Soviet Union

90th Anniversary of the February Revolution

March 8th has a double meaning in world history. First it is International Women’s Day, a holiday that celebrates women all over the world except, it seems, in the United States. March 8th is also marks the beginning of the Russian Revolution, which is perhaps the most defining event of the 20th century. Today marks its 90th anniversary.

On March 8, 1917 scores of women protested WWI, bread prices, and poverty in Petrograd’s industrial Vyborg district. As they passed the district’s factories, the women encouraged workers to join the protest. As one worker from the New Lessner Factory described the scene:

Women’s voices were heard in the alley onto which the windows of our department opened, shouting “Down with the war! Down with the high cost of living! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!” . . . Throngs of militant women workers filled the alley. Those who spotted us began waving their arms and yelling “Come out! Stop work!” Snowballs pelted the windows. We decided to join the demonstrations.

By the end of the day, over 100,000 workers were on the streets by the end of the day.

The protesters then attempted to cross the Neva river to the government upper class districts. As they turned down Nevsky Prospect, they were met by police, who dispersed the crowd. The Russian Revolution had began.

I thought it would be best to revisit these first days of what became known as the February Revolution by excerpting some reports from the Okrana, the Tsarist secret police. Among many things, these documents demonstrate an unfolding of events, an increase in chaos, and the escalation of violence. The documents are taken from The Russian Provisional Government, 1917 which was complied and edited by none other than Alexander Kerensky in 1961.

Memorandum of February 24 of the Okhrana Section to precinct superintendents regarding the events of the first two days.

On February 23 at 9:00 am, the workers of the plants and factories of the Vyborg district went on strike in protest against the shortage of black bread in the bakeries and groceries; the strike spread to some plants located in the Petrograd, Rozhdestvenskii, and Liteinyi districts, and in the course of the day 50 industrial enterprises ceased working, with 87,534 men going on strike.

At about 1:00 pm, the workmen of the Vyborg district, waling out in the crowds into the streets and shouting “Give us bread,” started at the same time to become disorderly in various places, taking with the on the war their comrades who were at work, and stopping tramcars; the demonstrators took away from the tram drivers the keys to the electric motors, which forced 15 tramway trains to quit the lines and retire to the Petrograd tramway yard.

The strikers, who were resolutely chased by police and troops summoned [for this purpose], were dispersed in one place but quickly gathered in other places, showing themselves to be exceptionally stubborn; in the Vyborg district order was restored only toward 7:00 pm.

Memorandum from the Okrana, complied on February 24, late in the evening, to the Ministry of the Interior, to the Prefect, to the Office of the Prosecutor, to the district chiefs of police, and the Commander of Troops.

The strike of the workers which took place yesterday in connection with the shortage of bread continued today; in the course of the day 131 enterprises with 158,583 workers shut down.

According to the materials at out disposal, starting with February 25 the telephonic communications from the precincts became much more scarce . . . .

. . . Here are some of the more characteristic of these communications.

On February 25 a crowd of about 6,000 workmen proceeding from the Bol’shoi Samsonievskii Prospekt along Botkinskaia Strett toward Nizhnii Novgorod Street was met by Cossacks and a detail of police; present on horseback was Shalfeev, Chief of Police of the 5th District. The crowd dragged him down from the horse and began to beat him with sticks and an iron hook used to switch railway points policemen fired into the crowd (evidently the Cossacks were inactive) and the shots were returned from the crowd. The Chief of Police was seriously wounded and was taken to a military hospital.

On February 26 the number of telephonic communications sharply declines . . .

Among these communications, which mention several cases of assaults on the police and also several cases of policemen and soldiers firing at the crowd, with killed and wounded in two cases . . ., there appears for the first time a report on a direct mutiny of the soldiers:

Police Sergant Kharitonoc reported that at 6:00 pm the 4th company of the Pavlovsk Guard regiment, in an outburst of indignation against their [regimental] training detachment, which had been detailed to the Nevskii Prospekt, and which had fired at the crowd after leaving its barracks which are located in the riding school of the court stables, proceeded toward the Nevskii Prospekt under the command of a noncommissioned officer with the intention of removing [the details of the training detachment] from their posts; however, on its war, in the vicinity of the Church of Christ the Saviour, the 4th company met a mounted patrol of 10 policemen; the soldiers abused the policemen, calling them “pharaohs,” and firing several volleys at them, killing one policeman and one horse, and wounding one policeman and one horse. Then the soldiers returned to the barracks where they staged a mutiny. Colonel Eksten came to put it down and was wounded by on the soldiers; his hand was cut off; later a detachment of the Preobrazhenskii Guard Regiment was summoned; it disarmed and surrounded the mutineers.

February 26, 1917. Collaborator’s pseudonym “N. N.” Information received by Lieutenant Colonel Prutevskii. Party: various sources.

In the State Duma spirits are high. Under the presidency of Rodzianko a conference is now taking place in relation to the firing by the troops without forewarning and the shootring of isolated individuals.

Among the deputies it is being said that Police Inspector Krylov was not killed by the mob, but was hacked by a Cossack because he had fired at the Cossacks, who refused to obey the order to disperse the crowd.

A certain manufacturer living at 128 Nevskii Prospeckt has telephoned several times to Rodzianko, stating that all those who appeared near his house were being shot one by one; he had counted 15 of them.

A number of faction sessions are set in the Duma for tomorrow, February 27. The Bureau of the Progressive Bloc has proposed to Convene an extraordinary session of the State Duma tomorrow, the 27th; the progressists and the Trudoviks support the bloc’s proposal, but Rodzianko declared that for reasons of procedure he was unable to convene an extraordinary session.

Tomorrow at 12:00 noon the Sen’oren convent will be convened, and at 2:00 pm a private conference of all the members of the State Duma will take place.

The Social Democrats and the Trudoviks provoke the Duma by saying that it should tell the Government either “Continue to shoot” or “We must head the movement which is taking place.”

The Progressists and the Kadets meet this provocation halfway. But do not disclose their plans.

The Octobrists, the Nationalists, and the members of the right are frightened and declare that no questions should be presented to the Government now because everything is under the orders of the Commander [of the Petrograd Military District], who, according to the law, may not be questioned and has the right to suspend the activity of any institution; they frighten the left by saying that he may also close the State Duma . . .”

Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy

Introduction to “Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy”

By Sean Guillory

Studies on Andrei Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Army often double as political statements on the Soviet Union, its character, history, and legacy. Where one situates Vlasov vis-?-vis the regime is a comment on whether Vlasov was a traitor, collaborator, or patriot. Whichever of these labels are attached to him also reveals one’s position on Soviet Communism. As Catherine Andreyev states in her reevaluation of Vlasov, both his supporters and detractors instrumentally employ Vlasov’s Army as a polemical tool.

How can the history of one person be a statement on an entire social, political, and economic system? To be sure, Vlasov is not alone in this regard. The list of historically controversial figures that lived and died under Soviet rule is undoubtedly endless. But the question isn’t so much the attempt to historically uncover or rehabilitate the “true Vlasov” and where he stood in regard to Stalin, WWII, and the Nazis. In many ways there is no “true Vlasov” to uncover or rehabilitate. A more important question is why do figures like Vlasov continue to be politically charged in the present and what does that say not only about the present, but also how we relate that present to the past?

It is this question that hovers over Michael Averko’s article on Vlasov. Averko calls for a more nuanced historical account of the man Anderi Vlasov that recognizes him as “Russian patriot, whose frank views went against Nazism.” But his argument suggests much more. Averko’s piece also implicitly opens up a debate as to why such an account has yet to be accepted in post-Soviet Russia. Thus Averko’s article is as much about history as it is about memory. It is my hope that the presentation of Averko’s “Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy” (on this blog) will open up a debate about Vlasov that can lead us beyond polemics.

As Averko notes, Russians seem to have made their historical peace with the Whites. In 2005, the remains of White General Anton Denikin were returned to Russia and reburied with full military honors. Very recently, another White General, Vladimir Kappel, was reburied with similar honors. Even the royal family has benefited from a reevaluation of their memory. Last September, the remains of Nicholas II’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna, (who died 78 years ago in exile in Denmark), were brought back to St. Petersburg for a royal burial alongside the other Romanovs. And who could forget that in 1989 “bloody” Czar Nicholas II and his slain family were not only reburied, but also consecrated as a saint (again along with his family) by the Russian Orthodox Church. It appears that memory can bleach all blood stains white.

Yet some wounds are too fresh to close. While Averko writes, “a growing number of Soviet era Russians seem to be acknowledging that there’s more to the Vlasov Army than what they were raised on believing.” However, this acknowledgment is hampered by the fact that WWII continues to haunt the Russian political landscape. If the 60th anniversary celebrations, which were conducted in full Soviet regalia, were any indication, the war is a node in which present day Russia can reconcile many demonic events and figures of its Soviet past. But not so with those deemed traitors of the Motherland, even if that Motherland was at the time Soviet. While Stalin gets nostalgic TV serials in his name (along with him reading biblical texts and psalms and expressing regret at his deeds), figures like Vlasov remain damned in the public consciousness. To many Soviet born Russians, the Vlasov Army continues to be a “negative entity.”

“Dead bodies have enjoyed political life the world over and since far back in time,” reads the opening line of Katherine Verdery’s The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. The act of exhuming and reburying historical figures follows the rise and fall of political regimes. Modern political systems, despite their paeans to law, science, and rationality, still require legitimacy. One way this is done, Verdery argues, is though the decomposed flesh of those long dead.

Thus the main question for me is: if post-Soviet Russia can reconcile its present with the Romanovs, Denikin, Kappel, and Stalin, what will it take to reposition figures like Vlasov? And, more importantly, at what historical and political cost?

Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy

By Michael Averko

Draza Mihailovich, the anti-Communist/anti-Nazi World War II era Serb Chetnik leader, was a much maligned individual among Yugoslav Communist officialdom and some other left wing circles. During World War II, Russia had a similar figure in Andrei Vlasov. Both met the same fate of execution by their respective Communist enemies. Thanks to academic efforts like David Martin’s “Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich” (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Ca, 1978), the Chetnik leader’s legacy has been more properly acknowledged. Vlasov has his supporters as well. Yet, there remains a good great deal of ignorance of what he was and wasn’t, thereby making his legacy a matter of contentious debate (the same is true of Mihailovich).

How post Communist states treat nationalist and anti-Communist movements is a reflection of not only how they view the past, but also the politics of memory and history in the present. For example, present day Ukraine has been debating whether to positively acknowledge the World War II role of the anti-Soviet West Ukrainian (primarily Galician based) Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA)/Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). On the other hand, contemporary Russia hasn’t given any thought about honoring the Andrei Vlasov led army of anti-Communist Russians during the same war.

This contrasts with how Russia now views the Russian Civil War era Whites. In contrast to the Soviet period: in Russia today, it’s not so uncommon to see the Whites portrayed as Russian patriots, with a different ideological outlook from the Reds. This change is understandable, given the large scale misery which plagued Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.

For many Soviet reared Russians, the Vlasov Army (formally known as the Russian Liberation Army) remains a negative entity. This is noted in the numerous discussions I’ve had with some of them. Unlike the Whites of Denikin, Wrangel and Kolchak, the Vlasov Army is often viewed as a traitorous ally to the hated Nazi aggressor. In the spirit of a freer post Soviet Russia, a growing number of Soviet era Russians seem to be acknowledging that there’s more to the Vlasov Army than what they were raised on believing.

Unlike the UPA/OUN, the Vlasov Army was never involved in any war crimes (like the mass killing of civilians). Vlasov’s forces did little fighting against the Red Army. Like the UPA/OUN, the Vlasov Army fought the Nazis. For much of the war, the Vlasov Army was a bottled project that was debated between Russia hating Nazi ideologues and anti-Soviet/pro-Russian realists within the Wehrmacht. The latter was represented in part by ethnic Germans, who served in the Imperial Russian Army and allied themselves with the Whites during the Russian Civil War.

The anti-Russian Nazi ideologues included Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg. The Baltic German born (in Estonia) Rosenberg went against the grain of his fellow ethnic Germans with Imperial Russian ties. This anti-Soviet/anti-Russian versus pro-Russian/anti-Soviet debate carried on into the Cold War, as shown by the activity of the American based Captive Nations Committee. In 1959, that organization (made up largely of Galician Ukrainians) succeeded in getting the US Congress to approve a holiday known as Captive Nations Week, which recognized every Communist country as being captive with the exception of Russia.

