Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
In November 1961, at the end of a Community Party Congress that publicly condemned Stalin’s crimes, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev unexpectedly called for the building of a national memorial to the tens of millions of victims of Stalin’s nearly 25-year reign, much of it accompanied by mass terror. During the next five decades, a fierce political struggle raged between anti-Stalinists and pro-Stalinists, sometimes publicly but often behind the scenes, over whether the victims should be memorialized or deleted from history through repression and censorship. On October 30 of this year, Russia’s anti-Stalinists finally won this struggle when Putin officially and personally inaugurated, in the center of Moscow, a large memorial sculpture named “Wall of Sorrow” depicting the victims’ fate. Though nominally dedicated to all victims of Soviet repression, the monument was clearly—in word, deed, and design—focused on the Stalin years, from 1929 to his death in 1953.
Cohen explains that he has spent decades studying the Stalin era, during which he came to know personally many surviving victims of the mass terror and had closely observed various aspects of the struggle over their subsequent place in Soviet politics and history. (This history and Cohen’s is recounted in his book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin.) As a result, he and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, felt a compelling need to be present at the ceremony on October 30. Having gained access to the semi-closed event, attended perhaps by some 300 people (including officials, representatives of anti-Stalinist memorial organizations, aged survivors, relatives of victims, and the mostly Russian press), they flew to Moscow for the occasion.
Cohen gave Batchelor his firsthand account of the event, at which Putin, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a representative of a memorial organization, Vladimir Lukin (whom Cohen had known since 1976, when Lukin was a semi-dissident outcast in Moscow, and later a post-Soviet Russian ambassador to Washington), spoke. The formal ceremony began just after 5 pm and lasted, after a choir’s hymns, about 45 minutes. At first, Cohen felt it was marred by the dark, cold, rainy weather, until he heard someone in the gathering remark quietly, “The heavens are weeping for the victims.” In the context of other anti-Stalinist speeches by Soviet and post-Soviet leaders over the years, Cohen thought Putin’s remarks were heartfelt, moving, even profound. (They can be found in English at Kremlin.ru.) Without mentioning their names, Putin alluded to the crucial roles played in the anti-Stalinist struggle by Khrushchev and by Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader during the years of reform from 1985 to 1991. (Cohen and vanden Heuvel spent the evening before the ceremony at a private dinner with Gorbachev and one of his closest friends, often recalling Gorbachev’s pathbreaking de-Stalinizing reformation, known as perestroika, much of which they had also observed firsthand.) One of Putin’s remarks at the ceremony struck Cohen as especially important. After allowing that most events in Russian history were the subject of legitimate debate, Stalin’s long mass terror, Putin suggested, was not. Other controversial episodes may have their historical pluses and minuses, but Stalin’s terror and its consequences were too criminal and ramifying for any pluses. That, he emphasized, was the essential lesson for Russia’s present and future.