The movement toward an open society, some signs of which could be seen in the 1950s, was a response both to elemental urges and to conscious political decisions made at the time. Among the latter the most important was undoubtedly the decision to liberate and rehabilitate political prisoners. Even years later, this was the development remembered by contemporaries (above all by the intelligentsia) not only as the chief political step of the post-Stalinist leadership but one that in some fashion expiated its past and future sins. At the time it seemed that the doors of the prisons and the camps were opened exclusively by the goodwill of the authorities. This fact seemed so dramatically obvious that few people considered the real reasons behind such a decisive step.
The question of the number of Stalin's victims is still disputed among scholars and journalists, and the figures vary from several million to tens of millions. 1 If we consider only the political prisoners, then our best approach to a realistic figure is the work of V.P. Popov, whose estimates are based on the records of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Popov calculates that a total of 4.1 million political prisoners were detained between 1921 and 1953. 2 The gross population of the camps, colonies, and prisons (that is, the GULAG as a whole) at the time of Stalin's death in March 1953 was 2,526,000 people serving time for various kinds of crimes. This was the figure reported by L.P. Beria to the Presidium of the Central Committee on 26 March 1953. 3 Here was a whole society living as if in another state, one to which Alexander Solzhenitsyn assigned the special name GULAG Archipelago, the name of an amazing country, "geographically distributed as an archipelago, though psychologically frozen into a continent--an almost invisible, almost intangible country inhabited by convicts. The