70 years after Stalin’s death: How Western propaganda has rebranded the Soviet dictator from villain to hero, and back again
Joseph Stalin died on the 5th of March 1953. The Soviet leader was one of the “big three” winners of World War II, and his life, political career, and the effects of his policies have been extensively researched by Russian and Western scholars. 70 years later, the Georgian remains a problematic political figure in Russia, and many other former Soviet states, and his legacy is frequently at the center of fierce debates. In the West, the condemnation of Stalin’s policies is now absolute, but that has not always been the case.
The problem of Stalin’s legacy
The decades of Stalin’s rule over the largest country in the world were filled with terror that led to millions of deaths. After the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war, the Soviet power struggle went on for years and contributed to the subsequent instability of the country. Following the Ukrainian-born Leon Trotsky’s political defeat in 1927, Stalin consolidated his power. Trotsky had wanted a world revolution; whereas, Stalin intended to build socialism in one country. He introduced the collectivization of the agricultural sector, which involved the repression of kulaks (private farmers) and led to famine and the deaths of millions.
The wave of political repression from 1936-1938, also known as the Great Terror, is one of the most significant elements of Stalin’s legacy. In the West, this period is usually seen through the prism of British historian Robert Conquest, who has been accused by others – such as American historian J. Arch Getty – of constant extrapolation of casualty figures and of omitting the beginning of the purges under Lenin. These figures are constantly reviewed by historians, but the West has focused more on this period than on anything else. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Stalin’s policies were extremely harsh.
He has also been held responsible for causing forced famines in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan, which killed millions of people.
The way in which Stalin conducted the war against Nazi Germany would also be a source of criticism, after the war’s conclusion. The leader had ruthlessly sent millions of soldiers to their deaths following his “not a step back!” proclamation in order to break Hitler’s war machine.
His approach inflicted the greatest amount of damage on the Axis armies but at a tremendous cost. Such a sacrifice of life was anathema to Western leaders seeking reelection even during wartime. According to many historians, including Gil Meron, this was a major factor in the Allies continual postponement of opening a second front in Europe and one that enraged Stalin, as evidenced by his correspondence with Churchill. Essentially, the sacrifice made by the Soviets was both welcome and appalling from the Western point-of-view.
Currently, Stalin is known in the West mostly for his brutality, and few academics and writers have taken the time to explore the man, the era, and the circumstances during his time in power. However, historians such as J. Arch Getty and Matthew E. Lenoe are more pragmatic in evaluating the leader’s role in the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Likewise, Karl Schlögel’s book ‘Moscow 1937’ provides a more complete picture of Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union. These researchers thoroughly describe the events of the purges and political oppression, but also note the unprecedented modernization and technological progress that occurred in tandem during the period.
When Stalin won his political battle against Trotsky, the country was already completely shattered following the Bolsheviks’ merciless seizure of power, the subsequent civil war and Red Terror. The country had never been an industrial power and understanding that an important war was coming, Stalin famously explained the situation in a speech to industrial managers in 1931: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed.”
As a general rule, historians work without a moral bias and a political figure is usually analyzed according to the state of the country when he came to power versus when he left. The industrialization of the Soviet Union led to disastrous casualties among the population, however it did modernize the country. As Isaac Deutscher said, (though the quote is frequently attributed to Winston Churchill) “The core of Stalin's genuine historic achievement lies in the fact that he found Russia working with the wooden plough and left her equipped with atomic piles.”
Stalin’s image before and after the war
What Western historians and journalists write today about Stalin is one thing, but one should not forget how the Soviet leader was seen at the time. For many in the West, the Russian Revolution and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were a shining light in the East, a promise of better days, a real source of hope. And for a long time, Stalin was the incarnation of this light. Hence the nickname “Father of nations”, that Soviet propaganda and communists all over the world gave him. The weight of communist parties in countries such as France or Italy, controlled by the Communist International (Komintern) was a trump card in the hand of the USSR to propagate a favorable image of its leader among Western populations. The fascination was such that European communists were reluctant to engage in resistance against Hitler until Stalin gave a green light, following the beginning of Germany’s invasion of the USSR. But the masses were not the only ones to be fascinated by Stalin and what he incarnated.
The work of the genius German publisher and communist activist Willy Münzenberg had a supreme influence on intellectuals and poets all over Europe. Playing on the primordial fascination with this new economic model being built in the USSR, he monitored and/or created many “useful idiots” (or “fellow travelers”). Some, like André Gide or Arthur Koestler, went on to be quickly disillusioned, but it was not the majority. With the appearance of popular fronts in Europe and the turmoil of the Spanish civil war, many left-wing intellectuals maintained their position for a long time while enjoying an excellent reputation in elite circles. Louis Aragon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, Romain Rolland… quite a lot of respected voices. Because of their left-wing sensibility, anticolonial stance, pacifism or idealism, they fostered a positive image of Moscow, and, consequently, of Stalin. Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at noon”, which depicts the politico-psychological process of the 1930’s purges, was not followed by many of these intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sarte, for example, later moved from Stalinism to Maoism.