Make no mistake about it, Andrei Vlasov was a Russian patriot, whose frank views went against Nazism; thus shelving his movement from Nazi support for much of the war. He made it clear that he wanted to see a strong Russia with the desired overthrow of Stalin. The Nazi hierarchy’s plan for Russia was antithetical to Vlasov’s agenda. Whereas some states like Croatia would exist in name, others like Russia were slated as lebensraum zones for the Third Reich. Vlasov periodically infuriated the Nazi ideologues with his stated Russian patriotic outlook.

Prior to his capture by the Germans in 1942, Vlasov was seen as a highly regarded Red Army general on the rise. After his incarceration, there’s ample documentation showing how he refused to accept Nazi ideology and the notion of fighting the Western allies of the USSR. Some Russian prisoners of war were sent to the Western Front to fight on the Nazi side. Vlasov had zero control over their positioning. The same holds true of the SS Kaminsky Brigade which was primarily situated in Byelorussia. Numbering anywhere between 2,000-10,000 (the lower figure being the more likely correct number), that SS unit participated with the Nazis in crushing the Polish resistance during the Warsaw Uprising (at its peak, Vlasov’s personnel are said to have numbered anywhere between 60,000 and several hundred thousand). Shortly after the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis dissolved the Kaminsky Brigade (killing its leader Bronislav Kaminsky in the process). Some of the Russians in that brigade ended up in Vlasov’s army. While serving under Vlasov, none of them were found to have committed any war crimes of note.

Some Russian prisoners of war were co-opted into joining the Vlasov Army (this involved the offer of better living conditions). At the same time, there’s no denying an anti-Stalinist mindset among many Russians of that period.

Nazi cruelty towards a number of Slavic national groups was inclusive of Russians. This stupidity prevented the Nazis from winning over many would be allies. It’s no small wonder why the Vlasov Army “turned” on its Nazi “ally” at the end of the war. Following their defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis became desperate. Before letting Vlasov’s army loose, the Nazis tried to get something out of Vlasov in return. The negotiated compromise (involving Vlasov’s German handlers) was a signed statement by Vlasov which stated an opposition to Stalin and Jewish involvement with in the USSR. In cyberspace, one can find this noted without mention of the pressures put on Vlasov to accept Nazi ideology. Outside of that declaration, Vlasov wasn’t known to have made any anti-Jewish statements. One of his right hand men, was a Jew with orthodox Marxist sympathies by the name of Lev Zykov. Vlasov’s main biographer Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt (a Baltic German, who served in the Imperial Russian army) recalls an ethnically tolerant Vlasov, who went against the grain of Nazi ideology and had factually challenged the anti-Jewish propaganda of Nazi ideologues (see page 191 of Strik-Strikfeldt’s referenced book at the end of this article).

For some, quoting Strik-Strikfeldt and others allied with the Nazis is especially problematical. From time in memorial, individuals have served the military of numerous regimes of questionable reputation. Many of the involved didn’t accept everything about their respective governments. This applied to the Wehrmacht as it did to the Red Army. The understandable skeptics of Vlasov should note that he wasn’t responsible for the murder of millions of Russians and non-Russians like Stalin.

Towards the end of the war, Nazi “Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” Joseph Goebbels wrote of the Nazis’ bungling the use of Vlasov’s ideals (see pages 347-348 of Louis P. Lochner’s “The Goebbels Diaries“, Doubleday & Co., NY, 1948). Then again, the Nazis wouldn’t have been Nazis had they taken advantage of the anti-Stalin feeling among millions of Soviet citizens. This leaves open the matter of Vlasov possibly being na?ve in trying to work out a deal with the Nazi invader. The pro-Russian/pro-Vlasov contingent within the Wehrmacht gave him hope. Not every German serving the Wehrmacht was a Nazi, much like how every Soviet citizen wasn’t part and parcel to all of Stalin’s policies.

Sven Steenberg and others have written about the near end of the war attempts to unite Vlasov’s forces with Mihailovich’s Chetniks (see page 190 of Steenberg’s referenced book at the end of this article). The late timing of this plan prevented it from happening. Nazi forces were on the run, with the Soviets having a massive momentum. Prague was the final scene of European theater World War II combat. The Vlasov Army liberated that city from the Nazis. Shortly thereafter, Vlasov’s personnel were hunted down by the victorious allies. Captured by the Americans – Vlasov was turned over to the Soviets, who executed him.

There’s a good number of primary and secondary source material available on the topic. Here’s a brief listing:

I. Reitlinger, Gerald – THE HOUSE BUILT ON SAND– Viking Press, New York, 1960

II. Steenberg, Sven – VLASOV– Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970

III. Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried – AGAINST STALIN & HITLER– The John Day Company, New York, 1973

IV. Thorwald, Jurgen – THE ILLUSION– Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1975

Historians Kirill Alexandrov and Catherine Andreev have more recently published material on the Vlasov Army.

I want to formally thank Sean Guillory for posting this article at his internationally renowned site. History and politics aren’t hard sciences and are therefore often open to different interpretations. Guillory’s site reflects an eclectic spirit, where varying views can intermingle with each other in an informal, but erudite environment. I sincerely hope that some others will catch on to this spirit.


Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.In addition to Sean’s Russia Blog, his commentary has appeared in the Action Ukraine Report, Eurasian Home,, Johnson’s Russia List, Russia Blog, Serbianna, The New York Times, The Tiraspol Times.

The Komsomol and Punk Rock

I’m currently reading Alexei Yurchak’s fascinating book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Yurchak asks why did the Soviet system’s implosion “seemed so unexpected when it began, and at the same time so unsurprising and fast once it had occurred.” The contains numerous examples of the contradictory nature of Soviet life, where as citizens participated in the ritualized, pro forma ideological discourse, this very discourse allowed them to carve out what they called “normal meaningful life” that went beyond the state’s ideology.

Anyway, I hope to discuss Yurchak’s book in more detail once I finish reading it. What I want to present here is this interesting Komsomol document pictured on the left. The document has been floating around the internet for a while now. Yurchak states that it was published in Novaya gazeta in July 2003, but I didn’t find it in their archive.

Here is a translation:

Approved Copy

Workers of the World Unite!

For internal use only.

To Secretaries of Gorkoms and Raikoms of the Komsomol of Ukraine.

The following is an approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions.

This information is recommended for the purpose of intensifying control over the activities of discotheques.

