Most people hate to speak ill of the dead. They look for something nice to say about even the not-so-dear departed. People’s natural imperfections usually seem to shrink when they leave this earth.
Not so with Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, as he was named at birth. He later took the revolutionary pseudonym Stalin, often translated as “man of steel.” It was all too accurate, a foreshadowing of the tragic consequences millions of people suffered under his command. He died 70 years ago, with even his closest aides wanting him dead — and they were lucky to have survived, since he may have been preparing to embark on another killing spree targeting those surrounding him.
Stalin was born on Dec. 18, 1878, in the city of Gori in the Russian Empire, now part of Georgia. With his father an alcoholic and unsuccessful shoemaker, Stalin could expect little in life. However, he was a surprisingly good student — and read widely even decades later while ruling over a vast empire. He went to seminary but decided that he was an atheist, turned to revolution, and quit school. He was sent into internal exile, escaped, joined the Bolsheviks, and, in 1905, met Vladimir Ilich Lenin.
At that time, Communist revolutionaries were a disconsolate lot. Russia’s defeat by Japan forced a modicum of reform, diffusing pressure to overthrow the system. Had the tsar heeded desperate efforts by his cousin, the German kaiser, to forestall Russian mobilization, World War I, a conflict simultaneously tragic and stupid, might have been avoided. The dynasty then could have lasted for years if not decades. Instead, several of the continent’s leading royal houses — Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman — effectively committed suicide by jumping into the abyss of war.
By March 1917, the Russian people were fed up with combat and its hardships, from mass casualties to pervasive hunger, and ousted Tsar Nicholas II. However, the liberal provisional government that took power also chose war over peace. That November, members of the once minuscule Bolshevik movement staged a coup, which brought the 38-year-old Stalin into government.
More than anyone else, Stalin made the modern Soviet nation — but at extraordinary cost.
Committed to communism, determined to win, and prepared to ruthlessly subordinate everything to victory, Stalin helped the Communist Party consolidate power and win the ensuing Civil War. Fortune favored his rise: In 1922, Lenin appointed Stalin the party’s general secretary, a critical position his rivals disdained. A month later, Lenin had his first stroke, enhancing Stalin’s role and preventing the one man who could have removed Stalin from doing so.
Upon Lenin’s death in 1924, a five-year power struggle ensued that left the Man of Steel in charge. He brilliantly outmaneuvered his supposedly smarter and better qualified opponents through constantly shifting alliances. Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and Nikolay Bukharin, along with many others, died amid the infamous show trials that highlighted the Great Terror. Only the exiled Leon Trotsky seemed beyond reach, but he was eventually assassinated. Stalin’s minions continually rewrote history and airbrushed photos to eliminate those who went from revolutionary heroes to ideological traitors.
Stalin turned the USSR into a brutally murderous totalitarian state, but, even had Lenin lived and ousted Stalin, Bolshevik rule would not have been gentle. Lenin was equally remorseless and coldblooded, and he let nothing hinder his quest for power. Trotsky, contra his later image as a bespeckled intellectual, was a warlord par excellence — organizer of the assault that crushed the Kronstadt rebellion, led by sailors demanding a more liberal revolution, and commander of Red military forces during the Civil War. Stalin was the perfection of Bolshevik terror, not its exception.
Although Stalin desired personal power, he was committed to implementing communism. He drove agricultural collectivization at horrendous cost, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Caucasus, and Volga. In his view, the process yielded both economic and political benefits. In contrast, most of his colleagues were reluctant to launch the sort of war on the countryside necessary to force farmers to give up their land, as is required by true communism.
More than anyone else, Stalin made the modern Soviet nation — essentially a renamed Russian Empire — but at extraordinary cost. None of the Bolshevik leaders were squeamish, but Stalin was almost uniquely indifferent to the price paid. The Russian Civil War may have cost at least 10 million lives. All sides killed promiscuously, while many civilians died from starvation and disease. But Stalin’s reputation for brutality became especially well established.
The great Soviet famine, or Holomodor, came a decade later. Stalin wanted to destroy the “kulak,” or landowning peasant, class. As many as 10 million people perished. While he may not have intended to kill so prolifically, the deaths certainly did not concern him, and he threatened subordinates who proved insufficiently ruthless in enforcing farm collectivization and food seizures. (READ MORE: The Horrors of the Holodomor Must Not Be Forgotten)
The most enduring symbol of Stalin is what has been variously called the Great Purge or Great Terror. When in Moscow shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, I visited the House of the Unions, where some of the trials were held, apparently watched by Stalin from above. His victims were mostly Communist Party members and especially privileged apparatchiks. Almost always the charges were not just fanciful but fantastic. Nevertheless, it was difficult to feel much sympathy for those who had backed the Bolshevik Revolution and labored for the Soviet state. Whether merely ignorant or truly malicious, they were reaping what they had sown.
