by Lavinia Stan

As summer 2009 approached its end, the courts were again asked to assess Josef Stalin’s responsibility for the crimes the USSR perpetrated during communist times. This time, the former dictator – venerated by some as the greatest defender of Mother Russia and the slayer of the Nazi dragon, and blamed by others for the massive deportation of entire ethnic groups across the Soviet Union, the Great Terror and decades of communist repression, and the horrendous suffering tens of thousands experienced in the Gulag – was on the dock when a Russian court held a preliminary hearing of the libel case brought by Yevgeny Dzhugashvili over a press report which claimed that the Man of Steel had ordered the killing of Soviet citizens. None other than Stalin’s grandson, Dzhugashvili was reportedly seeking some 9.5 million roubles (close to 300,000 dollars) from the reputed Novaya Gazeta newspaper, and another 500,000 roubles from the author of the article, Anatoly Yablokov.

In the 1999 elections to the Russian Duma (the lower chamber of Parliament), Dzhugashvili was one of the leading faces of the so-called “Stalin Bloc – For the USSR,” a coalition of neo-Stalinist political formations that luckily did not gain parliamentary representation. The retired polkovnik of the Soviet air force, Yevgeny is the son of Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s eldest and only son from his first wife Ekaterina Svanidze, and of Yulia Meltzer, a well-known dancer from pre-war Odessa. Yakov married Yulia after fighting her second husband Nikolai Bessarab, whose origins might have been Moldovan, and arranging her divorce. Bessarab was quickly taken out of the scene when arrested and later killed by the notorious NKVD. Repudiated and scorned by his much-feared father, Yakov was reportedly captured by the Nazi troops during the Battle of Smolensk, arriving to an untimely death shortly afterwards in unclear circumstances. Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, who lives in Georgia but speaks only in Russian, bears an uncanny resembles to his grandfather.

The Novaya Gazeta article, published in April 2009 and based on recently declassified Kremlin documents – claimed that Stalin personally signed the death orders issued by the Politburo, and that Stalin and his political police committed grave crimes against their own people. According to Dzhugashvili, these allegations gravely damaged Stalin’s reputation, as though Stalin’s rule, under which millions perished and many more saw their lives reduced to shambles, had never been documented before. Reuters reported that Dzhugashvili’s representative in court declared that the damage to Stalin’s reputation resulted from the fact that “Half a century of lies have been poured over Stalin’s reputation and he cannot defend himself from the grave so this case is essential to put the record straight.” Stalin’s legacy was positive, the same source reckoned, because “he turned populations into peoples, he presided over a golden era in literature and the arts, he was a real leader.”1

That picture of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the uncontested leader of the communist world from April 1922 to his death in March 1953, does not come close to historical narratives. Historians credit Stalin with 4 to 35 million victims, not counting the victims of famines, the mass executions of Red Army deserters, or the prisoners who died shortly after their release because of the brutal treatment they suffered while in jail. Stalin’s profile as a mass murderer is old news, and the recent newspaper piece brought little information worth adding to the hundreds and thousands of books, reports and articles already published in every language one can think of on Stalin’s personal life, political career, and unabated use of repression. New was the source of the information – the very documents that the post-communist Russian authorities have refused to make available to the general public, documents that the communist leaders had no incentive to fabricate since being prepared for their eyes only.

The court case is reflective of Russia’s stubborn unwillingness to assume responsibility for the crimes of European communism, which destroyed the lives of ordinary citizens from Berlin to Vladivostok, and from Riga to Tirana. During the last two decades, other European countries have adopted lustration programs that banned former Communist Party officials and secret political police agents from post-communist politics, have opened the secret archives compiled on ordinary citizens, have brought to trial individuals involved in human rights violations, have publicly identified former secret spies from among post-communist politicians, public office holders, and opinion leaders, have set up truth commissions to investigate the recent past, have reformed their once repressive information services, armies, and judiciaries, have rewritten history books, have launched education programs disclosing communist crimes, and have opened museums and have erected memorials dedicated to the memory of the victims of communism. These government-led efforts have been supported by sustained campaigns of the local civil society for reassessing and redressing the communist past. None of these methods of dealing with the communist past have been adopted by Russia during the last two decades.2

