Russia, Europe and US cannot override the Helsinki Final Act Spirit

Richard Schifter


In the 1960’s I had occasion to ask an expert on the Soviet Union how long he thought the Soviet system would last. His response was: “Until the generation that reached political maturity after Stalin’s death gets to the top of the ladder.” I remembered that remark in 1985, when Gorbachev was elected and checked what his age was when Stalin died. I discovered that he had just turned 22. That left me with the question of whether Gorbachev could be considered to have been politically mature when he reached the age of 22.

What I discovered a decade later, when I read Gorbachev’s Memoirs, is that he reached political maturity at a much earlier age, at the age of 6, to be precise. What he describes in his memoirs is the arrest, in the course of the 1937/1938 purges of his grandfather, in whose home he lived at that time, on a totally false charge of Trotskyism. He describes how the neighbors began shunning the family’s house “as if it were plague-stricken” and that the boys in the neighborhood avoided him.
He adds: “All this was a great shock to me and has remained engraved in my memory ever since.”

Thus, I would suggest that the drastic changes in governance of the Soviet Union after Gorbachev’s accession to power were not the result of the fact that he had outgrown Stalinism, but of the fact that at a very early age he had personally experienced the tragic consequences of Stalinism and had not forgotten them.

As it is, Stalinism, in its most evil form, had come to an end in 1953, not in March, when Stalin died, but in June, when, at a meeting of the Presidium, Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s principal henchman, was arrested. According to what I was told by one of my Soviet colleagues, who heard the account directly from Nikita Khrushchev, the arrest occurred at that meeting, after Beria had pulled out his pistol and Marshal Zhukov had wrestled him to the ground. Beria was executed in December 1953.


Gorbachev; Putin and Stalinism; Khrushchev; Beria; Helsinki Final Act; Human Rights; United States; Europe and the World; Russia; Public Diplomacy

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