A SOVIET humorist, commenting on the shortage of consumer goods in his country in comparison with the great amount of new and exciting information in its press, contends that today in the Soviet Union reading is more interesting than living. In a country where even Pravda and Izvestia are often sold out, and where sugar has been rationed, this is certainly true. Amazing revelations appear daily. Previously suppressed works are printed in large editions. Domestic politics, heretofore boring and lacking any real substance, has become fascinating. Almost every field of endeavor has become more interesting than in the past. But no area is more strikingly different today than the study of history. The past is now more relevant to the present in the USSR than ever before in Soviet history. Literature, the theater, and cinema are dominated by the past. New writers have difficulty getting published today in the USSR because the press is full of works by past authors like Boris Pasternak, often forbidden in the past. And new works on historical subjects frequently outnumber those on contemporary themes.
Historians themselves are having to relearn their field. High school textbooks are being rewritten. Rehabilitations are common: The formerly ignored Nikolai Bukharin now is seen as a precursor of perestroika, for example, and his American biographer has been invited to the USSR, after years of being refused admission, to oversee his biography's appearance in a Russian edition. Even Leon Trotsky is now discussed openly, and parts of his historical legacy are being recognized. No longer a nonperson, Trotsky has not been rehabilitated, but he is at least treated as a genuine player during the first decade of Soviet power. It has even been admitted that he was murdered at the order of Stalin.
Historical ``facts'' are having to be reevaluated as well. Recently it was announced that the bones of Nicholas II and his family were recovered more than a decade ago in Sverdlovsk, where the royal family was executed in 1918. Only now has it been deemed possible to make their discovery public and to clarify the details of their deaths and the disposal of their bodies.
In the USSR, as in the West, historians have long tried to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the past. In the USSR, however, as in prerevolutionary Russia, inconvenient historical facts have been suppressed. Many Soviet historians, as a result, know less about certain aspects of their own history than do scholars abroad, and no period of their past is murkier or has been treated more dishonestly than the era of Stalinism. The Stalinist legacy is the overwhelming issue among Soviet historians today, as it is so often for Soviet writers of fiction, for dramatists, for filmmakers, and for people on the street who survived Stalinism.
Truth about the Stalinist past is emerging. Sometimes, as in the case of the Katyn Forest massacre, the initiative comes from foreigners. At others, as in a reexamination of the cost of forced collectivization during the 1930s, the stimulus to learn the truth comes from Soviet citizens themselves. Scholars, the news media, and the ordinary citizen are all willing to confront a history that is often frightful.
Yet it is not the details of Stalinist oppression and barbarism that are at issue. Rather, it is the implications of Stalinism that occupy Soviet citizens' minds. They ask themselves how Stalinism was possible, how it could have developed from a Leninism that Mikhail Gorbachev holds up as a model for every good communist to emulate. How was it that fine, loyal, upstanding Soviet citizens could surrender to the deceit, cruelty, and moral corruption that so typified the Stalinist era? Why did they refuse to speak out? Was it solely fear for their own lives or those of their families, or was there something more involved?
These questions are troubling for Soviet citizens. A recent Soviet visitor to the United States remarked that it would be horrible to believe that the Russian people have a fatal flaw that leads them to follow, unquestioningly, leaders like Stalin. What would that say about them as a people, as prospective contributors to a better world, as builders of a more humane society for their children? What would it portend for the future of Gorbachev, of perestroika, for the fate of our planet?
Ironically, history in the USSR has become the most contemporary of all the social sciences, its discoveries the most relevant to the present. In grappling with their past, the Soviet people are attempting to understand themselves better. Sincerity and honesty are essential for Soviet professional historians to overcome the stodgy, dogmatic reputation they have gained, justifiably, in the West. Now everyone in the USSR is concerned with the country's past, and professional historians there have been joined by amateurs, for many of whom the lessons of the past are burning issues.
Some, like the nationalist organization Pamyat, are looking for a ``usable past'' that is to be found in prerevolutionary, purely ``Russian,'' often obscurantist traditions. Others hope to reinvigorate their Marxist ideals by returning to the traditions they associate with Lenin, Bukharin, and even Khrushchev. But for all of them, their search for the past will lead them to a better understanding of themselves and their present.
George Santayana said those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it. For no people in the world today is this observation more important than it is for the citizens of the USSR. For most of them the principal issue of the past is Stalinism. ``Democratization,'' glasnost, and ``new thinking'' are all directed toward overcoming the legacy of Stalinism and guaranteeing that in the future the only relevance Stalinism will have to the lives of Soviet people will be as a closed chapter in their history.