Facing Up to Stalin

By Jesse Marsolais

Dying is usually bad PR for a ruthless despot. After all, most dictators jealously guard their public images throughout their lifetimes, making criticism in public an offense punishable by death. But once our leaders have merged with the infinite, history tends to judge them more discerningly. Thus, a tyrant's death often becomes an occasion for summary denouncement—the immediate inversion of a nation's terrified loyalty. Josef Stalin, however, is a notable exception. On March 5, 1953, after suffering a deadly stroke, Stalin relinquished control over a cult of personality so powerful that it had fooled the Russian people into thinking their despotic leader a wise and noble sovereign. Visit his gravesite behind Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square even today and one encounters an impressive array of wreaths and bouquets replenished almost endlessly by dedicated babushkas and patriotic atavists.

Thanks to the steady declassification of incriminating documents, however, it is now common knowledge that, through forced collectivization, show trials, ethnic purges, and costly diplomatic and military ineptitude, he was responsible for millions of deaths. We also know that at the time he died, Stalin was planning a new Terror, one that would have essentially picked up where Hitler left off in totalitarianism's campaign to destroy the Jews. Yet history has been slow to confront the reality of who Stalin was and the havoc he wrought on Russia. Over the years, a number of Atlantic contributors have commented on this slow but steady process of reevaluating Stalin and coming to terms with his legacy.

In an unsigned article in 1957, the Atlantic's editors reported on Russia's efforts thus far to distance itself from Stalin's regime. The authors noted that shortly after Stalin's death a "sweeping series of domestic legal reforms" had been implemented, and that many of the labor camps in which alleged opponents of the government had been imprisoned had been dissolved. "Soviet citizens," the authors wrote, "now appear to be enjoying more freedom from fear than at any time in the past twenty years." But the Soviet people struggled with the question of how to make sense of their nation's recent troubled history. The approach many took was that of simply effacing Stalin from the record. The Atlantic's editors noted several instances of this:

At the last session of the Supreme Soviet Council ... not one speaker mentioned Stalin's name, although Stalin was the architect and executor of the Soviet industrial revolution which transformed the Soviet Union from a backward agricultural country into the world's second industrial power.

Nor was Stalin's portrait, which once dominated all Soviet iconography, displayed in the May Day parade ... Nor has any definitive work appeared endeavoring to assess Stalin's exact role. For instance, the publication of the fortieth volume of the Soviet Encyclopedia, covering the letter S, which should have contained Stalin's biography, has been postponed indefinitely though six subsequent volumes have already appeared.

Ironically, the expurgation of Stalin's name from the record might have flattered the late dictator as a familiar tactic. After all, it was his own famous maxim "No man, no problem" that accounts for government albums full of blacked-out portraits, which were all that remained on the public record of Communism's martyred victims.

Some Russians objected to the refusal to acknowledge Stalin's existence, however, perceiving it as a rejection of their nation's history and ideals. At the May closing session of the Soviet Writers' Union 1957 meeting, for example, Mikola Bazhan, a poet and the vice premier of the Ukraine, declared,

The question of Stalin's personality has not been raised correctly. Some overzealous writers went as far as erasing Stalin's name from our works. One Moscow writer boasted in his pride that he never once mentioned Stalin's name in his works.

Bazhan dismissed those who expunged Stalin's name as "unstable individuals who panicked and were driven to the thought that there must be a reassessment of all our values and a complete about-face." Bazhan need not have worried, however; the Atlantic's editors pointed out that as of the time of their writing in 1957, "neither Stalin's policies nor his basic ideology was ever repudiated."

One person who shouldn't have had any trouble pronouncing Stalin's name was his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who in 1967 was the subject of an article by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. entitled "Twenty Letters to a Father." To Moscow's considerable agitation, Alliluyeva was about to publish Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir in which she described her experiences growing up in the eye of the Soviet hurricane. Schlesinger reviewed the controversial book, characterizing it as "a daughter's wounded judgment of a father, of an epoch, and of great hopes betrayed." He deemed the memoir an important contribution to Soviet history:

No one else saw the terrible history of Stalinism through a perspective at once so privileged and so confined; and the witness she bears, in the very narrowness and intensity of its observation, adds vastly to our understanding of the comedy and tragedy of absolute power.

The cost of such unique proximity had certainly taken its toll. Alliluyeva was loath to exonerate her father on a personal level. She noted that many others who, like herself, had had close ties to him had ended up self-destructing in one way or another. "It was as though," she says, "my father was at the center of a black circle and anyone who ventured inside vanished or perished." Her half-brother Yakov became so despairing at one point that he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself with a gun. Afterward, Alliluyeva wrote, "my father made fun of him and liked to sneer, 'Ha! he couldn't even shoot straight!'"

