It is rare to come across a cover that expresses a book’s contents as well, or as hauntingly, as the cover image of Stephen F. Cohen’s The Victims Return (Publishing Works, $22.95; published in Britain by I.B. Tauris). Igor Soldatenkov’s painting Aleksandr Istomin’s Crown of Thorns is a study in gray, a contemplation of mass terror through the portrait of a single survivor. An elderly man in thick spectacles stares out at the viewer. Behind him, in the center of the painting, ghostlike behind barbed wire, is his younger self: a zek (from zaklyuchyonnyi, the Russian word for prisoner), as Gulag inmates were known in the Stalin era. In the deeper background is the landscape of Stalin’s vast penal system: lines of zeks, rendered in ever-fainter brush strokes, receding into infinity.

Before introducing his readers to the survivors of Stalin’s terror, Cohen remembers the greater number who did not survive. The prologue to The Victims Return is a laconic account, framed by quotations from the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, of the “massive evil” that claimed 12–20 million lives between 1929 and Stalin’s death in 1953. In five taut chapters, Cohen, a Nation contributing editor and historian at New York University, interweaves individual life stories to give a nuanced overview of a mass phenomenon: the return to Soviet society of several million former zeks after Stalin’s death, and their shaping role in Soviet and post-Soviet politics. His epilogue considers the persistence of the “Stalin question” in present-day Russia, where, twenty years after the end of Soviet Communism, the nation is still polarized over the interpretation of its Stalinist past. As Cohen observes, while Dmitri Medvedev has made public statements in support of a campaign—led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Memorial Society and the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta—for a national memorial to Stalin’s victims, the more openly authoritarian Vladimir Putin has taken contradictory or ambiguous public positions on the question of the tyrant’s legacy.

The germ of The Victims Return is contained in Cohen’s Rethinking the Soviet Experience (1985), in which he revealed the many different shades in the putative “grayness” of Soviet politics, and presciently called the Stalin question “timeless.” But unlike that earlier book, The Victims Return is unabashedly personal, open in its expressions of affection and affiliation. This is Cohen’s own return to the historical, social, political and moral aspects of the “Stalin question.” His opening chapter, “The History of a Book,” combines autobiography with historiography. As Cohen explains, behind The Victims Return stands the ghost of a larger, unwritten book, which he drafted in summary in 1983. At that time, among Cohen’s principal sources were people he knew as friends, whose identities he had to conceal for fear of the KGB.

The intellectual origins of this project lie further back, in the mid-1960s, in a question of political history that has preoccupied Cohen since the beginning of his scholarly career: namely, how might things have turned out if the ideas of Nikolai Bukharin—“the real Soviet alternative to Stalinism”—had prevailed in the late 1920s? Cohen’s research on Bukharin led him to Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina, who had spent more than twenty years in prisons, labor camps and Siberian exile as a “wife of an enemy of the people.” His devotion to Larina (to whom this book is dedicated) is bound up with his regard for Bukharin’s market-oriented, culturally liberal ideas. One of the book’s photographs shows a grief-stricken Cohen among the mourners at Larina’s funeral in 1996 (at which, he notes, no member of the government or the Communist Party was present). Nikita Khrushchev and Gorbachev also represent Soviet “alternatives,” according to Cohen. The two leaders shared an active desire to bring Soviet society, at least to some degree, face-to-face with Stalin’s crimes. Both gave important roles in Soviet political life to former zeks, or to their children and grandchildren.

To be anti-Stalinist, Cohen emphasizes, was not to be anti-Soviet. In an arc extending from Bukharin to Gorbachev, he traces the rise and eclipse of anti-Stalinist forms of Soviet politics. At the end, Cohen’s scholarship played a part in the Soviet story. After the publication in 1989 of a Russian edition of his biography of Bukharin, Cohen was invited to speak on national television from Red Square on May Day. By then, it was too late for the Bukharin alternative; the Soviet era was ending. The Bolshevik’s story became one of countless stories of private loss and reckoning. Cohen introduced Larina to the daughter of her murdered husband’s prison interrogator, observing the unfathomable spirit of forgiveness that allowed Larina to declare both men “victims.” This moment, too, is part of Soviet political history, which is made up of experiences about which it is hard to think but to which it is still vital to bear witness.