When introducing Jimmie Moglia’s video series about Stalin I promised to share with you my own take on this most controversial personality. Let me immediately say that what I will write below is most definitely not some seminal analysis of the life and personality of Stalin, but rather few more or less disjointed thoughts on a topic which I still feel that I do not understand.
The figure of Stalin has always been a controversial one. Some thought of him as the “leader of all times and all nations” (“вождь всех времен и народов”) while other saw him like the epitome of evil, a genocidal maniac who killed more people than any other individual in history. In reality, that kind of polarization is probably a strong indication of the fact that this issue is a very complex one and that a simple black and white answer is unlikely to correctly evaluate the person of Stalin and his legacy. The fact that there really was a “personality cult” during Stalin’s life and that it was followed by a emotional denunciation by Khrushchev only made things worse. Stalin is most definitely a polarizing figure and I myself have been submitted to that polarization from my early childhood.
I write an anonymous blog and I always say that what matters is not who people are, or have been, but what they have to say, their ideas. But in this case, my own views have been so strongly polarized that at the very least I have to honestly admit and explain it before proceeding any further.
I was born in a family of Russian refugees who left Russia at the end of the civil war. In Soviet parlance we were what was called ‘недобитые белобандиты” a term I would roughly translated as “escaped White-bandits” or “not executed White-bandits”. Whatever the preferred translation, this was hardy a term of endearment, to say the least. And the feeling was very mutual. Not only was my family full of “White Guards”, my own grandfather joined the Russian Schutzkorps in Serbia. After the war, my family emigrated to Argentina where, I would argue, probably the most virulently anti-Communist part of the Russian emigration typically re-settled. While I myself was born in Switzerland where my parents had moved (Swissair was hiring pilots in the early 19060s), I was raised a a rabid anti-Communist and I was involved in so many anti-Soviet activities that one day a KGB officer in Spain even made a death threat against me (he did not have the authority to do so and was, in fact, severely punished by his own people for that – but that I only learned later). To make a long story short, for most of my life my feelings about Stalin were very much similar to what many Jews today feel about Hitler: absolute total hatred, disgust and rejection.
Followers of this blog know that, to put it mildly, I have had to reconsider most of what I have been believing for years and, to some degree, this also affects my current views (however tentative and unformed) about Stalin. I am basically torn between two mutually exclusive “thought currents”:
According to estimates by exiled professor of statistics IA Kurganov, from 1917 to 1959, and excluding war losses, only from terrorist destruction, suppression, hunger, the high mortality in the camps, and including the subsequent low birth rate, cost us 66.7 million people” (” The Gulag Archipelago “, part 3, Chapter 1).
And in an interview in 1976 Solzhenitsyn said: “Professor Kurganov indirectly calculated that from 1917 to 1959 only from the internal war of the Soviet regime against its own people, that is, the destruction of its famine, collectivization, peasants deportation to prisons, camps and simple executions – just from these causes we lost, together with our civil war, 66 million people”
These figures INCLUDE the bloody Civil War, the so-called “War Communism“, the numerous anti-Bolshevik insurrections (such as the one in Tambov), the deaths resulting from the so-called “Collectivization” and “Dekulakization“, the “pure” political repression under the infamous Article 58 of the RSFSR Criminal Code and even the subsequent low birth rate. So we are talking about a “grand max” estimate. But there are some problems with such figures, I will name just one truly glaring one:
There is a general consensus amongst pro and anti Soviet historians that some of the most vicious and horrible political repressions in the Soviet Union took place between 1934 and 1937 when the secret (political) police was headed by two truly demonic figures, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Ezhov. And yet, the so-called “Great Purges” (1936-1938) also cover the time when the famous Lavrentii Beriabecame the head of secret (political) police. But ask yourself, if these are “purges” then was exactly was “purged”? The peasants? The clergy? The petty bourgeois or maybe the nobility? Not at all, it was the Party and, first and foremost, the secret (political) police, i.e. exactly the people who were guilty of the atrocities committed between 1934 and 1937. In fact – a lot of them were specifically executed for treason, abuse of power, illegal executions, etc. So how can the figures of those who were executed by the Soviet state be during the 1934-1937 years be lumped together with the figures of those who were, in turn, executed precisely for having committed these atrocities?! This would be as illogical as counting the hangings of the Nuremberg trials as “Nazi atrocities”!
