The Cleverness of Joseph Stalin

Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (former Central Party Archive)
Lenin and Stalin at Gorki, just outside Moscow, September 1922; photograph by Maria Ulyanova, Lenin’s sister. Stephen Kotkin writes that ‘Stalin had images of his visit published to show Lenin’s supposed recovery—and his own proximity to the Bolshevik leader. This pose was not among those published.’

Joseph Stalin, for a quarter-century undisputed master of the Soviet Union and its postwar satellites, was one of the leading mass murderers of the murderous twentieth century. So much so that Hitler, Stalin’s competitor in this field, came greatly to admire him. In some of his “table talks,” held in the circle of intimate associates while German troops were ravaging the Soviet Union, Hitler called him a “genius” and a “tiger.”*

According to Alexander Yakovlev, a member of the Politburo and the closest adviser of Mikhail Gorbachev, who as chairman of a commission to study Stalinist repressions had access to all the relevant records, Stalin was responsible for the death of 15 million Soviet citizens. He tyrannized over the country as no one had done before. Yet according to public opinion polls, he remains one of Russia’s most popular political figures: a survey conducted in 2006 revealed that nearly one half (47 percent) of Russians regarded him as a positive figure.

What accounts for this paradox? It is that the great majority of Russians have little interest in politics. They regard politicians as crooks and esteem them only to the extent that they protect them from their neighbors and foreigners. Their concerns are not national but local, which means that the majority of them do not participate in politics in the sense in which the ancient Greeks have taught us. Thus when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 after nearly three quarters of a century of unprecedented tyranny, there were neither protests nor jubilations; people simply went about their private business. The lives of the great majority of Russians are uncommonly personal, which makes them excellent friends and poor citizens.

There was nothing in Stalin’s background to have anticipated that he would wield such monstrous power. He came into the world in the Georgian province of the Russian Empire, the child of a cobbler and a washerwoman, both of whom had been born serfs. His actual year of birth was 1878 but in 1922 he decided to rejuvenate himself and proclaimed his birthdate to have been December 21, 1879. Henceforth, as long as he was alive, his birthday was celebrated on that day throughout the Soviet Union. His alleged fiftieth birthday in 1929 was a national holiday.

Harvard University’s library catalog lists over 1,200 books about Stalin. Among the best known of these are the biographies by the French ex-Communist Boris Souvarine (published in 1935) and Leon Trotsky (posthumously published in 1941). Of the more recent biographies, especially noteworthy is that…

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