Readers Write In #370: The Josef Stalin Story

Posted on May 29, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

DISCLAIMER:

This essay is a humble attempt to recount whatever I had read recently in historian Isaac Deutscher’s definitive book- Stalin, A Political Biography. There will be plenty of events here which I have discussed already in my series of essays in this blog titled The Russian Revolution. I really request my readers not to proceed further if they fall under any one of the following categories: one- you have already read some of my essays in the previous series; two- you have a strong aversion to communism/Marxism and three- you have a complete antipathy to the subject of this essay, Josef Viktor Stalin, the former dictator of the Soviet Union.

And despite all these warnings, if you are in fact proceeding further, I wish to make some more honest disclosures- I am a Marxist by political leaning, even if the term doesn’t fully account for my consciousness, my thought process and other aspects of my being. I chose this subject for a long essay only because the subject has still not exhausted its ‘fascinating’ core for me and if you see flashes of Marxist propaganda in many places, please remember that most of it are neither intentional nor unintentional.

This essay will to some extent, try to peek into the head of the Great Dictator while he was administering the largest empire in the world for close to three, eventful decades.

***

Josef Djugashvili was born into a family of poor fortune in the late 1870s in a remote corner of country called Georgia. His family belonged to a community of serfs who were ruled by nobles supported by the Russian Tsar dynasty. Djugashvili was enrolled in a school run by the local Church and his family expected him to become a priest. As years rolled by, a revolutionary called Vladimir Lenin and his followers were gaining traction all over Russia as well around its satellites. Socialism, a doctrine inspired by the writings of Karl Marx had various ‘flavours’ which reflected in a number of political groupings that populated the whole of the Russian empire. Djugashvili was inspired by Marx’s writings and decided one day to join the league of Lenin’s followers. As more and more people oppressed by the rule of Tsars and his noblemen gravitated towards Lenin’s movement, the government decided to clampdown on the insurgents. Djugashvili had to assume different names to pursue revolutionary work and spent a good part of his life working underground. He developed a keen writing habit and began publishing pamphlets for circulation among Lenin’s followers. Georgia like Tsarist Russia was an extremely backward country and these pamphlets were taken up by Lenin’s followers to be read at secret meetings to illiterate, working people. Lenin was a Russian by birth and it required the literary prowess of Djugashvili to translate all his speeches and essays into local Georgian.

During the revolution of 1905, Djugashvili under the name of Koba began to attract the attention of his great leader, Lenin. He understood the difficult work that Koba was undertaking to popularize the movement among fellow Georgians and the fact that during the numerous factional struggles that happened between Lenin and his fellow comrades like Plekhanov, Koba always took Lenin’s side endeared him to the leader all the more. Lenin’s movement had a good number of scholars and intellectuals who went by the names of Leon Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev,etc. All of them were not only well-read people but also popular leaders who could be trusted on carrying out strikes, demonstrations and large-scale protests successfully. There were numerous open ends in what was called the Marxist doctrine that were left to be filled up by revolutionaries based on the force of circumstances they were to encounter in the future. All these open ends led to enormous, high-sounding debates among the revolutionaries as a result of which Lenin’s party was split into two- the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Koba who was by no means an intellectual or a Marxist scholar safely decided to back the Bolsheviks.

josef stalin

For more than twelve years until 1917, Koba was arrested more than five times by the Tsarist police and was shunted in and out of the country. But he carried on with his work wherever he went and kept in touch with his Bolshevik leader. In February 1917, the Tsar abdicated the throne in the middle of a draining war against Germany and a Provisional government led by the Mensheviks was installed. The Mensheviks were confused on the question of whether to continue with the war against Germany or not while the Bolsheviks remained fixed on their slogan ‘Land, Peace and Bread’ to the masses. Elections to the Soviets (village councils) were held and Lenin’s faction simply swept them. Lenin assumed power in November 1917 and Koba who had by then assumed the name of Stalin joined the Party’s top brass. People all over Russia were jubilant on the rise of the Bolsheviks to the top and expected the Party to make peace with the Germans, redistribute lands owned by the princes and nobles and seize all means of production.

