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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exorcising the Ghost of Stalinism

Adam Hochschild arrived in Moscow during the winter of 1991 -- the last year of the old Soviet order -- hoping to learn how Russians were coming to terms with the memory of the great repression of Stalinism.

The result of his inquiry, "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin," is an account of what the author calls "seeing and denial" -- how millions of people carried on with their lives under a regime that, at the height of its terror in the 1930s, managed to arrest or kill one out of every eight citizens.

One in eight. In spite of all that has been written about Stalinism, this is an astonishing human statistic that illuminates the extent of fear and denial in Soviet life. Unlike Hitler, who reserved his terror primarily for those he deemed alien, Josef Stalin destroyed millions of his loyal supporters.

In the Siberian town of Kolpashevo, where on the banks of the Ob River floods and erosion have revealed mass graves of victims shot by the NKVD, Hochschild -- who speaks Russian and is a gifted interviewer -- talked with Gennady Sapozhnikov, 61, the son of a farm worker who died in 1937.

"I was 7 at the time," he recalls. "They charged (my father) with being part of some kind of monarchist group, wanting to put the tsar back on the throne. But all this was garbage! An illiterate man, working from dawn to dusk, in the Far North -- what conspiracy could he possibly be involved in?"

The Kolpashevo corpses began to surface in 1979, five years before the first intimations of glasnost. An amateur painter as well as a machinist, Sapozhnikov visited the gravesite in the hope of finding the corpse of his father. The secret police refused to allow any picture-taking, but Sapozhnikov, viewing the grisly scene from a boat on the river, recorded everything in a painting.

"At the upper layers of the grave," Hochschild writes, "skeletons are lying on top of each other in a crazed jumble. Lower down, near the water level, the skeletons give way to actual corpses... Inset into the lower right-hand corner of the painting is a second image: a close-up of several skulls lying together on the steep bank, a bullet hole in each."

In his interviews, Hochschild concentrates on Russians in their 50s and 60s -- the generation still in charge, insofar as anyone is in charge, of government in the former Soviet Union. These men and women are the children of both victims and victimizers, of ordinary workers and high party officials devoured by the revolution they created.

A Moscow psychologist told Hochschild about a former patient who re-entered treatment after newspaper accounts, published during the Gorbachev years, revealed that her father, a prominent diplomat, had denounced many of his colleagues to the secret police. She finally understood that it was "not by accident" -- in Stalin's favorite phrase -- that her father had been promoted while others died. Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones magazine in the early 1970s, approaches his subject from a valuable perspective that does not accept the reflexive equation of communism with fascism. There was nothing humanitarian about Nazi ideology and it is easy to understand the processes by which evil ideas beget evil realities. The more troubling question for Hochschild is how the left's desire for social justice also managed to produce evil.

As a child of the '60s, he writes honestly that some of his contemporaries "briefly projected their dreams of the ideal society onto Cuba or China or North Vietnam." He continues, "And so part of what leads me back to the time when so many people believed in the Russian Revolution's promise to end injustice forever, was the question of whether, had I been alive then, I would have been among them. And that leads in turn to the larger question," which is "what makes for clear-seeing, and what makes for denial?"

There is no single, explicit answer. There were many Russians of great intelligence, rectitude and compassion who did not understand the full evil of the Stalinist system even after spending many years in camps. Susanna Pechuro, arrested in 1951 for her part in a student group that met to discuss the gap between revolutionary ideals and society as it really was, gestured toward a bookshelf packed with reminiscences of other women prisoners.

"Each starts out something like this," she tells Hochschild. "'I was happy, I didn't understand anything. Then all of a sudden they (arrested me)'... But excuse me, why was she happy? Why didn't she understand anything? Collectivization had happened. Millions of people had died of starvation... There is a kind of poeticizing of this non-understanding."

Pechuro recalls the Stalin era with pure outrage but guilt and regret are the dominant notes in interviews with other older Russians who supported the regime until they themselves became its victims. The only shortcoming of this admirable book is its failure to examine the attitudes of younger Russians, who are less concerned with the past than with the chaos of Russia today. One can only wonder what price Russia may one day pay for the interruption of the tortuous exorcism of Stalin's ghost.

"The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin" by Adam Hochschild, Viking, 304 pages, $22.95.