Fifty years after Stalin's death, one of the first and most famous western
historians to document the violence perpetrated by the brutal leader,
Robert Conquest, describes how his demise saved citizens of the Soviet
Union from greater suffering. The Conquest article was published in
The Guardian, London, UK on Wednesday, March 5, 2003.
The Robert Conquest article:
It is lucky for many - for the world - that Stalin did not live as long as
Mao. His death in Moscow 50 years ago, in circumstances that are still
dubious, proved a direct and immediate benefit to large numbers of people.
In the prisons, for example, the large group of physicians arrested in the
"doctors' plot" and charged with conspiring to assassinate the Soviet
leadership had confessed and faced execution. Their "trial" was due in a
couple of weeks. The men were freed almost immediately after Stalin's death.
Other prospective victims who were saved by his death came from the
political leadership, his old colleagues and comrades: Vyacheslav Molotov,
whose wife, formerly Stalin's wife's best friend, was in jail, Anastas
Mikoyan and others, all suspected of espionage for the US or Britain (or in
Mrs Molotov's case, the Jews).
Stalin's last year, 1952, had been particularly brutal and even now the
appearance of new material is shedding further light on the extremes of his
regime. Stalin's officials oversaw the secret trial of the Jewish
Antifascist Committee, the full text of which again only emerged in the
1990s. Execution of suspects followed months of torture, with one key
suspect testifying that he had been severely beaten 80 odd times in the
It is only by chance that evidence of many of these violent acts survives.
One of the most "Stalinist" acts of the period had been the murder of the
leading Jewish actor and producer Solomon Mikhoels. Here again, the full
story only came out in the mid-90s. The killing was done by a secret police
team from Moscow, headed by the deputy minister, Sergei Ogoltsov.
The actor was crushed under a Studebaker, then his body was left in a side
street and his death attributed to a car accident. Mikhoels was buried with
honours. We have the details because, on Stalin's death, police chief
Lavrenti Beria arrested the perpetrators, though they were later released
and the case was hushed up.
But we now at last have their confessions, which include the detail that
they were instructed to "put nothing on paper", one of them adding that
this was always the rule in such cases. Which means, of course, that there
must be much information about the regime's actions that will never be
"documented". We have learned much in recent years, but much will remain
beyond our grasp forever.
What of the mind behind all this? In his private life, if you can call it
that, Stalin wanted adulation, was extremely touchy, but at the same time
wished to appear the hearty comrade. All this informed the long, dreary
soirees described by his daughter, with colleagues in constant fear. But in
contrast, he is often described by foreigners as having charm - a word used
by the Nazi negotiators in 1939, though HG Wells said much the same, and
even Churchill felt it occasionally.
From the start, Stalin was noted for an extraordinary capacity to enforce
his will, as is also said of Hitler. This is a characteristic little
studied, and doubtless hard to analyse. The Old Bolshevik Fyodor
Raskolnikov, rehabilitated under Khrushchev, and de-rehabilitated by his
successors, saw Stalin as lacking "farsightedness".
The purge of the great majority of experienced red army officers was a huge
negative, as was, in another sphere, the execution of many of the engineers
newly trained to run the state-driven economy, the former for treason, the
latter for sabotage. As a consequence, both army and industry had been
gravely weakened by the second world war and this nearly produced disaster
when Hitler invaded.
Historians have written that Stalin was a "consummate actor". When
post-Soviet Russian historians saw that Stalin had deceived Roosevelt in
crucial world war two negotiations, academics pointed out that this was
perhaps not very surprising, since he had even managed to deceive Alexei
Rykov, Lenin's successor as head of the Soviet government, who had served
with him on the politburo in daily, close contact for over a decade - only
to be shot later.
In fact, if we look back at Stalin, we see not only terror and
ruthlessness, but - even more - deception. Not only in such things as the
faked public trials, the disappearance of leading figures, of writers, of
physicists, even of astronomers, but in the invention of a factually
non-existent society. The British socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb were
taken in by the not very sophisticated trick of having meaningless
elections, trade unions, economic claims and so on.
One major attribute of Stalinism was stupefaction or stultification. His
subjects, or dupes, had to act as if they believed what the Kremlin was
telling them in the press, on the radio. Anna Akhmatova, the poet, said
that no one could understand the Soviet system who had not been subjected
to the continuous roar of the Soviet radios at street corners and
elsewhere. And, with all that, the effective banning of non-Stalinist
thought, or its expression.
Even the wise physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of the finest minds of the
generation, said later that he was deeply affected by Stalin's death; it
took him years to break out of what he described as a "type of hypnosis"
that had blinded him and so much of the population to the reality of
As one Russian scholar later remarked, "we wiped out the best and brightest
in our country and, as a result, sapped ourselves of intelligence and
Any comparison of post-Nazi Germany with post-Stalinist Russia throws up
the obvious difference that one regime was totally destroyed and its ideas
totally discredited. There was no formal process of de-Stalinisation in
Russia; the disorganised breakdown of the Soviets left a detritus of both
ideas and interests, which took decades to disintegrate.
Stalin's heritage today? He remains respected by a swath of what may
legitimately be called reactionaries in Russia: nationalists - chauvinists.
This might have surprised him, because Stalin was not Russian and did not
even begin to learn the language until he was eight or nine. Those who
remain devoted to Stalin often combine Stalinism with religion. How Stalin,
the rebellious young theology student who went on to blow up the Cathedral
of the Christ the Saviour, would have jeered.
From Soso to Koba to Stalin
Born December 21 1879 to cobbler Vissarion Djugashvili and wife Catherine.
Grew up in Gori in Georgia. Father died when he was 11. His hard childhood
was not helped by two of his toes growing together and smallpox scars on
Names: His mother called him"Soso". In his early years he got the name
"Koba" after a literary outlaw. When he was 34, he changed his name from
Djugashvili to Stalin, meaning "man of steel".
First job: After studying theology, he fell in and out of work. He was
exiled twice to Siberia in 1902 and 1913, and even robbed trains as he
supported the revolutionary cause. Got his first real job on the newspaper
Pravda in St Petersburg before the 1917 revolution.
First rose to fame In 1917 helped Lenin direct a meeting of Bolsheviks who
approved armed uprising. Became Communist general secretary in 1922.
Worst legacy: Killed millions across Russia. Hundreds of thousands of
scientists, artists, priests and intellectuals perished in the Gulag
Better legacy: Transformed Russian industry, enabling Russia to resist the
Ukraine Market Reform Group
ArtUkraine.com Information Service
Kyiv, Ukraine and Washington, D.C.
Morgan Williams, 202 437 4707