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Stalin’s Been Dead for 70 Years. (Here’s Hoping He Stays That Way.)

The absurd horror of Stalin’s USSR, replaying as farce in Putin’s Russia.
March 3, 2023
Stalin’s Been Dead for 70 Years. (Here’s Hoping He Stays That Way.)
Stalin Poster Defaced (Photo by Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sunday marks seventy years since the March 5, 1953 death—or repatriation to Hell, if you believe in Hell—of one of history’s great monsters: Joseph Stalin, the seminarian turned Communist revolutionary turned all-powerful “Red Tsar,” in the apt phrase of his biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore. It is perhaps fitting that this anniversary is taking place just as the tyrant’s latest heir, Vladimir Putin, is fighting an insane war in a quest to rebuild Stalin’s empire—and in the process, perhaps, finally driving a stake through its heart.

Stalin’s twenty-plus year rule was one of the long, dark, exceptionally bloody nights of twentieth-century history. For me, it is also a part of family history: Both my parents grew up in his suffocating shadow—especially my father, whose parents were sent to the gulag in 1947, when he was 11 years old. A half-sister old enough to be a guardian saved him and his younger brother from being sent to an orphanage; but there were also relatives and family friends who, over the next six years, crossed the street if they spotted him. Yet he was among the lucky: His parents—who, unlike most political prisoners in the Stalin era, had actually done what they were convicted of doing, i.e. tried to get smuggled out of the Soviet paradise to Israel—survived and came home, their sentences truncated by Stalin’s death and the dawn of Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw.”

Some of my parents’ school friends at Moscow’s Central Music School were far less fortunate. One, Anatoly Agamirov (later a prominent music critic), got only the cold comfort of a letter notifying the family that his father, a casualty of the 1937 purges, had been “posthumously exonerated.” At a classmate’s party a few days later, 16-year-old Agamirov lost it at the sight of a Stalin bust on his host’s shelf; he went on a furious rant, called Stalin a scumbag and a killer, and finally punched the bust in the face, knocking it off the shelf and breaking its nose. The hosts were horrified: The Stalin cult was already being quietly phased out, but there was still no telling what could happen.

Agamirov’s dead father was one of untold millions: Along with Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot, Stalin was one of the twentieth century’s masters of mass murder. His body count, which includes not only those executed but those who died in the gulag and in the “terror-famine” in Ukraine and other parts of the USSR, is still disputed. The figure of 20 million was one point widely accepted and even reflected in the subtitle of Martin Amis’s eccentric and somewhat muddled but memorable 2003 book on Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. (“Koba” was Stalin’s Georgian nickname.) More recently, Yale historian Timothy Snyder has asserted, based on archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the real figure is closer to 6 to 9 million. Others say that the figure is too low, leaving out millions of unrecorded deaths.

What’s known for certain is that Stalin managed to add to his body count even after his death, collecting human sacrifices at his funeral like an emperor-god or a tribal chieftain. More than a hundred people were trampled to death in the crowds. This grisly episode—which Armando Iannucci’s brilliant 2017 black comedy The Death of Stalin replaces with a fictitious scene of NKVD troops shooting mourners—is searingly depicted at the end of Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1991 drama, The Inner Circle. It is also indirectly echoed in a story from my family lore: A next-door neighbor tried to persuade my maternal grandmother to go with her to the funeral. Grandma declined, saying that she was worried about the crowds; the other woman eyed her with visible disapproval at such petty concern for one’s comfort in the face of national mourning. The neighbor went to the funeral, taking her young son with her, and they both got caught in the crunch and narrowly escaped being trampled—thanks mainly to the fact that the human wave carried them into a courtyard where they and hundreds of others were trapped for hours, unable to get out but relatively safe.

