SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — A new era of Soviet history--and a period of danger for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev--has begun with the rehabilitation of Nikolai I. Bukharin. The "Old Bolshevist" and friend of Lenin was denounced as a traitor, tried on phony charges, convicted on phony evidence and executed 50 years ago by his triumphant rival Josef Stalin. For half a century Bukharin's name could not be uttered in the Soviet Union without risk of prison or worse. Daring students hunted up old editions of the great Soviet encyclopedia to read Bukharin's views on "The ABC of Communism." When Nikita S. Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, he shrank from including Bukharin among the innocent victims.
Gorbachev must have known he was inviting the whirlwind a year ago when he embarked on the complex task of restoring Bukharin to the Soviet pantheon. He ran two great risks: the appetite for truth, once aroused, would be irresistible, and the Communist Party would be fundamentally discredited by the exposure of crimes it had tried to hide for so long. Nothing quite like this dangerous confrontation with history has ever happened. Gorbachev was not proposing to take back a few words uttered in the heat of political struggle, but decades of systematic political vilification. The destruction of Bukharin had not been a mistake, but a crime conceived by the leader of the Soviet state, carried out by the organs of the state and defended thereafter by every state official.
Like other prominent victims of the Moscow purge trials in the 1930s, Bukharin had been forced to admit his guilt. "I consider myself responsible for a grave and monstrous crime," he said at his trial in March, 1938. Before his execution on the night of March 15, 1938, Bukharin wrote a final letter to Stalin--a questioning, not a pleading letter--addressing him by the nickname used in the underground days: "Koba, why do you need me to die?" Stalin savored his victories as few men, and kept this letter in a personal file of similar documents--raw material for his own indictment by history.
The rehabilitation of Bukharin--an open door into the horrors of Soviet history--is a sign Gorbachev is playing for keeps. On the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution last November, Gorbachev quoted from Vladimir I. Lenin's "last testament," describing Bukharin as "the favorite of the party." The party did not wait on this invitation to revise its history. In February, Bukharin's conviction was overturned and, on July 9, an official Soviet commission quietly announced that the Communist Party had rescinded its 1937 expulsion of Bukharin, restoring him to honorable membership.
Of course, other official pariahs still remain--G.E. Zinoviev and L.B. Kamenev are probably next in line for rehabilitation, and then comes the toughest of all--the one man who could have saved Russia from Stalin, Leon Trotsky. But after Lenin's death in 1924, the Communist Party, tired perhaps of great men and revolutionary adventure, sided with Stalin--one of the great political disasters of history, something hard for its heirs to admit. Gorbachev has managed to speak Trotsky's name aloud in public, but that is it. Nearly 50 years after his murder, Trotsky still haunts the Soviet state.
Even so, Bukharin's rehabilitation completes one of history's most remarkable reversals. States, like kings, rarely admit fault. Here, fault and admission have been on a heroic scale. The "Moscow trials," that divided leftist intellectuals worldwide in the 1930s, began in 1934, following the murder of Leningrad's Communist Party leader, S.M. Kirov. Stalin used this murder--which most historians now agree he arranged--to destroy one-time rivals. The NKVD concocted a story that Trotsky supporters murdered Kirov and planned to assassinate Stalin, at the behest of German and British spymasters who wanted to restore capitalism to the Soviet Union. To quell opposition, and fill labor camps with unpaid workers, the arrests began. Estimates of those who were shot or died from mistreatment run as high as 10 million.
Why did Stalin carry out this terrible crime, which has only one rival in history--Hitler's murder of the Jews? How did he manage it? There are no easy answers--the crime is too big to "explain," and too little is known. Until recently, the principal historical sources for Stalin's Moscow were the memoirs of an NKVD defector and an anonymous pamphlet published in Paris in 1936. The defector was Alexander Orlov, who fled in 1938, and published a book in the late 1940s, "The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes." In great detail--only some confirmed by other sources--Orlov describes the mental and physical torture that broke Stalin's enemies.