Building a New Russia Means Rooting Out Stalin’s Destructive Soviet Legacy

March 8, 2016

The following is an excerpt from Paula Chertok’s East-West Blog:

Historian Andrei Zubov presents a powerful lecture on the roots of the Soviet mentality and the resurgence of Stalin so jarringly visible in Russia today. He reviews the history of Russia’s destructive leadership from the 20th century to the present, a leadership that has left a legacy of a broken people. He then discusses pathways to a new Russia through rebuilding civil society, decommunization, repatriation, and education.

Below is a full translation of the original Russian article appearing on the Open Russia website.

Sixty years ago at the XXth Congress of the CPSS [Communist Party of the Supreme Soviet], Nikita Khrushchev presented a report entitled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” officially ushering in the liberalization of the Communist regime. Historian Andrei Zubov explains what has changed as a result of de-Stalinization and what hasn’t, why Stalin is again viewed as justified, and how to melt the ice castle.

What Effect Did Khrushchev’s Secret Report of 1956 Have?

What occurred at the XX Congress was quite an unprecedented event not only in the Soviet Union, but throughout the world Communist movement. Because the main axial figure of the entire Communist movement supporting the Soviet Union was, of course, Stalin (even though there was another, Trotskyite movement).  Stalin was Communism’s center and its very essence.  It was his management methods, his attitude toward the individual, and his relation to the world that people all over the world with Communist views aligned themselves with – in China, in Europe and in Latin America, not to mention in the Soviet Union. The condemnation of Stalin, and for the first time revealing information of his crimes (almost exclusively against members of the Party – the repression after the XVII Congress of the CPSU (b), the ’48 “Leningrad Affair”) turned people’s heads upside down. Many people simply didn’t believe it. Others said that it was a provocation. Still others denounced Khrushchev and said he was a traitor to the cause of Communism. Of course those who had previously opposed Stalin or suffered under him were elated.

Actually, intelligent people had noticed this process to some extent even earlier. Indeed, the de-Stalinization process began with Stalin’s death – literally from his death in March 1953.  From those very first days, Beria, then, after Beria’s overthrow, Malenkov and Khrushchev began the process of gradually releasing people from the camps, gradually improving the circumstances of people working in agriculture, the collective-farm peasants. They began easing censorship and stopped inflating the personality cult of Stalin. Even before Stalin had been buried, they said, enough is enough, we do not need all these incredible eulogies, these incredible recitations; let’s get to the business of nation-building. Smart people had already noticed that Stalin’s closest associates were not singing his praises as they did right up to his last day of life. Naturally, the case against Jewish doctors was halted as were many other matters.

1956 was both unexpected and expected for those who were well versed in the Moscow political kitchen.

What Changed and What Didn’t Change as a Result of De-Stalinization

How was de-Stalinization undertaken, and was it only superficial? Certainly it was not superficial. Yes, monuments were removed – this was very important. Stalin was tossed out of the mausoleum. This was also important. But much more important were the facts that were told about the serious crimes committed under Stalin. And a lot of people had been posthumously rehabilitated. These people had been condemned mostly by Article 58 as those who acted in a “hostile” manner (as spies, conspirators, terrorists) against the Soviet regime. A huge number of people who were killed by Stalin were rehabilitated, and those few who survived, were rehabilitated in life, and a lot of people returned. Despite all the incredible mistakes of Khrushchev, despite the fact that he too was a murderer and a criminal like Stalin – both in Ukraine and in Moscow – a huge number of people of that generation were grateful to him for having been given their freedom, those who were exonerated, those who returned from forced exile. And in general the era of total repression stopped at that time. Let us not forget that it was in 1951 that Stalin initiated a whole new round of repressions. He was clearly leading the country to a new 1937. People who had served all their time and those who had not, those who had been exiled, even those exiled nearby, within 101 kilometers of Moscow, they were all arrested again in 1951-52 and sent to Siberia, in very difficult conditions. Many were middle-aged, and, of course, this was a death sentence for them. Virtually everyone who did not die was immediately returned.

