MOSCOW — Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev told the Soviet people Monday that Josef Stalin committed "enormous and unforgivable" crimes in the 1930s, and he announced that a top-level commission has been set up to investigate them and exonerate their victims.
At the same time, Gorbachev praised Stalin's decision to collectivize farming and proceed with rapid, state-controlled industrialization despite the "excesses" and widespread suffering they caused.
Gorbachev addressed about 6,000 top party and government officials and foreign visitors in the Grand Palace of the Kremlin on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. His speech, lasting more than 2 1/2 hours, contained the harshest criticism of Stalin that Gorbachev has made since he came to power in the spring of 1985, yet they fell short of what many of his supporters expected.
The Soviet leader was greeted with enthusiastic applause as he entered the Kremlin hall with the other 12 full members of the ruling Politburo. As he spoke, he was interrupted frequently by applause, during which he occasionally sipped a glass of milk. As he enunciated his attack on Stalin, however, the applause was only polite.
In the audience were the leaders of some East Bloc and other nations, among them President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
Referring to his proposals for radical reform of the Soviet economy, known in Russian as perestroika , Gorbachev said they are under increasing attack from conservatives who see them "as a threat to their selfish interests" and from "overzealous" supporters who feel that the pace of change is too slow.
On arms control, he made it clear that when he meets with President Reagan next month in Washington he will press for agreement on substantial reductions in strategic nuclear weapons and for a ban on space-based missile defenses.
In his review of Soviet history, Gorbachev appeared to be following the middle of the Communist Party's ideological road. Some Western diplomats said he appeared to be toning down his personal views in deference to more conservative opinions in the ruling Politburo.
For example, although he condemned Stalin for "wanton repressive measures," he made no reference to the fact that millions of Stalin's victims were executed or died in labor camps. He spoke only of the "many thousands" of Stalin's victims.
His speech, broadcast throughout the Soviet Union and to its East Bloc allies, provided fewer details of Stalin's crimes than have appeared recently in Soviet newspapers and magazines operating under his new rule of glasnost , or public openness.
"There is now much discussion about the role of Stalin in our history," Gorbachev said. "He was an extremely contradictory personality. To remain faithful to historical truth, we have to see both Stalin's incontestable contribution to the struggle for socialism . . . and the abuses committed by him and those around him, for which our people paid a heavy price and which had grave consequences for the life of our society."
Gorbachev said there is documentary proof that Stalin was aware of the crimes.
"The guilt of Stalin and his immediate entourage before the party and the people for the wholesale repressive measures and acts of lawlessness is enormous and unforgivable," Gorbachev said. "This is a lesson for all generations. We now know that the political accusations and repressive measures against a number of party leaders and statesmen, against many Communists and non-party people, against economic executives and military men, against scientists and cultural personalities, were a result of deliberate falsification."
Pretext for Resettlement
He cited for the first time the "doctors' plot" of 1952 in which Kremlin doctors, many of them Jewish, were arrested on charges of trying to kill Stalin. Historians have said the charges were intended to be used as a pretext for large-scale resettlement of Jews to Siberia. In his speech, Gorbachev said the case against the doctors was "fabricated."
Gorbachev spoke of the formerly unmentionable Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who delivered the famous "secret speech" at the 20th party congress in 1956 accusing Stalin of being a tyrant.
'No Small Courage'
"It required no small courage by the party and its leadership, headed by Nikita Khrushchev, to criticize the personality cult and its consequences, and to re-establish socialist legality," Gorbachev said.
He noted that thousands of innocent victims of Stalin were rehabilitated after the 1956 speech, which has never been published in the Soviet Union.
"But the process of restoring justice was not seen through to the end and was actually suspended in the middle of the 1960s," Gorbachev said, referring to a step taken by former leader Leonid I. Brezhnev.
The party's Central Committee, Gorbachev said, decided at its plenum last Oct. 21 to renew the process of exonerating those who were falsely accused.