Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Burying Stalin

Nikita Khruschev's great-granddaughter takes no small quantum of pride from his denunciation of Stalin. But she raises a couple of good points in an interesting op-ed in the LA Times that argues the Russians deserve better than Putin's creeping despotism. Here is what Khruschev's denunciation of Stalin wrought, in her opinion:

. . . to his credit, when he denounced Stalin before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, my great-grandfather had the courage to admit that communism (and its leaders) could make mistakes. Denouncing Stalin — and acknowledging for the first time the details of some of the murders, purges and coerced confessions — was a morally necessary act, Khrushchev said later. After his "involuntary" retirement in 1964 when he was ousted as first secretary of the party, Khrushchev confessed he had needed to tell the story in part because his own arms were "covered with blood up to the elbows."

Yes, Khrushchev helped build the despotic Soviet system, but he also called for its reform. And even though he did it by attacking the corruption of communism rather than communism itself, the speech served as a catalyst, sowing early disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism. It transformed the image of the Soviet Union in the minds of millions of people. It was the first crack in the monolith, and without it, it might have taken another 100 years for the socialist countries to enjoy the post-communist freedoms they have today.

I believe that the speech . . . marked the beginning of the end, when fear began to be replaced by freedom. It led to the release of some prisoners from Stalin's gulags. It opened the country to some foreign visitors and products. It helped awaken the first stirrings of the dissident movement that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 20 years after my great-grandfather died.

Yes, this overstates the case to no small degree. After all, Khruschev's denunciation occurred in the same year of the Hungarian Uprising, 1956; and having been to Hungary, The Monk will attest to the Magyars' long memory. But Stalin's image as kindly old Uncle Joe, instead of the mass-murdering totalitarian that Churchill (but not FDR) knew him to be, still resonated in 1956 with more than a few people in the US and the Western European nations that the US and UK freed from the Nazis. Khruschev's revelation was the first public denigration of Stalin by his political progeny.

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