This information must be also provided to all VIA (vocal instrument ensembles) and youth discotheques in the region.

Secretary of the Obkom Komsomol, P. Grishin.

Approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions.

Group Name

Type of Propaganda

1. Sex Pistols

Punk, violence

2. B-52s

Punk, violence

3. Madness

Punk, violence

4. Clash

Punk, violence

5. Stranglers

Punk, violence

6. Kiss

Neofascism, punk, violence

7. Crocus

Violence, cult of strong personality, violence, vandalism

8. Styx

violence, vandalism

9. Iron Maiden

Violence, religious obscurantism

10. Judas Priest

Anticommunism, racism

11. AC/DC

Neofascism, violence

12. Sparks

Neofascism, racism

23. Originals


13. Black Sabbath

Violence, religious obscurantism

24. Donna Summer


25. Tina Turner


14. Alice Cooper

Violence, vandalism

26. Junior English (reggae)


15. Nazareth

Violence, religious mysticism

27. Canned Heat


28. Munich Machine


16. Scorpions


29. Ramones


17. Gengis Khan

Anticommunism, nationalism

30. Van Halen

Anti-Soviet propaganda

31. Julio Iglesias


18. UFO


32. Yazoo

Punk, violence

19. Pink Floyd (1983)

Distortion of Soviet foreign policy (‘Soviet aggression in Afghanistan)

33. Depeche Mode

Punk, violence

34. Village People


35. Ten CC (10 cc)


20. Talking Heads

Myth of Soviet military threat

36. Stooges


37. Boys

Punk, violence

21. Perron


38. Blondie

Punk, violence

22. Bohannon



Head of the General Department of the Obkom of Komsomol E. Priazhinskaia

10 January 1985

This document is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it shows that Soviet youth were quite in tune to global youth culture. Soviet youth listened to the same metal and punk groups that were popular in the United States and Western Europe. Second, Komsomol moralists and ideologues had similar concerns of their Western counterparts. They were also afraid that rock, punk and metal spread violence, deviance, and sex among its listeners. Still, this list expresses concerns about ideology, specifically what the author’s labels “anticommunism” and “neofascism.” I am not sure what the latter means, but I can guess that it is a synonym for bourgeois ideology.

There are some funny miscategorizations in this list. For example, the Village People are denounced for “violence.” I have no idea where they got that idea. If anything they should have gotten the “homosexuality” label. Also Depeche Mode getting the “violence” label is equally laughable.

I suspect that while the documents shows that Soviet youth were quite hip to global youth culture, Komsomol leaders were not or at least played like they were. My guess this is a generational issue since the age between the Komsomol rank and file and their leaders grew in the postwar period. You could easily have a Komsomol Obkom secretary in his or her thirties, while the rank and file in the teens and twenties.

At any rate, I wanted to offer this document and its translation to readers so they could get a taste of the Soviet past.

Komsomol Capitalism

“Bastards! (сволочи!)” For the last week a women who sits in front of me in the reading room has been cursing documents as she thumbed through files of Komsomol protocols and resolutions from the late 1980s. I finally found out what she is working on the other day.

“They are all thieves,” she told me yesterday during tea. “They stole from me and Russia. During Komsomol meetings they were diving up the property of cooperatives, allocating money for projects and themselves.” The “they” are Russia’s oligarchs, many of which have fled the country as exiles. “Khodorkovsky’s name is everywhere,” she told me pointing to a document from 1991 that details funds going to one of the oil cooperatives and banks he “owned.” The protocol in the document allocated to him over a million dollars.

“You know,” I told her “many in the United States consider people like Khodorkovsky are considered heroes of democracy.” “Well, here they are all thieves.” And it was no wonder, she added, because Khodorkovsky was tied to American banks in the early 1990s.

This woman is working on an article she hopes to publish in Der Spiegel. The story of how leading cadres in the Komsomol allocated property to themselves is a fascinating story. It is a perfect picture of what might call primitive capitalist accumulation with all the theft, swindle and blood that goes with it. Everybody knows how elites the Communist Party, like Gazprom’s Viktor Chernomyrdin became instant billionaires. What is less known is how Communist Youth League cooperatives were used in the 1980s as a means to marketize the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev’s idea was good natured but na?ve. By rehabilitating the ideas of Nikolai Bukharin, Gorbachev hoped to revitalize the executed Bolshevik’s slogan “Enrich Yourselves!” and his ideas about socialist competition. Like in the 1920s, Komsomol cooperatives of the 1980s were subjected to market principles to foster competition with state enterprises. The competition, it was believed, would increase productivity and production quality. It is now called Komsomol capitalism.

Komsomol cooperatives were based in two industries: construction and technology. But archival documents might reveal a much wider breath of entrepreneurship. From the few documents, I was shown, the Komsomol was allocating funds to oil, banking, and publishing, all of which were run and later owned by key Komsomol cadres. This of course wasn’t Gorbachev’s idea. His idea was that using the Komsomol to experiment with market reforms was politically safe. The Party pumped funds into the organization for it to set up cooperatives. In the case of technology, it was hard currency since Komsomol members would buy old computer equipment from the West and refurbish it for big profits.

By the time the Soviet system collapsed, the now redundant Komsomol was awash with cash. The players in the organization quickly appropriated it and set up the first banks, and therefore were the first ones that had the ability to give credit. The Komsomol oligarchs also made out big in the privatization scandals of the 1990s where they took privatization shares for loans. The result was that many, like Khodorkovsky, became the owners of recently privatized state enterprises.

“I’ll take these documents to court if I have to,” the woman told me with hopes that an article based on archival documents will bring some justice. In fact, some of the documents she’s looking at were used in Khodorkovsky’s conviction. “The strange thing is that he didn’t believe he was guilty. This is why he didn’t flee to Israel or America like the others. But how could he think he was innocent!? His name is all over these documents. And there were laws on cooperatives that prevented their privatization. And the Komsomol was after all a social organization and therefore not theirs to take.”

Showing Stalin the Love

The question “Why do Russians love Stalin?” continues to fascinate observers but often serves as a means for them to paint Russians as inherently “abnormal,” authoritarian and violent. I think that Professor Andrei P. Tsygankov of San Francisco State University has given one of the most reasonable explanations why Russians continue to look favorably toward Stalin. Here is a snippet, but I encourage readers to check out the whole thing.

