Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A fatal desire for order

By Aussiegirl

Nina Khrushcheva, Khrushchev's grandaughter, on the anniversary of her grandfather's famous speech denouncing Stalin, speaks about the fatal desire of Russians for order.

A fatal desire for order - Editorials & Commentary - International Herald Tribune

The 50th anniversary of the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, at which Nikita Khrushchev delivered his so-called "secret speech" against Joseph Stalin, is being ignored in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Only last year, there were many phone calls to my family asking for their participation in commemorative events. But those plans were drawn up before May 2005, when Russia celebrated the 60th anniversary of World War II with the sort of Stalinist "brutalist" pomposity reminiscent of Cold War days. Indeed, portraits of Stalin were on prominent display as the "great leader" in the Soviet victory over fascism.

Since that bout of totalitarian nostalgia, public criticism of anything Stalin has been shunted off to the side. Today, Stalin is the country's second most popular historic figure after Peter the Great. As victor in World War II and a champion of Great Russian statehood, he remains revered.

So while some television producers still want to proceed with the secret speech documentaries, television networks one by one have lost their original interest. It's not that they received a directive from the Kremlin - we are in 2006, not 1937. But they can see how the wind is blowing.

The secret speech, formally titled "The Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," set in motion a whole sequence of events. Inmates were freed from the Gulag, the country was opened a little to foreign visitors and products, and the dissident movement began.

Needless to say, Putinism is not Stalinism, and the secret speech, if ignored, is not silenced. Mikhail Gorbachev, who regards himself as Khrushchev's successor, is free to celebrate it at his private foundation.

The Iron Curtain and the Stalin monolith are no longer, and Putin has to please all audiences - including some remaining homegrown Russian liberals, and more importantly, his Western counterparts, whom he is eager to join as a full member in the Group of Eight and the World Trade Organization.

But the assessment of the impact of the secret speech as the beginning of "freedom from fear" - the slogan that prompted the 1956 anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising - is no longer in vogue.

Fear is what's back in vogue. Not just fear of power, but fear of freedom. After the uncertainties of Boris Yeltsin's post-Communism, this fear of freedom - the need to live with one's own decisions - makes Russians yearn for rulers who provide a sense of orderly life.

Stalin's order was unbreakable while he lived; Putin promises a new order in the form of his "dictatorship of law." Today fear of the Gulag seems to be less threatening than the freedom of choice that the collapse of Communism offered to every individual: you, not the state, are responsible for your victories and failings.

It's only logical then, that the secret speech is no longer considered a courageous political act that evens up other mistakes Khrushchev may have made - after all, he was calling for reform of a system he had participated in.

Though it was the first step toward overturning Communism, it is seen now as a moment of betrayal and disgrace - as the "murder" of the "Father of All Nations," Joseph Stalin.

The other 2006 anniversary - the anti-Communist Budapest uprising inspired by the secret speech - would not speak in Khrushchev's favor.

He saw himself a reformer, not an oppressor, seeking dialogue, even if heated, with his opponents. But his response to the Hungarians was typically Soviet - sending tanks to crush dissent - as if he were afraid of his own liberties.

In today's Russia, however, the Budapest clampdown might well be considered an achievement.

For as Putin declared last year, "The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

The real catastrophe is that Russia's best opportunity to shed its brutal past is being lost in the popular desire for order and greatness - desires that Vladimir Putin is only too happy to pretend to fulfill.

(Nina Khrushcheva, a great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, teaches international affairs at the New School in New York.)


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