Stalin’s Dead Hand

Imagine if Hitler had ranked first in a current German survey of the greatest figures of history. While that did not happen, last year Stalin finished first among Russians in a Carnegie survey of the most influential figures of history, proving that people do not learn from history, they learn from the victors of history.

Stalin died in March 1953. Sixty years have passed since then, but the old tyrant remains a shadowy presence over Russia offering the simple solution of the bullet and the gulag. Iosif, the robber and government informant is dead, but in his place is the meticulously manufactured idea that Stalin’s way is the only way. The war over that dark history represents the political struggle over the soul of Russia.

Stalin became a post-ideological tyrant, posturing as a nationalist when necessary, reviving the country’s religious identity when needed, and purging people less out of ideology and more out of freewheeling paranoia. The Russian people viewed his successors, men like Khrushchev and Brezhnev, with contempt, but despite all the torture and atrocities, he retained his iconic status.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Stalin remains a popular figure having transcended the ideology that most Westerners associated him with. The Communist left claims Stalin as a Communist while the Nationalist right claims him as a destroyer of Communism. Stalin endures among these groups as a symbol of power and decisive action.

The old Communist icons have faded away, but Stalin remains the quintessential tyrant. A figure closely associated with Russian greatness and Georgian glory, rather than with Communism.

Russia has historically vacillated between well-meaning inept leaders and ruthlessly brutal tyrants. The current governing scheme has given Russians both at the same time, with Medvedev playing the role of the well-meaning inept leader and Putin that of the ruthless tyrant stepping in when he falters. The historical pattern is as old as the czars and the outbreaks of democracy have not yet freed the Russian people from that bloody cycle.

During the end of the Soviet era, only 12 percent named Stalin a significant figure, but last year he was in first place again. The 1989 figures largely reflected Soviet orthodoxy with Lenin and Marx depicted as the dominant figures of history. Marx has since largely vanished, falling from 35 percent to 6 percent in 5 years, indicating that his placement was a product of ideological conformity and that there is no affinity at all for his economic ideas.  Lenin took a sharp tumble, but still ranks second.

The Soviet-era survey reflected the Communist interpretation of history, but the post-Soviet surveys reflect how that history has been massaged, interpreted and reinterpreted. Communism has been defeated, but its greatest tyrant lives on. The old statues might have been torn down, but the idea of Stalin as the pivotal tyrannical force of history could not and would not be so easily disposed of. Not when it is so useful to his spiritual successor.

A number of the contributors to the Carnegie study link Stalin’s rise in popularity to the Putin era, but Stalin’s popularity had increased significantly during the 90s before Putin came to power. Stalin’s star rose even higher under Putin, raising the question of whether Putin elevated Stalin or Stalin elevated Putin, or whether there was a synergy with tyranny feeding off tyranny.

There is no question that Putin’s regime has resurrected some Soviet monsters. The bust of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police state, has been restored to a position of honor, and while Putin publicly disavowed some of Stalin’s atrocities, his political allies have paid tribute to the old monster and his regime put Stalin back into the school system.

Sixty years after Stalin’s death, Russia is on the cusp of losing the last few citizens who lived through his reign as adults. The Stalin of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a historical figure assembled from scraps of propaganda by a state-controlled media.

Stalin polls best among the teenagers who have been immersed in the propaganda of the new regime and the older citizens who lived under the waning decades of the Soviet era. The most educated are most likely to view him negatively while the least educated are most likely to view him positively. The ratings split similarly among the big cities and the villages suggesting that pro-Stalin images and texts are more influential in the media than in the educational system. In Russia as in the United States, television programming and infotainment may be more effective than education.

Stalin carefully controlled his own image while alive. In death his image has been remade a dozen times.  Most Russians denounce Stalin’s atrocities, but nearly half view his contribution to Russian history positively. Most would not want to live under his rule, but view his rule as largely beneficial. Rather than being contradictory, these clashing views reflect a willingness to embrace the tyrant’s ethos of the ends justifying the means.

