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Settling Accounts with Stalin

IN 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev - like Khrushchev in the 1950s - spoke openly of the brutal Soviet past under Stalin. But Mr. Gorbachev still had good words to say about the forced collectivization of agriculture in the 1920s - an experiment that led to the deaths by starvation or shooting of millions of Soviet peasants. Officially, the experiment was ``a transformation of great importance.'' The new decree issued by President Gorbachev on Monday removes any remnant of socialist sugar-coating from that period. Not only has Joseph Stalin's legacy of terror been given full disclosure and condemnation, but Gorbachev moved to fully restore the rights of those who still suffer from ``the stain'' of Stalinist repression and injustice.

Now ``all citizens'' in the USSR repressed for ``political, social, ethnic, religious and other motives'' between 1920 and 1950 may have their rights reestablished by submitting grievances to regional courts by Oct. 1. Gorbachev's language is commensurate with the seriousness of the crimes: ``Thousands of people were subject to moral and physical torture ... annihilated ... deported with their families to remote regions without means of existence.''

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What having one's rights restored means is another question. Will Stalin's victims - kept from jobs, education, housing, and other rights for decades - suddenly find things changing? Doubtful. The economy of the Soviet Union is near collapse. The general attitude of its people is cynical and resigned. However necessary destalinization has been, the sacred heroes, myths, and ideologies of the Soviet past have been systematically taken apart. What's left now?

Gorbachev's human rights decree is needed. Schoolteachers and textbooks should take advantage of this opening. But has Gorbachev gone far enough? In some ways, his action still partakes of party control. One may now discuss sins of the past. But is free speech fully accepted in the USSR today? Thousands of political and religious activists are still persecuted. Human rights still have a ways to go.

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