Myth Memory Trauma–What De-Stalinization was not

De-Stalinization has often been defined in terms of what it was not: not as complete and aggressive as de-Nazification (though Stephen Cohen has argued that the Soviet Union came close to its own Nuremberg trial in the early 1960s); not as determined as the later German Vergangenheitsbewältigung; not as far-reaching as de-Leninisation (or indeed, the preceding few years of de-Stalinization) in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though these have been the main points of comparison in writing about the ‘thaw’, others might easily be added to the list, especially given the ‘memory boom’ of recent years. De-Stalinization also wasn’t a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’, of the type still unfolding in post-Apartheid South Africa; and it wasn’t a process of lustration, such as occurred in many, though far from all, parts of Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

If we are going to draw these unflattering comparisons, with their emphasis on the ‘bad faith’ of the leadership, their lack of true repentance or commitment to confront the culprits of the past (including their own guilt), we should also pause to consider what else de-Stalinization was not. It was not the decades of uncomfortable near-silence about a difficult past, as explored by many historians of post-war Germany, by Henri Rousso in his classic study of post-Vichy France, by Tony Judt in his masterful overview of dysfunctional post-War European memories, and further afield, in recent studies of the systematic silencing of the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina. Far less was it, at least in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, a complete failure to confront historical wrongs in public, political discourse: for all that ours is an age of ‘memory wars’—to use Alexander Etkind’s term—many battles to expose the truth about the past still never reach the public domain, or remain marginal to it, as is arguably true of the history of empire in my own country.  


By contrast, in the Soviet Union, it took three years after Stalin’s death, not several decades of silence of silence of euphemism, before the Secret Speech (even if only briefly) brought the terror and Stalin’s wrongdoing into the public domain. But it was this haste—partly driven by Khrushchev’s energetic and impulsive pursuit of both reform and power—which also significantly shaped and constrained the process, as the recent posts highlight. It generated its peculiar terminology (a hasty borrowing of the idea of kul’t lichnosti from early Marxist discourse, which fitted with the Secret Speech’s overall framework of revived Marxism-Leninism) and set (at least in theory) its discursive limits, as Ben Nathans explores in his post. It also set the peculiar rhythms and unpredictable patterns of the memory politics of the 1950s and 1960s, which Steve Bittner contrasts interestingly to more linear, teleological (if initially slow) processes of rethinking the past elsewhere. I would, however, hesitate to call these stops and starts of 1950s and 1960s de-Stalinization unique. Public memory of Stalinism some fifty years on in Putin’s Russia still plots a similarly unpredictable course, from something close to an official apology and terror commemoration (witness the recent project to create icons of religious ‘martyrs’ under Stalinism) to intrusive ‘management’ and sanitisation of the horror of Stalinism in official discourse. One could also compare these shifts and swings in Russian memory politics with other tortuous ‘memory wars’ in many parts of contemporary Eastern Europe, notably over the Holocaust.

I agree, though, that it matters deeply how the process of rethinking the past is framed. In fact, our earlier discussion exposed how unsatisfactory the generic term ‘rethinking’ might be, especially when focussing on the pragmatic, and ultimately rather superficial, changes to public memory of the time. Ben Nathans is right that the process was never called de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union of the ‘thaw’, and in fact the term remained unpopular even during glasnost (even though that period arguably did witness the complete, though ultimately temporary, destruction of the myth of Stalin). This was not just a matter of semantics: as my book explores, parts of the Stalinist past remained not only usable, but essential to use, for Stalin’s successors. Hence the terms ‘Stalinism’ and ‘de-Stalinization’ were not used to describe the domestic process (and its object), and indeed were actively stigmatised as ‘revisionist’ and ‘bourgeois’: the only times that I encountered destalinizatsiia and stalinizm in my surveys of the discourse of de-Stalinization, it was in such pejorative contexts.

Ben’s final point about the presence of lichnost’ in the discourse of de-Stalinization is something that I have been thinking about only this week (as well as last month, at the excellent Lichnost’ posle Stalina conference in St Petersburg): I have been struck when reading reviews of glasnost’ publications about Stalinism by how often they use such literature in order to talk about Stalinism as a wider problem of lichnost’: the humiliation of the person, and the stunting of his development (in the mid 1980s, the hope remained that a renewed socialist system was still the best setting for the lichnost’ to flourish anew). In the 1950s and 1960s, as Ben points out, the term was deployed precisely to avoid such universal, humanist enquiry into the broader consequences of Stalinism. The discursive focus on the kul’t lichnosti was supposed to focus attention on one single lichnost’, who had fostered his own ‘cult’ and victimised many other lichnosti, but had not damaged the body politic or the Soviet collective beyond repair. The irony, of course, is that when Soviet individuals confronted this discourse, they considered it their right and their duty to make their individual interpretations of the term, and ultimately of the recent past as a whole.

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