PETER O. ZIERLEIN
This essay is adapted from a much longer version in a volume in honor of Robert Conquest, Political Violence, edited by Paul Hollander and to be published in November by Palgrave Macmillan.
The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
Faulkner was right, and not only about America. Russia’s new president, 42-year-old Dmitri Medvedev, is its youngest leader since 1917, and the one least formed by the Soviet experience, but he faces the same polarizing issue that confronted all of his predecessors since Stalin died fifty-five years ago. Opinion surveys taken in 2007 and 2008, during the seventieth anniversary of the dictator’s Great Terror, confirm that the country remains almost evenly divided between people who believe Stalin was a “wise and successful leader” and those who think he was an “inhuman tyrant.” Contrary to Western assumptions, pro-Stalin opinions are as widespread among young Russians as among older ones.
At the heart of the dispute, with its ramifications for Russia’s future, are the 12 million to 14 million victims killed or brutalized in Stalin’s Gulag of prisons, labor camps and harsh exile during his twenty years of absolute power. Their fate is still fiercely debated, as, for example, this June when a call by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other prominent democrats for a national museum in memory of the victims was angrily rejected by Communists and ultranationalists. But the controversy began soon after Stalin’s death when his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, began freeing some 4 million to 5 million prisoners–commonly known as zeks–still alive in the far-flung Gulag, including the man destined to become the most celebrated of them all, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died in August in Moscow, aged 89.
As the survivors returned to Soviet society, first in a trickle and then, in 1956-57, a mass exodus, the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose own son was released, remarked, “Two Russias will be eyeball to eyeball: The one that put people in the camps and the one put there.” Most of those victims and victimizers are, of course, now dead, but their traumatic history is not.
The personal fates of Gulag returnees and their millions of relatives who had been cruelly stigmatized–I knew quite a few of them in Moscow in the late 1970s, when I began collecting their stories–varied greatly. Elderly or broken, some died almost immediately after their release; others lived into their 90s. Some remained forever fearful, concealing their zek past; others considered their Gulag experience a badge of honor. Many had long since been renounced by their families, but at least as many were welcomed home by faithful spouses and children. The great majority of survivors slipped back into the anonymity of society, but a significant number became prominent public figures in Soviet culture, science, sports and even the military.