A low-key but widespread campaign to expose the once unmentionable crimes of the late dictator Josef Stalin has been launched here, with the apparent blessing of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as part of a drive to move away from the regimentation and tight economic controls of the Stalinist period.
Historians, writers, journalists and others who back Gorbachev's ideas for economic revitalization have joined in an effort to dispel the widely held view of Stalin as strong, wise and benevolent. Some allies of the present Kremlin chief contend that it is necessary to discredit the Stalinist system for managing the economy before Gorbachev's proposed reforms can be effective.
Legacy Lives On
Despite the disclosure of Stalin's terror by former leader Nikita S. Khrushchev at a Communist Party congress in 1956, pro-Gorbachev forces say that Stalin's legacy of fear as well as the over-centralized economic system he imposed are still in place, discouraging innovation and productivity.
So far Gorbachev has not criticized Stalin by name, but some Western analysts speculate that he may identify himself openly with the campaign as his nation looks back, in November, to the Bolshevik Revolution of 70 years ago.
The anti-Stalin campaign represents a definite departure. Not long after taking over the Soviet leadership two years ago, Gorbachev remarked that Stalinism was a term invented by anti-Soviet elements in the West to discredit socialism. But, more recently, he said that the people of the Soviet Union would never forget the "repressions" of the 1930s--a clear reference to Stalin's bloody purge of the Communist Party and the Red Army high command that started in 1937.
In the last several months, there has been a steady drumbeat of anti-Stalin material in the state-run press, questioning Stalin's abilities as a wartime commander and his credentials as a Communist.
In some of the articles, Stalin has been depicted as an adversary of V. I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, who is regarded as a Communist prophet and thus immune to challenge or criticism.
The weekly magazine Ogonyok has given ordinary Soviet readers their first glimpse of the extent of Stalin's purge of the military leadership in 1937-38. It said he ordered the execution of three of the five army marshals, three of the five first-line army commanders, all 10 second-line army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 of 186 division commanders, all 16 top political commissars with the army, 25 of 28 political commissars at the army corps level, 58 of 64 at the division level, and 401 of 456 officers with the rank of colonel.
This detailed account contrasts with vague allusions to "the events of 1937," the phrase used by most Soviet officials who have dared to discuss the army purge.
Ogonyok, which is edited by Gorbachev supporter Vitaly Korotich, has taken the lead in dealing with topics that were formerly unmentionable. Literary Gazette, a more conservative publication, has also joined the campaign, with a series of articles about famous army commanders who were victims of the purge.
The first of these articles focused on Jeromin Uboverich, commander of the Byelorussian Military District, who together with a number of others, including Deputy Defense Minister Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was executed on trumped-up charges of "treason, sabotage and espionage."
But the campaign involves more than filling in what Gorbachev has called "the blank pages" of Soviet history books. Anatoly Rybakov, the 75-year-old author of "Children of the Arbat," a stinging anti-Stalin novel that was suppressed for 20 years, made this point in an interview printed by Ogonyok that attacked Stalin's economic theories and the climate of fear he created.
"In the 1930s," Rybakov said, "the economy developed primarily by command and through methods of force. People began to be afraid of everything. They stopped taking independent decisions and simply waited for what they were told from on high.
New Psychological Climate
"Now, all the party's efforts are being directed toward creating a new psychological climate in the country. . . . If you are going to have openness, then you must tell the whole truth, above all the historical truth. Deceiving people about their own history and bringing them up on lies and half-truths means getting nowhere."
In the early 1930s, Stalin switched from Lenin's New Economic Policy, with its blend of state ownership and a limited amount of private enterprise, to forced-draft industrialization and a brutal collectivization of farms. No precise figures are available, but Western historians believe that millions of people died or were forced into exile as a result of the drive to end private farm ownership.
Gorbachev, in a recent speech, made it clear that however justified centralization and regimentation of the Soviet economy may have been in Stalin's time, they cannot work effectively in contemporary conditions.
