MOSCOW -- As this country marks the 50th anniversary of Hitler's invasion, an old, preperestroika one-liner is regaining some of its punch: That the Soviet Union is the only country in the world with an unpredictable history.
A team of historians working on a new, 10-volume history of World War II recently produced a sizzling first volume, indicting Josef Stalin in particular and Communist totalitarianism in general for the colossal defeats of the first weeks of the war.
Horrified, the Soviet military brass fell back in disarray at first. But as today's anniversary of the Nazi invasion approached, the generals regrouped and counterattacked in traditional Soviet fashion: They rejected the first volume, dismissed its main author and ordered up another version, one that will leave intact the myth that the Communist Party leadership led the people to victory.
"Excessive references to Stalinist repressions. Stalin was not to blame for all errors and misfortunes," declared Gen. Konstantin A. Kochetov, first deputy defense minister, at a closed meeting to discuss the book. He counted 380 times in the history's first volume when Stalin's terror was mentioned.
"Why so little about the friendship of the Soviet peoples?" demanded General N. G. Lyashchenko, according to a transcript of the meeting printed by Nazavisimaya Gazeta.
"The democrats declare their goal as preparing and holding a Nuremberg-II trial of the Communist Party. In this volume is the draft of the indictment for such a trial," said Dmitry T. Yazov, Soviet defense minister.
Dmitry A. Volkogonov, the Stalin biographer and prominent military historian who has overseen the work, retorted angrily that "we're being pushed to write false history."
"My voice is alone in this hall," Mr. Volkogonov said, as his bemedalled opponents in the Defense Ministry shouted abuse.
"But I'd like to look ahead 10 years, to see what you'll say about all this then."
The gentlemanly, diminutive Mr. Volkogonov was a loyal Communist and devoted servant of the regime until he delved into the Stalin archives for his two-volume biography of the despot, called "Triumph and Tragedy."
What he discovered transformed the retired colonel-general and former chief of the Institute of Military History into a radical ally of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Voices in the debate reached fever-pitch this week. Mr. Volkogonov, 63, held forth iconoclastically in the headquarters of Mr. Yeltsin's Russian Federation Parliament. Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, 68, top military aide to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, argued his traditionalist case at the Communist Party's press center.
Mr. Akhromeyev accused Mr. Volkogonov of being an "anti-communist who betrayed the cause of the Communist Party." In most circles in the Soviet Union these days that would be considered a compliment; in the higher ranks of the military, however, it is still considered a grave insult.
The debate is bitter, for the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known here, still looms huge in Soviet life. This is so first of all because 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war, according to the latest estimates, or nearly 100 times the United States' losses.
But the ideological stakes are high as well. The Soviet victory in World War II has always been construed here as a victory for socialism and partial justification of Stalin's breakneck industrialization in the 1930s. Even some Western historians have assessed highly Stalin's war record.
The revisionist view professed by Mr. Volkogonov gives a radically different version of events. In the immediate prewar period, Stalin's terror had decimated the Red Army: 43,000 commanders and political officers had been arrested, and nearly a third of them shot. When Hitler's army attacked, more than 80 percent of high-ranking Soviet officers had been in their jobs less than one year.
On the eve of the invasion, foreign diplomats and Soviet spies insistently relayed to Stalin word of the coming blitzkrieg. Top military officers repeatedly told him the Soviet Union was unprepared for war.
But Stalin scoffed at the reports of impending attack, preferring to believe that he had a special relationship with Hitler, to whom in 1939 he had sent 50th birthday greetings beginning: "Old fighter, well-tested horse, we're with you."
As late as June 14, 1941, Stalin had the Tass news agency sarcastically dismiss rumors of war. The same day, Hitler moved up the time for the surprise attack on the Soviet Union by a half-hour, from 3:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. on June 22.
When the attack came, Hitler's troops destroyed 1,200 Soviet aircraft on the first day and within a few days had taken Minsk and were headed for Moscow. Stalin grew distraught. He isolated himself at his dacha in the Moscow suburb of Kuntsevo and refused to see visitors. A leadership delegation found him in a strange, passive, confused state and even discussed the question of whether to arrest him and install Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov as leader.
Only on July 3, 11 days after the invasion, did Stalin pull himself together sufficiently to speak to the nation by radio, using the unusual address "Brothers and sisters" and appealing to Russian patriots to fight to the death.
For aging veterans who went into battle with "For the homeland! For Stalin!" chalked on their tanks, such facts are hard to accept. So are Mr. Volkogonov's conclusions: that the war lasted 1 1/2 years longer than it need have and Soviet losses were incomparably higher because of Stalin's incompetence before and at the beginning of combat.
Worst of all, from the point of view of Soviet traditionalists, is the conclusion of Mr. Volkogonov and many other current writers that there was an essential equivalence between the bloody despotism of Hitler and that of Stalin. In the revisionist view, 27 million Soviet lives were the price for one variety of fascism to triumph over another.
When the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman first proposed such a moral equation in his novel "Life and Fate" in the early 1960s, Communist ideologues had the KGB destroy every known copy of the manuscript. "Life and Fate," now widely considered a masterpiece, survived only because a single microfiche copy was smuggled to the West.
Today, Mr. Volkogonov persists in his view despite the firestorm of criticism from his old comrades-in-arms.
"An analysis of the war presupposes an analysis of our society," Mr. Volkogonov told the newspaper Trud. "To some, that seems premature and mistaken. They prefer another path -- not to put in doubt the sins of the system, but to see only its isolated shortcomings and oversights. Many are used to thinking that the truth has to be dispensed in doses: say part now, and withhold the rest for other times."