Slowly, agonizingly, the Soviet Union is coming to terms with its past. It is having to accept the fact that for more than 25 years, and with the consent of the people, it was ruled by one of the most fearsome tyrants in history. And during all those years, he was revered by most as an all-wise infallible genius.
Nikita S. Khrushchev's "secret" speech detailing Josef Stalin's crimes shocked many in the Soviet Union in 1956, but its message was largely forgotten after Khrushchev's ouster in 1964. During the long Leonid Brezhnev era, the policy was to avoid any discussion of the subject. No biography of Stalin has been published in the Soviet Union since his death 35 years ago.
Until very recently the younger generation, and much of the older one as well, was largely ignorant of the horrors of the Stalin era. They simply did not know, or refused to contemplate, the fact that the victims of Stalin's terror numbered not in the thousands, not in the millions, but in the tens of millions.
Now, gradually, the true story is being told, although understandably with great reluctance, discomfort and embarrassment. In his long speech last November on the 70th anniversary of the revolution, Mikhail S. Gorbachev could only bring himself to say that the victims numbered in the "thousands."
But while the nation's leaders continue to be circumspect on the subject, a number of writers have stepped forward to provide a truer picture. Perhaps the most telling example was an article by Yevgeny Nosov that appeared in the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. Referring to the climate when Stalin came to power, Nosov wrote:
"Gradually a kind of granite monolith began to rise on the foundations of Lenin's popular socialism, a kind of pyramid with its peak touching the clouds. Subsequent years showed it to be a primitive form of despotism, of the kind that existed in earliest times. It rested on an unthinking and genuflecting mass of people, supporting successive stories of a towering bureaucratic hierarchy. The lower floors propped up the upper ones and the upper ones pressed down on the lower. The gradually narrowing structure ultimately formed a shining peak, where alone sat the man who was the source of both life-giving grace and punitive thunder and lightning.
"He left behind a country that was broken in spirit and worn down by the purges, a country crammed full with informers, where even barbed wire was in short supply. He left behind a society without a voice, a society forced by the constant threat of denunciation to think one thing, to say something else, and to nod in agreement with everything."
Of the prisoners released from the camps by Khrushchev, Nosov wrote:
"They appeared at railway stations and on trains, their hair turned leaden gray, with sunken faded eyes, gasping for breath, with a shuffling gait, old before their time. Silent and uncommunicative, they made their way back to their homes, back to their equally aged and withered spouses, to their grown-up unrecognizable and unrecognizing children. Many of those who returned died soon afterward. They could not adjust; they could not withstand this taste of freedom, just as divers who spend a long time at the bottom of the sea cannot withstand the shock of being quickly brought to the surface."
The emotional impact of all this on the Soviet populace is something that probably can never be accurately judged or measured. Shock, bewilderment, anger, resentment, disillusionment, embarrassment, sadness, remorse and shame are only some of the emotions they obviously feel. For the older generation there is the haunting realization that they had been deceived and lied to over the years, and that they were gullible enough to have believed everything they were told. During all the purges, trials, executions and mass deportations, they asked no questions, expressed no doubts, showed not the slightest trace of independent thought. Why not? A question to ponder for the rest of their lives.
After an article about Stalin's crimes appeared in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, a woman called the editorial office and exclaimed, "What are you doing? After reading your article, my mother and I and my two sisters spent the whole night sitting in the kitchen talking, crying and reminiscing. We cannot accept this. Has our whole life been for naught? Do you realize what you've done to us?"
Others, however, refuse to be disillusioned. An old Bolshevik, A.I. Kuptsov, who had "carried his cross through many camps," was quoted in Literaturnaya Gazeta: