Fifty years ago on March 5th, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died. But even now his legacy remains very much alive – and very must a matter of dispute.
The basic facts of Stalin’s life are common ground. Born in Georgia in 1879, the man who was to lead the Soviet Union for nearly three decades, joined Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and rapidly acquired a reputation as the party’s specialist on ethnic questions and as someone who was prepared to do whatever was necessary to promote the revolution. Exiled to Siberia by the czarist authorities, Stalin returned to Russian politics after the fall of the Romanov dynasty in March 1917.
A shadowy figure in comparison with his revolutionary comrades, Stalin remained in the words of one “a gray blur,” someone who worked behind the scenes. But after the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, Stalin played a key role, first as head of the new nationalities commissariat, which was responsible for organizing Russia’s many national groups, and then as general secretary of the Communist Party, a post he held from 1922 until his death.
In that capacity, he cleverly outplayed his rivals in the party, allying now with one and then with another faction until by the late 1920s, he had nearly unrivaled power. At that point, Stalin launched the collectivization of agriculture that cost millions of lives, but also laid the foundations for building up Soviet industry. He initiated the great purges against his rivals and organized what British historian Robert Conquest has called “the great terror,” the gulag prison system in which millions of Soviet citizens were sent to work, and all too often to die.
In 1939, Stalin unexpectedly signed the treaty with Nazi Germany that many historians believe set the stage for World War Two. But two years later, Hitler turned against him and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin appealed to the patriotism of Russians and other Soviet peoples. Over the next three years, at enormous cost in more than 25 million human lives and the deportation of many non-Russians who he accused of collaboration, Stalin successfully drove out the Nazi invaders and played a central role in defeating the Axis powers. And many of those who died went to their deaths with the name of Stalin on their lips.
With the end of the war, Stalin again clamped down hard on his own population, imposing an even more rigorous orthodoxy. He attacked intellectuals and shortly before his death appeared to be preparing for a massive deportation campaign against Soviet Jews.
The meaning of these facts remains very much in dispute. According to a poll taken last week, 36% of Russians think Stalin did more good than harm for their country. But 29% think that he did more harm than good, and another 34% told the polltakers they found it hard to express an opinion about him even now.
More significantly, however, even many of those who believe that Stalin did more good than harm for their country acknowledge that he was guilty of enormous crimes. Even those who believe the reverse admit that Stalin was an outsized personality who played a key role in winning the Second World War.
One of the reasons for this divided opinion is that Stalin remains very much part of the lives of many Russians. Various Moscow journals and web sites have asked their readers to share their thoughts about what Stalin’s death meant to them. Some, including the poet Semyon Lipkin, said they danced with joy on hearing the news of the dictator’s death.
Others, including editor Irina Orient, now 82, expressed real fear over what would become of her and her friends now that Stalin was gone. But most indicated that they initially kept silent because they could not be sure what would happen, whether the reign of terror Stalin had launched would be continued or whether something new and better would emerge.
With each passing year, the number of those who can remember Stalin on the basis of their own experience declines. After all, those who were teenagers in 1953 are now in their 70s. But if they are passing away, Stalin certainly is not. Indeed, he may be more central to Russian discussions today than he was in the immediate past.
Writing on this anniversary, Nina Khrushchev, granddaughter of the Soviet leader who succeeded Stalin, notes that Russia has “alternated between rampant discussion” of the late dictator “or absolute silence and self-deception.”
Under Khrushchev, who denounced what he called “the cult of personality” and later under Gorbachev who denounced Stalin’s crimes, “anti-Stalinism” was very much in the ascendant in Soviet life. But with the final collapse of communism, the intense anti-Stalinism of earlier years largely disappeared. Instead, there has been a revival of interest in and even respect and affection for the man who made the Soviet Union a great power.
Now, under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there has been a rival of the Stalin cult, one based on the desire of many to restore the power of the Russian state to the level it had under Stalin. Pavel Burdukov, a Duma member from the Agro-Industrial Group, said this week that “Namely under Stalin our state became the most powerful in the world.” And it is nostalgia for that rather than a desire to create the gulag that seems behind much of the revival of interest in Stalin.
But the revival is advanced enough that many human rights activists are concerned. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, argues that the renewed interest in Stalin carries with it a threat to democracy and concludes that if Russians and others do not speak out against this new cult, “it will become impossible to build a law-governed state in Russia.”
What the Russians call the “round” anniversary of 50 years has only intensified this discussion. It has not resolved it in any way, and indeed there may not be any way that it can be resolved precisely because Stalin was so contradictory and his influence so pervasive.
More than 40 years ago and shortly after Nikita Khrushchev ordered Stalin’s body to be removed from Lenin’s tomb on Red Square, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: “We have removed him from the Mausoleum.” And then the poet asked: “But how will we remove Stalin from the heirs of Stalin?” It is a question to which there is as yet no final answer.