Discussion of the late dictator's defects also has been revived by a widely promoted film, "Repentance," that handles the brutality of the Stalin era in allegorical fashion. The film alludes to Stalin's extreme suspicion, with a leading character warning that for every three people there may be four enemies. It also vividly recalls an era when millions of people were sent to prison camps without trial and, often, without hope of returning alive.
Historian Yuri Afanasyev, rector of the state historical archives, has complained that, until recently, the news media have offered only one-sided and distorted treatment of the man who ruled the Soviet Union for more than 30 years until his death in 1953.
"Our television shows him to us only in a halo of wisdom and power," Afanasyev said in an interview in the biweekly newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura. "I think the time has come to put the study of problems connected with the cult of Stalin's personality on a businesslike footing."
Although there have been thousands of publications in the West about the Stalin years, he said, the Soviet Union does not have a single study of "this extremely important question."
Afanasyev argued that "mass repressions against honest Soviet people in the 1930s" have been trivialized here by calling them either "mistakes" or "shortcomings in observance of socialist legality."
Historian Alexander M. Samsonov, interviewed by Argumenty i Fakty, a major publication for party ideologists, took issue with Stalin's conduct of World War II. He said that Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, came as a surprise to Stalin only because he believed the start of the war could be delayed.
'Failed to Give the Order'
"When it became perfectly obvious that the Germans were on the point of attacking us, Stalin failed to give the order, although it had been recommended to him that he do so, to mobilize the army and . . . put our troops in the western border districts into a state of full combat readiness," Samsonov said.
As a result, he said, the German forces were able to get as far as Moscow and encircle Leningrad. They deceived Stalin about their intention to smash Red Army defenses in the southwest, he said, adding, "I certainly do not consider (Stalin) a great military leader."
The government newspaper Izvestia reported recently that most restrictions have been lifted on publishing documents of the World War II period, and this, it said, "is due largely to today's need to speak truthfully and frankly about the war and combat operations."
This new look at Stalin also has a psychological dimension. A. Shcherbakov said recently in a letter to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that his wife's uncle served a prison term during World War II for making a joke that the authorities did not like but that the present government is not afraid of criticism or the discussion of topics that were once taboo.
"The main thing," he said, "is to name things, to call a crime a crime, to call a criminal a criminal."
Khrushchev May Be Beneficiary
Oddly, another Soviet leader, Khrushchev, may turn out to be one of the beneficiaries of the new anti-Stalin campaign. Suddenly it has become possible to discuss him, too.
As Afanasyev pointed out, Khrushchev has been so ignored since he was pushed out of the office in 1964 that his image has even been edited out of television films on such nonpolitical subjects as the pioneering space flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
In fact, Khrushchev, who delivered the famous "secret speech" about Stalin at the 1956 party congress, was a complex, ambiguous man, Afanasyev said, and added: "To what extent can we pretend that he didn't exist at all? Everything must be remembered."
While it is rare to find anyone in public life today who would call himself a Stalinist, not every high Soviet official is pleased at the prospect of new revelations about Stalin or about all the consequences of Gorbachev's drive for greater openness in all areas of life.
A more conservative view has been advanced by Yegor K. Ligachev, regarded as the second-ranking man in the leadership and the official in charge of ideology.
"We do not conceal the fact that the Soviet people experienced both undying achievements and the bitterness of temporary defeats, that they have gone through difficult and complicated phases," Ligachev said in a recent speech. "We favor an honest and a candid look backward, but we resolutely oppose the falsification of our glorious past and the depiction of our history as an unrelieved chain of mistakes and disappointments."
As Ligachev put it: "No one can cross out the indisputable fact that it was during the years of Soviet power and thanks to it that our country became a world leader."
While this is not in conflict with Gorbachev's position, Ligachev appears to put more emphasis on positive achievements than unveiling embarrassing pages of history.
In addition, some leading members of the Writers' Union who look to Ligachev as their champion have complained bitterly that editors have rushed to publish any literary work that was suppressed in the past without regard to its merit.
Novelist Yuri Bondarev, for example, said national spiritual values might be "toppled into the abyss" by mediocrities, adding: "When the nightingales are destroyed, even the sparrow becomes a highly talented songbird."