When Oleg Volkov told his audience that political terror in the Soviet Union dates from Vladimir Lenin, not Joseph Stalin, much of the audience of more than 1,000 applauded warmly. The discussion which followed was a vivid illustration of the current efforts by thinking Soviets to come to terms with their past, and showed how the tide of debate is flowing inexorably toward what for many communists remains the ultimate taboo: a reassessment of both Lenin and the 1917 Revolution.
Mr. Volkov, a tall, imposing octogenarian with a long, white beard, spent 27 years in exile as a political prisoner. His remarks were made at the headquarters of the Union of Filmmakers, where a documentary on one of the earliest camps for such prisoners - founded on the remote Solovki Islands in 1923 - was being premiered.
The audience was made up of writers, artists, actors, and starlets, along with survivors of Stalin's camps, most of them now in their 80s.
Volkov, exiled in the camps after refusing to become an informer for the security police, said it was unfair to blame only Stalin. When Stalin launched the ``great terror,'' which eventually claimed the lives of millions of Soviet citizens, he was acting according to laws laid down well before him. The fear of the ``knock on your door in the night'' began in 1917, with Lenin, Volkov told his audience.
Terror became state policy under Lenin and the first security police chairman, Feliks Dzerzinski, Volkov claimed. Recalling his memories of the 1917 Revolution, he attacked Lenin for dashing people's hopes by forcibly dissolving the Constituent Assembly - the multi-party assembly where Lenin's Bolsheviks had won less than a third of the seats - in January 1918.
The period of Lenin's rule, he stated, should be known as the ``Leninshchina.'' The addition of the suffix ``shchina'' denotes a time of unremittingly negative events. Lenin must be made to answer for everything he did, Volkov said. While subsequent speakers disagreed totally or partly, Volkov's brief statement formed a central theme in the evening's discussion.
Another speaker, the independent Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, whose father was executed during Stalin's purges, disagreed with Volkov's denunciation of Lenin.
But, he said, ``we should know the whole truth'' about the Bolshevik leader. The cults that were created around the names of Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, the now discredited leader of the country from 1964 to 1982, had been destroyed. There should be no cult around Lenin, Medvedev declared.
Medvedev noted that two volumes of Lenin's works had never been published. One was Lenin's correspondence with Inessa Armand, his close friend and perhaps his lover. This had been held back due to the ``sanctimoniousness'' of Mikhail Suslov, the chief Soviet ideologist of the Brezhnev years.
The second missing volume was Lenin's correspondence with Feliks Dzerzinski and the Cheka, the security police in the 1920s, now known as the KGB. Medvedev made it clear that there was resistance to the idea of presenting a total picture of Lenin, even in the most liberal part of the Soviet political spectrum. A reference to the need to look objectively at Lenin was, Medvedev said, dropped from an article of his that was published recently in the outspoken weekly Moscow News.
Another theme of the evening was what to do with the surviving executioners, torturers, and police informers. One speaker leaned toward Nuremberg-style show trials. The literary historian Dmitri Likhachev, a former inmate of the Solovki camps, argued forcefully against revenge. They should be left alone, he said. Their names should not be revealed to avoid shaming their innocent relatives and children. Medvedev called for their names to be made known: Otherwise, he warned, a new generation of executioners could emerge.
And once again the image of the security police received a blow. The film made it clear that some of the Cheka officials later purged by Stalin had been involved in acts of brutality in the camps.
Solovki was run by an ``alliance of white [royalist] officers and the Cheka,'' the film said.
At the end of the evening one of the country's most famous rock stars performed. Members of the audience, among them a senior staffer from the Communist Party Central Committee, lined up to make their donations to a special appeal for the creation of a memorial and research center for victims of Stalinism.
The organization sponsoring the activities and the appeal is itself known as Memorial. Its organizers include the prominent actor Mikhail Ulyanov, the poet Andrei Voznesensky, and former Politburo member Boris Yeltsin. Memorial had its founding congress this weekend.