Courtesy Reuters

Failing History?

By Kathleen E. Smith

To the Editor:

Sarah Mendelson and Theodore Gerber lament young Russians' mixed views of Stalin as a sign of dangerous historical amnesia ("Failing the Stalin Test," January/February 2006). But just as it was a gross oversimplification fifty years ago for Nikita Khrushchev to dump all responsibility for the terrible injustices of the Stalin era on a single person, it seems incautious to judge Russians' attitudes toward their multifaceted past based on their opinions of Stalin. As one Soviet citizen said on hearing Khrushchev's "secret speech," "It's the cult of personality in reverse."

In fact, when Mendelson and Gerber get beyond such odd questions as "If Stalin were running for president today, would you vote for him?" they find that young Russians are conflicted about how to evaluate Stalin's rule. Indeed, I would argue that the rejection of simplistic characterizations of Stalin as only wise or only tyrannical may actually be a healthy sign of critical thinking.

Undoubtedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure has seen a resurgence of patriotism that puts a disturbing gloss over negative aspects of both the Russian and Soviet pasts. Putin's success in playing the patriotism card, however, need not be equated with a surge of nostalgia for Stalinism.

Perhaps we can all take heart from the appearance of new Russian efforts to promote a deeper understanding of the past by revisiting literary works depicting Stalinism. To great popular acclaim, Russian television recently aired dramatizations of two sophisticated anti-Stalinist works, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. Such complex and nuanced depictions of Stalinism and of the Terror may spark a new round of discussions about the Soviet past and reinforce democratic values.

KATHLEEN E. SMITH

Adjunct Professor of Government, Georgetown University

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