To the great misfortune of Alliluyeva and the rest of Russian society, Stalin's wife Nadya had better aim. Schlesinger wrote,

In November, 1932, the Communist grandees gathered for a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Revolution. Stalin loudly insisted that Nadya take a drink. Nadya, who never drank herself and was frightened by the effect of alcohol on her husband, refused. As he pressed her, she rose from her seat, ran from the room, and returning to her apartment in the Kremlin, shot herself. She left behind a letter for her husband, "a terrible letter," Svetlana says, "full of reproaches and accusations. It wasn't purely personal; it was partly political as well."

Stalin was devastated. As Schlesinger points out, Nadya's suicide "accelerated ... [Stalin's] descent into madness."

It was, Svetlana writes, "a dreadful crushing blow, and it destroyed his faith in his friends and people in general ... He viewed her death as a betrayal and a stab in the back" ... More often he tried to pursue through the labyrinthine ways of his own mind the answer to the question, who put her up to it? He obviously held Nadya's family accountable, and before he was through, he sent half its members to Siberia. And if his enemies had penetrated into his very household, how powerful they must be in the country at large!

This was the perverse line of reasoning that led to the purges that would define Stalinism in the mid-to-late 1930s. And while it may have been tempting for Alliluyeva to imagine that if only Nadya had lived, Russian history might have taken a different course, Schlesinger observes that she bravely considered an alternative possibility:

This is a hard judgment for any daughter to make of any father, and Alliluyeva may be forgiven for not resting comfortably in it. Suddenly one finds a cry of anguish: did her mother's death, she asks, "simply leave my father free to do what he would have done in any case? . . . Could she have halted the terrible process had she lived?" With courage, the daughter answers her own question: "I doubt it." If this were so, "didn't she fire her shot then out of a logic that was profoundly inevitable?"

Interestingly, it has not only been the Russian people who have had difficulty divesting themselves of illusions about Stalin following his death, but Westerners as well. In "The Terrors" (July/August 2004), a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's new biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, historian Robert Conquest considers the surprising influence Stalin wielded over intellectuals in the United States. Even as Stalin perpetrated crimes against humanity in his own country, Conquest explains, writers, thinkers, and artists in the West idealized and lionized him because the ideology he espoused held an intrinsic appeal for them.

The most remarkable thing about the Soviet phenomenon ... was not its complete control over the minds of Soviet citizens but its extraordinarily successful effort to instill its falsifications in the minds of many abroad, who were under no compulsion to accept them....

The Western misreading of the Soviet system was largely the product of a simple reflex. The Soviet order—indeed, the practice of communism everywhere—was seen as a form of "progressive" hostility to established Western politics and, particularly, economics. It seemed to represent a new system that had rid itself of the market, of exploitation. Whatever its doubtless temporary—or invented—faults (so the thinking went), the Soviet ideology stood for a better world.

After Stalin's death, little hard evidence of the horror inflicted by Stalin was available to Western scholars. "We had to learn what we could of [the Soviet Union's] past," Conquest recalls, "from an accumulation of unofficial testimonials, against a background of official silence, distortion, or denial." But many Westerners, seduced by the notion of a communist utopia, questioned the verity of such disturbing reports, dismissing them as "unreliable or indirect." It was only once the Soviet Union had collapsed and a torrent of previously suppressed material became available that the evidence against Stalin became irrefutable.

It was as though historians of an ancient empire, having been forced to rely on a handful of personal papyruses and a few royal inscriptions ... had suddenly been handed a store of material by a conscientious time-traveler....

There is no longer much serious dispute about what the terrors unleashed, or about the extravagant falsification practiced by the regime.

Conquest suggests that even today, however, despite the availability of comprehensive evidence, only those who actually experienced Stalin's rule can fully understand the extent of the damage he wrought—not only physically, but psychologically and intellectually as well.

The entire population was forced to accept a supposedly all-explaining dogma, along with the notion that it was living in a social and political utopia—when what it actually experienced, of course, was the opposite. A Russian academic told me recently that many Westerners he meets still don't realize how horrible and psychologically exhausting a life it was.

What preoccupies Conquest the most, however, is his suspicion that human nature may always be susceptible to the deceptions of ideological despots like Stalin. In his view, therefore, we may not have seen the last of his kind.

There will probably always be an alienated intelligentsia, especially in tolerant, democratic societies.... The sort of temperament we have seen during the twentieth century, combining at its worst a blend of zealotry and unteachability, can be found in earlier eras. It will doubtless always be lying in wait for us. Knowledge of its recent embodiments, although useful, will not eradicate it. The evil will, alas, simply take new forms.

Jesse Marsolais

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/07/facing-up-to-stalin/303390/