Russia lost a large number of territories to its opponents on account of its peace-making treaty at Brest Litovsk in 1918. Even before a large-scale land reform could be initiated, the forces that were dethroned by the Bolsheviks could wait no longer to pay them back. Military and financial assistance was provided by the Americans, British and other European countries to the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ who went by the name of ‘White Guards’. Russia was plunged into a bloody Civil war the very same year and soon Lenin was forced into the creation of an Army dedicated to the cause of the socialist revolution. Leon Trotsky was assigned the job who had a difficult time in separating pro-Tsar elements from the socialist sympathizers in the army corps. The Army had to rely on volunteering as well and military training had to be imparted to the new recruits. Within a few months, Trotsky completed his mission successfully and the Red Army was created to take on the powerful White Guards on the battlefield. All these days, Stalin was taking care of administrative duties, mostly office work assigned to him by Lenin and the Party.

In 1922, the bloody civil war ended and a deeply impoverished and demoralized Russia returned into the arms of the victorious Bolsheviks. But the civil war left more scars and wounds than any other event before. The Government led by Lenin decided to clamp down on the opposition and soon decrees were passed as to outlaw any party other than the ruling one. Lenin also came up with the New Economic Policy inviting private investment in agriculture and industries which actually went against the grain of the Party’s Marxist doctrine. On many of these issues, Lenin’s decisions were often contested internally within the Party and on all these occasions, Stalin voted in favour of his leader, Lenin. In 1924, Lenin suffered a fatal stroke and soon passed away.

The rule of the Russian Union, now called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) came under the triumvirate composed of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Leon Trotsky, the hero of the Civil War decided to join the opposition ranks within the party and he split with the now General Secretary, Josef Stalin on one crucial point – ‘the question of international socialist revolution’. Trotsky, similar to Lenin had believed strongly on the imminence of a socialist revolution in industrially advanced Western Europe and such an event they all assumed, would in turn help the cause of the backward, semi- Asiatic, village-like country called Russia. Trotsky strongly believed that a socialist Russia could not thrive in isolation with the rest of the world, especially with the capitalist countries in Europe who were always waiting to destroy the revolution. Therefore, Trotsky kept inciting the government to proceed towards ‘exporting’ the revolution abroad and tried to use the Communist International (Comintern) forum towards revolutionary purposes. But Stalin on the other hand, being more of a realist than of a scholar did not share Trotsky or even Lenin’s views on this question. The Comintern was essentially nothing but a conglomerate of Communist Parties located in various countries waiting for orders from Soviet Russia to start a revolution on their respective homelands. But Stalin was already deeply affected by the hostilities shown by the Western Powers during the Civil War and hence was in no mood to incur more of them by triggering ‘revolutions’ overseas.

Stalin on the other hand was also deeply worried by Russia’s industrial backwardness and decided to adopt a new policy. He reversed the NEP introduced by Lenin and forced the large, private farmers to surrender their lands to the Government. The large farmers called Kulaks were incensed and decided to burn their crops, destroy their agricultural implements and kill their cattle. Stalin was deeply disturbed by their reaction which forced him to use violent means to seize their possessions. Villages witnessed the deployment of police and army authorities that seized the lands from the hands of the Kulaks and sent them to concentration camps. This policy to seize land was created and enforced with a view to ‘collectivize’ agriculture, i.e the abolishment of land ownership towards creation of collective farms owned by none including the State. This policy was expected to improve gross agricultural output which in turn could be used towards the purposes of creation of large-scale industry. Stalin’s methods of forcible collectivization not only antagonized him among the Kulaks but also earned the wrath of Trotsky and the Left Opposition. In the initial years, the policy too started delivering disastrous results. The collectivized lands were to be worked upon using modern agricultural implements by the illiterate farm labourer who had virtually no training on them. The implements too, manufactured and provided by the State lacked in quality and effectiveness. All of these contributed towards large-scale famines in many parts of rural Russia and led to the death of lakhs of people. During the Civil war of 1917-22 too, Lenin’s Government had incurred the wrath of the peasants by forcible requisitioning of agricultural output to be used for feeding the soldiers caught in combat. All these actions of the government created a deep distrust of it among a large section of the Russian populace.