Mussolini never did quite make the trains run on time, but Stalin is credited with everything from the electrification of Russia’s rural areas to defeating the Nazi armies during World War II. The history is often wrong, with industrial accomplishments overstated, defeats minimized and the degree of foreign aid received from the United States largely buried, but the myth has become a vital part of the official history of Russia’s new rulers. By measuring Stalin’s atrocities against his results, the implicit message is that nothing of significance can be accomplished without harsh measures.

The fictionalization of Stalin’s accomplishments justifies Putin’s atrocities in a version of history where getting anything done requires a strong leader willing to spill blood across the snow. And when Putin’s hour on the stage is done, it is all too likely that Stalin will go on serving that same purpose for the next tyrant and the one after that.

The struggle over Stalin’s place in history is also the struggle over the soul of Russia. Tyrants need a Stalin to justify their tyranny, while the democracy movement needs to definitely end the Stalin era once and for all. The struggle over history will determine whether Russia will be free.

In the battle over history, the state, with its monopoly over the media and the educational system, has the upper hand, diminishing Stalin’s atrocities while emphasizing his achievements. And when the last witnesses to the Stalin era have died, then history will be fully in the hands of the interpreters of history.

Stalin, as the study points out, has become an idea, more than a man. A dead hand weighing down Russian history.

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  • AdinaK

    it is precisely the case, the takeover of a nation's media organs is the first step towards totalitarian rule – Pravda-like. And this is precisely why America is in dire straits, even if so many other factors are at play. The fact of the matter is that Obama's goons own the media, lock, stop and barrel. The only place where free thought still reigns is on the web, but they are gunning for that too.

    Regardless, the parallel governing styles is not for nothing –

    The cult of personality. Indeed.

    Adina Kutnicki, Israel

    • francois remarque

      If only Trotsky was a more skilled tactician and party operative, the complexion/topography of the world would be vastly different than now.

      That said, to think the left has a near strangle hold on the media is absurd. Radio commentary is dominated by the right it's not even a contest. Fox is 100% right wing and the MSNBC's are mixed bags. Obama is vilified incessantly on radio, the internet and Fox.

      Look at the ownership of the media and you'll know why your observation has little merit.

      • reader

        "MSNBC's are mixed bags"

        What are you doing here, comrade? You're supposed to be on the flight for Chavez state funeral. The Party won't tolerate such an undisciplined member.

      • LibertarianToo

        Trotsky was a ruthless butcher who implemented the destruction of the peasantry and created a horrific famine in the country's breadbasket.

      • Kevin Stroup

        The leftist run CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, PBS. Fox News is moderately right. You are correct about radio. Why is that? Newspapers are hopelessly left-wing. That is why nobody reads them and they are going out of business, slowly, but surely. Hollywood is militantly leftist. Obama gets away with lies that no Republican would, or should, get away with. I think that for the most part, the article is dead on.

      • objectivefactsmatter

        "Fox is 100% right wing"

        You are 100% deluded.

      • Phil

        You're an idiot, obviously. Radio commentary IS thankfully dominated by the right, but FOX news is the mixed bag, and the rest are communist-dominated hacks. Barry Davis aka "Obama," the half-black communist living in the White House, deserves to be vilified incessantly everywhere for his purposeful destruction of the economy in his quest to usher-in communism through orchestrated crisis.

      • Cat K

        Ownership of FOX includes a Saudi prince so wealthy (you hate wealth, yes?) he doesn't want to be listed in Forbes. He influences what is shown and talked about on FOX. You are thoroughly naive and misinformed….Gee, I wonder how THAT happened!?

  • Daniel

    This phenomenon of apologism for Stalin is a truly revolting psychological trait of the Russian people who have many wonderful intellectual characteristics. From Ivan Grozny to Tsar Alexander to Putin………the myth of the strongman prevails.

    The ultimate anti-Communist and opponent of Soviet Communism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had much to say about Stalin. He often criticized Russians for not embarking on the types of trials that the Germans did after the war to purge their society of Nazi elements.

