Flashbacks July 2004

Facing Up to Stalin

Dying is usually bad PR for a ruthless despot. After all, most dictators jealously guard their public images throughout their lifetimes, making criticism in public an offense punishable by death. But once our leaders have merged with the infinite, history tends to judge them more discerningly. Thus, a tyrant's death often becomes an occasion for summary denouncement—the immediate inversion of a nation's terrified loyalty. Josef Stalin, however, is a notable exception. On March 5, 1953, after suffering a deadly stroke, Stalin relinquished control over a cult of personality so powerful that it had fooled the Russian people into thinking their despotic leader a wise and noble sovereign. Visit his gravesite behind Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square even today and one encounters an impressive array of wreaths and bouquets replenished almost endlessly by dedicated babushkas and patriotic atavists.

Thanks to the steady declassification of incriminating documents, however, it is now common knowledge that, through forced collectivization, show trials, ethnic purges, and costly diplomatic and military ineptitude, he was responsible for millions of deaths. We also know that at the time he died, Stalin was planning a new Terror, one that would have essentially picked up where Hitler left off in totalitarianism's campaign to destroy the Jews. Yet history has been slow to confront the reality of who Stalin was and the havoc he wrought on Russia. Over the years, a number of Atlantic contributors have commented on this slow but steady process of reevaluating Stalin and coming to terms with his legacy.

In an unsigned article in 1957, the Atlantic's editors reported on Russia's efforts thus far to distance itself from Stalin's regime. The authors noted that shortly after Stalin's death a "sweeping series of domestic legal reforms" had been implemented, and that many of the labor camps in which alleged opponents of the government had been imprisoned had been dissolved. "Soviet citizens," the authors wrote, "now appear to be enjoying more freedom from fear than at any time in the past twenty years." But the Soviet people struggled with the question of how to make sense of their nation's recent troubled history. The approach many took was that of simply effacing Stalin from the record. The Atlantic's editors noted several instances of this:

At the last session of the Supreme Soviet Council ... not one speaker mentioned Stalin's name, although Stalin was the architect and executor of the Soviet industrial revolution which transformed the Soviet Union from a backward agricultural country into the world's second industrial power.

Nor was Stalin's portrait, which once dominated all Soviet iconography, displayed in the May Day parade ... Nor has any definitive work appeared endeavoring to assess Stalin's exact role. For instance, the publication of the fortieth volume of the Soviet Encyclopedia, covering the letter S, which should have contained Stalin's biography, has been postponed indefinitely though six subsequent volumes have already appeared.

Ironically, the expurgation of Stalin's name from the record might have flattered the late dictator as a familiar tactic. After all, it was his own famous maxim "No man, no problem" that accounts for government albums full of blacked-out portraits, which were all that remained on the public record of Communism's martyred victims.

Some Russians objected to the refusal to acknowledge Stalin's existence, however, perceiving it as a rejection of their nation's history and ideals. At the May closing session of the Soviet Writers' Union 1957 meeting, for example, Mikola Bazhan, a poet and the vice premier of the Ukraine, declared,

The question of Stalin's personality has not been raised correctly. Some overzealous writers went as far as erasing Stalin's name from our works. One Moscow writer boasted in his pride that he never once mentioned Stalin's name in his works.

Bazhan dismissed those who expunged Stalin's name as "unstable individuals who panicked and were driven to the thought that there must be a reassessment of all our values and a complete about-face." Bazhan need not have worried, however; the Atlantic's editors pointed out that as of the time of their writing in 1957, "neither Stalin's policies nor his basic ideology was ever repudiated."

One person who shouldn't have had any trouble pronouncing Stalin's name was his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who in 1967 was the subject of an article by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. entitled "Twenty Letters to a Father." To Moscow's considerable agitation, Alliluyeva was about to publish Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir in which she described her experiences growing up in the eye of the Soviet hurricane. Schlesinger reviewed the controversial book, characterizing it as "a daughter's wounded judgment of a father, of an epoch, and of great hopes betrayed." He deemed the memoir an important contribution to Soviet history:

No one else saw the terrible history of Stalinism through a perspective at once so privileged and so confined; and the witness she bears, in the very narrowness and intensity of its observation, adds vastly to our understanding of the comedy and tragedy of absolute power.

The cost of such unique proximity had certainly taken its toll. Alliluyeva was loath to exonerate her father on a personal level. She noted that many others who, like herself, had had close ties to him had ended up self-destructing in one way or another. "It was as though," she says, "my father was at the center of a black circle and anyone who ventured inside vanished or perished." Her half-brother Yakov became so despairing at one point that he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself with a gun. Afterward, Alliluyeva wrote, "my father made fun of him and liked to sneer, 'Ha! he couldn't even shoot straight!'"

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