Furthermore, we need to at least mention one crucial factor here: Trotskyists. I have already written about this in the past (see here) and I shall not repeat it all here again, but let’s just summarize it all by saying that there were at least two main factions struggling against each other inside the Bolshevik regime: the Trotskyists, which were mostly Jewish, which had a rabid and even racist hatred for the Russian people and Orthodox Christianity, who had the full support of the West, especially western financial circles (Jewish bankers) and who basically ran Soviet Russian from 1917 to 1938 when Stalin and Beria directed a terror campaign aimed at finally ridding the Party from the many Trotskyists it still contained (even if Trotsky himself had lost power in 1927 and left the USSR in 1929). In order to purge the Party, Stalin brought his own, trusted, Georgians (like Beria himself) and together they unleashed a brutal campaign to crack down on those who had themselves been in charge of terror just a few months before.
By the way, this was not the first bloody purge conducted by Stalin. Before crushing the “old” secret (political) police Stalin first used it to conduct an extremely violent and bloody purge of the Soviet Armed Forces including its most famous figure, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii and his family. I won’t go into the details of these purges, but I will say that I fully agree with “Viktor Suvorov” (aka Vladimir Rezun) who in his amazing book “The Cleansing” makes the case that Stalin was absolutely correct in purging the Soviet military from these generals and officers before WWII (for those who can read Russian, you can find this book online here: http://tululu.org/b54600/).
So what Stalin did is this: he unleashed the Bolshevik “old guard” (i.e. Trotskyists) against the military and once the military was purged, he then unleashed his own “new guard” (“Stalinists”) against the Trotskyists and purged the Party from most of them. Very very ruthless indeed but, in all honesty, also very smart. Think of it this way: Stalin had inherited a Party which was full of rabid, treasonous and simply crazy elements and a party which was still full of Trotskyists (which makes sense, as more than anybody else Leon Trotsky should be “credited” with creating the Soviet military, winning the Civil War and crushing all internal opposition in a huge campaign of russophobic terror). Stalin turned this Party into a Party run by one man, himself, one which had purged itself from Trotskyists foreign agents and one which had the ideological flexibility to actually appeal to the Russian people to fight off and, eventually, defeat the Nazi invaders during WWII. I think that you don’t have to “like” Stalin to see that while his methods were, no doubt, ruthless, his results were rather impressive: not only did he win WWII, but in spite of the terrible cost in human lives and destruction he turned a bloodied and severely battered Soviet Union into a world power with a powerful economy, absolutely world-class scientific community and a remarkable high standard of living during the years of recovery.
The big issue here is one of costs, especially in human lives. Frankly, and whatever the real figures are, there is no doubt in my mind that the costs were huge. The Stalinists can now say whatever they want and seek to rationalize these horrors in many ways, but there is no doubt in my mind that Stalin did not mind sacrificing millions of people in the progress of what he saw as the greater good. The way in which he, and Marshal Zhukov, send millions of people to die in desperate and, often, futile attempts at crushing the German Wehrmacht is something which can be rationalized, but not denied. Still, the Stalinists have a powerful counter-argument: could a kind and gentle person like the Czar Martyr Nicholas II have prevailed against Adolf Hitler? I don’t have a reply to this, but I admit that the argument is compelling.
Another powerful argument the Stalinists bring up today are the internal Soviet figures about the number of people actually executed by Stalin. Here it gets interesting.
