How did the Russians deal with the Stalin era? Here’s part 1 of an essay I wrote a while back on the topic.
The effects of human tragedy and trauma manifest themselves daily in the hearts and minds of those who have struggled through trials and yet survived. On a person level, people keep on living; they keep on scratching out an existence while constantly being reminded of the hurt and pain they have experienced. But on a national level, how does a collective society deal with the ‘sins of the past’? History shows us that the scarred hands of society are slow to own up to the “elephant in the room”. Some thirty years after the genocidal regime of Pol Pot laid waste to the Cambodian countryside, the Cambodian nation is only now beginning to own up to the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era by starting their first war crimes tribunal. Likewise, during the 1990s as Russian society stepped gingerly into the post-Soviet era, the long silence concerning the Stalin era began to be lifted. Organizations were established to track gulag prisoners. The media began to print information about the by-gone era which had never roamed far from the consciousness of the people. There was an unprecedented openness about uncovering the truth. This nation-wide self reflection points to a conflicted Russia; a nation trying to exorcise the demons of the Stalinist past while coping with new found openness that has left their economy in shambles and has many people longing for the predictability of life under the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Communists had controlled the history of the Soviet people for so long that by the time the reforms of glasnost and perestroika rolled along in the mid-1980s, it became unclear just how to begin the process of unveiling the truth of the Stalinist era abuses. In 1988, the history section in the Russian national high school exam was cancelled because, as the newspaper Izvestia wrote, it was “full of lies” (Hochschild 132). The view of official history from the Stalin era onward was completely determined by the party. History itself stood on such wobbly ground that one historian quipped “you never know what is going to happen just yesterday” (Hochschild 139). Now in the face of great changes, everything that was once under the strictest review of censors was now open to unprecedented debate and discussion. This openness gave people the freedom to deal with the past in a candid manner.
Soviet Union General Secretary Gorbachev set the tone for this retelling of history. Gorbachev felt that until the Russian people had a good comprehension of everything that had transpired over the last fifty years that he would have a difficult time doing anything to change Soviet society in the present (Service 450). As Russian historian Robert Service says, “Gorbachev called for the ‘blank spots’ in the central party textbooks to be filled” (451). With the reform in school history curriculum and with the outpouring of tales of Stalinist terror being told in an unprecedented manner through newspapers, films and other media (Service 454), the Russians of the last decade before the new millennium were on fertile ground to finally tell their stories of the past. And so they did.