    The quote from Gulag Archipelago goes something like this: "A country(Germany) which has declared from podiums thousands of times its guilt and complicity with the monstrous experiment of National Socialism is purged of it. But in our country(Russia) we have embedded the crimes deep in a secret past…..and the seeds we have planted will come up in future generations like a cancer."

    Secrecy was one thing….glorification is another. Thank God Solzhenitsyn bequeathed all his writings to future generations of Russians to defend them against the grotesque rebellion of totalitarianism that does not seem to ever die in Russia.

  • antisharia

    It only shows how people never learn. The media does this. They push leftist tyrants and proclaim them to be messiahs. Could you imagine the outrage if Spaniards loved Franco, or Italians still thought highly of Mussolini? Stalin murdered 50 million people. What more needs to be said? His high esteem with the Russian people only shows that, worldwide, the education system is an appalling mess and the sole property of the international left.

  • Chezwick

    Stalin was unique among autocrats. His use of political murder and his agricultural collectivization schemes that starved 20 million peasants were mimicked by Mao, Pol Pot and others. But the 'Great Purge', his crack-down on the Party/State apparatus in 1937-38….was unprecedented in history. Millions were imprisoned and over a million were executed….for no other reason than to instill a general fear and acquiescence in the bureaucracy. Almost to a person they were innocent of any disloyalty to the regime, but this was irrelevant. The NKVD of each region and sub-region actually had arrest quotas to fill…and virtually anyone could be chosen for arrest, usually arbitrarily. Some of the arrested would implicate everyone they knew in the mistaken hope that the absurdity of their own arrest would come to light. It was madness on a gigantic scale, but it produced the desired results.

    Stalin was a monster in the truest sense of the word. Beyond the murder of tens of millions, his ability to falsify history and corrupt the interpretation of reality in the pursuit of his political objectives…was absolutely malevolent. And Western Leftists may not have his lust for blood, but they certainly emulate his tactics of falsification and demonization.

    • Gee

      I think that Mao's Great Leap Forward was on par with the Stalin purges.

      • Chezwick

        The 'Great Leap Forward' was more akin the Soviet Collectivization campaign from 1929-32. Both were agricultural "reforms"…both were disastrous of course, killing tens of millions, mostly via starvation, but neither was a political attack on the ruling apparatus.

        A better analogy for China's version of the 'Great Purge' would have been the 'Cultural Revolution'. It was no doubt bloodier than '37-'38 in Russia, but they were distinguished from one another by one salient factor: The victims of the Cultural Revolution were actual perceived enemies of Mao, bureaucrats obstructing his egalitarian ideal (and to be fair, his exercise of personal power), while Stalin's purge of '37-'38 had little to do with policy and was almost exclusively about power…cowing the party/state apparatus into utter servility.

    • Debanjan Banerjee


      If you condemn Stalin and worship murderous tyrannical thugs such as Washington , Reagan , Bush , Jefferson and Lincoln , that is called hypocracy. Can you name me a signle US president in the last 150 years who never ordered an assasination ? Can you name me a signle Israeli prime minister in the last 60 years who never ordered an assasination ?

  • Permreader

    There where enough cruel Tyrants in Russian empire`s history,though the scale of Stalin`s crimes is terrible.
    Big part of the Russian people see their tyrants as the inevitable hoops that fasten the enormous empire. And they have no illusions about their personalities and crimes.The last in the world semi-European empire is the center of their feelings and fears of the further collapce.The most dangerous perspective for all, including Russians themselves , could be the attempt of the revange.Russia in it`s present condition posesses no threads to the West.

  • clarespark

    I still urge Frontpage readers to plow through Jacob Talmon's last book, about which I wrote here:…. "Totalitarianism and Single-Issue Politics." Having said that, I have found Stalinoids among most post1960s social movements. In order to identify them and to distinguish from neo-Nazis, it seems important to get the differences between Nazis, Leninists/Stalinists, and New Leftists very clear.