***

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was something that gave hope to millions of Russians who were just waiting to free themselves from the yoke of the ruthless Tsars. The Bolsheviks promised to end exploitation in any form that it existed and usher in a new era of peace, fulfilment and equality. But what happened in the immediate years of the Revolution was quite the opposite, which to an extent was not of course, the fault of Lenin’s revolutionary party. The Civil War even if it was fought by a lot of young and aspiring socialists in the ranks of the Red Army against the reactionary White Guards, only ended up extinguishing all hopes of a quick transition to a Utopian, exploitation-free society in the immediate future, among the masses. Not only were the families of those who participated in the war disillusioned and fatigued, a large number of ordinary, neutral Russians were also repulsed by the way the Bolsheviks carried themselves during the war. The Civil War was not started by the erstwhile princes and nobles alone; it was also joined by the old friends of the Revolution who had broken with Lenin on a lot of accounts. These erstwhile sympathizers of the Revolution were incensed at how Lenin’s government seized grain from the farmers for war purposes and let them to die of starvation.The Bolshevik government became notorious for how mercilessly it crushed the rebellion at Kronstadt which consisted primarily of sailors who were once active supporters of the revolution.

Only during the days of the Civil War, the party maintained a façade of being monolithic and squabble-free. All the leaders of the party, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev focused solely on putting a quick end to the Civil War and adjourned all their differences to a later date. But soon after it ended, a lot of followers of these top leaders broke ranks with those of the others and came out into the open. Most of these leaders were extremely popular among the masses and their acts of public airing of their grouses with their Governments tended to confuse the general public. Add to this, the terrible experience of the Civil War and the starvation that accompanied it began to create a strong antipathy among the masses against the Government. After Lenin’s death, Stalin was quite conscious of the public mood and had no other choice but to act upon the opposition. His forcible collectivization measures too only increased public hostility against him which he sought to remedy by another method- by rapid industrialization of the country that he hoped would increase national output and usher in economic prosperity. He ordered for the installation of schools, technical institutes and universities all over the country and recruited thousands of engineers, workers, clerks, accountants and teachers towards the great industrialization drive. From late 1920s towards the first half of the 1930s, Russia’s industrial output grew three times and when the rest of the world was grappling with the issues of Economic Depression, the great Empire continued to expand in terms of GDP and other economic indices.

Millions of young children who were initially considered fit only to continue the professions of their parents were ordered by Stalin to be admitted into schools. Farmers who were for all these years separated from each other based on their primitive identities were forced to rub shoulders with one another at the Farmer Collectives. State propaganda calling for workers to join the State in its attempt to ‘build socialism’ from scratch did have an effect among the masses. By 1936-37, even if a majority of the Russian population didn’t wholly believe in the sincerity of Stalin or trust his efforts towards nation-building, the results of his endeavor were far too compelling to remain indifferent to him. It must also be added that even if the masses had been entrusted with an opportunity to overthrow the regime at that point of time, there was actually no other leadership in sight to take over and such attempts at rebellion would have only spelt anarchy and doom for the great Russian Empire as a whole.

But when slowly everything was turning in Stalin’s favour, he decided to commit one major sin. In the period of 1914-17, when Tsarist Russia was engaged in the First World War against Germany, Lenin had decided to up his ante and call for a complete revolution. As the battle with the Germans was turning out to be tiring and mind-numbing for the Russians, they decided to heed his call and ended up overthrowing the Tsarist regime. Stalin, the son of a backward, Asiatic family of Serfs whose scholarly achievements were much below those of his colleagues must have felt threatened by their powerful presence at a very similar historical juncture once again- the rise of Adolf Hitler in the West whose one among many missions was ‘the wiping away of Bolshevism from the face of the earth’. Stalin must have been extremely suspicious about the prevailing popular mood and must have overrated the abilities of his scholarly colleagues Kamenev, Trotsky and Zinoviev to stage a popular revolt against him. Even if Hitler hadn’t given direct signs about an impending invasion of Russia, every observer of international politics was completely sure about the eventuality. What if Hitler invades and one of my colleagues reach out to make a pact with him and end up deposing me? After all, Trotsky who had by then risen as one of the most popular opposition leaders had hinted in one of his articles that in the event of a Second World War, he would not shirk away from the responsibility of taking over the country’s reins to protect it against the aggressor.