The Russian Wikipedia has a long article entitled “Stalin’s Repressions” (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Сталинские_репрессии) which has not been translated by the English Wikipedia which offers only a very superficial and, frankly, biased article on people executed during the Great Purges). Here is what the Russian Wikipedia says (Google machine translation, slightly corrected by me):
In February 1954 a reference document was prepared by a certificate signed by the USSR Prosecutor General R.Rudenko, Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Justice S.Kruglovym K.Gorsheninym USSR, for NS Khrushchev. It states that the number convicted of counterrevolutionary crimes for the period from 1921 to February 1, 1954according to the report, only for this period has been condemned by the Board of the OGPU, NKVD “troika”, a special meeting, the military Collegium, courts and military tribunals 3,777,380 people, including sentenced to death 642 980, sentenced toincarceration in the camps and prisons with a sentence of 25 years and below – 2,369,220 people, to exile and expulsion – 765 180 persons. According to the “Reference document #1 of special department of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs about the number of detainees and prisoners in the period 1921 -1953 gg.” December 11, 1953, signed by the head of the archive department of the Interior Ministry Pavlov, on the basis of data which, apparently, was compiled information aimed Khrushchev, for the period from 1921 to 1938in cases of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD, and from 1939 to mid-1953 for counterrevolutionary crimes had only denounced the judicial and extrajudicial authorities 4,060,306 people were sentenced to death 799 455 person to incarceration in the camps and prisons – 2,631,397 people, to exile and expulsion – 413 512 people, to the “other measures” – 215 942 people. According to this document, all were arrested for the 1921-1938 biennium.4,835,937 people (a / p – 3341989, other crimes – 1,493,948) have been convicted 2,944,879, of them to capital punishment 745 220. In 1939-1953 has been convicted of a / p – 1,115,247, of which HMB to 54,235 (23,278 of them in 1942 g.). According to various researchers, only for the period from 1930 to 1953 on political charges was arrested from 3.6 to 3.8 million people, of which shot up from 748 786 000   . The main peak of the shooting came in the years of the “Great Terror”, where 682-684 thousand people were executed. In total in 1918-1953 gg., According to the statistics analysis of regional departments of the KGB of the USSR, conducted in 1988, the bodies of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD-NKGB-MGB 4,308,487 people were arrested, of whom 835,194 were shot.
Now let me immediately say that what matters here are not the exact figures, but the order of magnitude: under 5 million people executed, i.e. less than 1/10th of the 66 million figure of Prof. Kurganov quoted by Solzhenitsyn. Of course, this is a typical case of apples and oranges as, on one hand, Kurganov speaks of deaths (and even unborn) from 1917-1959 while the figures above are only about people officially and legally executed and incarcerated 1921-1938/51/54. And, again, neither figures make any difference between those who were innocent of their crimes and those who very much deserved to be executed for the atrocities they had themselves committed.
At this point in time I don’t think it makes sense for us to dwell on these figures too much. Personally, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t want to fall into the same trap as so many Jews have with their ridiculous insistence that “6 million Jews” were killed by the Nazis or that gas chambers were used to kill them. There is a real risk for those Russians like myself who were raised in families who hated Stalin with all their heart and souls to sacralize the “66 million” figure and that is a trap I want to avoid. However, there is another danger here, the one of minimizing the number of people murdered by Stalin (or Hitler, for that matter). It would be wrong or, at least, premature, to conclude that because there is very strong evidence that 66 million figure (or the 6 million one) are incorrect that Stalin (or Hitler) did not murder an immense number of people. Since I have personally known people who have endured the atrocities of Stalin’s (and Hitler’s) camps there is no doubt in my mind at all that a huge number of people have suffered terribly under the rule of these two dictators.
So we are left if unpalatable questions like “how much is too much?”, “was the result worth the costs?”, “should the man be blamed or the system he inherited?” and, most importantly – “what about all the others?“. And I don’t mean Hitler here, but genocidal war criminals like Winston Churchill or Harry Truman or, more accurately, the United States and Great Britain whose genocidal record of atrocities makes the Bolsheviks look almost reasonable. Just as Ivan IV “The Terrible” ought to be compared with such “gentle” folks as Henry VIII of England (not called “The Terrible” for some reason) orCatherine de’ Medici (who instigated the Saint Bartholomew Massacre). The horrible truth is that at the Nuremberg Trials the accused had much less blood on their hands than the accusers (in all fairness, they also had much less time to commit their own genocidal atrocities). None of that is meant as a way to excuse or exculpate Stalin, of course, but only to remind us all of the abominable context in which Stalin’s life and rule took place.
One thing is absolutely clear to me. There never was any such thing as “Stalinism” – at least not in the sense of some special, uniquely evil or massive period of atrocities. At most, Stalin’s ideas could be referred to “Stalinism”, especially when contrasted to the ideas of Trotsky, and I would say that having read them both, Stalin comes out as the far less brilliant but much more pragmatic and reasonable one. Whichever may be the case, nowadays “Stalinism” is used, at least in the West, as a metaphor for the “ultimate evil” and that is simply and plainly counter-factual and wrong.
