"The Katyn crime was committed on direct order by Stalin and other Soviet leaders." This line, from a formal statement issued by the Russian parliament on Nov. 26, marks an important breakthrough. The execution in 1940 of about 22,000 Poles by the Soviet security police may be a well-recorded and broadly known historical fact, but it is the first time the Duma officially recognized that Stalin and his government were guilty of the massacre. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has now chimed in as well, telling Polish media before a visit to Warsaw this month that "Stalin and his henchmen bear responsibility for this crime."
These two official statements are the most recent examples of a surprising shift by the Russian government: Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin's stance on Stalinism was evasive at best, leading to a creeping restoration of Stalin's reputation in the early 2000s. But over the last year the Russian government has embarked on a new round of anti-Stalin rhetoric and initiatives, openly admitting some of the "forgotten" Soviet crimes revealed earlier under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
What seems to drive the current de-Stalinization campaign is first and foremost Russia's new rapprochement with the West, which is pushing Russia for some recognition of the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism. But this doesn't necessarily mean the foreign-policy shift will be accompanied by political liberalization at home; in some ways, the current political order inside Russia is not too dissimilar from that of the Stalinist regime. Russia, whether there's a Stalin cult or not, is still being ruled under the centuries-long tradition that gives its top leaders a monopoly on decision-making, enshrines the state's dominance over the society, and relies on state security police as the main instrument of governance.
Nevertheless, this new anti-Stalin campaign is real, and has been on the rise since late 2009, when on Oct. 30 -- the day Russians traditionally acknowledge the victims of Soviet repression -- Medvedev posted a videoblog condemning "Stalin's crimes" in no uncertain terms and lamenting scarce public knowledge about the terror that he referred to as "one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia."
Then, in February 2010, Putin invited his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk to visit Katyn in time for the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Speaking in Katyn on April 7, Putin said: "Repressions smashed down people regardless of their nationality, their beliefs, or their faith.... We can't change the past, but what we can do is to preserve or restore the truth and this would mean to restore historical justice."
Just three days later, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish officials were killed in a tragic plane crash on their way to a Katyn memorial ceremony. The Russian leadership showed deep sympathy to Poland and did its best to help the victims' families. Katyn, a Polish film about the massacre that had been basically barred from distribution in Russia was shown twice in a matter of one week, including on one of the two biggest state-controlled national channels. The Russian state archives posted archival documents on the massacre on its website. Later, in May and December, Russia handed over to Polish officials portions of the Katyn files from a military prosecutor's investigation; the investigation had been completed in 2004, but the handover was delayed under farfetched pretexts.
In May, the Kremlin quashed a plan by Moscow city authorities to adorn Moscow with Stalin's images in time for the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Medvedev explained why in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, in which he said that the "state assessment" of Stalin has been that he "committed many crimes against his people. And even though the country achieved success under his guidance, what was done against his own people cannot be forgiven."
This fall, an adapted version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was published at what was reported to be Putin's personal initiative, following his meeting with Solzhenitsyn's widow last year to discuss how best to teach her husband's four-volume epic about communist repression.
And just recently Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of the president's council on human rights and civil society, announced that the council had picked de-Stalinization as one of its primary themes. Early next year council members expect to present to the president their suggestions for a government program aimed at ridding Russia of the Stalinist legacy. The program includes a legal and political assessment of Stalinism and commemoration of the victims of the totalitarian regime. They're even teaming up on the project with the Memorial Society, a veteran Russian NGO that researches Stalinism and commemorates its victims.