In December 1934, Stalin’s personal favourite and a key Politburo member, Sergei Kirov was assassinated by a group of rebel Communists. Stalin’s suspicions were confirmed. He didn’t wait to carry out a detailed investigation and ordered the purging of party personnel, rank and file, army generals, administrative officials who might have served as ‘potential’ threats to the survival of the regime. Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev were also executed and revolutionaries suspected of closeness to these leaders were also not spared. Even if a hint of an association with these leaders in the past was detected in the records of an individual, he was thrown to the guillotine immediately. What purpose this mission of bleeding the party ‘white’ served was clear only to Stalin and his followers- no person of any revolutionary distinction or comparable popularity was allowed to exist and even the slimmest possibility of a potential, parallel leadership was completely obliterated.

The Great Purges ended to everyone’s relief in 1938 even if the size of the concentration camps had swelled to the size of the Tsarist days.

***

The Communist International (Comintern) was a forum of international communist parties founded even before Russia woke up to its grand revolution. Before the establishment of the USSR, these parties spoke with each other on equal terms in the forum and there was virtually no question of a ‘master-slave’ relationship among them out there. These parties were run by deeply patriotic, committed people in various countries who genuinely believed in the ideological correctness of the Marxist doctrine. These parties on the eve of the Russian Revolution were considered to be the local fountainheads in the event of an international socialist revolution and they were only eager to serve the revolution in any manner possible. Trotsky and Bukharin were the stars of the Comintern who kept guiding these parties ideologically at various points in time during Lenin’s reign. But Stalin’s rise had led to the shelving of the ‘global revolution’ idea altogether and the USSR officially adopted the spurious line –‘socialism in one country’ which directly meant that revolution in Russia alone was enough and sufficient and there would be no need for others to join it. This ‘line’ meant only one thing- there was no need for a Comintern at all and Stalin had he been given a choice would have gone on to disband the organization altogether. But these parties however decided to remain as vassals and take instructions from the new leader as and when required.

During the rise of Hitler in Germany, Stalin gave the call for an international opposition against Social Fascism in the Comintern- no, this did not mean a total, single-minded opposition to fascist parties and movements, but actually quite the opposite. The Communist Party in Germany which was quite a strong force in the country was ordered by the Comintern to fight and eliminate the Social Democrats first and then proceed towards eliminating Nazism. No historian or intellectual till now has been able to rationalize this decision of Stalin and what happened later in Germany only ended up proving disastrous for the German Communists. The Communists following Stalin’s decision did not forge a front with the moderate Social Democrats in the elections, as a result of which Hitler won and signed the death warrant for the party as soon as he assumed office.

Only after Hitler had liquidated the Communists and other opposition parties, Stalin seemed to have realized his folly. Stalin immediately issued instructions to the Comintern to build a solid ‘Popular Front’ in every country in alliance with the local centrist and other democratic parties against Fascism. This was a virtual U-turn for these local Communist Parties who followed suit and immediately made peace with their overnight enemies. Many countries soon had ‘Popular Front’ Governments at their centres where the Communists served either as major or minor partners and managed to obtain considerable concessions for the local working classes. But all these good things ended one fine day in August 1939.

Hitler’s representative Ribbentrop visited Moscow in August and signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin’s Foreign Minister Molotov. It came to be called the Hitler-Stalin pact which directly catalyzed the beginning of the Second World War on September 2, 1939. The parties belonging to the Comintern were now directed to tone down their opposition to Fascism for a while and maintain neutrality. The local parties without a choice obliged once again, as always.

