The "glasnost" era finally let Stalin's true record
He ruthlessly forced peasants into collective farms, causing famine, and turned industry from top to bottom into a command economy which produced impressive quantities of tanks and weapons (enough to defeat Hitler's invading army) but eventually ground creaking to a halt.
Even today historians argue over exactly how many million deaths he was responsible for - an irony, given his own view that "the death of one person is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic".
Stalin created a system of total political control, under which journalists and artists were forced to glorify the Great Leader and the communist system, and even scientists worked in an ideological straitjacket.
In Russia itself all subsequent leaders have been defined by their attitude to him. Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 denounced Stalin's "cult of the personality" and freed millions from the labour camps.
But he kept the essential elements of the political and economic system he inherited from Stalin, and it remained intact right through to the '80s.
Under Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 to 1982, the whole Stalin question was put back into cold storage. You just didn't mention it, and all the moral degradation and confusion caused by those years went unexplained to a whole generation.
A partial rehabilitation even took place: schoolbooks referred to Stalin's great role as Soviet leader during the War, but not a word was spoken or written about the Terror.
When the reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, took the helm of the Communist Party in 1985, he set about opening up the country's murky history. But even he had to tread carefully for fear of offending Stalin's supporters.
In a landmark speech in November 1987 he spoke of the "thousands" who died under Stalin. But he allowed the country's journalists, historians and writers to go much further.
Under the policy of "glasnost" or openness in the late '80s, scarcely a day went by without some new revelation about Stalin's monstrous crimes - revelations, that is, in the Soviet Union of things that were common knowledge in the West.
Mass graves were discovered, the so-called "Testament" of Vladimir Lenin (the Soviet Union's first leader) warning of the dangers of Stalin was published for the first time, the names of his victims - Bukharin, Trotsky and others - were spoken aloud for the first time since the dictator's death.
I remember attending a theatre performance in Moscow based on Yevgeniya Ginzburg's labour camp memoir, Into the Whirlwind, at a time when such daring productions were still rare. The audience wept openly. It was an emotional act of collective catharsis. People emerged stunned by what they had learned about their own lives and history.
Still, telling the full truth about Stalin has been a painful process, and remains difficult today. There have been remarkably few books written or films made about the period in Russia - in marked contrast to the deluge of material produced about Hitler and the Holocaust.
A dwindling Old Guard of Stalinists in Russia hark back to what they regard as a time of greatness, now lost. Stalin, they argue, defeated Hitler and created a mighty economy. They would like the city of Volgograd to be given back the name by which it is known for one of the great battles of the Second World War - Stalingrad.
An opinion poll published this week discovered that more than half of Russians think that overall Stalin played a positive role in Russian history.
Fewer than a third regarded him as a murderous tyrant.
Russia current ruler, Vladimir Putin, is somewhat coy about the subject. He worked for years as an agent in the repulsive KGB, successor to the secret police created by Stalin as the cruellest instrument of his terror - and appears to see nothing wrong in that.
At least the truth is now told in Russia. Schoolchildren learn about the horrors of Stalin's dictatorship. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's epic about the camps, the Gulag Archipelago, can be bought and read.
Most importantly, the systems Stalin created - political and economic - have been well and truly shattered - though it may take decades for the country and its people fully to recover from their ravages.
Stalinism warped more than just the economy and the political system: it created a peculiar mindset that lingers on today. As the newspaper Izvestiya wrote in a commemorative article, "God alone knows when [the country] will rise up from Stalin's bier once and for all, but the process has started."
This article appeared Wednesday, March 5, 2003 in
BBC News On-line
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