Stalin and Saddam: Just What Was the Connection?Polls
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The 50th anniversary of Joseph Stalins death was marked on March 5, 2003. A month after the event, it remains, as always, still extremely relevant to discuss the meaning of the anniversary -- not only in terms of the malignancy that Stalinism represented in and of itself, but in light of the fact that the Iraqi war was triggered by a dictator who venerates Stalin. Indeed, Saddam Hussein has always been a great admirer of the Soviet dictator and modeled himself after Stalin. So now it appears urgent to ask: what is the significance of the adulation that Saddam held for Stalin, and how did that adoration lead to the suffering of millions - in Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago and in the modern day Middle East?
Glazov: Welcome ladies and gentlemen. I congratulate each of you about the news coming from Iraq, as we see the statues of a pernicious dictator falling and the cheering crowds of Iraqis in the streets. It is truly a glorious occasion - just like Stalin's death fifty years ago.
I want to talk about Hussein’s veneration of Stalin, but first, let’s discuss the meaning of the anniversary itself. March 5, as you know, marked the 50th anniversary of the dictator's death. What are your thoughts regarding this occasion?
Menashe: I always have two slightly off-beat thoughts on March 5, and this year was no different. One is that no one remembers that the great Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, died on the same day as the great Soviet butcher. The other is the wonderful scene described by Solzhenitsyn somewhere, set in the Gulag: The bosses assembled the prisoners to announce Stalin's death, and shouted at them,"Hats off!" Whereupon, joyfully, they flung their caps in the air. Even in the darkest of Soviet times, in the darkest of Soviet places the most forsaken of Soviet (non) citizens had good sense and the courage to show how they felt. So when I read that polls tell us of alarming numbers of Russians still think positively of Stalin today, it's good to remember that story, and to assume that even larger numbers would also throw their caps in the air, or just don't care anymore.
Habeck: Stalin was one of the great monsters of the twentieth century, a man with an unbounded appetite for power, an inability to tolerate dissent, and a willingness to kill millions to attain his aims. March 5 should be a day of sorrow, dedicated to remembering Stalin's victims and to reflecting on the conditions that would allow such a man to carry out his crimes against humanity, so that we can truly say"never again". And yet some in the West, Russia and elsewhere celebrate the anniversary of Stalin's death by talking about his"achievements", as would never be done for Mussolini, Hitler, or Pol Pot. The reason is very simple. Neither the far left nor Russia has ever repudiated Stalin's crimes and the crimes of the society he created.
Yarim-Agaev: Although we are talking about the death of the specific individual, we should not personify too much the political period associated with him. Stalinism is an integral stage of development for any communist system, which follows its first stage - Leninism. This is the stage of consolidation of totalitarianism, which requires excessive terror to ensure the elimination of any degree of freedom and any potential disloyalty to the system. Stalinism is absolutely necessary and inevitable stage for communism and you find it with no exception in any communist country: USSR, China, Cuba etc. That is why you cannot single out Stalinism and repudiate it separately without repudiating communism in its entirety.
It may be more appropriate to consider then word Stalin as a title for the one in charge of Stalinism, rather than a personal name. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a name given at birth to any individual. It was a party nickname, meaning in Russian"a man of steel" - very precise for the corresponding political and industrial period. In the USSR, the position of Stalin was occupied by Joseph Dzhugashvili, in China by Mao, in Cuba by Castro. The role of those individuals during their life should not be overestimated. Their death may be more important. It could lead to an abrupt ending of Stalinism and earlier release of millions from the Little Camp to the Big Camp, as it happened after March 5, 1953 in Russia. Stalinism, however, is not the last stage of the communism, and its early ending does not bring the end of the system per se.
Brent:Joseph Djugashvili is dead, but after 50 years Stalin is not. The political system he perfected and represented has not been completely eliminated from the human imagination or present political realities, as is evident by the continuing fascination in communism around the world as well as in the universities and colleges of North America. As a result, he is still a danger to all who believe in liberal democracy. We must continue to study (and oppose) that system, irrespective of what it may be called in specific situations, and its roots in the long history of western political thought and philosophy in order to safeguard the West from Stalin's return. In particular, we must understand the processes by which power was concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority and was, in principle, unopposed and unappeasable by any other social, political, economic, religious, or military interests.
I don't think there is a full understanding of this today because the vast holdings of the former Soviet archives have not yet been made available for study. We must concentrate not simply on Stalin as an individual, but on those around him and on those around that inner circle both within the Soviet Union and abroad. We must concentrate on the almost atavistic attraction of the ideology of that system for intellectuals and understand how that ideology and the intellectuals were manipulated by the top leadership.
Menashe: Of course,"Stalin" is just shorthand for"Stalinism," which, contrary to what sections of the Left have always argued, should be shorthand for, or derivative of"Leninism," and it does seem to generate like systems wherever the banner of Marxism-Leninism waves -- the one-party state, the personality cult, the dominance of the power"organs," the party-state monopoly over the means of information, etc. etc.
