thousands of official meetings across the country over the next few weeks. Its general contents became widely known.

But Khrushchev's indictment of the dead tyrant was sharply limited in three ways. Its gravamen was Stalin's dictatorial regime over the party and his “mass terror against party cadres” and other political elites; it maintained silence about the millions of ordinary people who had perished. Second, Khrushchev dated Stalin's criminal misdeeds from 1934. This left out Stalin's forcible collectivization of 1929-33, Finally, Khrushchev avoided the question of widespread criminal responsibility and punishment by defining the abuses narrowly in terms of Stalin and a small “gang” of accomplices, who already were exposed and punished.

Nevertheless, reports of Khrushchev's denunciation of “mass repressions” were enough to trigger shock waves across the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and tumultuous dissension elsewhere in the international communist movement. These events brought a strong reaction in high Soviet circles against Khrushchev's radical revelations and led to a still more "balanced" evaluation when the first public resolution on the Stalin question, adopted by the Central Committee on June 30, finally appeared on July 2, 1956. Though eclipsed in the early 1960s, this document was resuscitated by Khrushchev's successors more than 10 years later. The long resolution condemned the "harmful consequences of the cult of personality," but in terms so euphemistic and self-defensive that Stalin's “many lawless deeds” seemed to add up to little more than “certain serious mistakes,” which, the resolution implied, were “less important against the background of such enormous successes. . . .” Further shock waves of anti-Stalinism, especially the uprisings in Poland and Hungary in October and November 1956, reinforced this considerable rehabilitation of Stalin's reputation. Within a year, Khrushchev himself was promoting the “two sides” of Stalin, of which the “positive” now seemed ascendant.

Meanwhile, the past continued to generate anti-Stalinist heat outside the apparatuses of power. Millions of camp inmates freed since 1956 were now visible, and sometimes clamorous, reminders of the holocaust. Khrushchev's 1956 speech had roused a segment of the intelligentsia, A more dramatic cultural “thaw” in 1956-57 allowed guarded public discussion of past Stalinist abuses and existing ones. The “camp theme,” as it later became known, forced its way tentatively but persistently into Soviet fiction and poetry in the character of the vanished and the returnee. Names unmentioned for decades crept slowly back into textbooks, monographs, encyclopedias, journals, and newspapers, though the fate of their possessors was mentioned only elliptically. All of these ghosts were loose in the country by 1960-61.

A repentant Stalinist himself, Khrushchev seemed always divided on the Stalin question, even in the memoirs he dictated privately after his fall, hating and admiring Stalin almost in the same breath, rounding on radical anti-Stalinists whom he had previously encouraged. But ultimately Khrushchev's resolve “to root out this evil” grew and gained the upper hand. “Some people are waiting for me to croak in order to resuscitate Stalin and his methods,” he said in 1962. “This is why, before I die, I want to destroy Stalin and destroy those people, so as to make it impossible to put the clock back.”

Khrushchev and his supporters unveiled a second, and more radical, version of official anti-Stalinism at the 22nd Party Congress in October 1961. The assault on the Stalin cult at the 22nd Congress differed from Khrushchev's speech at the 20th Congress in important ways. Above all, it was public. For almost two weeks during the anniversary month of the October revolution, daily newspapers and broadcasts riveted public attention on “monstrous crimes” and demands for “historical justice,” as speaker after speaker related lurid details of mass arrests, torture, and murder that had been carried out in every region of the country. Impassioned Party Congress resolutions ordered Stalin's body removed from the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square and stripped his name from thousands of towns, buildings, and monuments across the country. The criminal indictment of Stalin's rule was so harsh and sweeping that it obscured his “positive side” altogether.

Most dramatically, Khrushchev and his allies at the Congress made criminal accusations against living political figures, implying the possibility of trials for crimes of the past. The specter of such trials, inflated by references to “numerous documents in our possession” and Khrushchev's call for “a thorough and comprehensive study of all such cases rising out of the abuse of power,” sent tremors of fear through the thousands, or millions, who bore “direct personal responsibility.” Anti-Stalinists took full advantage of the new dispensation. Virtually every criticism of Stalinism that appeared later in samizdat was anticipated in official publications of the early 1960s. The result was an impressive body of revelations about the three main episodes of Stalin's rule; collectivization, the great terror, and World War II.