It is misleading to interpret strong public support for the revolution, Stalin or the Soviet Union as evidence for the Russians’ inability to come to grips with their past. Instead, such support confirms their refusal to come to grips with the present situation of mass poverty, coupled with a largely inefficient and persistently corrupt state. In the public mind, Yeltsinism, as a system that has created such a state, lives on. Unsurprisingly, a growing sympathy for Stalin strongly correlates with feelings of being “abandoned” by the state. Rather than being an outlandish authoritarian response, it is a natural, protest-like reaction to the political system of the 1990s many features of which remain part of everyday reality. Anywhere in the world people would withdraw their support for a state that consistently denies them sense of dignity and a decent level of living standards. State ability to formulate a paternalistic popular vision continues to matter. For example, Americans seem to love Ronald Reagan because he restored their sense of dignity (even while undermining middle class and economic foundations). French people think highly of Charles De Gaulle partly because the state was then socially paternalistic and autonomous.

Gorbachev at 75

Gorbachev turns 75 today. This world historical figure needs no introduction. He is celebrated in the West and reviled in Russia. Yet, he continues to speak out against censorship in Russia as well as sending warnings about the re-emergence of authoritarianism. He spoke on similar themes in an interview with Radio Free Europe. Whatever one may think of his views, he remains one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Gorbachev recently gave an interview to Rossiiskaya gazeta. Here are some of his more interesting comments. All translations, for better or for worse are mine.

Rossiiskaya gazeta: In your opinion, what must the leaders of Islam do to reduce the dangerous characteristics of the rising opposition?

Gorbachev: I would like to put the question differently: What must all the participants in the process of globalization do? The Islamic world—it demands understanding and respect. It has huge human, historical and cultural potential. In the span of a century and a half it has given much to the world, enriching its science and culture. An equal and mutually respectful dialogue with it is not completely impossible. This is the only correct path.

Gorbachev remains optimistic for the victory of moderation. He rejects the idea of the “clash of civilizations” and instead sees the possibility of a dialogue based on the common language of modernity which is present in both the West and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, that the rhetoric of anti-modernity has taken center stage on both sides. In the last five years we’ve seen an increased polarization based on either religious fundamentalism, or the complete barbarization of one side by the other.

RG: Do you share the position of the Russian (Rossiiskii) delegation, which refuses to vote for the PACE (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly) resolution? [Here the interviewer is referring to a resolution before PACE that called for the condemnation of the crimes of communist regimes. The text can be read here.—Sean]

G: This brings to mind Yeltsin’s team’s plan for coming to power. I have in mind the process in the Constitutional court where he attempted to put the KPSS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on trial. I didn’t go to this court. I then said that there is only one court possible—the court of history. The crimes of the regime must not be combined with the lives of several generations. People lived, selflessly labored, to elevate the country. All that was achieved in this period that was achieved by the people. By a mighty people. This needs to be remembered.

RG: But PACE’s resolution does not contain accusations of the people who lived in the Communist period. This resolution condemns communism as a political practice. Even communist ideology is not subjected to judgment. That said, what remains of your relation to its past?

G: I was and remain a supporter of the socialist idea. Its ideal. Its value. But I lead in the process of debunking the socialist model which renounced democracy and made a bet on dictatorship.

RG: Once a speech was given on this . . . In February the country will mark a historical date—50 years since the 20th Party Congress. You were a young man then. What kind of impression did Khrushchev’s speech which denounced Stalin’s personality cult make on you?

G: I remember how I came to these events. I arrived in Stavropol, and after seven day duty in the Procuracy they sent me to lead a department of propaganda in a Komsomol kraikom. This was August 1955. The 20th Party Congress was in February. That said, I was prepared to take some sort of role in it. After graduating MGU [Moscow State University] I was dispatched to the Procuracy of the USSR. Twelve people—eleven were war veterans and me. They probably took me as proletarian. Then they were beginning to reorganize the department in the Procuracy which controlled the passage of penal law in the State security organs. Up to that time the [Security organs] carried out investigations, judged and carried out executions without legal oversight. Then in the spring of 1955 this already became clear to me. After all, I joined the Party in school in the tenth grade. I believed in communism; I believed in Stalin. I wrote in an essay, “Stalin is our glorious fighter, Stalin is the iron of our youth (“Stalin – nasha slava boevaia, Stalin – nashei iunosti polet”). For me the speech on the cult of personality was a shock. Then came the red little books which had the speech printed in them. They sent us to the villages with these books to conduct expository work. I arrived in Novoaleksandrovskii district with my friend, Nikolai Vorotnikov a Party secretary of a district committee, as a relatively young man. [He said to me,] “Listen, Mikhail, I don’t know what you will say. There we will attempt to explain what the people don’t believe.” We collected the people together. We addressed and told them and it was quiet as a coffin. People didn’t believe. So today we see them walking with portraits of Stalin. Because under [Stalin] the prices were lower not like it is now. Ten years ago we had a conference in our foundation on the 20th Party Congress. There, voices also cried out that the 20th Congress was a betrayal. And that perestroika was a continuation of this betrayal. You understand that the problem is not in Stalin, that this was from a personality with a certain character, but in Stalinism which was the ideological foundation of a totalitarian regime. In recent years so many movies came out on this period, the best artists played the role of Stalin. And often the hero instead becomes the antihero – “the real” Iosif Vissarionovich. And all the rest of it remains so primitive. But I repeat the problem is not in Stalin, but in Stalinism. We still have not thoroughly debunked Stalinism.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I’ll let Gorbachev’s words speak for themselves.

I’ll leave it at that. Gorby said many more interesting things, but the labor of translation got the better of me. I encourage all who read Russian to check it out.

Советское белье

Soviet dress is a rather understudied topic. But now we can breathe easier. According to the London Guardian, Professor Olga Gurova from the European University in St. Petersburg is working on a cultural history of underwear in the Soviet period. I have to say, I’ll read it. I find the topic absolutely fascinating. Here is how Gurova explains her work:

In the 1920s, Soviet magazines touted a “regime of cleanliness” for the proletariat. “Underwear,” explains Gurova, “was a compulsory part of that regime.” A goal was established: everyone should have at least two sets, and should change sets at least once every 7-10 days. Mass production was cranked up, underclothing the populace in officially healthy, comfortable, hygienic long johns, boxers, undershirts and bras. Gurova’s research shows that most of these items were “spacious”, and that “there was no big difference in design between male and female underclothes”.

