Three decades ago Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a long-overdue admission. He signed a decree to accelerate rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin’s victims. He recognized that the government he headed was, in fact, a long-standing criminal enterprise.
The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union, was tottering in August 1990, just 16 months away from dissolution. Yet a Soviet leader dedicated to saving and reforming communism acknowledged the moral bankruptcy of a predecessor — indeed, his most important predecessor, the famed “man of steel” who did more than anyone else to create the totalitarian superpower that many once thought would win the struggle for historical dominance. Gorbachev’s action proved to be another important kick of the USSR toward history’s vast and inglorious landfill.
In March 1985 Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Seven years later he was unemployed, his country had fallen apart, and the military alliance it dominated had dissolved.
Communism’s projected triumph — “we will bury you,” insisted the mercurial Nikita Khrushchev of Cuban missile crisis notoriety — was not to be. But the vital nature of that battle, both geopolitical and philosophical, is lost to an increasing number of Americans. Indeed, the entire Cold War continues to recede into the mists of history.
What was an ever-present reality from the 1950s through the 1980s doesn’t exist even in memory for the average college student. None of the historical high or low points are much remembered. That is, for many Americans there is no Soviet Union, Red Army, Cuban missile crisis, Eastern European satellites, Hungarian Revolution, Solidarity movement, Pope John Paul II, Berlin Wall, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, fall of the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa, German Reunification, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Moments when the future of humanity appeared to be at risk are not remembered. Such as the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, in which hardline leaders of the Communist Party, KGB, and military discovered that the old system was defunct and they were no longer in control. Nor the glorious moments when past disappointments turned transcendent. Such as when the December 1981 Polish military crackdown on the Solidarity union transmuted into the first free elections in the communist bloc, in which communist apparatchiks were wiped out in the June 1989 contests for the Sejm and Senate.
Also lost are moments that signaled the end of what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire, which had passed its 70th year. Such as when Hungary began to dismantle its border fence with Austria in May 1989, prompting a rush of East Germans for freedom. When East Germans overwhelmed the West German embassy in Prague in September 1989, leading the Czech and East German governments to allow them passage to West Germany. The indescribable joy when state after state defenestrated corrupt, repressive, retrograde elites who had suppressed not just political expression and economic growth, but the human spirit. The symbolic collapse of an entire murderous system when the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989.
Reagan deserves enormous credit for recognizing the hollowness of communism and challenging its moral bankruptcy. Long before 1989, capitalism had won the contest for producing better toilet paper. But Reagan always insisted that the benefits of liberty reached far beyond the material, that free societies offered manifold human opportunities, social improvements, and spiritual enrichment for those determined to live differently than the way prescribed by the apparatchik state.
Reagan’s necessary partner was Mikhail Gorbachev. They needed each other. Reagan wanted more than détente and was willing to push for radical change. On June 12, 1987, he stood in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and spoke through the assembled crowd to the absent Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.” Reagan’s message was simple: “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.” And open it. Let the German people — and ultimately everyone living under the Evil Empire’s control — go.
Another 29 months passed. Although on the evening of November 9, the German people were the ones streaming through the opened gates and chipping away at the concrete walls, it was Gorbachev who had made the historic moment possible. Khrushchev could have kept the Soviet Army in the barracks in 1956 when Hungarians demanded freedom. Leonid Brezhnev could have allowed the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s experiment in humane communism, to proceed in 1968. Brezhnev also could have permitted Poland to reform politically in 1981. But these Soviet leaders were traditional communists through and through. The Red Army stood as the great barrier to liberty, democracy, reform, and change.
Gorbachev, in contrast, traveled throughout Eastern Europe with a different message. The region’s evolution was up to … the people of Eastern Europe. This was informally known as the Sinatra Doctrine, to do it their way. Gorbachev was a reform communist who never intended the end of communism, and there were serious missteps, such as the brief but violent attempted crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that his vision was humane, with the steady relaxation of repression, highlighted by such dramatic gestures as bringing Andrei Sakharov and the latter’s wife, Yelena Bonner, back to Moscow from internal exile.
Another of those gestures, attempting to bring some closure to the monstrous criminality of Joseph Stalin and his many enablers, was Gorbachev’s signing of the decree “On the rehabilitation of all victims of political repressions in the 1920-50s” on August 13, 1990. In it he admitted that the “abuse of people’s dignity and very life” had occurred for decades.
The exact numbers of imprisoned, tortured, and murdered were unknowable but enormous. The Bolsheviks began systemic repression under Lenin after seizing power in what amounted to a coup and fighting an always bitter and often horrific civil war against the Whites. On September 2, 1918, the government officially announced the Red Terror, during which perhaps 10,000 people were executed in little more than a month. In the following years, at least 30,000 were executed annually.
However, this toll paled compared to the casualty lists after Stalin took control in the latter 1920s. Millions of Ukrainians died in devastating famine, or Holodomor. Then came the Great Purge, when Stalin declared war on the Communist Party. Yet many who were detained retained their faith in the party, believing that their imprisonment was merely an unfortunate error. A million or more may have died in the seemingly endless terror.
