Politics & Policy

Stalin’s Legacy

The Russian challenge.

Fifty years after his death, Josef Stalin’s influence is still felt in the country he brutalized.

In a recent poll conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion, 53 percent of the respondents said that they considered Stalin to be a great historical figure and, in a separate poll, 36 percent of the respondents said that they believed that he was more good than bad.

This belated affection for Stalin reflects a trend that is the opposite of the trend in Germany where, as the years passed, the attitude toward Nazism and Hitler became increasingly negative. The poll results, however, are not the most serious aspect of Stalin’s legacy for Russia. The genocide that Stalin inflicted on his own nation shaped the psychology of the Soviet people and its lingering influence helps to define the character of Russia today.

Russia has undergone huge changes since 1985, including the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship, but at a fundamental level, the Stalinist inheritance is reflected in three ways; by the absolute priority attributed to the interests of the state, the lack of individual moral standards on the part of the population and the low value attached to human life.

In Russia, political goals are instinctively given priority over the welfare of individuals. When the reform process began, prices were freed without warning wiping out the life savings of virtually the entire population. Persons who had saved for years to buy a car or apartment or had put money aside for a wedding or funeral were left with nothing. At the same time, the reform process was carried out without the protection of law. Reformers who considered themselves “anti-Communist” and, of course, anti-Stalinist made no effort to protect the lives or moral condition of the population as they introduced radical economic reforms at a breakneck pace and the resulting social transformation led directly to Russia’s criminalization and a death rate so high that, at first, Western demographers did not believe the figures. In all, the reform process was accompanied by between five and six million “surplus” deaths, a result registered previously in Russia in peacetime only under conditions of famine or during the years of Stalin’s great terror.

Besides a fixation with political goals on the part of the government, Russia’s Stalinist inheritance is reflected in the lack of reliable moral standards on the part of the population.

At the present time, virtually every Russian business pays protection money to a criminal organization. The gangs take a cut of each business’s receipts in return for “guarding” them and the practice is so well established that both gangsters and ordinary citizens treat the demand for tribute as a legitimate obligation.

At the same time, Russians have grown relatively indifferent to the criminal ties of government officials. In general, if a person is an official, it is assumed that he is corrupt and it is considered praiseworthy if, in addition, to lining his own pockets, he does something for the population.

Russians are also ready to vote for persons who have criminal pasts or known criminal connections. The rationale is that such persons are really no worse than those who pretend to be respectable and because they are already rich will have slightly less reason to steal.

Finally, the Stalinist inheritance in Russia is reflected in the country’s lack of respect for human life. The state no longer deliberately murders millions of people but the conviction bequeathed by the Stalin era that individuals are expendable permeates everyday life.

Russians attach little value to their own lives or to the lives of anyone else. According to official statistics, “unnatural deaths,” for the most part the result of murder, traffic accidents, and vodka account for the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million persons in Russia a year. Russians who find themselves in dangerous situations can rarely count on timely help. Ambulances are chronically late and hospitals undersupplied and understaffed. The police, who are assiduous when it comes to collecting bribes, don’t rush when it is a matter of providing aid.

Perhaps the most graphic recent examples of the indifference to human life in Russia were provided by the episode involving the submarine, “Kursk” and the recent Moscow hostage crisis. In the case of the Kursk, the Russian government, fearing exposure of state secrets and its own incompetence, refused foreign help in rescuing the trapped submariners, at least 23 of whom survived the explosion which sunk the ship. In the case of the hostage crisis, the Russian authorities flooded a closed building with lethal gas killing 136 hostages (70 more are still missing) rather than negotiate steps toward ending the war in Chechnya.

Russia has now had 50 years to recover from Stalinism but the consequences of the massive Stalinist effort to create reality by force set the stage for a downward spiral that threatens Russia’s future.

The primacy of politics, lack of moral orientation, and disrespect for human life in Russia all worked to redefine what it means to be a human being, reducing the average person to a cog in the realization of a “great idea.”

Such an outcome, however, can only destroy the essence of human dignity that implies the capacity for moral choice.

As Stalin’s popularity grows, there is a possibility that he will join the pantheon of Russian national heroes that includes Peter the Great and, to a degree, Ivan the Terrible. If this happens, the evil that Stalin exemplified will be treated as a legitimate part of the Russian national tradition.

Such an outcome illustrates the vital stake of the civilized world in preventing new Stalins. Stalinism envisages unlimited violence in the pursuit of a supposedly “higher” goal. For this reason, it is a temptation to new waves of fanatics who are unwilling to tolerate any limitation on their drive for power. Their drive for power, however, can wound a civilization fundamentally. So those aspiring to use Stalinist methods need to be stopped before they can begin.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Satter’s latest book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State will be out next month from the Yale University Press.

David Satter has written four books about Russia, including, most recently, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, now available in paperback. He is the only American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.


The Latest