Stalin's reputation as the great generalissimo of 1941-45, as he titled himself and which became the linchpin of his cult, was the most thoroughly assaulted. Successors to the military corps he had slaughtered took belated revenge. Official histories, monographs, memoirs, and novels portrayed Stalin as a leader who had decapitated the armed forces on the eve of war, who had ignored repeated warnings of the German invasion and thus left the country undefended in June 1941, who had deserted his post in panic during the first days of combat, and whose capricious strategy later caused major military disasters. The vaunted generalissimo became a criminally incompetent tyrant who bore personal responsibility for millions of casualties. For millions of veterans who had fought with Stalin's name on their lips, this part of the anti-Stalin campaign was probably the most resented. It was the first to be undone after Khrushchev's fall.

The Stalinist terror and concentration camp system inspired an even more dramatic body of historical expose. The most famous example is Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962.  But there were many novels, short stories, biographies, memoirs, films, and plays about the terror, which produced a fairly unvarnished picture of the 20-year holocaust.

The magnitude of the unfolding picture shattered the legend that only Stalin and a few accomplices had been guilty. Publicizing the camps meant publicizing the conduct of millions. Face-to-face confrontations between victims and their former tormentors were portrayed in literature and on the stage, suggesting the menace of people who, as Yevtushenko put it, “hate this era of emptied prison camps.”

If the camp theme was traumatic, the subject of the forcible collectivization of 125 million peasants in 1929-33 was potentially even more dangerous. Every thoughtful citizen knew that collectivization had been a special national tragedy; it had destroyed not only Soviet agriculture but the traditional life and culture of peasant Russia. But the legitimacy of the existing collective farm system, a still unworkable and largely unreformed foundation of the whole economic system, rested wholly on the Stalinist legend of collectivization as a spontaneous, voluntary, and benevolent process of the peasant masses themselves.

By the mid-1960s, Soviet scholars (as well as novelists of village life) had chipped away at this legend by itemizing Stalin's peremptory, coercive measures in the winter of 1929-30, which had unleashed the assault on the countryside, and by revealing suggestions of the mass violence, deportations, and famine that followed.

A sweeping reaction soon surged up against this kind of de-Stalinization. From higher reaches of power, anti-Stalinism seemed to be out of control. It was challenging the official axiom that Stalinism had been only “an alien growth” and not indigenous to the system for 20 years. By arguing that the “essence of the cult of personality is blind admiration for authority,” anti-Stalinists were threatening the existing system of authoritarian control. Alarmed professional managers of the political system launched a counter-campaign, based on a “heroic-patriotic theme,” for deference to authority. They denounced “dismal compilers of memoirs, who . . . unearth long-decayed literary corpses.”

There was also a broad reaction against de-Stalinization from below, from decent people who were not evil neo-Stalinists but who naturally composed the Soviet conservative majority. For them, ending the terror and making limited restitutions was one thing; desecration of the past and radical reforms in the Soviet order, for which they had sacrificed so much, was quite another.

It is impossible to document the part played by the Stalin question at the Central Committee meeting that overthrew Khrushchev in October 1964. Official explanations made public at the time of his ouster did not hold de-Stalinization against him. The main charges that Khrushchev himself had grown increasingly autocratic and capricious, and that his bolder reforms were hastily conceived, were substantially true. Nevertheless, Khrushchev was brought down by a conservative swing in official and popular attitudes against his 10-year reformation, of which de-Stalinization had been a substantial part.

THE POWERFUL RESURGENCE of pro-Stalinist sentiment since 1964 is reflected in the career of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 1964, he was nominated for a Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union's highest literary honor, for his prison camp story Ivan Denisovich; 10 years later he was arrested and deported from the country.

At first Khrushchev's downfall encouraged both anti-Stalinists and neo-Stalinists in official circles. New anti-Stalinist publications appeared, rehabilitations of Stalin's victims continued, and in October 1965 the leadership legislated a major (and ill-fated) program of economic reform. At the same time, however, influential figures, including Brezhnev himself, began to issue authoritative statements refurbishing Stalin's reputation as a wartime leader, eulogizing the 1930s while obscuring the terror, and suggesting that Khrushchev's revelations had “calumniated” the Soviet Union. Behind the scenes, an assertive pro-Stalin lobby, proud to call itself "Stalinist," took the offensive in 1965 for the first time in several years, apparently with Brezhnev's support. Anti-Stalinists were demoted, censorship was tightened, new ideological strictures were drafted, already processed rehabilitations were challenged, and subscriptions to anti-Stalinist journals were prohibited in the armed forces.

The decisive battle in officialdom was over by early 1966. Within 18 months of Khrushchev's overthrow, official de-Stalinization was at an end. In February 1966, two prominent writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, were tried and sentenced to labor camps for publishing their "slanderous" (anti-Stalinist) writings abroad. The public trial, with its self-conscious evocation of the purge trials of the 1930s, was a neo-Stalinist blast against critical-minded members of the literary intelligentsia. Meanwhile a campaign began against anti-Stalinist historians.