***

The day when Stalin allowed Molotov to ink the non-aggression pact with Germany must have been one of his most embarrassing days. All these years he had been instrumental in polarizing international opinion against Hitler which his followers and comrades in other countries were only eager to pursue. And needless to say, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain were all nothing but violent and knee-jerk responses by the Western capitalist classes to the enormous hegemony wielded by the Communists on the other side of the world. Stalin had right from the days when Hitler had started training his guns on Sudetenland and Austria been calling out for a joint military pact with Britain, France and the USA against Germany. But the Western nations due to obvious reasons weren’t ready to welcome him into their ranks. Stalin was rebuffed on quite a lot of occasions when none of his offers were heeded to and within a few months, having no courage and resources to take on Hitler single-handedly, he was only desperate to put off the conflict against him. Soon when Hitler started sending feelers to Stalin, the latter responded initially only with some amount of reluctance keeping the doors still open to an alliance with the British and the French. When Hitler’s ambitions were getting clear by the day, it would only be reasonable to say that only the non-Nazi Western Powers simply drove Stalin into Hitler’s arms by their indifference to him when he sealed the deal with the Nazi dictator on August 23, 1939.

And the other embarrassing feature of Stalin’s conduct during the early days of the Second World War was that Russia had given its nod to accept a share of territories with Germany’s help that she had lost at the end of the First World War. All these days, the Communist organs and the State newspapers had termed all wars and conflicts as purely ‘imperialist’ or ‘capitalist’ and Lenin had won the approval of the masses when he had promised his people that the USSR would on no account, indulge in forcible territorial expansion. In fact, when Stalin was sent on a mission to Finland by Lenin to declare their independence from Russia in 1918, the masses of the small country had thanked him heartily. But right now, Stalin’s nerves were strained when Hitler’s armies were conquering countries on the periphery of the Russian Empire and inviting him to share the spoils. The USSR as a result, kept delaying the deployment of their Army’s divisions to these territories for a while and only after Stalin was convinced completely that all these ‘acquisitions’ at the Empire’s periphery might at least help him during the ‘inevitable’ clash- that eventful day in the future when Hitler would most certainly turn East and attack Russia, that orders were sent to the Soviet military headquarters to march and join Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

When Hitler attacked Soviet Union finally in 1941, one must not assume that Stalin had fully anticipated it, despite his premonitions and understanding about the situation. Stalin had two mistakes to immediately rectify then-  one, he had grossly over-rated the military potential of the French and had expected the Franco-German War to last for quite a long time, as a result of which preparations for Hitler’s offensive on Russia were only half-done. Two, during the Great Purges he had removed many of the most experienced, trusted generals from the Red Army and the current leadership wasn’t equipped enough to handle an adversary of such virulence. When the Wehrmacht came, simply within a matter of few weeks, they were able to capture more than forty percent of Soviet territory. When Moscow was about to fall, the Russian masses started panicking at the news that the whole governmental machinery was planning to shift to some other city. But Stalin decided to stand his ground at Moscow and informed his officials that he wouldn’t leave the Kremlin, at any cost. Only after the Russian winter was beginning to set, Stalin’s armies started striking back.

The Battle of Moscow was the first instance when Hitler tasted failure in his whole campaign against Europe and when he gave orders for his armies to capture industrial Stalingrad, his arch-rival at Kremlin was genuinely disturbed. The Russian masses joined the Red Army to protect their country in hordes, factories in the Urals and other places started producing record amounts of steel and pig-iron for military use, helicopters, tanks and other ammunition were delivered to the armies in unforeseen amounts and even without financial and military assistance from the Allied powers, Russia was giving the Nazi ‘invincibles’ a run for their money. Stalin’s request to the Allied powers to open a front on Western Europe wasn’t heeded till late 1943 and all these years, Russians were allowed to fend for themselves against one of the most ruthless belligerents of all time. The Germans wherever they set foot, in addition to massacring Russian civilians by thousands, were bent on destroying factories, workshops, bridges and dams. Within less than a couple of years, they had managed to destroy more than thousand towns which were all nothing but symbols of victorious, sweat-soaked Russian socialism. Despite losing close to fifty percent of their industrial capacity to the marauding German Huns, it was nothing but Stalin’s ruthless vision for industrialization in the 1920s-30s for which he was castigated world over, that came to the rescue of the Russians at the time of their greatest adversity.