In Russia, something very different is taking place. In some circles, Stalin is becoming rather popular. In fact, I would argue that Stalin has always remained popular in the Soviet Union, even after the so-called “revelations” of the XXth Party Congress and Krushchev’s (not-so) “secret speech“.
[Sidebar: I don’t have the time and space to go into this sordid story now, but let me just summarize it by saying that Stalin was murdered by his entourage and that in order to take control over a shocked Soviet Union Khrushchev embarked on a massive anti-Stalin smear campaign while concealing that he himself was one of the worst executioners of the Stalin era; Khruschev was a fantastically immoral and despicable figure and one of the most incompetent Soviet leaders ever. He, no less than Gorbachev, ought to be blamed for the inevitable collapse of a system he did so much to weaken].
For all the anti-Stalinist propaganda during the Krushchev years and all the anti-Stalinist propaganda in the 1990s, most Russians remain acutely aware of the undeniable achievements of the Soviet era in general and of the prosperity Stalin eventually did bring to the Soviet Union in spite of the huge damage inflicted upon the USSR by WWII. But there is also a trap here.
The human mind has a tendency to dismiss everything a known liar and a crook says, just as we don’t pay much attention to what person we otherwise dislike might claim. The problem with that is that while Krushchev and Eltsin did both betray their own Party and were dishonorable people, not all of their arguments were false either. Likewise, those who see through the current propaganda about “6 millions” and “gas chambers” have a risk to therefore conclude that everything about Hitler’s genocidal atrocities is just a myth, that millions of innocent people where not murdered by the Nazi regime. Sometimes, I find myself stuck with an intense dislike for both sides of a debate (say on issues such as abortion) and considering that Stalin is most vociferously discussed by western Capitalists, Trotskyists, Neocons, Russian 5th columnists, rabid Russian nationalists and many more categories which I intensely dislike, it it, at times, hard to try to separate the argument from the person making it.
Some groups in Russia are outright “mental”. The worst in the lot are the rabid Russian nationalists who think of themselves as Orthodox Christians and who actually believe that Stalin was, I kid you not, a Christian saint!!! I will spare you the full fairy tale these folks have come up with, but their bottom line is that at one point in Stalin’s life he remembered his early early education as a student in an Orthodox seminary and that he began to “resurrect Russia” at which point, you guessed it, “the Jews” killed him. They refer to him as “святой мученик Иосиф жидами убиенный” or “holy martyr Joseph killed by the Jews”.
But then, there is also a psychopathic fringe who considers Ivan the Terrible as a saint too. And Rasputin, why not? Frankly, their entire “theology” is pathetically simple: Russians are the best, all the Russian leaders are great, and any figure in Russian history perceived as negative is, of course, the object of a smear campaign, preferably by “Jews” and almostipso facto a “saint”. This kind of rabid nationalism is just a crude form of self-worship and idolatry which is absolutely antithetical to real Christianity.
I would not pay too much attention to these rather marginal if exotic groups of, frankly, deranged people. They really are a tiny minority, even smaller than the pro-western “non-system” opposition.
What is far more prevalent is what I think of as the “Reconciliation” movement. These are folks who think roughly like this:
We need to heal the divisions resulting from the Soviet era because both the Whites and the Reds were patriots. We need to stop this tendency of rejecting large chunks of our history and set aside the bad and keep and preserve that which was good. Anti-Russian forces have, for centuries, used lies, deception and propaganda to smear our history and we need to reclaim it. If you look carefully you will always realize that the anti-Soviet activist (антисоветчик) is always a russophobe.
Let me begin by clearly stating that the last sentence is patently false and it also completely contradicts the first one. Not only have I personally known hundred of virulently anti-Soviet Russians, the vast majority of them were 100% patriotic. And if you read what the White Generals, participants of the Russian Civil War and Russian émigres wrote, you will see that they all loved their country, their people, their history and culture. Likewise, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the epitome of anti-Sovietism, was always a Russian patriot, to such a degree in fact that he was considered as a “Grand-Russian nationalist” and “anti-Semite” by the Russian liberals.
