‘Zek’ Freedom Brings Back Memories of Stalin’s Russia

‘Zek’ Freedom Brings Back Memories of Stalin’s Russia

‘Zek’ Freedom Brings Back Memories of Stalin’s Russia

The freeing of the “zeks” confronted Russia with living memories of the Terror.



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.
   –William Faulkner

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.

Gulag returnees also played an important but little-known role in Soviet politics under Khrushchev. Unlike in Eastern European Communist countries and China, no survivor of Soviet political purges returned to the leadership. Stalin had killed everyone who might have done so. A number of returnees acquired low-level positions in the ruling party apparatus, and many made their way into the nomenklatura class that administered the state bureaucracies, some even becoming high-level bosses.

But the most important political role belonged to a small group of returnees who unexpectedly appeared near the center of power. All of them–notably Olga Shatunovskaya, Aleksei Snegov and Valentina Pikina–had been veteran Communist officials before spending many years in Stalin’s camps and exile. Freed in 1953-54, they quickly became, due to personal connections, part of Khrushchev’s extended entourage or that of Anastas Mikoyan, his closest ally in the leadership. (Their proximity to the two leaders somewhat offset widespread official hostility to returnees.) They were referred to as “Khrushchev’s zeks,” sometimes admiringly but often derisively.

Khrushchev and Mikoyan clearly trusted those recently released victims more than they did the Stalinist officials who still dominated the Party and state apparatuses. Shatunovskaya and Pikina soon sat on the Party’s supreme judiciary body, which oversaw the process of exoneration, or “rehabilitation.” Snegov and Yevsei Shirvindt, another returnee, occupied high positions in the Ministry of the Interior, which administered the Gulag; and Aleksandr Todorsky, a former army officer and zek, was made a lieutenant general and deployed in the rehabilitation of Stalin’s military victims.

Snegov and Shatunovskaya, whom a prominent intellectual called “one of the most remarkable women in the political history of Russia,” were especially influential and active. They “opened the eyes” of Khrushchev and Mikoyan, according to the two leaders’ sons, to the full horrors of Stalin’s Terror and helped persuade Khrushchev to deliver his historic anti-Stalin speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. Together they were instrumental in freeing millions of victims, convincing the two leaders to immediately release all those condemned to “eternal exile” and to send “unloading” commissions, as Solzhenitsyn called them, to the camps. As the fight over de-Stalinization unfolded in ruling circles, Khrushchev and Mikoyan, the former’s son later recalled, “needed” Shatunovskaya and Snegov as their “eyes and ears” and, it seems, for their own repentance.

All of Stalin’s leading heirs had been responsible for thousands of deaths, but only Khrushchev and Mikoyan became repentant Stalinists. Khrushchev manipulated de-Stalinization in his drive for supreme power. But that does not explain why he made anti-Stalinism such an integral part of his reforms, which eventually affected almost every area of Soviet policymaking during his ten years as leader, or the enormous personal risks Khrushchev repeatedly took by exposing monstrous official crimes and freeing the survivors. It involved a “movement of the heart,” as Solzhenitsyn and other victims concluded, which had been influenced by “Khrushchev’s zeks.” How else to explain his astonishing proposal, at a Party congress in 1961, to build a national memorial to Stalin’s victims?

Those crimes brought Khrushchev into recurring conflicts with powerful opponents, in which his zeks continued to play significant roles. When he initiated trials of Lavrenty Beria and other Stalinist police officials, most of them in 1953-55, surviving victims appeared as witnesses. When Khrushchev prepared his assault on the Stalin cult at the 1956 congress, he made sure nearly 100 freed zeks would be visible to the 1,500 or so delegates in the hall. When he moved toward a 1957 showdown with the leading unrepentant Stalinists–Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgy Malenkov and Kliment Voroshilov–Shatunovskaya and Snegov produced evidence of their personal complicity in the Terror. When Khrushchev struck publicly at the tenacious Stalin cult by removing the despot’s body from the Lenin Mausoleum in 1961, another returnee, Dora Lazurkina, prompted the congressional resolution authorizing it. And to undermine the myth of Stalin’s Gulag as “correctional labor,” Khrushchev then arranged for the publication in November 1962 of a former zek‘s unvarnished portrayal of life in the camps, Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