The human carnage was constant. The secret police, then known as the NKVD, produced lists of names for execution, initialed by Stalin as if he were approving the purchase of office supplies. Soviet officials routinely packed small bags of necessities to be ready for the dreaded pre-dawn knock on the door. Historian Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, estimated the number of “legal” executions to be perhaps 1 million, most for nonexistent crimes based on nonexistent evidence. However, he figured that, overall, far more died, especially from imprisonment in the Gulag: “Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of the Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some fifteen million.”
Even so, Stalin was never satisfied. He constantly demanded more victims, backed by additional evidence of crimes and conspiracies committed by, in particular, the Trotskyites. It mattered little who was executed, so long as someone was. The security agencies obliged. At times survival seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Social scientist R.J. Rummel detailed the casual mass slaughter in Death by Government:
[M]urder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the “enemies of the people” they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering “plots.” They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.
Yet the executioners were little more secure than their victims. Stalin feared as well as used security personnel, successively discarding NKVD chiefs Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolay Yezhov, along with their top aides. Lavrenty Beria replaced Yezhov, but, in 1953, Stalin appeared to be preparing another purge, which Beria knew would have started with him — hence suspicions, never proved, that he had the dictator poisoned. To be among Stalin’s entourage was a high wire act without a net, in which the slightest misstep or wind gust would send one tumbling into the vast Gulag.
Others, sometimes entire peoples, suffered — deported, imprisoned, or murdered — because Stalin could not count on their loyalty. Many Soviets initially looked on German invaders as liberators, and who could blame them? Residents of the Baltic republics, swallowed by the Soviet Union after the Hitler–Stalin Pact. Ukrainians, their food confiscated, property seized, and families starved. Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, Chechens, and other oppressed minorities. Treating such groups as allies might have yielded victory for Berlin, but, for Adolf Hitler, racist ideology came before practical strategy. Hence Ukrainians, especially, resisted reestablishment of Soviet rule after battling the German occupation.
Joseph Stalin demonstrated the logical endpoint of real socialism.
Even returning Soviet POWs, captured as a result of Stalin’s strategic myopia and their commanders’ tactical blunders, were considered criminals, with hundreds of thousands imprisoned on their return. Worse was the treatment of foreign soldiers. In September 1939, the USSR invaded eastern Poland, seizing the spoils guaranteed by Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. Early the following year, the NKVD murdered an estimated 20,000 Poles — soldiers and police officers, professionals and intellectuals, and others who might resist Soviet control. After the war, Moscow held Germany POWs in hard labor into the mid-1950s, with some 400,000 dying in captivity.
On March 5, 1953, Stalin died. Officially the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage. The theory that he was murdered, presumably by Beria, is plausible, but disputed. In either case, his end did not come nearly soon enough. The most immediate benefit was an agreement to an armistice in the Korean War, which Stalin had blocked. There were no more purges. Camps were emptied and closed. People were rehabilitated. Soviet politics stopped being a blood sport, at least after Beria’s arrest in June and subsequent execution. His colleagues had little moral standing, having all participated in Stalin’s crimes, but turned on him out of fear for their lives. Ironically, Beria was pushing reforms that would have ended the Cold War decades early, an effort that also unsettled his colleagues.
Nikita Khrushchev won the ensuing power struggle, relaxed internal controls, and famously denounced Stalin. The latter’s body was initially placed alongside Lenin’s in Red Square, but, in November 1961, Khrushchev had the remains moved nearby to the Kremlin Wall. Khrushchev’s subsequent ouster by Leonid Brezhnev completed the shift from unimaginable horror to sclerotic oppression, awful but no longer characterized by mass slaughter. The USSR was still an “evil empire,” as President Ronald Reagan insisted, but there was hope for change, which eventually arrived in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev initiated multiple reforms and sought to offer some redress for Stalin’s crimes. The process was tough going even for Communist loyalists like Alexander Yakovlev, who headed the Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression:
To descend step by step down seventy years of Bolshevik rule into a dungeon strewn with human bones and reeking of dried blood is to see your faith in humankind dissolve.… More and more bloodstained documents pile up on my desk.… Nothing I have ever read comes close to the horror of these semiliterate compositions of the secret police and these covert denunciations of informants, or “well-wishers.” I ought to be used to them by now. I’m not.
No one should ever get used to them. That’s a good reason to ensure that children, too young to have seen the mass tragedy embodied by the Soviet Union and everything inspired by it, learn about the history of communism. Today people speak of socialism as if it were just a variant of liberal redistributionism. Alas, Joseph Stalin demonstrated the logical endpoint of real socialism, with the state in control of the means of production and everything else. (RELATED: Teach Your Children Well — About Communism)
However unseemly it may seem to dance on graves, an exception should be made for mass murderers who inflicted such monstrous horror on everyone else — and whose legacies continue to infect nations and foment conflicts. It may take another seven decades to finally excise Stalin’s malignant legacy from modern life.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.