Khrushchev, himself a Stalin accomplice, his younger companion, was elbow-deep in blood himself. And, of course, Khrushchev didn’t admit everything.

Most of the talk was about the repression against the Communists because all the Communists, including Khrushchev, were shaking in their boots that they would be the next to enter the terrible meat grinder of terror.

All of the ordinary people who were killed, of which there were a thousand times more than the Communists – peasants, workers, intellectuals outside the party, priests, people of all religions – they simply were not remembered. The Holodomor was not remembered. Lenin’s repression was not remembered. The Red Terror of 1918-1921 was not remembered, neither were the first years of famine in 1921-22. It had all been forgotten. Only Stalin’s crimes and mainly those of 1937 were mentioned.

1937 has entered into our memory as a kind of image, as a symbol of crime. And this is a mistake. Even Solzhenitsyn spoke about this error: in fact, the terror of 1937 was just another round of terror which had begun in late 1917 and early 1918 under Lenin, and that mass terror ended only with the death of Stalin in 1953. Naturally, sometimes it was more severe and sometimes less, but it lasted the entire time. 1937 was important for the party bosses, for the directors because it was their heads that were rolling. Although it was not only their heads, in fact, the heads of ordinary people were rolling a hundred times more. But the bosses were naturally afraid for their own and remembered only their own. That is why they began by condemning only the terror.

Stalin was condemned as the man who destroyed the Party. This was the main point. Therefore, we settled the score with Stalin and that was that. We settled scores with Stalin’s henchmen such as Molotov not because he was Stalin’s henchman, but because he opposed Khrushchev. That is what he was primarily accused of, not that he participated in the cult of personality or Stalinist repression. Beria was charged with participating in repression, but by the summer of 1953, Beria was already in prison.

It is interesting that Stalin was the major figure in the life of the Soviet Party, and thus the condemnation of Stalin therefore meant a condemnation of his regime. But they did not go there. And so, almost immediately after the sacking of Khrushchev in 1964, under Brezhnev began the whitewashing of Stalin. It began slowly but grew greater and greater. Firstly, they said over and over that the party line had been correct in spite of the personality cult. This was the mantra of the Bolsheviks at the time. That is, everything was condemned, except the repression by the active Party bosses, the generals and so on. Secondly, it was under Brezhnev that talk gradually began of Stalin as an ambivalent figure, one with a negative and a positive side. And the positive side was first and foremost associated with the defense of the Soviet Union in the years 1941-45 and the victory in the Great Patriotic War.

The memory of the Great Patriotic War had already been uprooted even while Stalin was alive. In 1946 he ordered to stop celebrating Victory Day. Brezhnev resumed the celebration of Victory Day on its 20th anniversary in 1965. The victory was primarily a validation of the Party and Stalin as the one who lead to that victory. Completely suppressed was the fact that Stalin had actually been one of the main instigators of the war, both through the Comintern and then directly through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 when he became an ally of Hitler. Why has the term “Great Patriotic War” been foisted upon us? Because we have separated the war which began in Europe, September 1, 1939, in which Stalin was an ally of Hitler against the Western democracies, from the war that began when Hitler attacked Stalin, turning Stalin into an opponent of Hitler by virtue of which he became an ally of the Western democracies in the anti-Hitler coalition. For the Bolsheviks, Communists and the current government, it was important to forget about that first period; in Soviet times we talked about it hurriedly. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was mentioned but the part about the division of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe remained a secret: The whole world knew, but it was not known in the Soviet Union.

If you look at history seriously, it is clear that the incredible sacrifices of World War II which the Soviet Union endured – 27.5-28 million people – was Stalin’s fault, not Hitler’s. Stalin conspired with Hitler and the war was unleashed as a result.

The aggressive policies of Stalin led to this war. Destruction of the generals of the Red Army led to the war being conducted ineptly, and because of this vast numbers of people died, vast expanses of the Soviet Union were occupied, and so on. And so the attitude towards the war became like a fetish in order to validate Stalin.

Why is Stalin Back in Fashion? Read the entire article on Paula Chertok’s East-West Blog.