Having pored over masses of documentation, Gurova infers that during the 20s “Soviet underwear was not about sex, it was about sport”. Sports outfits – T-shirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts – became the basic prototypes. Petticoats, seen as old-fashioned, faded from the scene, as did corsets. Underwear design quickly adapted to better serve Soviet women’s physical activities in the factory and the kitchen. In contrast to most European countries, reports Dr Gurova, “the Soviet revolution cancelled corsets and dressed women in bras more quickly”.

This is corroborated by Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions, which looks at, among other things, the intersection of commodity production, fashion design, and avant-garde art in 1920s Russia. Much of the avant-garde fashion design was geared to sports uniforms and wear. I just hope Gurova’s study will be available in the US, so I don’t have to track it down in Russia.

Stalin by the Numbers

The 50th Anniversary of Khrushchev’s speech has passed but not unnoticed. There was lots of commentary over the week in English and Russia media. Below you’ll find links to English and Russian language articles that have been published in the last few days. The list is far from complete. I won’t provide any detailed commentary on them.

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech & End Of Communism
1956: Khrushchev Lashes Out At Stalin
Khrushchev: The Man Who Stood Up To Stalinism
Russia Turns Its Back On The Man Who Denounced Stalin
Stalin Nostalgia Growing in Russia
1959: Macmillan And Khrushchev Talk Peace
‘The First Nail In The Coffin Of Communism’
The Speech Russia Wants To Forget

?????? ? ?????????: ???????, ??????? ?? ??????
?????? ?????????????
??????????? ????? XX ??????
? ?????? XX ?????? ? ??? ????????????
?????? X?????: “??? ??????? … ????? ????, ? ????? ?? ?? ????”

Instead I would like to concentrate on a recent poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion (VTsIOM) on “Repression, the Repressed and ‘the Strong Hand’” released this week in conjunction with the anniversary of de-Stalinization. An analysis of the poll can be found here. Such polls are common in Post-Soviet Russia. Many people see them as a gauge to the Russian population’s “transition” to democracy. In fact, I was at a conference on Stalin at USC last week and one presenter used statistics from VTsIOM as evidence of Stalin’s “reemergence” in Russia. I personally don’t put much stock in these polls as a representation of how Russian’s view Stalin. Instead I see them as interesting indicators to how Russians remember and understand Stalin’s Terror. Here are some of the polls statistics.

Who in your opinion carries the primary responsibility for mass repression in the country after the Revolution up to the 20th Party Congress? (in percent)



Leaders of the NKVD –Iagoda, Ezhov, Beria.


The upper Party leadership – Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich, and others.






In the conditions of enemy encirclement and the threat of war, repression was inevitable.


Difficult to answer.


What is interesting about these answers is not that 41% named Stalin. It is that fact that 59% said that it something else besides Stalin was responsible for mass repression? Now, does this mean that Russians are more favorable to Stalin? I would say no. What it tells me is that given a set of explanations, many Russians understand mass repression as a phenomenon conducted by individuals. This is perhaps because of the canonizing effect of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, which was very popularity when it was translated into Russian in the 1990s. Conquest portrays the Terror as part of a master plan executed flawlessly by Stalin.

What is conspicuously missing in the list of answers are the Russian people themselves. There is no space for collective responsibility. This could be simply explained by the fact that the questionnaire did not provide an answer for some sort of collective responsibility. This in and of itself is suggestive of how such polls construct the memory of such events. They reduce a potentially diverse set of viewpoints into a few. They create a narrative for how events are represented and remembered. It however makes one wonder whether Russians see any collective responsibility at all for the horrors of the Soviet regime. My guess is that there continues to be little sense of this, and as a result a failure to come to terms with living and participating in an authoritarian society.

The lack of recognition of a collective responsibility about mass repression in Russia has always stuck me. After all, the term “mass repression” is not only one that denotes scope; it also suggests a process that goes beyond one man or a group of leaders. Essentially, this survey hides the fact that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of rank and file Party members, secretaries, local leaders, and regular people participated in the execution of this “mass repression.” Without them, I doubt it could ever have become mass. Take for example, this denunciation written by a student of the Leningrad Technical Institute and Komsomol member in 1936 to the editor of Pravda, Lev Mekhlis about one N. V. Kitaev:

How can a parasite WHO ALWAYS SOBS WHEN HE HEARS LENIN’S NAME AND GROANS WHEN HE HEARS STALIN’S (those are not just words, comrade Mekhlis, but the appalling truth), how can such a person be allowed to remain within the walls of the institute, how can we, comrade Mekhlis, shelter such a snake in our bosom?

The letter went on to state how the denunciation of Kitaev was not out of personal malice toward him.

No comrade Mekhlis, it’s much worse—for four years, until February 1935, we venerated him as a “real party man,” politically highly developed, an activist, someone who always spoke up at every meeting and assembly, who could quote Lenin and Stalin and in our (Komsomol members’) eyes was the INCARNATION OF PARTY CONSCIENCE, ethics, and PARTY SPIRIT.


Since Kirov’s murder, [Kitaev] arouses an animal fear in me, an organic disgust. Just as I previously venerated him and respected him, now I fear him and expect him to do something terribly evil, some irreparable harm to the whole country. If you could have seen the unfeigned joy we all felt . . . when we learned of his expulsion [later revoked] from the Institute after the execution of Zinoviev and Kamenev . . . It is impossible and criminal to allow him to finish his studies at the Institute, because comrade Mekhlis even THE CAMPS OF THE NKVD WILL NOT REFORM HIM . . . I am terribly sorry now that he was not sitting next to his hero Zinoviev and Kamenev [in the court that ordered their execution.]

(cited in Shelia Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks, 213.)

The fate of Kitaev is unclear. What is clear is that many more similar denunciations can be found in the archives as well as incidents where people participated in the public denunciation of others in local show trials.

None of this would be found in the survey. It only recreates the idea that history is the work of great individuals rather than the multitude of actions carried out by regular people.

The memory of the “mass repression” is inscribed in other parts of the survey. Here it is the memory of victims rather than perpetrators is formed.

Were any of your relatives repressed in the 1930s and 1940s? (in percent)

Of all Respondents






60 and older

Yes, I know much about their fate from stories of close relatives and family archives (letters, photos, etc)







I know that my relatives were repressed but the details aren’t known to me.