By the 1960s returnees were contributing to de-Stalinization in another important way. Controversy over the past often inflames politics, but rarely so intensely as in the Soviet 1950s and ’60s (and again under Mikhail Gorbachev in the ’80s). The Stalin era was still “living history” for most Soviet adults, whose understanding of it had been shaped by decades of personal sacrifice and a falsified official history maintained by censorship and continued repression. According to that sanctioned version, Stalin’s rule was a succession of great national achievements, from collectivization and industrialization in the 1930s to the nation’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and subsequent rise to superpower status. Post-Stalin elites were a product of that era, whose purported achievements legitimized their power and privileges.

The visible return of so many victims, even if mute, was irrefutable evidence of a parallel history of equally great crimes. And not all returnees were mute. As Khrushchev foresaw, they told “their relatives and friends and acquaintances what actually happened.” For young people in particular, “Their testimonies shed new light on events.” Most such returnees were still Soviet loyalists; their appearance contributed to the kind of revisionist history needed for a politics of reform. But other repressed traditions were also represented. The old Menshevik Mikhail Yakubovich and Socialist Revolutionary Irina Kakhovskaya, for example, wanted justice for their slain comrades. Solzhenitsyn and the unconventional priest Dmitri Dudko spoke for older religious and Slavophile values. And the remarkable samizdat writer Mikhail Baitalsky, a former Trotskyist, had returned to his Jewish origins.

Like Holocaust survivors, many Stalinist victims wrote Gulag memoirs because “This Must Not Happen Again,” as Suren Gazaryan titled his personal testimony, among them Eugenia Ginzburg, Lev Kopelev, Lev Razgon and Baitalsky. Others became self-made historians. As an official investigator of Stalin’s crimes, Shatunovskaya collected documents and interviews that researchers still use today. Sons of victims followed their lead. Roy Medvedev and Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko wrote histories of Stalin’s rule. The novelists Yuri Trifonov and Kamil Ikramov prepared biographies of their martyred fathers. And, of course, on behalf of many others, Solzhenitsyn created the monumental Gulag Archipelago.

Only a small portion of this historical truth-telling could be published in the Soviet Union under and shortly after Khrushchev. But enough became known, along with increasingly explicit literary accounts, to frighten officials throughout the system. It revealed that their power and privileges were also the product of the victimization of millions of their fellow citizens. Not surprisingly, they were, as a high-level Khrushchev supporter charged, “afraid of History.”

Victimizers still in high places had the most to lose. Exposing official crimes gave Khrushchev’s other policies a moral dimension, rallied intelligentsia support for his leadership and spurred progressive changes, including the welfare and legal reforms of the period. But such revelations, which meant victims now “were in fashion,” also galvanized powerful opposition. (Kaganovich protested that Khrushchev wanted “to let ex-convicts judge us.”) Those endangered were not only Stalin’s cohorts who had signed his lists condemning thousands of people but a legion of lesser figures with bloodstains on their careers like Ivan Serov, the first post-Stalin KGB chief, and Mikhail Suslov, the rising Party ideologist of the Brezhnev era.

Some people who had prospered under Stalin in various fields followed Khrushchev’s example of repentance, but the great majority of the complicit fought back, “trembling,” Akhmatova observed, “for their names, positions, apartments, dachas.” Senior members of the leadership, abetted by protégés in the bureaucracies, tried to sabotage his returnee policies and neuter his historical revelations. Failing that, they collected documents incriminating Khrushchev himself while trying to conceal or minimize their own crimes. When all that failed, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov moved in 1957 to depose him, nearly succeeding.

Their fear of a “judgment day” was well founded. As conflicts over the past intensified, questions began to emerge about high-level criminal responsibility similar to those formalized at the Nuremberg Trial a decade before. The analogy was hard to ignore. The Soviet Union had been a prosecuting government at Nuremberg. And with so many Gulag survivors now visible and their experiences increasingly known, the Holocaust-like dimensions of Stalin-era “repressions” were becoming clear.