  • Penny Haulman

    Like Jezabel, if the spirit of Jezebel tries to arise again, throw her again from the wall!”

  • Permreader

    People doesn`t understand the Russian nature of Stalin`s personality and tyranny.Being hypnotized by millions of the victims and cliches of totalitarianism,communism they doesn`t understand that Stalin was the only,single tyrant who eliminated the millions of his own citizens! Others rulers -murdered the enemies!

    • reader

      Have you just fallen from the moon? Ever heard of Pol Pot or Mao?

    • KarshiKhanabad

      Stalin wasn't even Russian. As Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, he was a Georgian who spoke Russian with a heavy accent as thick to a Muscovite as bad English is when spoken by a Russian.

      As to his popularity six decades after his descent into Hell, how explain it? Russians simply don't know democracy except as a means to power. They'll probably never catch up to the West in that regard. Admire their endurance, religious fervor, their literature, art, & achievements in the applied sciences, but as for their politics, Fuggeddaboudit!

  • ApolloSpeaks


    We can argue back and forth about the pros and cons of Hugo Chavez's 14 year presidency of Venezuela. But an unmistakable sign from providence of just how evil and bad for his country this man was, and that he didn't die a day too soon or late, was his demise on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death. Chavez has joined Stalin in Communist hell with an old, sick, dying Castro soon to join them.

  • Daniel

    "To us Russians, Communism is a dead dog, but to you Westerners it is still a living lion."

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1984….to western European media

  • WilliamJamesWard

    When evil takes on human form the most vile consequences are realized, it is so infectious
    it's detestability remains for generations as a poison of mind and soul that kills and desires
    the death of all people. How can anyone not believe in spiritual evil when World History
    is so full of it, beyond mind boggeling it is horror personified. The geat generation defeated
    it in World War II and now the sniveling generation will bow it's effete head to be chopped off,
    brutalized without mercy, turn what could be good people into monsters and being brought
    to a neighborhood near to you by our own government…………………………William

    • Permreader

      "spiritual evil"-William, you heard that animal predatos sometimes kill much more victims than he can eat-that is their game,the part of the Life where the death of the one is the mean for the birth or the prolongation of sombody`s life.

  • Mark Koenig

    It's extremely sad that so many are taken in by the collectivist lie. They are willing slaves, who don't ever challenge their "masters." The Founders of this great nation were a very rare exception to that rule.

  • Ghostwriter

    I’m no fan of Stalin. The man was a monster. He deserves nothing less than treated as such.

  • Debanjan Banerjee

    Wait a minute my dear Yanks.Before you say something about Stalin let us discuss a little bit about some of your own monsters whom you call as "founding fathers."
    What about this man Tom Jeffy (whom you man call Thomas Jefferson). I mean look at Stalin. Here was a cobbler's son who became the head of a vast country , took part and won the leadership of his own country after risking his own life for so may times and went on to save his country from Hitler.
    What exactly are the credentials of someone like Tom Jeffy compared to this man, Stalin. Tom Jeffy who was born with a golden spoon , inherited thousands of acres of lands and hundreds of slaves , supported slavery till his deathbed , never ever did any hard work for living while being secured in his father's properties , what exactly this man Tom Jeffy has done exactly to deserve the praise that only Americans shower on him ?

  • Debanjan Banerjee

    Let us look at this man Abo Linc (whom Americans famously call Abraham Lincoln) what exactly this man did ? This was a man who openly said that a African man is inferior to a white in order to win an state election and then went on to kill thousands of his own country men for glory , ohhh and yet he has been made an idol by you Americans. Russians do not need to learn history from ignoramuses like you. Period. Those who worship characters like Tom Jeffy or Abo Linc (characters who are not fit to tie the shoelaces of Stalin) can speak a lot of things but history treats you people as what you are. A big garbage and a burden on humankind.

    • reader

      Let us look at Deba Bane (whom he himself famously call Debanjan Banerjee). On the other hand, let's not: his or her posts are incoherent and ignorant at its core. Pure waste of time and space.