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The Union: Haunted By History’s Horrors

7 minute read
George J. Church

For almost 50 years there were whispered stories about black vans that drove every night into a fenced enclosure in the Kurapaty forest, about gunshots and screams waking villagers who lived nearby. But not until last spring did the full horror begin to be known. Workers digging a trench for a gas pipeline through the forest near Minsk came across a heap of human skulls pierced by bullets from Nagant revolvers fired at close range. The prosecutor of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic set up a commission to investigate the murders. Last July more skulls and bones were unearthed, along with paraphernalia of everyday life — remnants of packed lunches, purses filled with kopecks — indicating that the people had been snatched from their daily routines to be shot. With that, the truth became clear: from 1937 until the approach of Nazi invaders in 1941, Joseph Stalin’s secret police had used the Kurapaty forest as a killing field. Estimates of the number of men and women buried there range from 30,000 to more than 200,000.

It is not by chance that the excavation in Kurapaty and a search for other mass graves in the Minsk area and the Ukraine are occurring now. The exhumation constitutes a precise visual image of the Soviet Union’s efforts to confront the horrors of its past. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s approval, Soviet historians, scholars and journalists are metaphorically digging up evidence of Stalin’s crimes and exposing those crimes in all their ghastliness to the light of day.

Rewriting history has long been a tradition among Soviet leaders. Stalin revised a history of the Communist Party to puff up his role in the Bolshevik Revolution. Nikita Khrushchev began the deflation of Stalin; Leonid Brezhnev converted Khrushchev into a nonperson; Gorbachev in turn has depreciated Brezhnev, causing his name to be removed from factories, cities and streets. As the joke goes, the Soviet Union is the only country in the world with an unpredictable past.

Stalin’s ghost is the most formidable opponent of almost every change that Gorbachev is trying to effect. It was Stalin who established the system of collective farms and the stifling central control of industry that Gorbachev is attempting to break up. And it was Stalin who punished independent thinking with such savagery as to smother the creativity of whole generations.

Thus the discrediting of Stalin and his policies is virtually a precondition for any sort of reform. Vladimir Lakshin, deputy editor of the monthly Znamya, explains, “History concerns what is going on today and not just the past. We are not simply talking about Stalin but of a form of Stalinism that is so much a part of the flesh and blood that people are incapable of thinking in any but a Stalinist way. We have to get that out of our system.”

Gorbachev’s opponents are equally aware that much is at stake. The Soviet tradition of unity among all leaders still forbids any direct criticism of Gorbachev’s policies. Such debate as does occur is carried on in Aesopian language, and history is currently the favored supplier of code words. Thus when Yegor Ligachev and other conservatives cry that denunciations of Stalin are shaking people’s faith in the Soviet system, they are really saying that perestroika and glasnost are going too far. Gorbachev’s partisans get the point, and respond with redoubled attacks on Stalin and his admirers today.

More than political expediency seems to be involved, however, in the present re-examination of Stalin. Journalists and scholars seem genuinely eager to drop their traditional roles as perpetuators of useful historical myths and instead tell the painful truth. Gorbachev gave the signal in a February 1987 speech inviting them to fill in the “blank spots” in Soviet history, and writers have responded with everything from weighty historical tomes to popular entertainments.

In one sci-fi movie, Mirror for Heroes, a modern time traveler finds himself condemned to relive endlessly one day in the Stalinist past. Such periodicals as Ogonyok and Moscow News churn out article after article attacking Stalin or rehabilitating his victims; even Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s archenemy, can be portrayed with some sympathy. Excerpts from Let History Judge, a scathing work that historian Roy Medvedev published in the West in 1971, have begun appearing in the Soviet press, and the entire book is scheduled for publication late this year. The book argues that the Gulag’s supposed labor camps were often really death camps set up by Stalin to kill prisoners through hard labor, starvation rations, harsh climate and lack of medical attention. Medvedev is also speaking out through interviews. In one, he put the number of Stalin’s victims at 40 million, of whom 20 million died. Gorbachev, in a November 1987 speech, spoke only of “thousands” of victims. (An expanded and & updated version of Medvedev’s book will be published in the U.S. by Columbia University Press next month.)

At least two institutions are dedicated to examining the bitter truth about the past. A Politburo commission formed by Gorbachev has rehabilitated such figures as Nikolai Bukharin, shot after a frame-up show trial in 1938. A rapidly growing group called Memorial aims to build a monument to Stalin’s victims and establish an archive and research center to document his crimes.

Memorial’s members include such prominent intellectuals as poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, historian Medvedev and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, who serves as the group’s honorary chairman. But its most important role is to provide an outlet for the grief and pain that victims of Stalin and their relatives have long had to keep to themselves. A steady stream of visitors from all over the Soviet Union seek out Memorial’s cramped Moscow office. Many are elderly women who wait for as long as an hour and a half — as if “they were lining up to buy sausage,” says a Memorial volunteer. One woman, hands trembling, offers to donate a ring that her husband fashioned for her in the prison camps out of a bolt nut. Another, barely keeping back tears, asks for advice about how to discover what happened to her father. She had thought he died of pneumonia in a labor camp in the early 1950s, but has recently heard that he was shot in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

There are signs that the revision of history is going further than Gorbachev ever bargained for. Some members of Memorial and other intellectuals have begun calling for a public trial of Stalin, a move that might raise questions embarrassing to the Communist leadership. Still, as Belorussian writer Alexander Adamovich says, “had there not been a trial at Nuremberg, Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz or Buchenwald might have been denied by later generations. Our history must also have a legal foundation based on solid documentation.”

More important, a few Soviet intellectuals have begun arguing that a re- examination of the country’s bloody past should not stop with Stalin but should go on to — whisper it — Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin himself, and to some of his principles, such as the centralization of all power in the Communist Party. Gorbachev often represents his policies as a return to the pure tenets of Lenin that Stalin perverted. But a few voices are suggesting, at least by implication, that the history debate is ultimately about the legitimacy of the Soviet state, a state with no validation other than the sacred rightness of the Communist Party and its doctrine of historical inevitability. “We have no cult of Stalin, but we have a cult of the party,” says literary critic Igor Zolotussky in the journal Novy Mir. “The party, and the idea it personifies, is always right. Party activists often make mistakes — but the party, never. What is this but a new form of idolatry?”

For the moment, only a tiny minority have aired such views. But they illustrate an ancient dilemma that Gorbachev may soon confront: once people are allowed to voice long-forbidden thoughts, how do you get them to stop short of some line that the state considers safe?

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