The mourning was real: In a populace that had been taught to regard Stalin as a living emperor-god, many genuinely adored him, or at least saw him as a stern but ultimately benign father. My mother, then 16, recalls that even a relative who did not particularly idolize the “Leader and Teacher” voiced anxiety about what would happen now that he was gone: What if there was another war? What if the Americans attacked, seeing the Soviet Union unprotected? And yet it’s hard to say, in a country where people were afraid not only to say the mildest wrong thing but to not publicly toe the party line, just how much of the Stalin love was genuine.

It’s true that even some gulag prisoners continued to cling to Stalin: Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of Stalin henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, was in the gulag when the dictator died; she remained a Stalinist for life. (The Death of Stalin, which accurately shows Zhemchuzhina being brought back to Moscow on Lavrenti Beria’s orders, regrettably leaves out a very black-comedy detail: She immediately asked how Stalin was doing and fainted when she learned that he was dead. In the film, she does not ask about him, but appears momentarily distressed after Beria tells her of his passing.) Yet many other accounts of gulag victims and their families show a bitter glee at his death. And large swaths of the population were no doubt indifferent.

My favorite “death of Stalin” story comes from my father, who recalled walking with a buddy the evening after the momentous news. They were approached by a drunk who tried to hit them up for some money. “Look at you,” my father told the man, who was barely able to stand. “Stalin just died, and all you can think of is getting more booze.” The man eyed him for a moment and then replied, “Stalin died? Well, fuck him.”

That incident would have made a good vignette for The Death of Stalin. Ianucci’s film has plenty of historical inaccuracies: Beria wasn’t toppled and shot almost immediately after Stalin’s death but months later; the arrest of a number of Jewish doctors for a supposed homicidal plot didn’t leave Moscow virtually without qualified medical personnel; the pianist Maria Yudina (with whom my mother studied piano some years later) did not make a record especially for Stalin the night before his death but ten years earlier, and the possibly apocryphal note she enclosed with it did not wish for his death but said that she would pray for his sins. And yet the film does capture something essential about the Stalin era: the cruelty, both systematic and capriciously random, and the absurdity, both horrific and diabolically funny. How does one satirize a system in which you could be sent to a labor camp for remarking in front of neighbors that Stalin sounds sad and tired in a wartime radio address, or for playing a funeral march on the piano on the day a notorious “enemy of the people” is executed—both real things that happened to real people in my family’s circle of friends?

Was Stalin a Communist true believer, a fanatic willing to exterminate millions for his cause? I’ve always found this version of Stalin hard to believe: Unlike Vladimir Lenin, who really did see human beings as expendable in the quest for utopia, or Adolf Hitler, who exuded fanatical devotion to Aryan supremacy, Stalin strikes me as a sadistic egomaniac whose ideals, such as they were, were primarily an instrument for seizing and maintaining power and making himself the center of a cult of the sort that Lenin despised. He had a penchant for cruel humor, finding it knee-slappingly funny when his bodyguard Karl Pauker reenacted old Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev’s last-minute pleas to his executioners to “call Comrade Stalin” and clear up the terrible misunderstanding. (Like other show trial victims, Zinoviev had been promised his life in exchange for confession to fictional crimes. And Pauker himself met the same fate almost exactly one year after Zinoviev, which Stalin probably found equally hilarious.) His habit of throwing his close associates’ wives in the gulag may have been as much about cruel sport as about paranoia. At one point, when Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov asked Stalin for help with his imprisoned relatives, Stalin reportedly replied, “What can I do for them, Georgi? All my own relatives are in prison, too!” (He was referring primarily to reprisals against the family of his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze.) Australian historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, who is critical of the analysis of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian system, suggests in her 2015 book On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics that Stalin “was following a precept of the unwritten revolutionary code of honor that had always been dear to him, namely subjugating personal interests to the interests of the revolution.” To which I feel like saying: Oh, you sweet summer child. One might as well credit Stalin’s occasional protestations to foreign visitors that he was a modest man who sincerely disliked the personality cult around him but didn’t want to curb free expression.