Only after it was becoming clear that the Russians were proving their mettle during their war against the Nazis, the Western Powers started welcoming Stalin into their fold whole-heartedly. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in fact, deeply impressed with the Russian resistance. The subsequent conferences at Teheran and Yalta that brought the American Roosevelt, the British Churchill and the Russian Stalin for the first time together in history were all great successes. Apart from a small issue over the territorial demarcation of Poland, Stalin and Churchill had virtually no points to differ from one another.

Only after the War was won on May 7, 1945 by the unconditional surrender of Germany, the differences between the two traditional superpowers and the newest one on the horizon,the USSR, began to surface. Stalin had been given a free hand on a lot of countries around the Russian Empire where he had no other option but to ‘export’ revolution- a policy for which he was opposed to as explained earlier, for almost a decade against his arch-rival Trotsky. The local communist parties in these countries were asked to take over the governments for which, it needs to be admitted that there was some amount of opposition locally. What Stalin had in mind was only one thing- a lion’s share of what he had created through the blood and toil of his subjects, the vast industrial infrastructure of the Soviets had been ruthlessly destroyed during the war. Having suffered a virtual isolation from the rest of the World for more than three decades, a punishment imposed by the hostile Western Powers on Russia for having supported the Communist Revolution, Stalin could no longer afford to remain ‘anti-acquisitive’ and opposed to territorial expansion. More than any other time in history, his country needed the help of the others and when none of this was available on a voluntary, friendly basis, he decided to obtain it ‘forcibly’. He foisted regimes on countries in Eastern Europe, not all of them completely unpopular and made sure that they remained faithful to what could be called as the Great Soviet vision. It would be a complete mistake to immediately assume that the Soviet Union treated these countries as how Great Britain treated its colonies in Africa and India. The USSR issued instructions to the local governments to nationalize local industry, ensure full employment to the masses, implement universal literacy programmes and provide free and universal healthcare. All that the new satellites were expected to surrender was their trading rights, a fair amount of their political sovereignty and of course, a great amount of their freedom of expression. Needless to say, the Western Powers were not ready to take these lightly but having conceded full freedom to Stalin on these regions, they decided to keep quiet for the time being.

When Josef Stalin died in March 1953, eight years after he was hailed as the great slayer of Fascism, the USSR had by then, staged another remarkable economic recovery and their industrial strength had returned to their pre-war levels. Only on these strong foundations built by Stalin and his subjects, that the subsequent rulers of the USSR in Khrushchev and Brezhnev were able to provide their masses with free and universal housing, send the first man to Space, continue to discuss international affairs with the Western Powers on equal terms and reinforce their reputation on the global horizon as one of the world’s greatest superpowers.