We should all be in accord about this, and only the most rigid, most Stalinoid simpletons would quarrel. Still, and maybe I speak as an historian, there are lots of issues/questions about Stalin specifically and Soviet policies, internally and externally, during the Stalin period that need addressing. There are especially dramatic issues like -- as Jonathan Brent in his forthcoming book argues -- was Stalin done in by his colleagues? (Or, did Stalin deliberately hasten Lenin's death?) Other, standard questions still abound -- how did Stalin conceive of himself in the post-WW II global configuration, as audacious militant or conservative, great-power statesman? Or was there any large conception at all? Lots of such questions tumble out and beg informed responses. It would help if more than the opened 15% of the Stalin archive were available.
Yuri Yarim-Agaev: Historians can do a great job in gathering new factsfor a public indictment of Stalinism and communism. I believe though, that many of those facts would not add much to the scientific understanding of the communist system. To me it not so important whether Stalin killed Lenin or Beria killed Stalin. Those facts would hardly add to the understanding of characters of those people - they were all murderers, anyway. Much more important, however, is that such events don’t have much influence on the basic development of communism. It is not so critical who presides over which stage. Had Lenin lived longer he, most probably, would have carried out Stalin’s job. It is not as critical either whether the same or different persons are in charge of different periods of communism. In China Mao presided both over Leninism and Stalinism, while Castro in Cuba seems to be ready to play all roles starting with the Lenin’s and up to the Gorbachev’s.
Associating one person with only one stage of the development of communist system may be misleading. The eternal image of Kim Il Sung makes many believe that North Korea still lives through its Stalinist period. I think, however, that this country is long in the Brezhnevizm and maybe even close to Perestroika. This is a very important practical issue. If my estimates are correct, the Korean communism, which is our major problem after Iraq, is close to its collapse and thus is very vulnerable.
Bukovsky: I am sure we all mean the same thing when we say"Stalin" or"Stalinism" and it is not the personality of a certain Josef Dzhugashvili. As far as one can conclude, the totalitarian regimes' high point of development requires a leader of certain characteristics, or to be more accurate, creates such leader. It so happened historically that the first such leader of the first totalitarian state in the world history was Stalin. But look at what has happened after his death: all subsequent leaders, even Khrushchev who came to power under the banner of de-Stalinization, were slowly but surely turning into new Stalins. Each and every of them had their own"personality cult", even Brezhnev who had no personality. Even Gorbachev, his glasnost and perestroika notwithstanding. This is not just a tradition of the country, as some might assume. Thus, Yeltsin who tried to lead the country into democracy and to dismantle totalitarian structures, had no personality cult at all. But Putin, who turned the country back, has it already after only two years in power.
Having said that, let me turn this discussion to another area for a moment if you don’t mind. This month I have been in a number of countries, (Hungary, Italy, Poland), and in each of those countries some kind souls have bothered to organize concerts to commemorate Stalin's anniversary. Oh no, they did not do it in order to remember the victims of repressions. On the contrary, it was done explicitly to remember the Great Old Man. I became curious to find out who has bothered to initiate it. In Hungary I was reliably told that George Soros Foundation has financed it, but that all theatres in Budapest refused to stage it. At the end, the organizers decided to stage it in New York instead. In Italy everyone blamed the neo-communists, but I failed to establish who has offered to pay for it (the concert was actually staged in Rome on March 5). In Poland, people were too preoccupied with their economic crisis and could not tell me who is behind it. No one cared. I don't even know was it finally staged or not. This brief report does provide us with a snap-shot of the world's attitude to the problem, does it not?
Habeck: I believe the concerts do say something interesting about Stalin.
Namely, that those who have lived under his system are the last ones to commemorate
him or his work in any way. Only people who never had to deal with the every
day indignities and terrors of this dictator would
ever think it worthwhile to remember him with anything but disgust.
Menashe: That"snap-shot" Bukovsky mentions is I would hope a take of a very marginal epiphenomenon: the last gasps of cheerleaders of a failed system. Or, maybe, just as we are doing, others are simply noting the important date and reflecting on it. (Would Soros finance anything like a"tribute"??). As for tributes being transferred to New York, I know of no such event(s). As always, there is much interest in things Russian here, especially things cultural (e.g., Sokurov's"Russian Ark" has been screening for several months; the Film Society at Lincoln Center just concluded a series of musical scores in Russian cinema; there is a Rostropovich tribute going on; etc.), but remembering Stalin affectionately? No such evidence.
Bukovsky: Well, I used to know Soros pretty closely at the beginning of the 1980s (to a point of staying in his apartment whenever in New York), and I know he is not a Stalin's admirer (on the contrary). But I also know that he is exceptionally bad judge of human characters and because of that quite a few people in his foundation (which he never controlled too tightly) are so disgusting I would not like to see them even in a bad dream. Thus, at the beginning of 1980s he has discovered that his foundation funds Guatemalan guerrilla (and terminated the funding). His ventures behind the Iron Curtain (in China and in Russia at the end of 1980s) were almost openly run by the secret police (KGB in Russia), while funding mostly"liberal communists". Do you want more, or can we move away from Soros, please?