None of my relatives were repressed.







I don’t know if any of my relatives were repressed or not.







Difficult to answer.







According to the survey one in four respondents were “repressed.” But what does repressed mean? Does it mean execution, arrest and imprisonment, deportation, or dispossession? Or does it also include much more? Does this include all soldiers imprisoned after the war? War collaborators? It is difficult to say because the survey doesn’t give a definition. This says to me that there is a question as to what repression means, and how it is defined and remembered by the respondent. I think that what exactly “repression” means is an important question because the trend has been to think that everyone imprisoned under Stalin was “repressed.”

It would be difficult to verify if the 25 percent figure in the survey is correct. The difficultly is not simply that “repressed” is not defined, neither is “relative.” Does this mean close relative—mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, etc? Or does it mean great uncle, cousin, third cousin etc? On this, the survey is potentially misleading in demonstrating the scope of repression among the population because when reading the one in four statistic, one assumes that one in four soviet citizens in the 1930s and 1940s were “repressed.”

Thanks to the opening of the archives, we now have a better sense of the numbers of executions, Gulag inmates, arrests, etc. Some of them are considered accurate; others are based on estimates when set against demographic materials. Some of the numbers are for specific periods, like 1936-1937, or for the whole Stalin period 1930-1953. Some include NKVD victims, other numbers include famine, and still others even include war deaths. The point is how you frame the figures, what you include in the count, and what you don’t. Most importantly when evaluating numbers on the victims of Stalin, what you mean by “repression” and what you think Stalin is responsible for is of utmost importance.

Here part of what we now know. And I should first preface this by stating that all of these figures are from scholarly studies, most of which are based on archival documents. But as many scholars freely admit, the numbers from archival documents and census data also contain inaccuracies. All in all, they act more as a guide than a way to posit completely accurate figures. The population of the Soviet Union in 1937 was 162 million. In 1939 was 167.3 million. Population growth was estimated to be around an average of 3 million per annum.

1921-1953 total arrests

1938 camp population

1938 prison and camp population

1952 camp population

1937-38 camp deaths

1937-38 executions

1921-53 executions

2.5 million

1.9 million

2 million

2.5 million




Source: J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov, “Vitcims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence,” American Historical Review, 98:4, 1993, 1022.

Grated these figures don’t give us a sense of the percentage of people repressed in the Stalin period in terms of overall population. Most the above figures are for a narrow period of time that coincides with the Great Purge, 1937-1938. These also don’t include deportations of ethnic groups or kulaks (razkulachivanie). There are estimate figures for these too, but I will only state one since it coincides with not only the anniversary, but also Russia’s Men’s Day holiday that was on February 23.

On February 23, 1944 the NKVD began the deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan. I won’t go into the history of it because I am not an expert on this. But according to figures in the archives, 400,478 Chechens and Ingushes were recorded in special settlements (spetsposeleniia). This is not the number of those deported, only those who arrived. Some estimate that over 100,000 died in transit to Kazakhstan.

Suffice to say and attempt on producing numbers on the victims of Stalinism will remain only estimates. And like I mentioned above, it depends on what you mean by “repression” and to a certain extent “victim.” But complexity hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. But the more sophisticated scholars who are armed with minutia of demography tend to be inconclusive on total numbers, but have offered numbers in specific areas: executions, deportations, sentences, Gulag populations etc more as a way to disprove previously offered guesstimates that were often steeped in Cold War ideology and misconceptions about how the Soviet Union functioned. As one can imagine the battle over figures has caused fierce academic debates. Even though most scholars agree that we have a much better picture of the scope of repression, the ability to come up with a best estimate on the total of victims under Stalin continues to be marred in politics, definition, inaccurate data, not to mention academic nit-picking over tables, calculations, and figures.

Personally, I don’t have much of an intellectual interest in numbers. I can’t comprehend the mass slaughter of a 100 people let alone millions. Plus at some point the humanity in all of it gets lost. The human gravity in the difference between one million and two million gets erased by the short abstract distance between one and two. After all, whether the estimate on the total number is 20 or 30 million, does 20 million make the Stalin period less repressive than 30 million? Or does 30 million make it more repressive than 20 million? Less or more inhuman? Hardly.

More on Khrushchev

Articles and commentary commemorating Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 continue. Today Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, weighs in on the pages of the Washington Post. Unfortunately, her commentary is more about us than about the historical significance of Khrushchev.

I’ll do my best to refrain from ranting on Applebaum’s statement that the American military is in Iraq “trying to pick up the pieces after the collapse of another totalitarian regime.” Excuse me, but last I checked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq didn’t collapse. That state was smashed by the very military that is now “trying to pick up the pieces.” So let us not equate Iraq with the Soviet Union and the US military as some sort of altruistic totalitarian mop up force.

But I digress. . . One thing that you can count on with the commemorations of Khrushchev’s speech is a lot of historical re-evaluation of it in terms of the present. Applebaum suggests that Khrushchev’s speech was “the first step in what turned out to be a very long struggle to end totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.” Forget the fact that I disagree that the Soviet Union was ever totalitarian. I think that to say so is to ascribe too much perfection to an incredibly inefficient system. Authoritarian? Absolutely. Granted, Khrushchev was trying to reform the Soviet system of some serious problems inflicted upon it by Stalinism. And I’m willing to accept that denouncing Stalin opened up the possibility for reform. However, I refuse to believe that the speech had anything to do with being part of a very long struggle to end “totalitarianism” in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was hardly anti-authoritarian. Just ask the Hungarians.

Nevertheless, Applebaum does make some interesting points. She is right to state, as so many others have, that Khrushchev’s denunciation wasn’t completely out of distaste for Stalinism, as it was to consolidate his own power:

Although it was an international sensation — no Soviet leader had spoken so frankly before — the speech didn’t exactly tell the whole truth. Khrushchev accused Stalin of many crimes, but deftly left out the ones in which he himself had been implicated. As William Taubman, author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, has documented, the Soviet leader had in fact collaborated enthusiastically with Stalinist terror, participating in the very mass arrests he condemned. Khrushchev’s speech was intended as much to consolidate his own power and intimidate his party opponents — all of whom had also collaborated enthusiastically — as it was to liberate his countrymen.