Furthermore, people, such as the “Cambridge five” or physicist Klaus Fuchs, actively spied for the USSR. And it was to fight for a cause, not for money. Their contribution to the reinforcement of Moscow’s power and the creation of the first Soviet atomic weapons can not be underestimated. On yet another level, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had been sincerely impressed by the Soviet leader, with whom the American president had a courteous correspondence. An Ifop poll conducted at the end of World War II showed the majority of the French population believed that the Soviet Union had won the war, not Western powers. Stalin’s popularity was at its peak and he was arguably the most powerful man in the world.
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev – who himself had an important role in the political oppression of the Great Terror – made a move which ultimately had an enormous influence on Stalin’s image. During the 20th Party congress, in order to consolidate his own power, the new leader of the USSR denounced the crimes of his former boss and the cult of personality he enjoyed during his reign. His speech and was a shock for communists in Europe who were now more divided than ever, but liberals could only rejoice. The USSR’s two main assets in Western Europe were subsequently fragmented. The Italian communist party sought domestic political integration, while the French communist party was paralyzed. The Congress triggered the beginning of a crisis of confidence regarding the Soviet Union. In a way, one can look at Krushchev’s political maneuver against Stalin’s image as the first blow to the entire Soviet structure.
Stalin’s reputation would continue deteriorating as dissidents published books in the West, and his former Western intellectual admirers were denounced for their blindness. Furthermore, it is true that Stalin won a political victory over Trotsky, but the latter is better judged by history. Trotsky is now considered more as an intellectual and a victim, regardless of the atrocities he committed when in power – particularly in his Ukrainian homeland – and his ideas have not vanished. Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism” in the USA, was a former Trotskyist, and the political views of the architects and proponents of globalized financial capitalism mesh with Trotsky’s internationalist views. Whereas Stalin, with the disappearance of communist parties as propaganda tools and the fall of the Soviet Union, has simply become another bogeyman. It is still possible to encounter Western Stalinists, but those are usually Marxist intellectuals with no influence on the broader public.
Stalin and Western rhetoric towards Russian leaders
Ivan the Terrible has been considered a monster for many centuries, because of his ruthlessness in internal politics, but also down to how he conquered vast territories and became a threat to the West’s own imperialism. The fact that he was a very important reformer is somehow ignored. Peter the Great, was no softer, but on the contrary, he is considered an interesting personality mainly because he opened “a window to Europe” and incorporated Western elements into Russian civilization. When it comes to Stalin and Trotsky, Western views favor the internationalist. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, with their wish to adapt to Western standards, are also considered “good” Russian leaders. Currently, the Western position has moved in the other direction with Vladimir Putin in power, who stated with his Munich speech back in 2007, that the times of a weak Russia were over.
The Georgian is maybe the only one who has managed to be the object of both praise and loathing from the West. Stalin had become a problem for liberal democratic propaganda during the war. Just as Soviet agitprop had to justify its sudden alliance with capitalist countries, the Anglo-Saxon media had to explain why Stalin was a great statesman and a good ally. Pro-Soviet movies were produced, on the personal request of the American president, and the feature film “Mission to Moscow” was created in order to justify the purges. Stalin was twice named Time magazine’s “Person of the year” within three years, and even the publication of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was postponed. A positively biased campaign was actively nurtured around him.
Only progressively, during the Cold War, did the narrative change. However, it was very difficult to put Stalin in the same basket as Hitler, since the war had cost the USSR the death of roughly 27 million people and gave it a place at the table of victors. Traditionally, victors are the ones who write and rewrite history, but 70 years later, the West is more confident in its capacity to rewrite the story of the 20th century. And Stalin is more often now presented as an accomplice of Hitler who helped him organize chaos and terror in Europe.
Something which is clearly nonsense.
This apparently incoherent attitude is better explained if we examine the power structures in liberal democracies. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the West has developed a system in which strong incarnations of power are not desired. By 1900, according to the American philosopher Sheldon Wolin, the US was already living under an “inverted totalitarianism”, that is to say a system where corporations and lobbyists rule while the government acts as a servant. In his famous 1928 book “Propaganda”, Edward Bernays explained: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
If Bernays’s conclusions are correct, it implies that the Western system doesn’t need statesmen and political reformers with a vision for specific nations but administrators and managers with short mandates. Angela Merkel’s 16 year tenure marks a notable exception in contemporary liberal democracies. However, Merkel has working as part of the European Union, with its sophisticated institutions, and heavy bureaucracy. This may explain why the length of her time in office has never been criticized, whereas the West frequently expresses its concern towards men like Putin or Xi remaining in office for long periods.
However, as various crises have shown, liberal democracies temporarily embrace "strongmen" when it fits the political agenda. Pierre Conesa, a French specialist in geostrategy, is the author of ‘The fabrication of the enemy’ and ‘Hollywar: Hollywood, weapon of mass propaganda’. He explains how Western messaging resorts to a fickle cinematographic process of demonizing its enemy and presenting its side as heroic. Stalin fits this pattern, as he is the only man in the Kremlin who was ever treated as a dangerous man, then as a hero, and eventually rebranded as an incarnation of evil.