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Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70, by Polly Jones

Lara Cook on coping with the man of steel’s legacy

Even in today’s Russia, and despite an emphatic kick-start under Gorbachev’s glasnost in the 1980s, the de-Stalinisation process is far from complete. Joseph Stalin’s historical legacy remains controversial: should he be remembered primarily as a strong, heroic leader, responsible for leading the USSR to economic modernisation and victory over Nazi Germany, or as a cruel dictator, responsible for the death and suffering of millions of his own people? 

In this fascinating study of the ambivalent de-Stalinisation of the 1950s and 1960s, Polly Jones challenges our lazy assumptions about the straightforward nature of Khrushchev’s liberal “thaw” and Brezhnev’s conservative “freeze” in prompting debate and opening up public remembering of negative aspects of the Stalin period.

De-Stalinisation was the process of political and cultural reform undertaken after Stalin’s death in 1953. It included the removal of key institutions that helped Stalin hold power: his cult of personality, the Stalinist political system and the Gulag labour camps. Eventually it led to measures that encouraged “forgetting” about him, such as the overnight removal of his body from Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in 1961 and the renaming of cities bearing his name.

At every step, Jones presents a nuanced, complex and detailed examination of the attempt to come to terms with Stalin’s memory and legacy over two decades. She highlights the pluralism and contradictions in both official and popular responses to the opening of the floodgates on this tricky subject via Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech”. She reminds us that the speech was itself plural, composed jointly by multiple authors from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and thus contained a variety of approaches on how to deal with Stalin’s legacy.

As Khrushchev and the other Soviet leaders found to their dismay, they were walking a dangerous tightrope: criticising Stalin’s abuses in order to provide the basis for new directions in policy and methods, while at the same time taking care to not discredit the entire Soviet system and thus delegitimise their own power. In practice, their efforts to not throw the baby out with the bathwater meant invoking a return to the Leninist principles that, they declared, had been abused by Stalin. Just months after the iconoclastic Secret Speech, attempts by the leadership were already under way to limit “anti-Soviet” responses, while consciously reimposing a more optimistic interpretation of the Stalin era that emphasised progress and achievement and minimised terror. This official attempt to marginalise memory of the trauma of war and terror in defence of the “usable past” of military victory continued into the Brezhnev era.

Jones has mined a wealth of archival sources to construct her careful, judicious analysis. Particularly compelling is the evidence she presents from the letters of ordinary citizens to Soviet leaders, which display a range of positive and negative popular responses to official criticism of Stalin: from outright disbelief of the allegations of Stalin’s terror, to justification of his actions as necessary to achieve the end goal of triumph in the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941 to 1945 and the construction of socialism, to complete rejection of Soviet socialism and a call to burn the works of Karl Marx.

Most compelling – at least for those interested in the degree to which Soviet citizens were terrorised into submission or instead internalised the values of the system by embracing the Stalin cult and “speaking Bolshevik” – are the letters expressing a typically Soviet worldview. Jones suggests that the majority of correspondence was “accepting of Soviet values”; of course, the pro-Stalin letters made familiar Stalinist-style claims that “enemies of the people” were slandering Stalin’s name, but even the suggestions made by critical letter-writers regarding cures to treat the harm done by Stalinism often had a strangely Stalinist flavour, from calls for public trials to individual repentance performed through Soviet rituals and purges of party personnel. Whether this trend reflects a bias in the letters sent to Soviet authorities or is representative of the wider popular mood is a further question.

This lucid, elegantly written work is an important contribution to the question of the way nations deal with their difficult and traumatic histories. As Russian opinion polls show a steady rise in positive assessments of Stalin’s legacy, it is difficult to predict how future generations will choose to “remember” the darker aspects of their Soviet past.

Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70

By Polly Jones
Yale University Press, 376pp, £45.00
ISBN 9780300185126
Published 3 September 2013

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