Joseph Stalin:
Killer in the Kremlin

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 1997 (with a 2006 update)

Stalin circa 1905.

In the summer of 1933 Joseph Stalin celebrated the opening of a large canal in the northwest of Russia that he had ordered to be built. He was pleased to declare the waterway a triumph of engineering and a shining example of the Stalinist system at its best.

In fact, as Stalin knew, the White Sea-Baltic Canal had been built too shallow. It was essentially useless – large warships couldn’t use it to get from the Baltic to the White Sea.

The canal had been built with slave labor. More than 60,000 people died during its construction and were buried in its banks (some estimates put the death toll at 200,000).

Many of the dead were peasants who had been arrested and put to work during Stalin’s forced collectivization of the country’s agriculture. Ten million Soviet citizens died as a result of that policy. Seven million starved to death in their villages in the Ukraine and adjoining areas during the winter of 1932-33 in an apparently premeditated, ruthlessly enforced “murder famine,” a war by the dictator against the peasantry.

In the summer of ’33, as he applauded his new canal, Stalin’s war against his country – against humanity – was just beginning.

Joseph Stalin, ruler of the Soviet Union for almost a quarter century (1929 to 1953), was born Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Russian Georgia on December 21, 1879. (He adopted the pseudonym Stalin – “man of steel” – as an adult while working as a Bolshevik revolutionary.)

The household in which the boy grew up was poor and violent; he was beaten by his father and mother. He was a good student and athlete, and a leader among his peers, but he seemed, to one early observer, to lack empathy. Nonetheless, in 1894, at age 14, he began studying for the Eastern Orthodox priesthood; he was said to be pious and an intellectual bully.

He read widely outside the seminary, including works by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the seminal theoreticians of Communism, who predicted a struggle between capitalists and industrial workers, leading, eventually, to social and economic utopia. Marxism was deeply appealing to many people in Russia and Europe during these years, especially young people. Stalin left the seminary at age 19 and became a Marxist revolutionary dedicated to overthrowing the tsarist regime. (Another important writer in this period was the Russian Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose 1863 novel “What Is To Be Done?” made a hero of a ruthless, iron-willed political activist, and spoke profoundly to many young people – definitely Lenin, perhaps Stalin.)

Revolutionary anger simmered for years in the Russian empire. During the First World War, in the wake of battle defeats and food shortages, support for Tsar Nicholas II declined precipitously. (See here for a profile of Rasputin, a key player during these years.) Nicholas abdicated in March 1917 and was replaced by a moderate government. In November, 1917, the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power by force. They renamed themselves Communists in 1918.

In those days, few Russian Communists saw Stalin as a man who might one day lead their country; he was regarded as hard-working and diligent, but crude and limited. In any case Lenin was expected to be in charge for many years. But Lenin died in 1924. Over the next several years Stalin consolidated control over the party apparatus and filled key posts with his followers, while his rivals, including the formidable Leon Trotsky, fell by the wayside or were pushed out in complicated political machinations. Trotsky was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928, expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929, and assassinated in 1940 by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico City.

By 1929 Stalin stood alone at the head of the nation. In his climb to the top of the concrete pedestal he showed himself to be an adroit, decisive politician – a political genius, in fact – driven by a love of power and position, and by the conviction that he was the best hope of Russia and of Communism.

He was also suspicious and murderous, thus representing a continuation of more than four centuries of paranoia and bloodlust among Russian autocrats. (Stalinism, notes author Michael Weiss, was the “natural culmination of the Russian tradition.”) Stalin added something new to the age-old Russian mix of absolute power vested in distorted minds – a near-religious faith in social engineering, a devout conviction that government could and should impose drastic actions upon the citizenry in pursuit of ideological purity and utopia. Hence, Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture; hence, the astonishing crash program of industrialization in the 1930s – epic adventures in social engineering conducted at the cost of millions of lives.

During the ’30s Stalin ordered the arrest, trial (usually in secret), and often torture and execution of people he perceived as foes. At least two million Soviets were killed in these roundups, called the “Great Purges.” Many were shot in the cellars of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison; others died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion in the network of concentration camps known as the gulag archipelago. Associated with the Great Purges were three “Moscow Trials” – trumped-up judicial actions against top party leaders. Little solid news of these tragedies made it out to the Soviet people or to the West. (Malcolm Muggeridge filed accurate eyewitness reports in Britain in 1932 about the murder famine; Walter Duranty of the New York Times “not only denied that it was happening,” notes journalist James Kirchick, “but won a Pulitizer Prize for doing so.”)

In his purges, Stalin decapitated the leadership of the Red Army. He had barely begun to replace his senior officers in 1939 when the Second World War began. In 1941 came Barbarossa.

On the night of June 21-22, 1941, three million German soldiers, the most imposing army of history up to that point, waited on the Soviet border, ready to sweep eastward across the steppe to conquer Russia. Stalin refused on this night, as he had declined for months, to believe that Germany would attack. He apparently trusted Hitler to adhere to the terms of their nonaggression pact of 1939.