Furthermore, the notion of “reconciliation” between the Whites, who represented the traditional, monarchist, Orthodox Russia and the Reds, who were rabid atheists, mostly ethnic Jews and who hated everything Russia is absolutely nonsensical. The reality is that the Red and White “principle” in Russian history are mutually exclusive and their ontological relationship is similar to the one one of healthy tissue and malignant tumor: they share a lot of their genetic code, but one will always end up killing the other.
And yet there is some wisdom in these words nonetheless or, maybe not in these words, but at least in the intention they convey. While for some this “reconciliation” is really a pious way to cover-up the atrocities committed by their Party, their country or even their own family, for others it is a legitimate expression for a refusal to completely demonize complex personalities who lived in complex times and whose legacy still has to be examined by generation of historians rather than remain in the hands of professional propagandists. And for that, a simple but crucial principle needs to be proclaimed and accepted:
The quest for the historical truth is never a lack of respect for the horrors suffered by the victims.
That, I sincerely believe, is what should be the guide to the future historians who will always have to re-visit and re-evaluate the events of the past. The sad reality is that it is extremely difficult to investigate the past, even the recent past (just think of events like 9/11, the “Timisoara massacre” or the “Srebrenica genocide”!). To make things even worse, it is also a sad reality that history is mostly written by victors and, as Michael Parenti so brilliantly explains it, by the rich and powerful. It is precisely for these reasons that historiography has to always remain revisionist as a non-revisionist history book simply is not interesting to read.
I think that following WWII the victors all engaged in a shameless campaign of demonization of their enemies. That is not to say that these enemies were not real demons of their own right – maybe they indeed were – but only that while for the newspapers and so-called “educational” system the cases of Stalin and Hitler are considered “slam dunk, file closed”, for serious historians the jury is very much still out. There is simply too much at stake and the political climate is simply not conducive at all to any even generally fair and honest investigation.
Personally, I am left with a sense of not knowing enough. So all I can share with you is my gut feeling, my best guesstimate if you want, of what Stalin and the Soviet era represented for Russia. So here are my highly subjective and personal conclusions which I share with you as a basis for discussion and not as The Total And Final Truth on this issue.
1) The historical Russia has been murdered and completely destroyed by the Bolshevik/Soviet regime. There is no continuity of any type between the rule of Czar Nicholas II and the Lenin-Trotsky duo. Therefore, there is no continuity between what came before and after these two Bolshevik leaders. The post-Soviet “Russia” after 1991 had nothing in common with the real Russia of before 1917. As for Putin’s Russia, the Russia after 2000, it is a new Russia Russia which is neither the pre-1917 one, nor the “democratic” pseudo “Russia” of Eltsin, but a new Russia whose real nature I still have to comprehend and which absolutely amazes me. In my wildest dreams during the horrible 1990s, especially 1993, I would never ever imagined to see what I see in Russia today and this gives me a great deal of hope. This new Russia has much stronger roots in the Soviet period than in the distant pre-1917 Russia, but what it has finally truly ditched is the rabid russophobia of the early Bolshevik years and of the equally rabidly russophobic 1990s. And that is really interesting because nowdays you will find monarchists, like Alexander Rutskoi, and Stalinists, like Nikolai Starikov, generally very much agreeing on the present even if they don’t agree about the past. Speaking for myself, as a “People’s Monarchist” (a kind of uniquely Russian Left-leaning monarchism embraced by Fedor Doestoevskii, Lev Tikhomirov or, especially, Ivan Solonevich) I also find myself in agreement with much of what Starikov writes. Except for his book on Stalin which I find absolutely non-convincing, to put it mildly. So this is something new, I think. I do not believe that the “Reds” or the original Bolsheviks were Russian patriots at all, I believe that this is a total myth, however, I do believe that those who today believe in this myth are themselves sincere and real patriots. So while I don’t believe that it possible to find any common ground or “reconciliation” between the White and the Red principles, I do very much believe that there is a real opportunity for a joint stance of Russian patriots today against the real enemy of Russia: the AngloZionist Empire.
