Unfair to Stalin

Robert Service

  • Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World by Mikhail Gorbachev
    Collins, 254 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 215660 1
  • The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the ‘Second Revolution’ by Michal Reiman, translated by George Saunders
    Tauris, 188 pp, £24.50, November 1987, ISBN 1 85043 066 7
  • Stalin in October: The Man who Missed the Revolution by Robert Slusser
    Johns Hopkins, 281 pp, £20.25, December 1987, ISBN 0 8018 3457 0

Since 1956 it has been official policy in the USSR to criticise the abuses of power by Joseph Stalin in the period of the so-called Cult of the Individual. It is a widely-held misconception in the West that such criticism ended in the Brezhnev years. In fact, party textbooks continued to castigate Stalin. The negative comments became less specific, however, and many people who weren’t old enough to learn about the purges from Khrushchev’s revelations in the late Fifties and early Sixties were unaware of the scale of the human carnage that Stalin had perpetrated in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev, moreover, allowed the textbooks to counterbalance anti-Stalin commentary with plaudits for Stalin’s domestic and foreign policies. Stalin was never rehabilitated, but his name ceased to be anathema. Gorbachev, coming to power in 1985, has done more than any Soviet leader since Khrushchev to restore the critical side to dominance in treatments of the Stalin question. New projects on Stalin, especially since the January 1987 Plenum of the Central Committee, have been described in the historical journals; and Abuladze’s film Repentance and Rybakov’s novel Children of the Arbat, with their undisguised attacks on Stalinism, have already indicated the direction which may soon be taken by the Gorbachevite Communist leaders.

Gorbachev’s own language has been curiously indirect. His speech to the January 1987 Plenum referred repeatedly to the years of ‘stagnancy’ under Brezhnev as being the product of social and political patterns established under Stalin: but he omitted to mention Brezhnev and Stalin by name. In his present book, which is notable mainly for its bland and unexceptionable list of objectives and for the elegance of its presentation rather than the rigorousness of its analysis, he seldom refers explicitly to either Brezhnev or Stalin.

Gorbachev’s evasiveness is caused by the need to avoid offending the sensitivities of leading party cadres. He knows that Khrushchev’s recklessness here was one of the reasons for his downfall in 1964. But Gorbachev has a further motive too, though it is barely detectable in his book, which was written in the summer of 1987 and published after the speech he made on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. By November, when the speech was delivered, Gorbachev had the confidence to denounce Stalin’s rule more openly. On this occasion, he spoke of the crimes committed in the Thirties. But Khrushchev had said as much thirty years ago: indeed, unlike Gorbachev, Khrushchev had not confined himself to talking only of a few ‘thousands’ of victims of Stalin and his murderous police. Gorbachev, on the other hand, took the official discussion onto a higher plane. Khrushchev, as many Western commentators complained at the time, concentrated on individuals. Stalin and his police chief Lavrenti Beria were laden with all the guilt. Gorbachev, by contrast, has begun to talk of an entire ‘system’ of oppression in Soviet public life in the late Thirties. This is historically cogent but politically risky. Hence Gorbachev’s otherwise ludicrous coyness about the number of victims; hence, too, his banging of the patriotic drum about policies which have long been discredited in Western historical discussions: his extremely skewed account of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is just one glaring example.

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