Burying the Dead

POLITICS

INDEED. our world would grow larger upon turning back the front page of the New York Times. A vast store of the world's cruelty and injustice gets served up as a condiment for the baseness of front-page politics. On page two are articles from far-off lands. If not preoccupied with some trangression of life or liberty, they catalogue the struggle of popular liberation movements against repression, violence, poverty and hunger. Unusual was an account several weeks ago of Soviet politician Mikhail Suslov's funeral in Moscow. Not quite the enlivening task of trailing rebel guerillas through the hills of EI Salvador or Afghanistan, reporting the ceremony required little more than a simple, off-hand description of the event and a brief account of the man's history.

Suslov, the article mentioned, was never captive to the ideology of the Soviet Union. With the ease of a charioteer covering dead-laden ground, Suslov survived Stalin's purges and reached the Soviet hierarchy's highest plane of power. Widely acknowledged as the kingmaker to the Communist party's inner circle, Suslov was instrumental in the ascendency of Chairman Nikita Khruschev to power in 1958, and again for his downfall in 1964. The many machinations of power politics never seemed to daunt the Soviet minister, whose ferocity found outlet for endeavor in uncounted tasks during the more than 40 years he serve the Kremlin.

He oversaw the adaptation of Soviet propaganda to the exigencies both of the moment and of history, as he played an instrumental role in the direction of foreign policy through the Cold War years. Of his many legacies, his role in the purges of the 1930s and 40s may remain unchallenged as the greatest. Under his direction, forced collectivization of land saw millions of people murdered throughout the Russian countryside, all for the creation of a centralized, military, industrial state and the dream of Communism in Russia. Whether he remains forgiven is the question to ask. The Times article described an aura of resentment that hung over Suslov's funeral ceremony in Moscow. Even with the grand treatment expended towards commemoration of his death, how, after all, could anyone forget the atrocities he committed, almost with his own hands?

The last survivor of the Stalinist era, perhaps last among the believers that massacre could be justified in the name of Communism. Suslov lived his last years in a society markedly different from the one that textured his rise to power. With a more open, less paranoid system of conducting affairs with its won people, the Russia that watched Suslov die holds up remarkable differences to the paranoid, repressive nation that gave it birth.

IT SEEMED A Soviet Republic determined to forget those years that honored Suslov with a burial within the Kremlin Wall. hallowed precincts a disgraced Khruschev could never hope for. Soviet press reports, to be sure, would only stress the positive side of Suslov's history, honoring him as a hero of the nation's ongoing revolution, a devoted practitioner of the ideology that achieved greatness for Russia. Nothing, if not the elaborate ceremony and apparent forgetfulness, begs questioning the most unseemly aspects of the man's life--his indifference to those of more than a million others. For cruelty and injustice, the outline of events laid down in the Times article would do proud the tradition that page bears. For a reporter in Moscow, however, the events set down to print were a matter of history, facts that get lectured to college students--part of the long tradition of oppression in 20th-century Russia, of murder, of massacre, of terror.

It's almost as if the sound of these words, and images they ladle onto our conscience, bring a new urgency to impressions we gather from events that take place throughout the world, be they civilian murders in El Salvador or pogroms in Pol Pot's Cambodia. They add up to a greyer picture of senselessness in the episodes staged by the marionettes of our own political culture, posing depressive backdrop to their stage play. What deserves note in the episode of Suslov's funeral is the apparent ease with which the strategists of Soviet propaganda could obliterate the history of the purges and massacre and provide for their audience an affected display of reverence, a purified measure of the poison he delivered. Differences in interpretation are not a matter of nuance, unless differing over a factor of a million is quibbling. That the planners for Suslov's funeral, a host of apparatchnik pressmen, and perhaps an entire popuation, could stifle the outreach of history with such an air of unconcern says something about human nature, and our ability to adapt to the needs of whatever sort of politics happen to entrap us.