Sixty Years after Stalin

Sixty years ago one of the greatest monsters in history, a mass-murderer of tens of millions many times over, the yellow-eyed, “Kremlin mountaineer”  breathed his last.

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –
fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
– Osip Mandelstam

So great was the terror he had inflicted that many of his victims, dazed and bloodied by decades of fear, savage oppression and war, openly wept. The greatest fear of the late dictator’s closest henchmen and accomplices, who had more than likely escaped the conveyor belt of torture, gulag and execution only by their master’s death, was that the people would think that they had murdered their dear vozhd and would storm the Kremlin and tear them to pieces.

The former Georgian seminarian and bank robber Joseph Djugashvilli Stalin did more to shape Russia than any man in history except Peter the Great and Genghis Khan. Ivan the Terrible, the tsar whom Stalin much admired and imitated in killing off his own “boyars”, could not hold a candle to his Bolshevik successor in either cruelty or statesmanship. Stalin entered power as Lenin’s chief clerk in a failed state wracked by civil war and ended it as master of the Communist world, possessor of the atomic bomb and the implacable victor of Berlin.

Stalin sent thirty million of his countrymen to their deaths at the hands of buffoons, sexual sadists and deranged dwarfs, yet was a sensitive and gifted poet of no mean talent who could discuss Clausewitz, the intricacies of Marxist theory or the classics when he chose. Stalin was an avid writer of marginalia in books, making comments one scholar termed “insightful” as well brutal.

An artist of the vendetta, Stalin personally lingered over lengthy death lists, making annotations, sparing one here and drawing out the torment of others there. Some estimates are that he signed some thirty thousand such death lists of prominent Soviet and pre-Revolutionary figures, often consigning their families to arrest, torture and exile. Endless ordinary Soviets accused of “wrecking” or “trotskyite counter-revolutionary activity” or “espionage” went to the Gulag or the grave by quota. Not merely in the terrible year of 1937, but throughout Stalin’s long, grim reign; and after the war, it was the turn of the Eastern Europeans, especially suspected “cosmopolitan” Communists, like Ana Pauker and Rudolf Slansky and the usually litany of “class enemies” and “fascists”.

Stalin’s archenemy in both fact and fevered imagination, Leon Trotsky, received an icepick in his brain from Stalin’s messenger, Ramon Mercader. Then for good measure, Stalin killed Trotsky’s son.

The only man Stalin seemed to fear, was Hitler, near whom he had once briefly lived in 1913 in Vienna when Stalin was a young Bolshevik revolutionary and the future Fuhrer was a struggling “artist” living in a bum’s hostel. They both frequented the Schoenbrunn park and likely, the same cheap coffee hoses and cafes. Stalin’s efforts to appease Hitler the Warlord and mad visionary proved no more successful than had Neville Chamberlain’s; the USSR survived Operation Barbarossa in part because the tyrannical Stalin could force the Russian people to spill an ocean of blood in 1941 the way Tsar Nicholas II could not in 1914.

Twenty million, perhaps more, of the Red Army died on the road to Berlin and victory over Nazism, giving Stalin, who had curried favor with Hitler and allied himself with the Third Reich, mastery over half of Europe. His sycophants called him “Generalissimo” and tried to deify him on his 70th birthday and please him, assuring themselves of safety. It was no use; Stalin ostracized them or arrested their wives or toyed with them cruelly at late night drinking sessions as Stalin’s suspicious mind turned again toward the blackness as it had in the Thirties, when his closest collaborators became dead men talking, disappearing and then reappearing suddenly, gaunt and haunted, to grovel for death at show trials.

Roy Medvedev, Soviet era dissident and Marxist historian wrote of Stalin, “Let history judge“. The judgement it must be said, is in with Russia’s tragic post-Soviet decline. A degradation so severe that even the tough and crafty siloviki ,Vladimir Putin, has been unable to reverse it.

The wounds inflicted by Stalin run too deep.

The Heirs of Stalin

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fized bayonets.
He also was mute- his embalmed fists, 
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory: 
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk, 
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie, 
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab, 
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious, 
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal, 
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal, 
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare, 
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin: 
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go! 
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin! 
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement, 
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen, 
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
‘Why care? ‘ some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth, 
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

 -Yevgeny Yevtushenko

27 thoughts on “Sixty Years after Stalin”

  1. A monster … who defeated Hitler.

    From The Chronicles of Riddick:

    “In normal times evil would be fought by good, but in times like these evil will be fought by another kind of evil.”

