Russian and international scholars gathered at the end of October in Moscow to discuss Stalin’s Gulag. The Russian State Archive on Social and Political History, in which the Katyn execution order and Stalin’s July 3, 1937 “mass operations” telegram reside, provided an appropriately somber setting.
Russian scholars largely from the provinces, presented their findings from their research in local and regional archives. This cadre of dedicated and relatively young scholars represents Russia’s best hope of eventually coming to terms with its tragic past. They have provided invaluable case studies of camps, special settlements, and sharashki in which millions of innocent Russian citizens were imprisoned and in which many perished.
Stalin continues to hold his own despite this amassing scholarly evidence on his crimes against the Soviet people. Illustrious keynote speakers reported with regret that some half of the Russian people continue to view Stalin in a positive light. Without his iron fist, the backward USSR could not have carried out its “overtaking development,” they believe. Too many Russians believe in a presumed defective genetic code that requires authoritarian rulers for Russia. Too many look at remote Norilsk or the Moscow University Skyscraper and conclude: “We would not have these things without the Gulag.”
Few Russians think about the immense economic and social costs of Stalin’s crimes. Few know that Russia had the fastest growing industry in Europe on the eve of 1917. Too few ask how other backward countries, such as Japan, “caught up” without the slaughter of their people, or how can any mass extermination of innocent people serve any positive function?
According to figures presented at the conference, more than a quarter of the adult Soviet population had been a victim of Stalin’s repression the day Stalin’s death was announced to a hysteric and grieving Russian people. Less than a quarter of these would be considered “criminal” in other societies. In the United States, lower rates of incarceration among black youths have basically destroyed the black community.
The corrosive effect of the repression of one in four adults, most innocent of any real crime, can in no way be compensated for by the so-called economic achievements of the Stalin rule.