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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Freeing a generation from Stalin's ghost
By Erik De Mauny
BBC News, Moscow

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 1 April, 1956.

At the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev astonished the world by making a devastating assault on Joseph Stalin's reputation and on the "cult of personality", which he had established. Erik de Mauny considered the effects of this attack on the peoples of Eastern Europe.

Joseph Stalin
Coming to power in 1928, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for 25 years
Well it is clear, I think, that what we have been seeing during the last three or four weeks is the overthrow of a god, for Stalin was in fact revered as a god in his later years.

There is no other way of putting it.

"Supreme military genius", "father of art and the sciences", "leader and teacher of mankind", these were some of the praises heaped upon him.

But even these are mild, mild when compared for example with the following rhapsodic outburst which appeared in the pages of Pravda as far back as 1936: "Oh great Stalin, oh leader of the people; you who created man; you who populated the earth; you who made the centuries young; you who made the springtime flower."

When such a great idol crashes, a great many other things happen
Or the following extract from an anthology published in 1946: "Stalin, here in the Kremlin his presence touches us at every step.

"We walk on stones which he may have trod only quite recently. Let us fall on our knees and kiss those holy footprints."

There has been nothing quite like it since the Emperor Augustus allowed himself to be worshipped as divine among the furthest provinces of the Roman Empire.

Re-writing history

Now it is fairly obvious, I think, that such a god cannot be overthrown in a day, or even a week, and in fact, it has taken the present rulers of the Soviet Union nearly three years to nerve themselves for the final onslaught.

For, of course, when such a great idol crashes, a great many other things happen.

The change has also found repercussions among communist parties outside the Soviet Union
For example, one of the first repercussions was a report of rioting in Georgia, Stalin's native region, and the Party has admitted to sending out thousands of agitators, or propaganda experts, to explain the new line to the workers.

And then, of course, there are all these activities that are not without a certain grimly comic aspect.

The quiet removal of the huge portraits, the shrouding of the giant statues, the tremendous labour of once more rewriting all the textbooks and histories of the past 20 years.

Indeed, the decision is bound to have its repercussions in every sphere of Soviet life: in education and economics, in art, philosophy and science. For all these things, Stalin is now said to have perverted and falsified.

'Old wounds'

Well, Soviet society has had a long training in not answering back when official policy changes.

But, of course, the change has also found repercussions among communist parties outside the Soviet Union.

It is here that the old wounds are being reopened and the stench is not pleasant.

For now that the process of unravelling Stalin's reign of terror has begun, it is difficult to see where it will stop
For one important sequel has been a reappraisal of the 1948 split between the Cominform and Tito. And the consequences of that break was a wave of treason trials throughout Eastern Europe, in fact wherever Stalin thought he could detect the least dangerous whiff of Titoism.

Already one of the chief victims, the former Hungarian Foreign Minister, Laszlo Rajk, has been posthumously reinstated. For it has now been officially proclaimed, by no less a person than the Hungarian Communist Party leader, Mr Rakosi, that Rajk was condemned and executed on false evidence.

And the prime instigator in laying that false evidence, according to Mr Rakosi, was none other than Beria, the former Soviet security chief, himself executed by the present Soviet leaders three years ago. Beria, who according to Pravda, flourished like the green bay tree under Stalin's dictatorship.

And of course, there were other treason trials: Kostov in Bulgaria, Slansky in Czechoslovakia, it is quite a formidable list. Perhaps we have not heard the last of them yet.

For now that the process of unravelling Stalin's reign of terror has begun, it is difficult to see where it will stop, or even where it can be stopped, since the Soviet leaders will presumably want to call a halt at some point.

Meanwhile, there is one interesting and even rather paradoxical fact that emerges from studying the reactions of communist parties in Eastern and Western Europe, and that is that their leaders have not by any means all shown the same alacrity to accept the Moscow denunciations.

The Eastern communist leaders have echoed them wholeheartedly enough: at party meetings, in their own newspapers and radio broadcasts.

But in the West, and particularly in Italy and France, the party leaders have adopted a noticeably more delicate and shrinking attitude.

In fact, like the French Party leader, M Thorez, writing in last Tuesday's Humanite, they have tended rather defiantly to lay all the stress on Stalin's positive achievements.


And there is the apparent paradox.

The present Soviet leaders had to destroy the terrible Stalin myth before they themselves could begin to breathe freely
One might say the ordinary Soviet citizen, in his tightly-policed world, had little option but to acquiesce in what went on under Stalin, whereas the Western party members at least had the advantage of distance, and might have been expected to see what was happening.

And, of course, that is just the point. They did see, and they applauded.

They even vied with each other in acclaiming Stalin's infinite wisdom and goodness as one carefully staged trial succeeded another. No wonder they are now thrown into some confusion.

No wonder they are finding it rather difficult to put the right conviction into their appeals for popular front governments.

Meanwhile, when something as big as this happens - and many observers think it is the biggest thing that has happened since the revolution - it is just not possible to grasp all the motives and consequences involved.

It may seem fairly obvious, for example, that the present Soviet leaders had to destroy the terrible Stalin myth before they themselves could begin to breathe freely.

But it is a good deal harder to guess what the full psychological effect of their action will be on a people, conditioned for more than a generation to worship the very ground on which Stalin trod.

No one has suggested that the long-term aims of communism have changed. But at least the new Soviet leaders have shown an apparent desire to ease tension abroad and create a more liberal atmosphere at home.

One may say that, in the long run, they had no choice.

The really vital thing is that they seem to have breathed a little wind of freedom into the huge prison of Soviet society, and who can say what this may eventually lead to?

Timeline: Soviet Union
02 Jul 04 |  Country profiles



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