Confronting Stalin's Legacy, 60 Years After His Death

Memory of dictator still positive in Russia and the west


The 60th anniversary of the death of one of history's most murderous tyrants has passed with relatively little notice. Yet the shadow of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who died on March 5, 1953, still hangs over post-communist Russia—and has yet to face proper judgment in the West. This is one bloody ghost still waiting for its final exorcism.

During the years of his absolute rule over the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people. They included victims of state-engineered famines, particularly in Ukraine, intended to starve the peasantry into submission to collective farming; people from all walks of life shot on trumped-up charges of subversive activities; and others sent to the Siberian labor camps known as the gulag, never to return. Untold millions who survived lost years of their lives to the gulag. (Among the latter were my own paternal grandparents, who were arrested in 1947 and released after Stalin's death; ironically, unlike most of their fellow prisoners, they were actually guilty as charged—of "betraying the motherland" by trying to escape the Soviet Union and go to Palestine.)

If there was ever a true devil in the flesh, Stalin was one of the prime candidates for the title. A tyrant with a deeply sadistic streak, he reportedly howled with laughter when told about the final moments of a former associate who had been promised clemency in exchange for a false confession and vainly begged his executioners to "please call Comrade Stalin" and clear up the misunderstanding. He jailed the wives of several men in his inner circle, presumably just for the pleasure of seeing his underlings squirm and showing them who's boss.

Yet four years ago, this monster came close to being chosen as history's greatest Russian in a nationwide Internet and telephone vote. Though the voting was not representative, actual polls also yield discouraging results. In a survey conducted last month by the Levada Center, a respected independent polling firm, almost one in 10 Russians said that Stalin's role in Russia's history was "entirely positive" while another 40 percent saw it as "mostly positive." Fewer than a third believed it was entirely or mostly negative, while the rest were not sure.

To some extent, this sympathy for the devil is a grass-roots phenomenon, fueled by anger at Russia's humiliation and fantasies of national greatness. But the Stalin revival has also been deliberately cultivated by the neo-authoritarian Russian state under Vladimir Putin, despite official lip service to the acknowledgment of Stalin's crimes. A standard history textbook approved by the government a few years ago described the dictator as "an effective manager" seeking to build up Russia as an industrial and military power. In recent years, official celebrations of Russia's victory over Germany in World War II have featured tributes to Stalin as the generalissimo who won the war; for last year's Victory Day, Stalin's portraits appeared on the side of buses in some 40 Russian cities. Ironically, most historians agree that Stalin could not have done worse damage to the Soviet Union's war readiness if he had tried to sabotage it on purpose; his winning strategy consisted of using millions of Russian conscripts as cannon fodder.

This month, one of Russia's leading television channels, NTV, marked the anniversary of the tyrant's death with a documentary titled "Stalin Is With Us." With pro-Stalin historian Yuri Zhukov as chief consultant, the film depicted the Great Leader as less a communist than a Russian patriot who devoted his life to making his country strong; the Great Terror was not only portrayed as an acceptable cost of empire-building but was blamed on the perfidious West and the excessive zeal of Stalin's henchmen as well as local officials. Meanwhile, the municipal government of Volgograd has decided that the city's name will officially revert to Stalingrad on six war-related dates every year.

Pro-freedom Russians overwhelmingly agree that no progress toward a free and decent society is possible without true de-Stalinization. But what of the dictator's memory in the free world?

True, one would be hard-pressed to find Stalin admirers in the West. Yet the persistent double standard when it comes to communist and Nazi crimes remains. Communist old-timers, including blatant Stalin apologists such as the recently deceased British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, are treated with a respect no one would ever dream of according ex-Nazis or Hitler whitewashers. Revisionist historians who minimize Hitler's crimes, such as David Irving, are ostracized. Historians who paint a kinder, gentler Stalinism—such as Robert W. Thurston of Ohio's Miami University, author of the 1996 revisionist tract "Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia"—pay no such price. In 1992, The Chronicle of Higher Education gave Thurston a platform to attack a Library of Congress exhibition on Soviet archives for focusing on the Soviet regime's brutality and ignoring its achievements.

To some extent, this double standard is rooted in the unique horror of the Nazi quest to exterminate entire races. But there also remains, on the left, a lingering belief that Soviet communism was at least motivated by noble goals of social justice.

Vestiges of this delusion can be found in left-wing sympathy for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who, by startling coincidence, died exactly 60 years after Stalin. Chavez was not a mass murderer, but he was an authoritarian ruler who rigged elections, gutted judicial independence, muzzled the press, and arrested political opponents—while spouting Soviet-style rhetoric about creating "the new man and woman" and building "the socialist society." After his death, The Nation, the premier magazine of the American left, published a long, fawning obituary by Greg Grandin, which declared that Chavez's real fault was that "he wasn't authoritarian enough." Grandin acknowledged that this argument was "perverse"; one can think of a few other terms.

Perhaps it's not just Russians who need to shake the dust of Stalinism from their boots before they can move forward.

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.