Experts argue about the overall number of victims. Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of the Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions, cited estimates that “about 32 million people became victims of political repressions,” including 13 million during the Russian civil war.
Some of those targeted actively opposed communist or Stalinist rule. But many of the victims were chosen more as a result of happenstance, bad luck, or family loyalty. Some simply ended up within easy reach of desperate secret police operatives tasked with demonstrating their vigilant defense of the motherland.
Reported social scientist R. J. Rummel:
Murder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the “enemies of the people” they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering “plots.” They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.
Under such circumstances it should surprise no one that the “cases” made against those imprisoned and executed were often errant nonsense. Yakovlev spoke of reviewing individual files in his position as commission chairman. His reaction:
To descend step by step down seventy years of Bolshevik rule into a dungeon strewn with human bones and reeking of dried blood is to see your faith in humankind dissolve.… More and more bloodstained documents pile up on my desk.… Nothing I have ever read comes close to the horror of these semiliterate compositions of the secret police and these covert denunciations of informants, or “well-wishers.” I ought to be used to them by now. I’m not.
Such was the system of “justice” in the Soviet Union, which emerged from World War II ruling much of Europe, promoting revolution in China, and wielding influence around the globe. Although the famed purges were long past, it appears that Stalin was preparing another round when he died on March 5, 1953. Who knows how many more would have perished. Stalin might have been poisoned by Beria, who realized that he likely would have been among the top targets in a new campaign against imagined enemies. (Medical tests of Stalin’s remains decades later were inconclusive.)
Although the injustices usually were long in the past, desire for redress persisted through victims’ children and grandchildren. Requests for rehabilitation began almost immediately after Stalin’s death. The effort accelerated after Khrushchev’s denunciation of red tsar in his famous 1956 destalinization speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. The campaign ebbed after Leonid Brezhnev pushed Khrushchev aside in 1964. Rehabilitation of past victims accelerated again during the Gorbachev era of perestroika and glasnost, with more than a million Soviets, many long dead, cleared of the Stalin-era charges. However, in August 1990, explained Gorbachev, his new decree was necessary since “thousands of cases had been waiting for revision.”
The call for justice was not always simple. For instance, one of the victims was no less than Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, who oversaw much of the terror, and, as a man of genuine competence and vision, ran the regime’s atomic weapons program. But he did so much more: Among his more notable accomplishments were brutally using gulag labor for massive construction projects and slaughtering Polish intellectuals, military officers, and other leaders at Katyn and elsewhere.
Although a moral monster, after Stalin’s death Beria proved to be a liberal of sorts, even open to the reunification and neutralization of Germany and liberation of the Baltic States. However, his colleagues feared both him and his radical ideas and moved against him, arresting him in June 1953. He was officially tried and executed in December, though some observers believe that his trial followed execution since the judgment was foregone and he was a dangerous man to keep alive.
Decades later his son, Sergo, sought Beria’s rehabilitation. After all, Beria fils insisted, Beria père was a good family man who sought to limit Stalin’s demands. Moreover, the trial obviously was a fraud, with the verdict decided beforehand. And the charges against Beria, that, for instance, he was a British spy, were unquestionably bogus. Explained the Guardian:
Many of the crimes for which he is remembered — including the deportation of ethnic groups from the Caucasus and the incarceration of thousands of anti-Soviet dissidents — were deemed too sensitive to mention on the charge sheet. Lawyers had argued that there might be a case for a review on strictly legal grounds — because although there was abundant evidence of Beria’s general guilt there was little evidence that he was guilty of the key accusations against him.
Nevertheless, Russia’s Supreme Court turned down the appeal. It ruled that “Beria was the organizer of repression against his own people, and therefore could not be considered a victim.”
Had Beria won posthumous rehabilitation, his predecessors’ heirs also could have demanded vindication. Stalin always began his purges with the elimination of his secret police chief. Beria had killed his predecessor, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, and the latter’s top assistants. Yezhov had done the same to Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda & Co. before him. In that sense these highly dedicated and loyal Soviet public servants also were wrongly charged and convicted, though apparently no one ever filed such an appeal on their behalf.
Gorbachev’s signature on the rehabilitation decree was part of a long process. In 1987 Gorbachev established a commission on rehabilitation. In 1991 the Supreme Soviet passed legislation on the same issue. And the adjudication of cases continued for years in Russia.
However, perhaps the most powerful and final rehabilitation for the victims of Soviet communism was the inglorious end of the Evil Empire. On Christmas Day 1991 — a holiday good communists would never celebrate — the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin. The great geopolitical force for mass injustice was gone, soon little more than a mass nightmare and source of quaint tchotchke for political junkies. In March 1985 Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, making him one of the most powerful people on Earth. Seven years later he was unemployed, his country had fallen apart, and the military alliance it dominated had dissolved.
In a normal historical sense that was a terrible record, failure on a grand scale. And for it he was reviled at home. Gorbachev ran for president of Russia in 1996 and came in seventh, with just 0.5 percent of the vote. However, the fact he was willing to allow the USSR to collapse peacefully made him a partner of Ronald Reagan and freed hundreds of millions of people from unspeakable tyranny. For that Gorbachev deserves the gratitude of people around the world.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.