Learning from Stalin's Legacy
John de Boer (GLOCOM Platform)
March 5 marked the 50th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death and virtually every European newspaper dedicated considerable space to discussing his legacy. The impact of Stalin on the European consciousness is immense. Europe is just beginning to step out from under the shade of the Cold War, a bloody international order provoked by Stalin and his US counterparts, and in this sense the decision to admit 10 new members to the European Union is monumental.
While most European newspapers and scholarly works unequivocally denounce Stalin as a "ruthless tyrant" who committed "monstrous crimes", features in European papers over the weekend expressed considerable concern over the fact that, "more than half the Russian population think that Stalin played a positive role in Russian/world history" (Poll: All-Russian Public Opinion Center as featured in Reuters, the BBC, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Le Monde, El Mundo and The Independent).
That Stalin retains a positive legacy despite the fact that his crimes against humanity are well documented is repulsive to most but not necessarily incomprehensible. The question posed by Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian was: "Should people mourn the father of the nation who had transformed a backward peasant economy into an industrial superpower mighty enough to defeat the Nazi war machine; or should they cheer the death of a tyrant whose purges, labor camps and avoidable famines had killed millions upon millions?" ("Stalin is Alive", The Guardian, 5 March, 2003).
For many, including the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Observer, Stalin is compared with Adolph Hitler, he is associated with the murder of tens of millions and is mirrored in Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il. However, for those 50% plus Russians represented in the All-Russian Public Opinion Center poll, time under Stalin was described as a period of stability, hope and victory. According to those surveyed, Stalin's contribution to the defeat of Hitler changed the world forever. The Reuters news agency quoted a pensioner in Moscow as stating that under Stalin, "there was firm belief in our life, every year things got better, and every year prices came down, every year was better and better, now it is worse and worse and worse" (Jonathan Thatcher, "Old Wistful: Marks 50th Anniversary of Stalin's Death", Reuters, 5 March, 2003).
For Japan, which lost the Northern Territories to Stalin; was the object of Cold War rivalry; failed to sign a peace treaty with Russia; and is now targeted by Kim Jong Il's "Stalinist" regime, the Soviet dictator's legacy is negative, much the same as it is in most parts of the world.
European articles featuring the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death have all asked the question: Why, despite his well documented atrocities, does Stalin retain a "positive" image (notably in Russia and Georgia), particularly when leaders such as Hitler and Tojo Hideki have been unanimously condemned and disgraced by the world and their own people? In trying to answer this question each article spoke of the half-hearted attempt of Soviet era and contemporary Russian leaders to educate their people about what actually occurred under Stalin.
While this is part of the answer, what remains unspoken is the fact that Stalin and the USSR were victors in the Second World War. The USSR was an allied power that partook in the dividing up of the spoils and Stalin basked in these rewards while the Nazis and the Japanese Imperial Army were purged by all including the Germans and the Japanese. Stalin, who had already committed crimes against humanity by that time, was honored.
This reality is most difficult to recognize and goes to demonstrate that concepts of good and evil are not useful in helping us understand how power and politics can destroy millions of human lives regardless of which side they intend to represent. It is time that we stop employing abstract and easily manipulated notions. We must utilize the mechanisms that we have in place to govern international society. We can start by enforcing the protection and promotion of international human rights law as is laid down in the 4th Geneva Convention, one of the few universal guidelines governing state behavior. This is an important lesson that we need to learn from history, and a particularly valuable one considering that the world is on the verge of another war justified in terms of good and evil.