When a man's legacy includes a body count of 25 million, it's better to mark his anniversaries soberly than to celebrate them. Yesterday's 50th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death occasioned the spilling of a modest amount of editorial ink but, at least in this country, not much more.
Even a panel of scholars convened at the Library of Congress paid very little attention to the man himself. He was, all agreed, a monster. But the subject in contention was whether his death, by stroke, opened a window of opportunity to end the Cold War. (Conclusion: If it did, we missed it.)
For years, when it came to Stalin's reputation as an evil genius, he was an also-ran in the West. He was the middle part of a hyphenated triumvirate of authoritarian bloodthirstiness, Hitler-Stalin-Mao, repeated like a mantra, as if it were bad luck to leave anyone out. One threw in Stalin's name during discussions of totalitarianism not because he inspired the same visceral disgust as Hitler, but because if you didn't you'd get hammered from the right as a squishy apologist. Stalin's crimes didn't have the same impact on the imagination as Hitler's mechanized, industrial death.
More than a half-century after the end of the Second World War, the academic Hitler business is grinding on, dissertation after dissertation. More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, and the opening of some Soviet archives, the Stalin industry is just beginning to flourish.
His ambiguous position, as the dictator who can't even get the disrespect he deserves, was a curiosity noted by several of the panelists at yesterday's Library of Congress roundtable. The group included two recognizable surnames, Eisenhower (Susan, granddaughter of Ike, who had just become president when Stalin died) and Khrushchev (Sergei, son of Nikita, the Soviet premier), as well as professors, historians and several advisers to Eisenhower (Robert Bowie, Andrew Goodpaster and Abbott Washburn among them). James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress and a noted Russia scholar, addressed the panel and an audience of about 75 people, noting Stalin's "manipulative genius" and the "growing cult of nostalgia" for Stalin in Russia.
"They've never talked this out fully," said Billington, who also took the requisite digs at American intellectuals who downplayed Stalin's viciousness.
Stalin, author of murderous purges, master of the gulags and the powerhouse behind a vastly destructive reorganization of Russian agricultural and industrial life, still polls well in Russia, especially among older people. He is credited as the savior of Russia from German aggression and as a strong father figure who held together the Soviet empire at the height of its power. If Vladimir Putin lets pro-Stalin feeling bubble just under the surface, noted one panelist, it's because he doesn't want to alienate an important constituency, elderly Russians who can barely put food on the table. And as Sergei Khrushchev, now a professor at Brown University, noted, Russians don't get terribly exercised about Peter the Great either, and Peter's passion for reform is credited with reducing the Russian population by a third.
If the cult of Stalin still has its adherents and apologists in Russia, his political legacy remains a subject of headaches for American foreign policy. North Korea's "dear leader," Kim Jong Il, is spiritual heir to the Soviet Union's great leader, and North Korea's starving people among the last inhabitants of a certifiably Stalinist state.
Oddly enough, there was little talk of North Korea yesterday, though several panelists discussed the current American penchant for regime change in Iraq. Remember, said Khrushchev, that Soviet citizens went into hysterical grief when Stalin died. We are in danger, he suggested, of making Saddam Hussein a hero. It also became clear that several panelists who like Ike don't much like the drift of current foreign policy. Eisenhower, celebrated by former advisers for his intellect, caution and judiciousness, emerged as a kind of bleeding-heart liberal during the conversation.
Had Stalin left a little book of management wisdom for the perusal of corporate America's mid-level functionaries, it might very well have included these pearls: Work hard, bide your time, collect dirt on friends and enemies, know when to gather power quietly and when to seize it boldly, and micromanage, micromanage, micromanage. In many ways, Stalin was the Everyman among the 20th century's great political villains, a man noted for his mediocrity, for being -- in the phrase of one contemporary -- "a gray blur" of work. Hitler was a demagogue, Mao an ideologue, but Stalin, just a boss. How, asked an audience member, could a man with so little charisma be so very powerful? The one-word answer of these scholars: brutality.
Stalin's death, argued Vojtech Mastny, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was "the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union." The Soviet system, which Stalin created and which, in many ways, created him, could only go downhill. Hope Harrison, a professor at George Washington University, noted that efforts by Stalin's successors to liberalize Soviet society were met (in East Germany) by the ingratitude of rebellion and calls for even more freedom. It became clear that you can't reform a totalitarian state by small degrees, and so up went the Berlin Wall. Stalin had willed his successors a big, messy empire that, without the fuel of perpetual barbarity, could only grind to a halt.
Conclusions from the discussion were few, but there were some fascinating nuggets.
One audience member, who recently visited the memorial temple built at Stalin's childhood home, noted that the place looked unkempt and the toilets were in atrocious condition. That may be the best final image after a long discussion of Stalin's legacy, especially to his own country. The temple stood (for a while) but the plumbing was shot.