The Germans launched Operation Barbarossa at 3:15 a.m. on June 22, and made rapid advances in months to come, partly because the Soviets had so few experienced commanders.

As word reached the Kremlin of the attack, Stalin went into deep shock, and was incapable for a couple of days of making decisions. He held onto power during these crucial hours because no one of substance was willing to step forward and put a bullet in his brain – almost all senior Soviet leaders of merit had been murdered or imprisoned.

He soon found his bearings. But he was wildly uneven in his war-time judgments. His mistakes cost – again the phrase – millions of lives. The Soviet Union, for better or worse, had millions of lives to give. Ordinary soldiers fought desperately, superbly, not for Communism, not for Stalin, but for rodina, the Motherland. They prevailed after some dire moments. The number of deaths among Soviet soldiers and civilians in the Second World War has been estimated at anywhere from 20 million to 27 million. (American deaths in the war totaled 420,000.)

Stalin conducted canny diplomacy at war conferences, hiding his inexorable thirst for aggrandizement, taking advantage of the stark fact that the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe, and tapping information supplied by his spies, including the Briton Kim Philby. The Soviet diplomatic position was much enhanced by the failure in 1944 of the American army to push eastward as aggressively as possible, also by the refusal in early 1945 of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to plant his troops in Berlin and Prague ahead of the Soviets, and by disagreements (of which Stalin was aware) at the Yalta Conference between the British and Americans about the post-war structure of Germany and Poland.

The Cold War began in earnest in 1946. Stalin knew that the U.S. had an atomic bomb (the Soviets didn’t possess the weapon yet) but he cultivated extreme belligerence toward the West anyway. His truculence may actually have been increased by the American monopoly on the bomb – it’s possible that one motivation for his eagerness to strut was a wish to show he couldn’t be cowed by the new weapon. Whatever the source, his aggression enhanced the West’s perception that the Soviet Union wanted to seize all of Europe. To counter Stalin, the United States implemented the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1947, and, with 11 other countries, established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. America’s international presence expanded more in the 1940s than in the previous 150 years of the life of the nation. (See here for a list of this Website’s articles on the Cold War.)

The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949. Stalin’s paranoia was deepening at this time. Enemies were everywhere, he felt – Zionists, spies, and doctors in Moscow (the fabricated “Doctor’s Plot” of this period resulted in the deaths of many outstanding scholars). His mindset and policies helped foster what historian David Holloway describes as an “extremely tense” situation between the Soviet Union and the West in the early ’50s: “The danger of war seemed close at hand….old age had further warped (Stalin’s) capacity for judgment.” Stalin ordered the building of hundreds of new bombers in 1952; his officers in the Soviet Air Force were convinced he was preparing for war. The dictator’s exact intentions – whether he planned to attack, or expected to be attacked – remain a subject for conjecture.

Stalin suffered a stroke during the night of March 1-2, 1953; he died three days later at the age of 73. His death throes were agonizing, according to an eyewitness. For 12 hours, as his family and associates watched, his face and lips slowly blackened as his body became less and less able to use oxygen. (He may not have received painkillers or sedatives; the doctors may have been afraid to dose him.) Moments before death, he opened his eyes, cast an enraged and frightened look at the observers, and lifted his hand in a menacing gesture that some onlookers took as a curse.

How many people did Stalin kill? The figure is at least 20 million, according to the most creditable Russian and Western sources. This number does not take into account the people who died from his blunders in World War II. Nor does it count any of the deaths caused by despots who took at least some of their ideas from him – Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Nicolae Ceausecu, and others. And it doesn’t count deaths of the spirit and consciousness, such as the one suffered by the writer Maxim Gorky, who edited a book describing as “uniquely successful” the infamous White Sea-Baltic Canal (mentioned earlier).

Stalin was officially reviled by the Soviet Union in 1956, but much of his agenda endured for another three decades, and he has many admirers in Russia today. The country’s Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who still enjoys significant popularity despite his defeat in the last July’s presidential election, flatly denies that Stalin killed tens of millions of Soviets, and holds him up as an exemplar of Russian patriotism who “understood the special destiny of the country.” Some observers fear that Russia, in a future election, will embrace Zyuganov’s seductive ideology, which combines Communism, xenophobia, messianic nationalism, neofascism, anti-Western propaganda, and a re-writing of the history books.

Perhaps the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is correct: “Stalin is only pretending to be dead.”

Update: “Imagine,” write Sarah E. Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber in Foreign Affairs (January/February 2006), “that a scientific survey revealed that most Germans under 30 today viewed Hitler with ambivalence and that a majority thought he had done more good than bad. Imagine that about 20 percent said they would vote for him if he ran for president tomorrow. Now try to envision the horrified international response that would follow. Of course, most contemporary Germans revile Hitler. But ask young Russians about Stalin, and you get answers very similar to those above. Since 2003, we have conducted three surveys in Russia, and according to these polls, there is no stigma associated with Stalin in the country today. In fact, many Russians hold ambivalent or even positive views of him…..Although Stalinism per se is not rampant in Russia today, misperceptions about the Stalin era are.”