Take a look at this amazing picture: the ex-prisoner of the Gulag shakes hands with the ex-KGB officer. True, Putin was only a foreign intelligence officer member of the First Chief Directorate (PGU) of the KGB which had nothing to do with any purges, dissidents or Gulags, but he still wore the same uniform as those KGB officers who kept a watchful (and mostly incompetent) eye on the Russian people (the Fifth Chief Directorate). So this handshake is immensely symbolic: not only did Solzhenitsyn receive Putin in his own home, but his entire face was beaming with real joy (as was Putin’s). These men were both educated and intelligent enough to realize not only the immense power of this symbolic moment, but they also realized what this meant for Russia: that real Russians (in the civilizational sense, of course, ethnically the category “Russian” is meaningless) were finally back in control of their own country. Solzhenitsyn lived long enough to see his country liberated (at least mostly) from the occupation of russophobic leaders representing foreign interests and he also saw that a fellow officer (Solzhenitsyn was decorated First Lieutenant of the Red Army before his arrest in 1945) was now in command of the country.
I think that Putin strikes the exact and correct balance. He has never rejected the Soviet period in toto, nor has he ever idealized it either. He has referred on numerous occasions to the horrible and senseless massacres of a multitude of innocent Russian people by a Soviet regime run amok with russophobia and class-hatred. And yet he has also shown his sincere respect and admiration for the people who lived during the Soviet era and their immense achievements.
2) There is a misguided attempt at completely white-washing Stalin and the entire Soviet period. This is not surprising by itself. The vast majority of the modern Russian elites have direct family ties to the Soviet elites and the infamous Soviet nomenklatura. It is only natural for these people to want to justify the actions of their family members. While there are millions of Russians whose families did suffer terrible during the Soviet era, a much smaller proportion of these families then made it into the Soviet elites and, therefore, into the new, post-Soviet elites which run Russia today. There are some exceptions, of course, mostly families of rehabilitated Party members who, following this rehabilitation, have kept their loyalty or, at least, respect, for the CPSU. Finally, the millions who where murdered rarely left many children behind and, when they did, those children where themselves the object of repression as “class enemies” and “anti-Soviet families” so their voice has almost been totally drowned in the current loud chorus of “Soviet-rehabilitators”. Again, this kind of back-swing of the pendulum of historiography is normal, but it will inevitably followed by another swing which will produce much more critical results. God willing, and with time, the correct evaluation will finally be made. But maybe it never will – it is too early to tell.
3) I feel confident saying that Stalin was most definitely no worse than his predecessors and that in many ways, the nature and policies of the Soviet regime did change for the better under his rule. Still, I remain convinced that he was a ruthless leader, who lead the country by a careful mix of terror and inspiration and who did not hesitate to sacrifice millions of people when needed to achieve a goal he had set. I am also pretty certain that it was during Stalin’s rule that the first Russian patriots made it back into the structure of power and that this slow and gradual re-penetration continued under Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the rest of the Soviet leaders until 1991. And if the 1990s were an absolute horror, it is to those Soviet-grown patriots (after God, of course!) that modern Russia owe her amazing rebirth. Sure, as we all know, good things can grow in bad places, but I have to believe that at least something in the Soviet society was right to have produced such remarkable leaders as the ones in the Kremlin today.
Modern Russia has nothing in common with the Russia between 1917 and 1953. So to speak of a possible return to “Stalinism” is not only wrong, it is absurd. This also means that Stalin’s policies, whether seen as good or bad, are simply not transferable to modern Russia. And that, in turns, means that the discussion about the historical past, the nature and legacy of Stalin’s rule, will not have a major impact upon the decision-making of Russian leaders. And this is very good thing, because it makes the entire discussion rather abstract and, therefore, safe. Starikov and Zhirinovskii (a radical anti-Communist who despises Stalin) can argue to their heart’s content about Stalin or monarchy (which the self-described Stalinist Starikov respects and cherishes), but when faced with the conflict in the Ukraine or Syria these debates will have very little impact upon the Kremlin’s decisions.
So while I remain extremely critical of Stalin and of the whole Soviet period, I think that the current de-demonization of Stalin is a very good thing and I very much hope that it will give historians theintellectual and ideological freedom they need to do their work. For the time being, I rather step aside and wait to read more of their books.
Your turn now – please tell me what you think about Stalin and his role in history!