These events gave birth to the present-day dissident movement and samizdat literature. The growing conservatism and neo-Stalinist overtones of the Brezhnev regime drove anti-Stalinists from official to dissident ranks and gave the movement many of its most prominent spokesmen, such as Andrei Sakharov, Roy and Zhores Medvedev, and Solzhenitsyn

Some dissidents believed that their protests prevented a full rehabilitation of Stalin at the 23rd Party Congress in March 1966, where his name was hardly mentioned. If so, it was a small victory amidst a rout. The policies of the Brezhnev government grew into a wide-ranging conservative reaction to Khrushchev's reforms. The defense of the status quo required a usable Stalinist past. Increasingly, only the mountain of accomplishments was remembered in rewritten history books and the press.

By 1969 Stalin had been restored as an admirable wartime leader; serious criticism of collectivization was banned; rehabilitations were ended and some even undone; and intimations that there had been a great terror grew scant. Indeed, people who criticized the Stalinist past could now be prosecuted for having “slandered the Soviet social and state system.”

Fresh from this triumph, neo-Stalinist officials began a campaign for the full rehabilitation of Stalin's reputation in connection with the 90th anniversary of his birth in December 1969. Pro-Stalin articles and novels appeared regularly throughout the year. Plans for a grand rehabilitation were aborted at the last moment. The memorial article that finally appeared in Pravda on December 21 was carefully balanced. It credited Stalin's “great contribution”; but it also condemned his “mistakes,” which had led to “instances” of “baseless repressions.” But this still marked the first official commemoration of Stalin's birthdate in 10 years. Shortly thereafter a flattering marble bust was placed on his gravesite just behind the Lenin Mausoleum.

Anti-Stalinist voices in the official press became fewer and fainter after 1969. In official mass circulation publications, Stalin's reputation soared in the 1970s. Though no longer the subject of religious worship, he became, once again, a wise statesman and benefactor of the people. Historians were told by a high official, “all— and I repeat, all—stages in the development of our Soviet society must be regarded as ‘positive.’” Nor was neo-Stalinist sentiment merely an artifice manufactured above. Ordinary people began to restore privately manufactured replicas of his likeness to their homes, kiosks, and dashboards.

A coarser, more ominous form of pro-Stalinism also emerged. Some official publications—including a spate of historical novels that seem to appeal to a popular craving for real history—began to justify Stalin's terror of the 1930s as a “struggle against destructive and nihilistic elements.” Epithets and ideological justifications of the terror years—“enemies of the Party and of the people,” “alien elements,” “fifth column,” and “rootless cosmopolitans”—crept back into various kinds of literature. As the centenary of Stalin's birth approached in 1979, neo-Stalinist officials campaigned again for a full-scale official glorification unblemished by carping references to Stalin's “mistakes.”

STALINIST OPINION among high officials is easy to understand. For them, the generalissimo on his pedestal continues to symbolize and protect their power. But as a broad popular phenomenon, today's pro-Stalin sentiment is something different, even an expression of discontent. It is part of the widespread resurgence of Russian nationalism, to which Stalin linked the fortunes of the Soviet state in the 1930s and 1940s, and which has reemerged today as the most potent ideological factor in Soviet political life. In this haze of nationalist sentiment, Stalin joins a long line of great Russian rulers stretching back to the early czars.

Pro-Stalin sentiment also is a reflection of contemporary problems. Liberalizing trends and other changes in the 1950s and 1960s unsettled many lives and minds; the open discussion of long-standing social problems made them seem new. By the mid-19t:'0s, many officials and citizens saw a reformed, partially de-Stalinized Soviet Union as a country in crisis. Economic shortages, inflation, public drunkenness, escalating divorce rates, unruly children, cultural diversity, complicated international negotiations—all seemed to be evidence of a state that could no longer manage, much less control, its own society. And all cast a rosy glow on the Stalinist past as an age of efficiency, low prices, law and order, discipline, unity, stability, obedient children, and international respect.

By now there is little to counteract this revised folk version of the past. As anti-Stalinists were silenced by censorship, another generation, raised by parental followers of the cult, grew up thinking that Stalin had arrested “20 or 30 people” or “maybe 2000.”

Official censorship can mute the controversy, postpone the historical reckoning, and allow another generation to come of age only dimly aware (though not fully ignorant) of what happened during the Stalin years. But events after Stalin's death demonstrate that making the past forbidden serves only to make it more alluring, and that imposing a ban on historical controversy causes that controversy to fester, intensify, and grow politically explosive. 

This article originally appeared in the December 29, 1979, issue of the magazine.