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Mourning Stalin With a Giggle

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"Stalin's death is a tragedy for all of us."

So wrote Oleg Kalugin in his diary sixty years ago today. As a young KGB officer-in-training, Kalugin and his classmates had not only been specially favored by Stalin's regime but also led to believe that this titanically murderous dictator was the savior of Russia. Shattered by his death, they all wept openly over it, as Oleg recalls in a BBC radio interview that you can hear right now.

On the same program you can also hear the recollections of a woman named Valentina, whose extended family had suffered cruelly under Stalin's reign of terror. But even though his regime had killed at least two of her relatives, her mother insisted that she display a public face of mourning, that she stand outside in silence for several minutes wearing a mask of grief -- whatever she may have felt.

Evidently, a similar command went out all across the nations of the Warsaw Pact, because it certainly reached a young Hungarian named Stefan Scher, who later became a professor of literature at Dartmouth College (where I knew him well) but who was then a teenage schoolboy in Budapest.

When Stalin's death was announced at Stefan's school, every student (all boys) was ordered to stand at his desk, face forward, and observe five minutes of silence.

Silence then reigned for a minute or two. But suddenly, from somewhere behind him, Stefan heard a giggle that could not be stopped.

Like the ripples made a pebble thrown into the midst of a pond, it spread out uncontrollably from one student to another (including Stefan, of course) until the whole classroom was convulsed. And since classroom doors were always kept open to allow maximum surveillance, the tide of giggles soon rushed out to the corridor and into all the other classrooms until, it seems, the entire building was caught up in something like a minor earthquake.

Scandalized and outraged, the school authorities did everything they could to identify the prime mover of this earthquake. But even though the principal was fired, they never caught the kid who giggled first. What other kid would ever finger him?

Stefan died a few years ago, but one of the things I best remember about him was the readiness of his laughter. So on this day, as on every anniversary of Stalin's death, I imagine him standing up there somewhere next to a cloud--and giggling till the tears roll down his cheeks.