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On November 10, 1982, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died. The editors of Pravda, the country’s main newspaper, confronted something of a dilemma. A black frame would surround the front page to indicate mourning. But how thick should it be—the same size as for mere mortals, or special in some way? Eventually, someone thought to look in the newspaper’s archives to see what size had been used when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died, in 1953. The paper used precisely the same frame to announce Brezhnev’s death.
This thick black quadrangle continues to hold Russian and Soviet history captive, bounding current understanding with myths about the past. The country’s politicians are obsessed by Soviet glories. They have declared themselves heirs to all the victories of their socialist predecessors—whether on the battlefield, in space, or in feats of engineering. This history is really that of the state and its