  2. I took a riverboat on the Volga River about 10 years ago. While Peter the Great Started the Volga Waterway, (Moscow to St Petersburg) it was Stalin, in the 30s, who finished it. I think it has 9 locks. A guide told us that 160,000 political prisoners died building it.

    it was said for many years their bones would wash onto the shore.

  3. Stalin did not defeat Hitler, the “Soviet Peoples” did. Stalin very neat lost the war before it started. The best thing Stalin did was figure out that he had some decent generals and get out of their way.

    Respect for the heroic Soviet war effort does not require us to give Stalin more than his due.

  4. Pen Gun you are truly the soul of the Left. A tittering monster who fawns after power and will excuse anything it does.

    Which is why Stalin dedicated most of his domestic governance to getting rid of Leftists like you. Now that was wise. The rest was incidental.

    The USSRs policy towards it’s slaves was the Mongols policies towards their ponies, I suspect the ratio is the same – 5 ridden to death a day, each –

    It was the most monstorous tryanny in History. But at least he understood the proper policy towards the left.

    Oh and he helped Hitler immensely, shipping him vast quantities of the USSRs natural resources. He just failed to understand Hitler meant it.

  5. Stalin did many stupid things among the crimes he committed against humanity. He was however responsible for moving the Soviet industrial might beyond Hitlers reach and he was the backbone at the darkest hours with the Germans right outside, and actually in parts, of Moscow.

    One could make a good case that Stalin was essential to Hitler’s defeat.

  6. If Hitler had swallowed hard and decided on Operation Sea Lion instead, we might be saying Stalin had been essential to Hitler’s victory. He nearly was anyway.

    Stalin, after his strategic debacle with the Nonaggression Pact and irresponsible and erratic performance in the wake of the Nazi invasion as the USSR lurched from disaster to disaster (and the figures of Soviet losses are epochal in the first 30 days)managed to pull himself together. As Lex indicated, it is fair to say that Stalin improved gradually as a supreme commander as the war progressed and interfered less in operational details and focused more on strategic issues, even giving his most talented commanders like Zhukov and Rossokovsky unprecedented flexibility. Recall, this was the same paranoid who had executed Tukhachevskii and Blucher and much of his own officer corps in 1938. Stalin also reduced Beria’s powers to meddle in Red Army affairs by splitting SMERSH off from the NKVD and removing Beria from day to day control of the security organs, giving him the atomic bomb project to personally supervise instead.

    Stalin gets credit for staying in Moscow when the Germans were at the gates. Unlike Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, I am not sure Stalin could have evacuated himself without risking the entire front collapsing. Everything in the USSR from rolling stock to communications ran to and through the Moscow. Hitler felt the same way about Berlin but the two cities were not equivalent in military or political terms

    Hitler by contrast, became much worse at supreme command as the war went on, losing much of his initial intuitive insight and tactical creativity and micromanaging both the Wehrmacht high command and the field Army specifically, sometimes down to the battalion level

    Stalin’s learning curve was very costly for the average Ivan. The Russian people were going to pay a very heavy price in WWII regardless but Stalin’s butcher’s style of military leadership probably raised the costs by at least a quarter as the Germans only took the Red Army by surprise in 1941 because Stalin had already decapitated it

  7. What Mark said. Also, constructing the industrial base beyond the Urals could have occurred without Stalin, and at a fraction of the human cost he inflicted. Further much of the industrial base was evacuated from the West at the time of Barbarossa. They would have lost the war without this effort, which was not done at Stalin’s direction but was a heroic exercise of initiative from the bottom up.

  8. There was an interesting program on PBS a few years ago – that with the fall of the Iron Curtain records detailing the cooperation between Stalin and Hitler showed that the 2 countries were very close. Probably one of the reasons Stalin was disbelieving in the opening days of Operation Barberossa.

    Of course killing off most of his officer corps greatly exacerbated the defeats during the initial year or so.

    One can wonder if Hitler had just let his generals run the war what would have been the outcome but then I believe they consoled him against opening up a second front by attacking Russia. Hitler could have very easily won the war by initially staying out of Russia, finishing off the British, then attacking Russia (although I would still wonder about the outcome there).

    Had a friend in the Army 40 years ago – Willy Schubert – civilian who ran the photo lab (and helped me learn photography) – he was one of those few captured at Stalingrad, manged to stay alive in the gulag because he was a diesel mechanic and the Russians needed diesel mechanics – repatriated, I believe, in 1955.

    of the 100,000 or so captured at Stalingrad 6,000 came home.