***

No figure in history is as complex and interesting as Stalin is. No ruler in the 2000-year old history of mankind has left a huge impression upon a society as much as he did. Western Europe and America took more than a hundred years to make that giant leap from feudalism to industrial capitalism, from a kind of primitive backwardness to a modern, somewhat egalitarian civilization. And that too was achieved only through the exploitation of rich countries in Africa, South America and India. But the USSR completed the same giant transition in less than just three decades, that too without feeding upon others. A little child born to an illiterate serf in the Tsarist era in the early 1910s was given the easy opportunity to lead a dignified, civilized existence as either an educated clerk or a lecturer or a technician or an industrial supervisor in the 1950s, thanks to what happened under Stalin. A society which was taught to worship its landlord or the noble or the ruler, to celebrate and hold tight its communal, racial or national identity, to subjugate women at home and keep her there forever was within less than four decades forced to enroll itself in modern public schools and universities, learn engineering, art, philosophy, economics and literature, burn and destroy its narrow identity in the glowing flame of socialism, join the sea of proletarian unity and wallow in its collective warmth. Has any ruler in the past been responsible for such a giant leap in the progress of human civilization in so short a time? Most rulers in the past, even the most celebrated and illustrious ones have made a place in history only through their military achievements most of which were possible only because they had a vested interest in keeping their subjects backward, illiterate and spiritually subservient to the ideas of nationalism, religion and monarchy. But Stalin did want his subjects to be subservient to him, to celebrate and worship him only because he wanted to be, in total contrast to his predecessors, the harbinger of progress and enlightenment, the ruthless enforcer of great ideas that might in the long term turn his subjects into worthy, dignified, self-sufficient citizens who could have the power to think for themselves. In other words, how historian Isaac Deutscher sums up the Georgian dictator in his biography is given in the following memorable sentence- ‘Stalin single-handedly drove barbarism out of his country through barbarous methods’. And by doing that, by planting the ideas of Marxism, economics, science and philosophy into the minds of his subjects, Stalin unwittingly also laid the seeds for the destruction of totalitarianism that he himself had represented and reinforced. And this was precisely why, post the demise of Stalin, the Soviet Union could not but relax its restrictions on freedom of speech, allow to an extent the emergence of healthy debate and infuse some amount of democracy into all levels of the administration.

But having conceded all that, by giving Stalin his place in the list of great achievers and illustrious rulers, we are also bound to examine his other side as well. How much of the murders, executions, deaths and imprisonments that happened during his rule were perpetrated consciously by him? The great Ukraine famine of 1932-33 that happened on the eve of his forcible collectivization led to the deaths of millions of people and remains as one of the darkest pages in the history of the USSR. Not only that, there are many other events of famine and starvation deaths during his reign that came close to this great, unforgettable tragedy. Was Stalin directly responsible for these famines and deaths? Could he be held by a court of law and punished for his role in allowing them to happen? To some extent yes, but the man it cannot be denied, believed sincerely in his theories of Marxism and the collectivization that it espoused. Collectivization was introduced not only to eradicate exploitation that was inherent in feudal and capitalist agriculture but also because it was believed that it could improve the agricultural output in the long term and provide more food for the starving millions. And only after a few years of his collectivization experiment, the results were beginning to be visible and the gross output did in fact improve. But by then, a great amount of damage had already been done and millions of innocent people had already died due to hunger and starvation. In my opinion, had Stalin allowed others in the administration some more elbow-room to prevail upon him and influence his ideas, the successes that he achieved in the later years of collectivization could have happened at a much, much, lesser cost. But being the tyrant and the ruthless task-master he was, he eliminated whoever went against his grain of thinking and became responsible for so many horrible deaths that had few parallels in history before in terms of scale and tragedy. And that brings us to the other side of the same question- was all the ruthlessness that Stalin displayed on both his political foes and even erstwhile friends really warranted? Were they really planning to take over the regime from him and throw him into the gallows?

In the initial years of the revolution, the Civil War that was started by the White Guards with the support of the Western Powers was something of a colossal rebellion that both Lenin and his associates did not fully anticipate. And the revolution too that triggered it was not merely a simple transfer of power where a new government was planning to continue from where the previous one had left off. The new government on the contrary had promised in fact, to completely ‘overturn’ the state of things that had been prevailing in Russia for more than three centuries. This meant not only the destruction of the existing systems of power, but also a complete overhaul of traditional values and moral prejudices. But was such a complete overhaul even nominally possible? The officials in the Tsarist administration were people not only of feudal habits and exploitative leanings but also repositories of administrative experience and knowledge. A new government that had taken office on the promise of ‘a complete overhaul’ had to for the time being at least, rely on these officials to maintain the status quo and keep things in order. But the Civil War was the time when many of these officials had decided to show their true colors and decided to betray the new government. Many areas in the country where Lenin had wanted to restore order and peace were allowed to join the White Guards, many places where there was no rebellion were cut off from the rest of the country and allowed to starve and choke by these Tsarist officials and in many other regions, these officials were responsible for sabotaging the welfare initiatives of the new revolutionary government. When Stalin was given the duties of administration by Lenin during the Civil War of 1918-22, he was directly witness to what was happening on the ground. These events had planted some sort of suspicion and distrust in the conduct of government officials in general in him.

