Stalin's shadow: the power of wounded pride

March 13, 1996|By Philip Taubman

NEW YORK Though Josef Stalin died 43 years ago, he torments Russia to this day.

As Russians prepare for a presidential election in June, a revived Communist Party is struggling with the still volatile issue of Stalin and his legacy. Gennadi Zyuganov, the party's presidential candidate, seems wary of condemning one of the founding architects of the Soviet state, yet fearful of embracing him. Other Communists openly defend Stalin as a great leader.

The blood of millions

Americans find it hard to understand how Russians could regard Stalin with respect, and even admiration. He was among the most brutal dictators in history, a leader who spilled the blood of millions of his countrymen in a drive to modernize Russia and enforce ideological conformity and personal loyalty in the Communist Party.

But the continuing debate over Stalin reveals some important, disquieting truths about Russia that America and the world should bear in mind as Russians choose a president this spring.

One is the power of wounded pride. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought democracy and the makings of a market economy to Russia, but it has also left Russia a second-class power. Its empire is gone, its once-powerful military is shattered and its place in the world is no longer clear.

Stalin gave Russia power and pride. The human cost was unimaginable. As many as 20 million people died during the forced collectivization of agriculture and the party purges, but many Russians see those losses as the price of industrialization and the emergence of the Soviet Union as one of the world's two great powers. Russians also credit Stalin with the Soviet Union's survival and eventual victory in World War II.

On the surface, the Communist Party today is far removed from the party of Stalin. Mr. Zyuganov and his colleagues offer Russians a retreat from the political upheaval and economic dislocation of reform, couched in the rhetoric of moderate social democratic policy. TC But smoldering just below the surface is a more visceral promise to restore Russia's power and pride. The refusal to denounce Stalin underscores that intention.

A history worth honoring

The debate over Stalin also reveals resentments that linger from a long-running struggle to shape the record of Russian history. Four decades after Nikita Khrushchev attacked Stalin in a secret speech to the Communist Party leadership, and nearly a decade after Mikhail Gorbachev reopened public discussion about Stalin's crimes, Russians are still divided over whether they have a 20th-century history worth honoring, beyond their role in the defeat of Hitler.

To disown Stalin is to dismiss much of Soviet history. As terrible as Stalin was, and as much as Russians suffered under his rule it is hard to find a family not wounded by the terror he sanctioned a people cannot easily repudiate its past.

If the Stalin era is written off as deformed, then little is left to justi- fy the sacrifices that were made and the lives that were lost. Younger Russians may not care much about this issue, but for older generations, where support for Mr. Zyuganov is strongest, it matters a great deal.

A Russian I knew well in Moscow once said that despite all the revelations about Stalin's brutality, the dictator was still her hero. He had transformed Russia, she said, from a backward land into a great nation. It was her way of saying that her life, for all its misery, had been part of a greater enterprise.

Stalin's place in Russian history may not be an overt issue in the presidential campaign, but it will be an undercurrent. Boris Yeltsin is already telling voters that his re-election is the only way to prevent a return to the abuses of communism.

Mr. Zyuganov in oblique ways is trying to exploit the hunger among many Russians for a restoration of pride and power. It will be many more years until Russia finally escapes Stalin's shadow.

Philip Taubman is a former New York Times correspondent in Moscow.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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