Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Benjamin Nathans


This dissertation explores how an illiberal, authoritarian state confronted and attempted to make amends for its extraordinary history of mass violence, specifically the Soviet Union’s efforts to posthumously exonerate eminent political, military, and cultural figures executed in the 1930s and early 1940s. All of Iosif Stalin’s successors were implicated, to one degree or another, in the Terror that swept the Soviet Union and consumed much of the party-state’s founding elite. Yet in the months following the dictator’s death in March 1953, a contingent within the new collective leadership began to allow cases against certain “enemies of the people” who had been put to death to be reopened, and their convictions to be vacated. This policy, which broke with decades of Soviet precedent, was initially conceived as a means of discrediting deposed secret police chief Lavrentii Beriia, but soon acquired more ambitious dimensions. This dissertation foregrounds the official intentions that underpinned the decision to implement posthumous rehabilitation, the investigative work that went into determining which figures merited absolution and on what grounds, and efforts by the families of the repressed to obtain recognition of and restitution for losses and suffering endured during the era of High Stalinism. Posthumous rehabilitation thereby merged a symbolic “resurrection” of the dead – through distinct but intertwined legal and political processes – with tangible socio-economic benefits for their survivors. Drawing upon documents generated by the USSR Procuracy, Council of Ministers, and Supreme Soviet, as well as the Central Committee of the Communist Party, citizens’ letters of petition, and memoirs, this dissertation argues for posthumous rehabilitation as a crucial means through which the post-Stalin Soviet government attempted to extract useable, redemptive narratives from its cannibalistic past, and as an avenue for the families of the wrongfully repressed to reassert their place in society.