When Khrushchev and Stalin’s other successors tried and executed “Beria’s gang” in 1953-55, they attempted to obscure those larger implications. The proceedings were closed, Beria was falsely convicted of treason and espionage and his misdeeds were disassociated from Stalin’s remaining heirs. Even then, however, the charge of “crimes against humanity” was made in at least one case. Reactions to Khrushchev’s revelations at the 1956 congress indicated that such issues were already just below the surface. Questions were asked at low-level Party meetings (and quickly suppressed) about the entire leadership’s responsibility for what had happened.

Nonetheless, Khrushchev soon crossed another Rubicon, though again behind closed doors. At a June 1957 meeting of the Party’s Central Committee, he and his supporters staged a kind of trial of Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov, who were still full members and in attendance. Quoting horrific documents unearthed by Shatunovskaya and others, they accused Molotov and Kaganovich, along with Stalin, of having been responsible for more than 1.5 million arrests in 1937 and 1938 alone and personally sanctioning 38,679 executions during that period, 3,167 on one day. Bloodthirsty orders in their handwriting were read aloud: “Beat, beat and beat again…. Scoundrel, scum…only one punishment–death.”

A Soviet Nuremberg seemed to be looming. When the accused defended their actions as “mistakes,” they were met with shouts, “No, crimes!” A Khrushchev supporter hurled a threat at the senior Stalinist leaders that must have chilled many other longtime bosses in the hall: “If the people knew that their hands are dripping with innocent blood, they would greet them not with applause but stones.” The implication seemed clear, as another Central Committee member “profoundly” objected: “People who headed and led our Party for so many years turn out to be murderers who need to be put in the dock.” In the end, however, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov were only expelled from the leadership and Central Committee and banished to minor posts far from Moscow.

It was a moment of high drama, but the crimes still greatly exceeded the punishment. After Stalin died, some fifty to 100 secret police executioners and especially brutal interrogators were tried and sentenced, about twenty-eight to death and the rest to prison. Another 2,370 are reported to have received administrative sanctions, from loss of their ranks, awards and Party memberships to their pensions. In addition, a dozen or so high-ranking security and political officials committed suicide.

Khrushchev’s zeks regarded those episodes of justice as first steps and implored him to punish many more people. He resisted “a St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre,” as he put it, no doubt for several reasons. He too had signed death lists and had “blood on his own hands,” as his admirer Gorbachev later discovered. Also, even though Khrushchev was now the top leader, he remained challengeable and without sufficient high-level support. And, as others paraphrased his explanation, “More people would have to be imprisoned than had been rehabilitated and released.”

And yet in October 1961, Khrushchev delivered his most sweeping and consequential assault on the Stalinist past and its many defenders. At the Twenty-Second Party Congress, he and his supporters considerably expanded the revelations and accusations made in 1956 and 1957–and now did so publicly. For the first time, daily newspaper and broadcast reports of the proceedings informed the nation of “monstrous crimes” and the need for “historical justice,” along with lurid accounts of mass arrests, torture and murder carried out under Stalin across the country. (Solzhenitsyn, whose novels about those events were not yet published, was astonished.)

There was more. This time Khrushchev did not limit the indictment to crimes against Communist Party members, as he had done on previous occasions. The congress’s resolution removing Stalin’s body from the Mausoleum spoke simply of “mass repressions against honest Soviet people.” And for the first time, Khrushchev and his allies publicly accused Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov of “direct personal responsibility” for those “illegal” acts and demanded they be expelled from the Party (as soon happened), which suggested they might then be put on trial. The specter of trials, inflated by Khrushchev’s call for a “comprehensive study of all such cases arising out of the abuse of power,” sent tremors of fear through the thousands who also bore “direct personal responsibility.”