Once the War was over, when Stalin had assumed the highest position of power in the country in 1925, the desperation and fatigue that prevailed over the country and the readiness of the masses to join the Left opposition leaders must have affected him immensely. Stalin the committed revolutionary he was, believed strongly only in the capabilities of his Party and principles to provide people with what the revolution had promised and had no reason to trust the opposition and give them the chance. In fact, he had unshakeable faith in the stability that only his government had the potential to provide for his country as a result of which he was not ready to countenance views that might have imperiled the status quo. But he did not in fact, indulge in purges and executions immediately and there is some evidence to prove that he was not even thinking about eliminating them even in the near future. And as Isaac Deutscher notes, the sudden rise of Hitler on the West whose very sine qua non was the elimination of Bolshevism from the face of the earth, must have without doubt set him thinking. And the time he chose for the Great Purges, as stated earlier only reflects that. Kirov’s unexpected assassination only confirmed his worst fears and he started eliminating Party bosses, officials and bureaucrats in the governmental administration, heroes and generals of the Civil War and even suspicious civilians like a mad man on the loose. But as mentioned earlier, there was absolutely no plan or secret design inside the Party apparatus to overthrow him or assassinate him.

And here we come to the concluding question which to an extent forms the purpose of the whole essay-  Does Stalin deserve a place in hell for committing millions to concentration camps, consciously killing people in thousands and thousands of numbers, letting people die in millions due to starvation and disease? Yes. As Jeyamohan says in one of his essays, a human being will die of starvation only if he has no access to even a grain of food or a cup of water for close to two weeks at least. And what happened to the hungry masses in Russia and the enormity of their tragedy is something most of us would have virtually no idea about. And for this particular reason, a good number of Russians still consider him as one of the worst tyrants in history. And the Western media too, which usually has a jolly good time in excoriating Stalin for his ruthlessness simply love to join the cursing Russians with glee and abandon, easily forgetting the fact that famines of a similar degree were ‘orchestrated’ by their ‘liberal’ governments even on a massively populated country like India on more than five occasions before 1947. And many of the Western media and their intellectuals have literally nothing to say about what happened in Africa and Latin America when all their freedom-loving governments were too busy butchering masses by the millions, allowing their beloved corporations to plunder resources that were available there in plenty.

Another important question that needs to be asked here is this- has any developed country in Europe that has moved from a feudal society to a modern, capitalist, industrial one achieve its transition without indulging in any of the following- racial oppression, unconstitutional silencing of dissenting voices, ‘engineered’ mass migration, perpetuation of mass poverty, indiscriminate killing? No. But does all of that justify what Stalin did to his masses? Another big no. But about how much of these tragic events that happened in Western Europe, Africa and Latin America do we have the opportunity to read about in newspapers and books? And compare these with how many pieces you get to read about Stalin and his excesses in the Soviet Union along with those of Mao-Tse Tung in China. Why is there such a huge ‘demonization’ of Stalin and Mao on one hand and a complete ‘amnesia’ about the atrocities perpetrated by the Western governments on both their own people and those in their satellites that almost went on for centuries?

And then there are some journalists due to ignorance or ‘informed consent’ who try to place Stalin and Hitler on the same historic pedestal. Let them if they can, name at least one progressive aspect of Hitler’s rule and vision in their essays and consider continuing their professions with a clear conscience. And let them name one factor that is not associated with Stalin that laid the foundations for the Russians of the subsequent Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras to live more or less peaceful and self-sufficient lives, free from the pulls and pressures of capitalist competition, rat race and even ethnic tensions and I will be happy to declare my retirement from writing today. It is not wholly on account of a lapse in memory or a lack of knowledge that a good number of Russians today feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union or recount the days when Stalin ruled their country with thrill and pride. There was certainly something about him that keeps him in their thoughts. May be most Westerners just won’t understand it.