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Reaching Back Into History

February 09, 1988

Of the millions of people murdered in the Soviet Union during the 1930s in the course of Josef Stalin's sweeping purge of enemies and rivals real and imagined, none were more prominent or more esteemed by colleagues than Nicolai I. Bukharin. As early as 1917 Vladimir Lenin had referred to Bukharin as a possible successor. In his famous 1923 "Testament," the same document in which he proposed removing Stalin from his post as general secretary of the Communist Party, Lenin praised Bukharin as "rightly regarded as the darling of the entire party." By 1938, though, Bukharin was dead, executed along with other prominent old Bolsheviks on Stalin's orders. For half a century Bukharin's fate has gone unquestioned in the Soviet Union. Now the once-famed theoretician has been officially cleared of the charges of treason and terrorism that led to his execution.

The exoneration was the work of a special and somewhat secretive commission created by the Politburo last year to review the infamous purge trials that helped make Stalin the unchallenged master of the Soviet Union. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the panel may be chaired by Mikhail S. Gorbachev himself. Certainly the move to overturn the convictions of Bukharin and seven other high party officials can be seen as supporting Gorbachev's efforts to restructure the Soviet economy in the face of powerful opposition from conservatives in the party and bureaucracy.

Bukharin had been a strong advocate of the New Economic Policy, Lenin's program to restore private ownership and initiative in agriculture, retail trade and some sectors of industry. The NEP, which had some success in rebuilding an economy crippled by war and ideological failures, had been bitterly opposed by doctrinaires in the party. In 1928 Stalin abandoned NEP, clearing the way for the disastrous move toward agricultural collectivization and forced industrialization. The economic stagnation that afflicts the Soviet Union today, and that Gorbachev seems determined to end, is the direct result of that enormously costly program.

So the exoneration of Bukharin and other victims of Stalinism has to be seen as something less than a wholly selfless effort to do justice. Gorbachev clearly has reached back into history for his own programmatic purposes. For all that, the reopening of the Bukharin case marks a major event in the sometimes uncertain campaign to assess more frankly the terrible events and consequences of the Stalin years. It may even be that the honest look being taken at things that happened 50 years ago will inspire similar honesty in regard to things that are going on right now. It does no harm to hope.

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