    One of the most realistic scenes of the lot of the average soldier in the Red Army was in the movie Enemy At The Gates detailing the war in Stalingrad. The soldiers didn’t have enough rifles to go around – all ordered to attack – if they retreated they were machine gunned by the commissars – when a comrade was shot down – told to pick up his rifle and continue.

    Choose between being killed by Stalin’s men – or Hitler’s men.

  9. Sheesh, credit it to oncoming senility but the Battle of Britain was over before Hitler attacked Russia – but still , look at the resources demanded (and denied, say, Rommel) with this Eastern front. Could Rommel have defeated Montgomery had he received the men and material he requested?

    –Bill (correcting hisself)

  10. Alan Clark’s summary in his book, “Barbarossa”, seems about right to me:

    “Although Stalin must carry the bulk of the responsibility for the disastrous handling of the Red Army in the first months of the war, it is no more accurate to saddle him with the whole blame than it is to do so to Hitler, with the German Army, in the last.” (p. 137)

    So, most of the blame, but not all.

    And Stalin deserves almost all of the blame for the surprise of the German attack, since he had received many warnings — but refused to believe them.

  11. When I went to Red Square 10 years ago the guide pointed out a small building off to the side, where the lights would be on late at night, and Stalin would ponder his kill lists.

  12. “of the 100,000 or so captured at Stalingrad 6,000 came home.”

    I had a foreman who was a Sargent in the SS at Stalingrad and he went into the POW camp with 1300 others. 300 were alive to be released some 5 years later.

    A very interesting guy, with some great stories to tell.

  13. Usually if the Russians saw that telltale tattoo on the wrist they’d just shot them. A friend, whose father was drafted into the SS late in the war, felt that he escaped death because he was put into the unit so quickly they didn’t have time to tattoo a service number

    That foreman was probably lucky.

    Considering how the Nazis treated the Russians one can understand their attitude.

    A great book on those closing months is here

    Imagine, an area of 600 years history being German – gone like the wind after the war – Stalin deliberately through encouraging units to rape and murder indiscriminately civilians, completely depopulated Prussia.

    The William Gustlaff was a result of these civilians trying to flee – and estimated 9,000 drowned when the ship was torpedoed by a Russian sub.

    Worst maritime disaster ever, largely forgotten in the cataclysm of the closing months of the war.

  14. A small reminder of how much Prussia changed – what was Koenigsburg is now the Polish city of Gdansk

  15. Bill, Danzig became Gdansk. Koenigsburg is the Russian city of Kaliningrad.

    The Russians still have a slice of old East Prussia on the Baltic where they have a naval base.

  16. True story. One the indicates the visceral fear Stalin generated among Soviets:

    A German junkers diplomat of the old school, Herbert von Dirksen, a Russophile (in the old Wilhelmine aristocratic sense)served under the Nazis served for a time in a senior post in the German embassy in Moscow, perhaps ambassador (can’t recall). In any event, von Dirksen got in very good favor with Stalin personally as well as a number of other top members of the politburo, whom von Dirksen saw on many occasions. This was a rarity as Stalin often went years without meeting a particular Western ambassador, usually leaving that chore to Molotov or, worse, Kalinin, the figurehead Soviet “president”.

    Well, in 1945 as the war wound down, von Dirksen somewhat suicidally decided to return from the relative safety of central Germany to his family estates in East Prussia (or easternmost Prussia proper) and do what he could for his people – i.e. the local villagers. Well, the Red Army tore into town and had standing orders to round up the local Nazi bigwigs and “bourgeois” and made a beeline for von Dirksen’s ancestral seat, bursting in to the old man’s study to arrest him…..only to be confronted with prominently displayed photographs of von Dirksen with Stalin and other pictures of him with Beria, Yagoda and other sinister figures.

    The soldiers promptly got the hell out of there and the usual looting and pillaging instantly ceased.

  17. A friend of mine, a retired Marine colonel, is the son of a German soldier captured in the last days of the war. His mother visited his father in a prison compound. The next day she went back and was told he had died of “pneumonia.” She got her son and daughter out of Germany and to Minnesota where he grew up. He joined the Marines and was the first Marine pilot to be in Top Gun. He flew nearly 500 missions in Vietnam and his flight suit is in the Smithsonian, waiting for Vietnam exhibit. He was group commander for the Marines’ fighter group in Gulf War I. He was passed over for general and retired. He recently sold his private business for $33 million and has retired again.

