The dead, claims a French legal saying, seizes the living–“le mort saisit le vif”–and indeed the dead weight of the past often seems to be strangling the present, particularly when this past is not properly tackled. Amnesia is as much a disease for a nation as it is for an individual, in both cases a heavy handicap for current conduct. Hence, the importance of the new Soviet attempt to remember the country’s collective past, described at length in these pages [see Dev Murarka, “Recovering the Buried Stalin Years,” October 24, and “A New Revolution in Consciousness,” October 31]. Indeed, the Soviet Union is at one and the same time trying to recover its memory and the capacity to speak with more than one voice; it is learning to remember and to debate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s major speech at the seventieth anniversary of the Revolution had been presented in advance, wrongly, as an important part in this process. But it provides a good opportunity to take stock, to grasp better the link between this remembrance of things past and present policy, while incidentally assessing our own attitude toward the upheaval that is beginning to alter the shape of Soviet society.
Life does not begin at seventy. Speaking in the Kremlin on this festive occasion, Gorbachev was bound to draw up some kind of balance sheet, although half of a nearly three-hour speech devoted to the past did not allow for too sophisticated a historical assessment. Inevitably, Gorbachev hailed October 1917 as a momentous break in human history. Quite naturally, he put the accent on the pioneering efforts and sacrifices of the Soviet people, which led to positive results despite “real crimes based on the abuse of power.” He was entitled to argue that, without a shift to collective farming and a rapid rate of industrialization, the country would never have been able to stand up to the Nazi invaders, even if his description of the ravages of collectivization was much too mild. Then came the 1,418 days of “blood and sweat.” The ordinary Soviet people, both soldiers and civilians, were rightly the heroes in the Gorbachev version, although he also mentioned the role of the military command, with Stalin at its head. A case can clearly be made for a more balanced portrait of the dead dictator. After all, the main weakness of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous indictment of Stalin, back in February 1956, was his most un-Marxist explanation of the tragic failings of a whole system through the psychopathology of a single man. The snag is that when it comes to an analysis of Stalinism as a system, and especially of its birth, Gorbachev himself is of little help.
A man can be in some respects a pathfinder, the champion of glasnost and perestroika (“restructuring”), and in others remain a prisoner of the past. In his analysis of the struggle after Lenin’s death, of the “nucleus of the party headed by Stalin” defending the Leninist heritage against a “petty bourgeois” opposition, Gorbachev is a pure product of routine courses on “Marxism-Leninism,” a worthy pupil of another politician who had been a leader in Stavropol, Mikhail Suslov, the late official keeper of post-Stalinist orthodoxy. It is difficult to decide which of several passages in the speech is worst. There is the description of Trotsky as “an always prevaricating and swindling politician,” borrowed less from Lenin’s testament than from the vocabulary of Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s notorious chief prosecutor. There is a reference to Nikolai Bukharin and his supporters rapidly “recognizing their mistakes” (over the rate of growth), an ominous understatement when one knows what preceded and especially what followed this repentance. Indeed, significantly, there is no mention in so many words of the ghastly Moscow trials in which Vyshinsky gained his international reputation. Yet worst of all is probably the suggestion that Stalin defeated the opposition “ideologically and organizationally,” an eloquent euphemism when one knows that those were the years when freedom of debate was eliminated in the Communist Party, when political dissent became a criminal offense and the iron rule of the General Secretary prepared the ground for his tyranny.