It’s hardly surprising that today’s Russia, where citizens remain almost evenly divided between those who believe Stalin was a “wise and successful” leader and those who think he was an “inhuman tyrant,” has yet to come to grips with its past.
In a lengthy piece in The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen looks at Russian society’s struggle with the legacy of Stalin’s Terror and Gulag, where 12 million-14 million victims were killed, brutalized or sent into exile, and which didn’t end until Stalin’s death in 1953.
Beginning with Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s and aided by some who somehow survived the Gulag, the Soviets made considerable progress in exposing at least a portion of Stalin’s barbarity, and a small number of Stalin’s henchmen were actually brought to justice.
But the more rocks Khrushchev overturned, the more those around him worried that he was endangering too many people, and possibly even the Soviet system itself.
When Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964, failed economic and foreign policies, ill-considered reorganizations, increasingly erratic behavior and dismissive attitude toward collective leadership were all cited.
Unstated, but unquestionably a factor in Khrushchev’s removal was his anti-Stalin views, as well, Cohen writes. To demonstrate the shift in Soviet society toward Stalin, his reputation began to be rehabilitated following Khrushchev’s ouster.
This began to shift again under Mikhail Gorbachev, who rehabilitated all Stalin’s victims. And Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, formally exonerated all citizens politically repressed since October 1917, not just those under Stalin, according to Cohen.
However, as Cohen writes, few victims were ever compensated for their years in the Gulag or lost property, and today Russians again appear to be losing interest in remembering The Terror.
Cohen concludes by stating that “there is little popular or elite consensus about the nation’s present or future, partly because there is so little about its Stalinist past.”