Applebaum also presents a lesson to all those “impatient” Americans who think that the blossoms of democracy can quickly flourish from the soil of authoritarianism. The “authoritarian impulse,” as she calls it, sometimes takes generations to shed.

Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime. Even people who want to reform their countries — and at some level Khrushchev did want to reform his country — can’t necessarily bring themselves to say or to do what is necessary. Certainly they find it difficult to carry out political reforms that might hasten their own retirement.

This isn’t to say dictatorships must last forever: Despite some of its current leadership’s repressive instincts, Russia itself has changed in fifty years, beyond recognition. But the transformation was often incremental, always uneven, and difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support. But then, all such transformations are difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support, and probably always will be. If history is anything to go by, we’ll have no choice but to try and do so anyway.

The Moscow Times provides more memories of Khrushchev’s speech and how Soviet citizens came to know it. An article in today’s edition focuses on the recollections of Khrushchev’s daughter, Rada Adzhubei.

Adzhubei and her fellow students in Moscow State University’s biology department had the speech read to them, she said, speaking Monday in her apartment near City Hall on Tverskaya Ulitsa, which she shares with her son and his family. It took between 1 1/2 and two hours to read, she recalled.

Like the delegates at the Party Congress, the students were given no opportunity to ask questions afterward.

“The person from the Party’s neighborhood committee took the booklet away, and we were left with our thoughts and opinions,” said Adzhubei, who is reserved when talking about the now distant past.

“Stalin was our God, tsar, hero and everything else. It wasn’t easy to debunk him.”

Yury Levada, who was editor of the scientific journal Nauka i zhizn at the time of the speech, remembered similarly:

The journal’s office, like the entire country, was abuzz with rumors that Khrushchev had attacked Stalin. In early March, the staff realized the rumors were true when they were shown the booklet of 20-odd pages, Levada said in an interview last week.

Levada was picked by his colleagues to read out the speech, and after he had finished, it was given back to Party officials, as happened everywhere else across the Soviet Union, he said. The booklet had a warning stamped on its cover, “Not for publication,” Levada said.

“I thought I’d never see an official copy being handed out. It was a surprise,” he said.

Khrushchev did not explain what caused Stalinism, or invite any discussion of the subject, Levada said. “Khrushchev made a strong effort to make sure that people didn’t ask too many questions and that faith in the Party wasn’t undermined,” he said.

Although rumors had prepared the journal’s staff for what was in the speech, they felt “a certain shock,” Levada said. Afterward, they wondered in private conversations why the Party had allowed Stalin to do what he did, he said.

Why did the Party allow the speech to be read and not published? After all, reading it does make it public. But printing it makes it permanent. The Bolsheviks put a certain value in texts; there was something dangerous about the existence and presence of subversive texts. Nothing said this more than the obsession over the existence of the Riutin Platform (1932). Take for example, S. V. Kosior’s speech to the December 1936 Central Committee Plenum:

Kosior: Take for instance, the decree and the [Riutin] platform. You know, no matter how much you try to prove it by saying that you were shown the platform and that you didn’t read it, no one will believe you.

Bukharin: I didn’t read it.

Kosior: That’s just talk. At the time the matter [of the Riutin Platform] came up, it was clear to all of us what was going on.

Bukharin: Comrade Kosior, I was not in Moscow at the time.

Kosior: Nothing is proven by that. This doesn’t prove that he didn’t read the platform. That’s no argument, either. Do you want us to believe now, after all that’s happened, do you want us to believe that Bukharin is such an honest devoted party worker, that he knows nothing?

(J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror, 317)

In my own research, I’ve found transcripts of Komsomol purge commissions questioning members about the presence of Trotsky’s New Course at “oppositionist” meetings. There were few questions about what members talked about. Questions focused only on whether the text was present, who was at the meeting, and if the defendant saw or read it.

Perhaps something was similar about Khrushchev’s speech. If there was no printed copy it was like it never existed. Khrushchev’s denunciation existed for as long as it took for it to be read aloud. After that it only existed in citizens’ memory and never in a form that could be read, reread, analyzed, discussed, or questioned.

Stalin as Sacrificial Lamb

Boris Kagarlitsky has weighed in on the significance of Khrushchev’s speech in a commentary in the Moscow Times. I think some of the passages are worth noting. Kagarlitsky has an interesting thesis: In order for not only Khrushchev, but the Communist Party to erase their complicity in Stalin’s crimes, a complicity which made the Terror possible, they had to essentially sacrifice Stalin.

Looking back on the congress, some accused Khrushchev of inconsistency and a lack of radicalism, while others objected to the fact that he made Stalin’s crimes public and turned political reform into a personal, posthumous reckoning with Stalin. The guilt or complicity of other Politburo members is not the issue, however. Khrushchev heaped all the blame on Stalin because he wanted to avoid a serious discussion of what had happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.

Had Khrushchev’s view of the dead dictator been more balanced, questions might have been raised about the inherent contradictions of the Soviet state and about the extent to which the existing order reflected Marxist conceptions of socialism. These questions had been raised by Trotsky, who was anathema to the elite under Khrushchev just as he had been under Stalin. Had Khrushchev been a less virulent anti-Stalinist, he would almost certainly have been forced in the direction of Trotskyism.

The Party elite in the late-1950s opted to forgive no one and to comprehend nothing. Stalin had to be sacrificed in order to protect the system. The secret speech was not one man’s initiative; it reflected the general view of the Party machine after three years of infighting.

What is more interesting, and unfortunately it is a point he makes in passing, is how Kagarlitsky characterizes Stalinism. The standard view is to see Soviet society under Stalin as atomized society where the diversity of opinion was annihilated for fear of arrest and execution. Stalinism, however, was more complicated than that. And it was this complexity, an irreconcilable blend of democracy and authoritarianism, or how I like to characterize Stalinism—authoritarian populism—that made extreme violence acceptable and deplorable in the same breath, uttered within the same system.

Soviet society was never entirely monolithic. The proof of this can be found in the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as in the Soviet archives. There was, however, a strong sense of a common fate and a common cause that united not just the working class and the bureaucratic elite, but even gulag inmates and their captors. The Stalinist regime was directly linked to the history of the Revolution. It was a sort of communist Bonapartism. It combined totalitarianism with democratic principles, fear and repression with enthusiasm and sincerity. This blend made the 20th Party Congress possible.

Scroll to top