    Not too bad for a war orphan.

    His call sign was “Fokker” and is famous in Marine air. You can find stories about him by Googling it.

  18. Lex – you are right. I do remember my high school German teacher was from Koenigsburg.

    Zenpundit – I am trying to remember where I read this but in the early days of Stalin the NKVD was executing so many people in this concrete building the blood was running on the floor. One pistol shot to the back of the head.

    From what I read of the last months of Prussia entire villages emptied – people scared to death of the oncoming Red Army. There was one small town where they nailed people to barn walls. The Baltic port where the Wilhelm Gustglaff left – I think that town had 100s of thousands of refugees, all trying to get a ship.

    Just imagine a mass exodus of people – villages empty – from people fleeing.

    Mike – your friend sounds like the founder of our Mercedes dealership – came here after the war with his mother and nothing else, convinced the service manager at a British car dealership that he was a “German-trained mechanic” – got a job turning wrenches. He had no formal training – would take the factory manuals home at night to study what he had to do on the cars the next day.

    Within 2 years he was the service manager and a year/2 after that founded an independent shop that serviced everything from VWs to Ferraris.

    During this time he was an avid amateur racer, actually ranked #12 one year against the likes of Dan Gurney & Roger Penske.

    He got the reputation with Mercedes of solving difficult warranty problems the Studebaker dealer couldn’t solve (Studebaker sold Mercedes from the 50s to 1964) – and when they went bankrupt and Mercedes had to build from scratch a national dealership network, he got the nod.

    He died a few years ago but was worth many millions.

    I guess if you start hungry you are motivated.

  19. When it comes to the blunder that was Barbarossa, just remember that a Hitler who could have left things to his generals wouldn’t have been Hitler in the first place.

    The Nazi state ran on plunder. First the Jews, then Austria/Cazech. then the French, then (for a while) the Russians. Once the Battle of Britian was over, Barbarossa was inevitable – it was the last big prize they could get to.

  20. Kaliningrad is the former Königsberg.

    That was actually where the “Pruss” came from…and that was the capital of Prussia until 1701.

    And is part of Russia – FSR now…

    For his performance prior to and at the outset of the Nazi attack on Russia…Stalin would have had himself and his entire family shot.

    Actually the Germans were greeted with Black Bread and Salt. Then came the SS…

  21. VSSC – one wonders what the world would have been like today had the invading Germans not been Nazis.

    But then historical speculation could best be summarized by an answer an RAF officer gave to a questioner – on what would the effect of the Battle of Britain been had Goering not shifted the focus to the cities – instead of pounding the RAF airfields.

    I am sure that his answer was far more eloquent and with that dry British humor but it went something like “If your aunt had bollocks she’d be your uncle”.

  22. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, was a Communist of long standing. In commemoration of Stali’n death in 1953, he wrote Oda A Stalin. A partial English translation of his Ode to Stalinfolllows.

    To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . .
    We must learn from Stalin
    his sincere intensity
    his concrete clarity. . . .
    Stalin is the noon,
    the maturity of man and the peoples.
    Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . .
    Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day!
    The light has not vanished.
    The fire has not disappeared,
    There is only the growth of
    Light, bread, fire and hope
    In Stalin’s invincible time! . . .
    In recent years the dove,
    Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,
    Found herself on his shoulders
    And Stalin, the giant,
    Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . .
    A wave beats against the stones of the shore.
    But Malenkov will continue his work.

    While the Front Page article on Neruda states that it is more common to find this poem in Spanish language editions than in English language editions of Neruda, the Spanish language edition I have of Neruda does not contain it. Erased from the photograph, as it were. how very Stalinist!

  23. Then to lighten the mood, a jest!

    “Comrade Stalin, I heard that you collect jokes about yourself. Is that true?”
    “Yes, it is.”
    “How many do you have?”
    “Two camps full.”

    Though I like the classic one for Lenin:
    A little girl asks her grandmother to tell her how kind Grandfather Lenin was. “It was 1920 – famine, freezing cold. I was walking along the street when I saw Lenin walking towards me eating a pie. I asked him for some of his pie. And he said, ‘Go to hell.’ But he had the kindest eyes!”

    Another one – ask a Russian, “What’s the shortest joke?” “Communism.”

    Not so many jokes about Putin though…

  24. I told a Russian about the bones – from the political prisoners who did building the Volga Waterway and she said that her grandfather used to say that the camps were half full of those who told the joke – and the other half of those who listened.

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