Given Moscow’s refusal to reckon with the communist past, it is easy to forget that transitional justice had started in Russia two years before any of its satellites could launch it. Indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) included calls to reassess, condemn and disclose the Stalinist crimes and to help to remove the “blank spots of history.”3 In their quest for legitimacy and transparency, the new Soviet leaders distanced themselves from their predecessors by encouraging citizens to denounce the abuses of the Stalinist era. The result was the Memorial society, dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of Soviet repression. Its Books of Memory provided the names and biographies of victims. But early start did not guarantee long-term commitment to confront the communist past, sort the torturers from the tortured, hold communist decision-makers responsible for their actions, or allow citizens to know the details of secret political police operations directed against them. Social enthusiasm for reckoning with the communist past dissipated in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia faced economic hardship and political instability.

The controlled transitional justice encouraged by Gorbachev placed truth-telling on the shoulders of the society, not of the state, downplayed justice and redress, and disconnected political reforms from the need to reassess the past, to make a clear break with it, and to reign in secret intelligence services. It was for the mass media and the civic groups to uncover past abuse, to document repression, to map the geography of the Gulag, and to identify victims and victimizers. Such efforts were conducted under the tolerating but watchful eye of reformist communist authorities, who encouraged self-expression and public debate, while believing that glasnost should “function like a high-octane social fuel; it would rev up the existing institutions and enable them to perform better.”4 Revisiting the past was meant not to destroy the communist system, but to make it more viable and more competitive relative to democracy, and more legitimate in the eyes of the Soviet people. Probing the past was to be done only to the extent that it helped Gorbachev achieve such goals, without compelling him to change the system at its core, or refashion the institutions responsible for instilling fear, quashing dissent, and preventing citizens from speaking their mind. Indeed, Gorbachev left untouched the structure of the feared secret police and its special relationship with the Communist Party. Truth telling never went so far as to encompass the very real and direct connection between Stalin’s and Gorbachev’s secret political police structures.

During the last decade, in an effort to revive the Russian might as Moscow’s international significance dwindled ever more, Vladimir Putin changed the strategy from hiding the communist crimes to glorifying the Soviet past and rehabilitating Stalin. The successors to the KGB have been allowed to hire an ever growing number of secret agents. A new sense of mission and pride was instilled through popular spy novels glorifying secret agents as patriotic, disinterested, highly skilled individuals. Parliamentary oversight of intelligence services has been ineffective, mostly because it is effected through parliamentary commissions controlled by former secret agents turned politicians (the so-called siloviki). Russia remains the only post-communist country where the national computerized election system is placed under the control of an intelligence service, the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (Federalnoye Agenstvo Pravitelstvennykh Svyazi i Informatsii or the FAPSI).5 Proudly calling himself a Chekist, Putin himself extols the virtues of the notorious Cheka, whose feared paramilitary troikas imparted communist justice expeditiously with the bullet. Tellingly, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili chose to keep his family name, whereas Hitler’s relatives have all changed theirs. Ordinary Russians voted Stalin as Russia’s third most popular figure in history, words of praise for the Man of Steel adorn the marbled halls of a central subway station in Moscow, and Russian teachers’ manuals describe Stalin as “an effective manager who acted rationally in conducting a campaign of terror to modernize the Soviet Union.”6

Putin’s recent condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, delivered in an article published by the reputed Gazeta Wyborcza daily on the eve of his visit to Poland, is the right step forward, but does not signal willingness on his part to uncover the truth about the recent past. It is time for Russia and his political elite to assume responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of the communist utopia.


1. Guy Faulconbridge, “Grandson sues to clear Stalin over killings,” Reuters, 31 August 2009.
2. Lavinia Stan (ed.) Transitional Justice in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: Reckoning with the Communist Past (London: Routledge, 2009), especially Chapter 10.
3. I. Takayuki (ed.) Facing Up to the Past: Soviet Historiography under Perestroika, Sapporo: Slavic Research Center, 1989, p. 209.
4. Noel Calhoun, Dilemmas of Justice in Eastern Europe’s Democratic Transitions, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 137.
5. P. Todd and J. Bloch, Global Intelligence. The World’s Secret Services Today, London: Zed Books, 2004, p. 143.
6. Faulconbridge, “Grandson sues to clear Stalin over killings.”