The congress was a victory for Khrushchev’s zeks, however temporary. Its radicalized anti-Stalinism was due in part to them. Still more, in preparation for it, Khrushchev had established the Shvernik Commission investigation, the first “comprehensive study” of the dark events of the 1930s, including the 1934 assassination of Leningrad Party chief Sergei Kirov, which ignited the Great Terror, and the trials and executions of founders of the Soviet state. Returnees, especially Shatunovskaya, were lead investigators for the Commission, which concluded that Stalin had plotted those fateful developments in order to launch a mass terror. On the eve of the congress, Shatunovskaya gave Khrushchev a preliminary report based on the “numerous documents” he would cite there. When he read it, she said, “he wept.”

Khrushchev’s initiatives at the 1961 congress unleashed an unprecedented three-year struggle between the “friends and foes” of de-Stalinization. Eased censorship permitted historians to begin criticizing the entire Stalin era, even his long sacrosanct collectivization of the peasantry and conduct of the war. But the flood of literary depictions of the twenty-year Terror had the greatest impact. Read together, they gave a nearly unvarnished picture of what had happened to millions of people and their families. Among the works published, including those by and about returnees, was this poem by Lev Ozerov: “The dead speak…./From concentration camps. From isolation cells…./Life, while it lasted, left its signature/On the prison floor in a trickle of blood.”

Similarly emboldened by Khrushchev’s example, survivors now determinedly pursued other people who had been personally responsible for their own arrests. Issues similar to those raised at Nuremberg began to appear, guardedly and elliptically, in the censored press. They were just below the surface in conflicting reviews of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and other Terror-related literature, but also more open. To take an example that entangled even Khrushchev, the famous writer Ilya Ehrenburg publicly admitted he had “to live with clenched teeth” under Stalin because he knew his arrested friends were innocent. His confession, or “theory of a conspiracy of silence,” brought furious reactions because if Ehrenburg had known the truth, so must have the many officials above him.

Still worse in their view, the early 1960s brought a spate of Soviet writings about Germany under Hitler. Some of the commentary was by inference clearly about the Soviet system under Stalin. Readers instinctively saw their own recent experiences in descriptions of the Hitler cult, Gestapo, Nazi concentration camps, informers and complicity of so many German officeholders. When the powerful American film Judgment at Nuremberg was shown in Moscow in 1963, reactions were even more pointed. Considering that emerging analogy, increasingly graphic accounts of Stalin’s Terror and mounting calls for justice, it is understandable why “fears of being made to answer for their crimes” and reports of “mental breakdowns” spread throughout Soviet officialdom.

At some point, even the younger men Khrushchev had put on his leadership council decided his initiatives were endangering too many people, perhaps the system itself. Unlike Suslov, Leonid Brezhnev and other Party leaders who would rule for the next twenty years had little or no blood on their hands, but plenty on their feet. They had a “complex about the past” because they had risen so rapidly under Stalin as their predecessors were being swept away.

Resistance to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies continued to grow behind the scenes after the 1961 congress. In 1962, Snegov and Shatunovskaya were driven from their positions, the Shvernik Commission report went unpublished and was soon buried, and rehabilitations, which numbered 700,000 to 800,000 under Khrushchev, all but ended. More setbacks followed. Despite Khrushchev’s support, Solzhenitsyn was denied the Lenin Prize in literature, which he later saw as a “rehearsal for the ‘putsch’ against Nikita.” And in 1964, a major Pravda editorial authorized by Khrushchev on “Stalin and His Heirs” was aborted, along with his proposed constitutional changes to prevent a recurrence of past abuses. Meanwhile, the memorial he had proposed to Stalin’s victims remained unbuilt.

When the Central Committee overthrew Khrushchev in October 1964, the formal indictment did not mention the Stalin question. It focused instead on the 70-year-old Khrushchev’s failed economic and foreign policies, ill-considered reorganizations, increasingly erratic behavior and dismissive attitude toward “collective leadership.” Nonetheless, his anti-Stalinist approaches to the past and the present were a central factor. They were, after all, the driving force behind his decade-long attempted reformation of the Soviet system, which was now being ended by a sharp conservative shift in official and popular opinion.

