A NEW work by the influential political playwright Mikhail Shatrov has launched a blistering attack on Joseph Stalin - one that goes well beyond the official view of the Soviet dictator. The play, ``On, On, On,'' published in the January 1988 issue of the journal Znamya, in many respects differs sharply from the milder picture of Stalin recently offered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Last November, Mr. Gorbachev disappointed many Soviet intellectuals by calling for Stalin's errors to be weighed against his achievements in building socialism. The intellectuals had entertained hopes that Gorbachev would brand Stalin's leadership as a phenomenon having little or nothing to do with socialism. He did not do this; Mr. Shatrov does.
Shatrov depicts Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, as rejecting any suggestion that Stalin was either a Communist or a Leninist. Stalin and Leon Trotsky are shown leading an effort to exclude Lenin from decisionmaking on the eve of the October 1917 uprising. Even more strikingly, Shatrov hints very broadly that Stalin was acting as Lenin's ``overseer,'' deliberately keeping him uninformed of the work of the Bolshevik leadership during his last illness. (Lenin died in 1924. His successor, Stalin, died in 1953.)
Other allegations leveled against Stalin by Shatrov include the murder of Leningrad Communist Party chief Sergei Kirov in 1934 - the act that provided the starting point for Stalin's purges, and deliberately allowing the ``bread crisis'' - the famine that killed millions of people during agricultural collectivization (1929-32). He also provides the Soviet reader a probably unprecedented disclosure on Trotsky's 1940 murder by a Soviet agent.
Gorbachev, however, saw positive points about Stalin's rule. ``We must see both Stalin's indisputable contribution to the struggle for socialism, his defense of its gains, and [his] crude political mistakes and arbitrary behavior,'' he told a November meeting commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
In his speech, Gorbachev defended Stalin's collectivization of agriculture, which has come under criticism from some prominent Soviet intellectuals recently. And he told his listeners that Stalin's industrialization was ``the only possible'' path, given conditions at the time.
Shatrov's characters in the play offer alternative viewpoints on a number of key issues. He puts the rationale for a slower, more humane rate of economic transformation into the mouth of Nikolai Bukharin, a leader purged by Stalin in 1938, and only recently returned to political respectability. (Rumors continue to circulate in Moscow that Bukharin will be fully rehabilitated in the near future).
In November, Gorbachev rejected Bukharin's line, saying that he ``underestimated the significance of the time factor'' in building socialism - an apparent reference to need for speed imposed by the rise of Adolf Hitler and the approach of World War II. Shatrov's Bukharin - like a number of present-day Soviet intellectuals - is not convinced that war is inevitable. ``If you don't help war with your stupidities,'' he tells Stalin, ``there may not be a war.''
Shatrov depicts Stalin in a uniformly darker light than does Gorbachev. During the 1917 uprising, the play asserts, Stalin collaborated with Trotsky, who both opposed the planned uprising and tried to prevent Lenin from coming to Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute in Petrograd (now Leningrad).
And Stalin is shown using a similar ploy in about 1923, when Lenin fell seriously ill.
In the play, Stalin attempts to exclude Lenin from any role in policymaking on the grounds that his health would further suffer from the exertion. Lenin's isolation is made ``even stricter'' after the ailing leader attempts unsuccessfully to have Stalin replaced as party general secretary.
Toward the end of the play, Lenin declares himself ``guilty before the workers of Russia'' for not removing Stalin from the general secretaryship, and not reforming the system ``so that all this [Stalinism] would be impossible.''
``But you do not deny the communist essence of my convictions?'' asks Stalin. According to the stage directions, Lenin ``explodes'': ``I most certainly do.''
Shatrov's Stalin is essentially a throwback to Russia's authoritarian past. Stalin's defenders in the play are figures who have long been reviled by Soviet historians. They include Gen. Anton Denikin, one of the leaders of the ``white'' (anti-Bolshevik) Russians, and Peter Struve, an early Marxist-turned-conservative exile. Denikin emphasizes the close similarity between the plans for a military dictatorship drawn up by right-wing generals in 1917 and the methods later used by Stalin to rule the country.
``On, On, On'' is likely to be much more controversial than Shatrov's earlier works, all of which have been focused on Lenin and the Russian Revolution. The play is set in Petrograd on the eve of the revolution ``and,'' as the author says, ``significantly later.'' It moves back and forth through time, from Petrograd to indeterminate points in the future. Many of the characters in the play are speaking from beyond the grave, and many have long been nonpersons in Soviet history. They debate, usually with Stalin, the course of events after their death.
The play appears to be Shatrov's own effort to achieve a complete repudiation of Stalin by Soviet leaders. Many of the ideas fall within the framework of liberal Soviet Marxists who are trying to assert a nontotalitarian ideology.
Thus, while some Western scholars have tended to view the development of Soviet communism after Lenin as a choice between Trotsky and Stalin, a number of Soviet intellectuals take the opinion that the views of Trotsky and Stalin converged more often than they diverged. Therefore, they say, repudiation of Trotsky should be accompanied by the repudiation of Stalin.
For Shatrov, both Stalin and Trotsky represent a political ideology that makes people the ``means rather than the aim'' of change.
Shatrov's feelings toward Stalin are summarized in the play's final stage directions. Stalin and Lenin remain on stage alone.
``One would very much like Stalin to leave,'' the directions read. ``But for the time being he's still there.''