Stalin -- thirty years later

''. . . Cut off from life by the Kremlin walls, he towered over us like a dread spirit,'' wrote a Soviet poet in 1960. And indeed the extent of Joseph Stalin's power during his rule over the USSR and world communism dwarfs, in comparison, that of the most absolute Oriental despot. Beginning with the Great Terror of the 1930s and to the very day of his death on March 5, 1953, he was to his people not merely the supreme ruler and dictator but also the embodiment of a destiny one endured because there could be no other.

There was not so much as a whisper of dissent in Stalin's Russia, after he had disposed, during the first few years of his reign, of his actual and potential political enemies, and then subjected millions of his countrymen to the kind of suffering and fear which no other ruler had ever inflicted upon his own people. But while millions perished or were exposed to the horrors of the forced labor camps, many more gave credence to the official legend of the omniscient and benevolent father of the Soviet family of nations and ''genius leader of progressive mankind.'' Fear mixed with adulation, the latter again on a scale unparalleled in modern history.

Even 30 years after the tyrant's death, his legacy weighs heavily over the Soviet state and society. Khrushchev strove strenuously to destroy the Stalin legend, and exposed at least some of the colossal errors and crimes that cost the Soviet people so dearly. But Khrushchev's colleagues decided, and from their viewpoint correctly, that you could not uproot Stalinism from the Soviet system without damaging its very foundations. The flow of revelations about the horrors of the purges, about Stalin's responsibility for the USSR being unprepared for the German invasion, etc., came to an abrupt end with Khrushchev's fall and Brezhnev's ascent. And so the official image of Stalin since 1964 has been one of an ''outstanding party leader'' who, alas, made some errors and exhibited some unpleasant personal characteristics, but who still led his country to victory and helped make it a great industrial and world power.

But quite apart from the reputation of the late despot, Stalinism remains a vital element of the Soviet system of governance.

To be sure its most dramatic and horrifying feature - mass terror - is no longer practiced. The ubiquitous fear that during periods in the 1930s and 1940s permeated the entire society, when everyone from a Politburo member to the most humble and apolitical citizen could overnight and for no ostensible reasons be branded as an ''enemy of the people'' and suffer the consequences, has disappeared.

In its place we have a system of repression and chicanery normal in a police state: Only if he does or says something displeasing to his rulers will a Soviet citizen be subjected to the ministrations of the secret police. The USSR is no longer ruled by one man and whoever happened to be his favorites of the moment (some of whom were to end up as his victims) but by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, its apex represented by some 12 or 15 mostly elderly men.

Yet for all such changes, the system and philosophy of the government still bear an unmistakable stamp of the Stalin era. Even a fairly high official, not to mention the man in the street, has no idea of how or why his masters reach their decisions.

Lenin's Russia was far from being a democracy, but there used to be within the Communist Party brisk discussions of political and economic issues, contending views being expressed, and at times settled by a majority vote, most of such debates taking place in full public view. Now it is a handful of oligarchs who determine, and in absolute secrecy, who will be the supreme leader of the party and the state, what share of the GNP should be allotted to defense as against consumer industries, whether a prominent dissenter should be exiled, jailed, or be placed in an insane asylum. And so we have in the Soviet Union not so much a government but what might be called a standing conspiracy of the top leaders, jealously guarding their powers and prerogatives, first against the broader layer of the party and state bureaucracy, and then against the people at large.

Another legacy of Stalin's to Andropov's Russia has been the replacement of the ideological by the nationalist impulse behind Soviet policies. Whatever their departures from the Marxist orthodoxy, Lenin and his colleagues were genuine believers who craved a worldwide victory of socialism. It was Stalin who uninhibitedly extolled Russian nationalism and who taught the present rulers to assess and treat foreign communism purely from the point of view of its potential and actual usefulness to the Soviet Union's power interests.

The official idiom of the regime is still couched in the language of Marxism-Leninism, but it is by appealing to ''Soviet patriotism'' (read Russian nationalism with a rather transparent ideological varnish) that the Kremlin seeks to secure the loyalty of its subjects. The Soviet Union's growing influence throughout the world and its enormous military power are thus supposed to compensate Soviet men and women for whatever deprivations they may feel as citizens and consumers; whatever the shortcomings of the regime, the people in effect are being told, it is under it that their country has advanced in power, while the democracies, for all their alleged freedoms and riches, have been in retreat.

Despite all the great changes the last 30 years have wrought in the USSR and the world, the Soviet regime still clings to the two principles imparted to it by Stalin: the imperative of absolute control of society by the state, and the constant striving at expanding the state's power in all its dimensions - military, economic, territorial. Yet the twin tasks of continuing strict authoritarian controls and of continuing imperialist practices and expansion have been growing of late increasingly burdensome. Excessive centralization and bureaucratic management are clearly not conducive to economic progress, as demonstrated so vividly by the recent Soviet statistics and reports of shortages of consumer goods throughout the USSR. As for Soviet imperialism, both Poland and Afghanistan offer at least an ample warning about continuing the old practices.

Stalinism in the world of the 1980s may well be becoming both anachronistic and untenable. But it is unlikely that the present generation of Soviet leaders would want to get rid of the burden of the past, even if it knew how.

One thing, however, is certain: If such an effort is to be made in the future , it would have to be preceded by a further reassess-ment of the man whose ''dread spirit'' still hovers over the contemporary Soviet scene.

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