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Stalin and Memory

"The duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," said Oscar Wilde. As a Russian, I am familiar with rewriting history. The Soviet Union spent a century touching up the warts on Lenin's nose, revising harvest statistics, and making the dying Yuri Andropov look less cadaverous. But in dealing with Stalin--dead 50 years today-- most of us now rewrite history by pretending that a chunk of it never happened.

Don't get me wrong: Stalin has not disappeared like people sent to the gulag. He has not been blotted from our memories the way Trotsky and Bukharin were cropped out of official photographs.

Once, as I was getting out of a Moscow taxicab, the driver lifted his scarf to show a Stalin photograph pinned to his jacket. I thought about this sly gesture. He seemed to represent a true underground, someone who felt shocked and betrayed by the world that arose out of Gorbachev's glastnost and perestroika .

But clinging to the past uncritically is probably better than allowing the past to dominate the present. After all, it was history that incited Yugoslavs to turn their corner of Europe into a medieval slaughterhouse of rape, pillage, and siege. On June 28 th , 1989, St Vitus's Day, while most Eastern Europeans were daring to dream of a non-communist future, a million Serbs prepared to leap into the past with Slobodan Milosevic, descending on the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo to mark the 600th anniversary of Serbia's defeat by the Turks.