Oh, to Feel the Warmth of Stalin’s Hand
MOSCOW— JOSEF VISSARIONOVICH DZUGASHVILI died 50 years ago last week, and much of Russia still mourns. Those who do not live here may be forgiven for wondering why.
As ruler of the Soviet Union from 1925 to 1953, Dzugashvili — or Stalin, as the world knew him — systematically wiped out all rivals, built an Orwellian police state and imprisoned and murdered millions of people, both in Russia and in lands he later seized. So pervasive was his control that his spies lingered in public toilets, waiting for the unwary to crack jokes about his choke hold rule and thus guarantee themselves five years in a Siberian labor camp.
His reign of terror began with the nightly disposal of a few corpses in a Moscow graveyard. When the graveyards filled, a crematorium was built. When its capacity was spent, the slaughter moved to suburban fields, where victims stood in front of freshly dug trenches and were simply mowed down.
By body count alone, Stalin rivals Hitler — exceeds him, many say — as the most ruthless dictator of modern times. Yet last week, Gennadi Zyuganov, the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, compared Stalin to the great figures of the Renaissance, and television abounded with sepia-toned recollections of his rule. Two opinion polls in Russia found people split over his legacy. In one survey, 1 in 4 judged him a cruel tyrant. But 1 in 5 called him a wise and humane leader.
One could accuse Russians of willful blindness, and for some, that may be true. But demystifying Uncle Joe’s place in the Russian psyche is hardly so simple. Consider: most of Stalin’s worst critics went to those fresh-dug trenches, and most Russians alive today were born long after his horrors faded into history.
Those who survived his reign are largely retirees who have reaped few of capitalism’s benefits. To most of them, life was better, far better, under Stalin, as a Soviet saying went.
For the sizable cadre of nationalists, Stalin is the man who made Russia a huge and fearsome power. For Communists, he is a symbol of lost glory. In a country in which World War II remains the Great Patriotic War, Stalin is remembered as the man who led the motherland to victory, and, some Russians would say, saved it from even worse tyranny.
Those warm memories may fade. But Stalin was also a master propagandist, a ruler who burned his all-knowing, all-powerful image into entire generations’ minds. ”Like a dread spirit he hovered over us,” one poet wrote a decade after his death. ”To others we paid no heed.”
Many say Russians would feel differently had the country rooted out Stalin’s evil as Germany rooted out Hitler’s, with war-crimes trials and public expiations. It is a fantasy, says Yakov Y. Etinger, whose father, Yakov, died in Lefortovo Prison in 1951, one of the first victims of Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot, a supposed collusion in the 1940’s by Kremlin doctors to kill Communist leaders.
”The Nuremberg trials were organized by an occupation force, by the Allies who gained victory,” Mr. Etinger said. ”There couldn’t be such a trial in Russia, for a simple reason: who would be the judges?”
Who, indeed? In his masterful biography of Stalin, Edvard Radzinsky tells of a factory manager summoned by Stalin for a meeting.
”When I felt his handshake, it was like being struck by lightning,” the factory manager recalled many years later. ”I hid my hand inside my coat cuff, got into my car and rushed home. Without stopping to answer my worried wife’s questions, I went to the cot where my small son was sleeping, stretched out my hand, and rubbed his head with it, so that he too would feel the warmth of Stalin’s touch.”