There were also clearer indications. Suslov delivered the detailed indictment, while Mikoyan was the only Central Committee member who tried to defend Khrushchev. (During secret discussions prior to the formal meeting, Khrushchev was accused of “reviling Stalin to the point of indecency.”) Any doubts were soon removed when the new leaders moved to end anti-Stalinist policies relating to the past and restore the tyrant’s historical reputation. Certainly, people with a personal stake in the outcome understood the meaning of Khrushchev’s ouster. (Solzhenitsyn considered it a “small October revolution” and began smuggling his manuscripts abroad.) While Beria’s men in prison rejoiced, Gulag returnees were informed, “The rehabilitated are no longer in fashion.”

The subsequent status of Gulag returnees in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia was determined largely by the changing official reputations of Stalin and Khrushchev, and those reputations by the political forces of reform and conservatism. To defend the existing order, the new conservative Brezhnev leadership needed a heroic Stalinist past, when the system’s foundations had been created. Accordingly, it ended Khrushchev’s revelations and rehabilitations, excised him from sanctioned history and refurbished Stalin’s role by ignoring the Terror and emphasizing the wartime victory. (In 1970, a flattering bust was placed on his gravesite behind the Mausoleum.)

Archives reveal how much Khrushchev’s successors despised their patron’s policies–and his zeks. In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported from the Soviet Union. Privately discussing the decision, Brezhnev’s Politburo blamed Khrushchev for “this social riff-raff.” Suslov complained, “We still have not eliminated all the consequences that resulted from Khrushchev.” Brezhnev, who said Solzhenitsyn had been justly imprisoned under Stalin, had harbored a resentment: “He was rehabilitated by two people–Shatunovskaya and Snegov.” In 1984, on the eve of Gorbachev’s rise to power, the Politburo was still complaining privately that Khrushchev had exonerated victims “illegally” and permitted “shameful outrages in relation to Stalin.”

During the twenty years between Khrushchev and Gorbachev, while Terror-era police officials were released from prison with good pensions, many of the “rehabilitated no longer felt rehabilitated,” as several told me and other acquaintances. Most of them led conformist lives and were left in peace, but a significant number agreed with Antonov-Ovseyenko: “It is the duty of every honest person to write the truth about Stalin. A duty to those who died at his hands, to those who survived that dark night, to those who will come after us.”

In the late 1960s and ’70s, some victims used their semi-established positions to be partial truth-tellers in the censored media, among them the acclaimed novelist Trifonov and popular playwright Mikhail Shatrov, whose fathers had been shot and mothers sent to the Gulag. Other survivors wrote only “for the drawer,” but more than a few let their manuscripts, with themes of “crime and punishment,” circulate in samizdat and be published abroad. And some became leading representatives of public dissent, including Solzhenitsyn, Medvedev and Andrei Sakharov, whose wife’s parents were also victims.

Considering their age and years of abuse, the majority of Gulag returnees probably did not live to witness the great turnabout under Gorbachev. His declared mission was to replace the Stalinist system with a democratized one, which meant Gorbachev had to expose its entire criminal history. By the late 1980s, a tidal wave of exposés, articles, novels, plays, films and television broadcasts had flooded the Soviet media. Although most of them called for national “repentance,” the result was not the “second Nuremberg” some radicals demanded but nonetheless a media trial of Stalinism, with the newly formed Memorial Society, inspired by Khrushchev’s unfulfilled proposal, in the forefront. (One of Memorial’s founders, Arseny Roginsky, was also the son of a victim.)

While the glasnost press now went looking for “hangmen on pension,” Stalin’s victims were featured at evenings in memory of the “national martyrology.” One such public event, in 1989, was the first to honor Khrushchev. Many former zeks were in the overflowing auditorium, some of them weeping. Most now knew the dark side of Khrushchev’s career–the blood on his own hands, his failure to tell the full truth about the past, his own repressive measures after 1953. But their gratitude, expressed virtually in one voice, remained undiminished: “Khrushchev gave me back my life.”

