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.