(On the subject of those protestations, I have an anecdote from family lore as well. Among my mother’s school friends was the future film director Konchalovsky, whose father, poet Sergei Mikhalkov, had written the lyrics to the Soviet anthem; and once, over at his place, Konchalovsky showed off a manuscript of the lyrics with Stalin’s markings in the margins. One of the markings: a direction that the line “And Stalin inspired us to glorious deeds” be repeated twice.)

While Stalin is not a figure whose legacy calls for a very nuanced view beyond black and white—it would be like looking for redeeming qualities in Jeffrey Dahmer—he was undoubtedly in some ways a figure of paradox. This Communist leader exterminated just about all of Lenin’s old Bolshevik guard. He steered the Soviet Union in a socially conservative direction: His reign saw harsh laws against homosexuality and, at one point, a ban on abortion and a return to single-sex schooling designed in part to prepare boys for military service and girls for motherhood.

While Leninism professed an internationalist creed, Stalin was an empire-builder who, especially after the start of the war with Germany, refurbished the Russian nationalism Lenin had scorned. In the final years of Stalin’s life, this Russian revival culminated in the frankly antisemitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Notably, despite Stalin’s ethnically Georgian background, his allegiance was emphatically to Russian power and identity. (His daughter Svetlana recalled that when he crudely berated her over a romantic relationship with an older man while in her teens, he was particularly incensed by the fact that her boyfriend was Jewish and shouted, “Couldn’t you have found a Russian?”)

Stalin’s imperial, Russian, and quasi-traditionalist leanings have made him a particularly suitable candidate for at least partial whitewash under the Putin regime. It’s not exactly that Stalin’s crimes were hushed up; but official discourse began to promote a “balanced” view that also stressed Stalin’s successes in industrialization and his victory over Hitler. During the 2000s, historical World War II programming on Russian television began to portray Stalin as a wise and capable commander, sometimes explicitly trying to refute the widely accepted charge that he was partly responsible for the severity of Soviet losses because of his refusal to heed warnings (including from the Americans) of imminent German attack. Stalin posters began to pop up in public spaces during victory celebrations. Public opinion began to shift, as well: By 2019, slightly over half of Russians (up from about a third in the early 2000s) said that they felt “respect” or “sympathy” toward Stalin, while only 14 percent expressed such hostile sentiments as “revulsion” or “fear.” What’s more, the ratio of those who saw Stalin’s role in Russian history as positive to those who saw it as negative stood at 70 percent to 19 percent.

In late 2008, after a controversy over an online vote for the “Greatest Russian” which Stalin nearly won, then-Izvestia managing editor Elena Yampolskaya defended the vote for Stalin as a rejection of liberalism and consumerism and a choice in favor of “victory, power, indifference to monetary gain, statecraft, and imperial ambition (a phrase that is, at last, no longer considered pejorative).” Today, Yampolskaya is a member of the Russian parliament who has, among other things, suggested that it’s time to wean Russian audiences from Western films and railed against the sale of books by writers like Dmitry Bykov and Boris Akunin who have criticized the war in Ukraine.

In a sense, Russia’s war in Ukraine is itself haunted by Stalin’s ghost. Ukraine’s insistence on condemning the Soviet-era legacy and its demands to recognize Stalin’s terror-famine, the Holodomor, as a genocide have been among the dividing lines in Ukrainian-Russian conflict. While the Holodomor was partly a result of Stalin’s push for the collectivization of agriculture, it also coincided with his effort to break the backbone of Ukrainian nationalism, which he saw as threatening Soviet unity. Meanwhile, the Russian military’s methods in this war are horrifyingly reminiscent of Stalin’s willingness to use millions of soldiers as cannon fodder during the war with Germany.

But where Stalin was ultimately victorious, Putin appears to be headed for defeat—and it seems increasingly likely that his rule will end in a real-life farce as dark as the hyperbolic satirical version of the death of Stalin.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.