Between 1987 and 1990, a million more individuals were officially rehabilitated by Gorbachev, and then, by his decree, all of Stalin’s remaining victims. Reacting to those actions, Gorbachev’s enemies occasionally charged that an “ideology of former zeks” underlay his anti-Stalinism. This may have been partially true: Several members of his inner leadership were relatives of Stalin’s victims, including Gorbachev himself, whose grandfathers had been arrested in the 1930s (and his wife’s grandfather shot). But despite all the attention and promises given to victims by Gorbachev’s policies, many survivors remained destitute. Bankrupt and crumbling by 1991, his government was never able to provide most of the compensation and benefits it had legislated.

The mixed status of Soviet-era victims has continued in post-Soviet Russia. Boris Yeltsin, its first president, formally exonerated all citizens politically repressed since October 1917, not just those under Stalin, and then included their children, making them eligible for compensation as well. In addition, Yeltsin declared a national day in memory of the victims and passed a law giving them and their relatives access to their long-secret case files. More generally, tales of the Terror era became a familiar aspect of post-Soviet popular culture, including its main medium, television. The Memorial Society developed into a nationwide institution searching for mass graves, sponsoring monuments at several Gulag sites and producing documentary studies of victims and victimizers. And in 2004, Antonov-Ovseyenko, now nearly 90, finally opened a small, little-known (and still the only) official Museum of the History of the Gulag, with the backing of Moscow’s mayor.

On the negative side, few of the dwindling number of survivors ever received any meaningful compensation for their lost years or property. By 1993, interest in Stalin’s Terror and its victims had undergone a “catastrophic fall,” and the national memorial proposed by Khrushchev in 1961 and endorsed by Gorbachev in the late 1980s was still unbuilt. By the early twenty-first century, pro-Stalin attitudes had grown significantly both in official circles and popular opinion, along with the number of burnished reputations of odious NKVD bosses and outspoken Gulag deniers, while Khrushchev again fell into semi-oblivion, except when vilified by neo-Stalinists. Increasingly it was said, and perhaps believed, that all Gulag zeks had been common criminals because “Stalin did not repress any honest citizens.”

Most Western observers attributed post-Soviet attitudes favorable toward Stalin to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who became Russian president in 2000. In reality, though the phenomenon grew under Putin, most of its elements began in the 1990s under Yeltsin, from the social and economic pain that was the primary source of revived pro-Stalin sentiments to the rehabilitation of the KGB and decline of democratic practices. Nor was anti-Stalinism suppressed under Putin. Access to relevant archives, though somewhat more limited, continued; revealing volumes of Terror-era materials were published; the renamed KGB (FSB), carrying on a practice started under Gorbachev, met with and even honored some of its former victims; and films based on popular anti-Stalinist novels were made for and shown on state-controlled television, including ones by Solzhenitsyn.

Indeed, Putin’s own role in this regard was contradictory. On the one hand, he made highly publicized statements supporting a new textbook that gave a favorable picture of the Stalinist 1930s and Stalin himself. On the other, one of Putin’s first acts as president was to authorize an expanded investigation of Stalin-era crimes; and two of his last acts, in 2007, were to personally present an award to Solzhenitsyn, who was later given the equivalent of a state funeral, and to attend a major commemoration of victims at an infamous NKVD killing field and burial site, the first such appearance ever by a Russian leader.

The contradiction in Putin’s behavior reflects Russia’s still profound division over the Stalinist experience. Eventually, the new Medvedev-Putin leadership will also have to confront it, one way or another, for at least three reasons. First, though few Gulag returnees are still alive, Russia remains a country significantly populated by descendants of Stalin’s victims, at least 27 percent of the nation according to a recent survey. Second, as the fifty-five years since the dictator’s death have repeatedly demonstrated, there is no statute of political limitations for historical crimes of that magnitude. And third, despite Russia’s outward stability today, there is little popular or elite consensus about the nation’s present or future, partly because there is so little about its Stalinist past. In all these respects, the saga of the victims is not over.

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