The fact remains that there was a concert in Rome in honor of Comrade Stalin (I saw the posters), and there was an attempt to stage such concert in Budapest and in Warsaw. Whether it was it epiphenomenon or quasiphenomenon is a matter for interpretation. I personally believe that such facts are indicative of our time. A few years back, the Belgian government issued a post stamp commemorating Comrade Lenin's anniversary, and refused to withdraw it in spite of many protests. Can you imagine a deafening noise of protests if they issued a Hitler's post stamp, or even a Franco one? Belgium would have been ostracized, boycotted, embargoed etc. This year we (Britain) have created a huge international scandal: in one tiny obscure British town local people have elected a member of BNP as one of the Councillors. Horror of horrors! Fascists are about to take over the British Isles! And, meanwhile the communists have won elections in the Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and even in Berlin, without so much as an expression of concern in the West. Is this what you call epiphenomenon?
Yarim-Agaev: Add to this the fact that half of former Soviet republics are still ruled by top Soviet communist leaders, some of them members of Politburo like Shevardnadze and Aliev. This is as if some German provinces after the war were ruled by Himmler ad Goebbels. For any free minded person those real and hypothetical situations should be equally unacceptable, as equally unacceptable should be Communism and Nazism.
The recent commemorations of Stalin show how far we are from that. With full disgust I find those events, however, more indicative than troubling. If the pressure by democrats on the left gets stronger, they would readily denounce Stalin and blame all problems with communism on his personality and on cultural traditions of one country. And this is a critical point, which we cannot accept. We know for a fact that Stalinism inevitably occurs in every communist country after Leninism lays ideological and political foundation for the system. We also know that killing of millions of people is a rational requirement by that system, rather than paranoid sadistic act by one individual. Sure, it does require some monster to be in charge of the process. Yet, so far, it never happened that Stalinism was not realised because of the lack of the proper man for the job. Unfortunately, human race has sufficient supply of species of this kind. Those facts are well known and leave no room for anybody to be ignorant or naive about this subject. Hence our position should be very clear: if you subscribe to communism, you automatically subscribe to Stalinism, and gulags, and murder of millions of innocent people.
Brent: Unfortunately, Stalin is not only revered by many in Russia today, but also recalled affectionately. I have noted this on various recent trips when I've had the chance to read the local papers. I can't speak about his reputation outside of Russia. Inside, he is frequently thought of as the man who made the Soviet Union a great power on the one hand and provided the daily bread to widows and orphans on the other. Only an intensive educational campaign can help correct this picture, but today there are few indeed who would wish to undertake this. One version has it that Stalin was drawn into war with Hitler by unscrupulous Jews; another, that the crimes of the regime were conducted without his knowledge by overzealous subordinates; another, that England, America, and France ganged up on the Soviet Union and pushed him into conflicts he hadn't wished to enter. Some of these mystifications are current in intellectual circles outside of Russia as well. Molotov said in his conversations with Felix Chuev,"Stalin will be rehabilitated, needless to say." As Ehrenburg wrote after the dictator's death,"Stalin lives in the hearts" of ordinary people. I think that was truer than Ehrenburg imagined, Khrushchev's Secret Speech notwithstanding.
Yarim-Agaev:In this context, Russia, Eastern Europe and Western democracies are three different cases. In Russia you will find most of Stalin admirers either among elderly people left in misery, or the youth disaffected by the present and ignorant about the past. For those two groups this is mainly expression of their dissatisfaction with the current situation. There is the third group whose motivation is more pragmatic and which was most active during the last anniversary.
This is old Soviet nomenklatura for which glorification of Stalin helps to justify their staying at power. The majority of the population is quite indifferent to the subject. The fact that many of them say positive things about Stalin in public opinion polls doesn’t show that they prefer tyranny to democracy. They actually haven’t seen the latter yet, and don’t consider it as a realistic option. And if the only choice they see is between victorious generalissimo of the past and obscure lieutenant colonel of the present why wouldn’t they choose the former. Hardly such a support is ideologically motivated. It is rather nostalgia for Russia’s greatness.
Since the Eastern Europe is not so nostalgic about imperial Russian glory, there is no motive at all for Stalin’s commemoration. It can be initiated and financed only from the outside. This leaves us only with one group with true ideological motives for such a commemoration, - the western left. Not, that many of them are hard core Stalinists. Yet, they realize that a profound and scrupulous repudiation of Stalinism can start a chain reaction, which they would rather avoid. So they may support some actions which would help to make sure that this process doesn’t go too far.
Brent: I don't know about the concerts Mr. Bukovsky has described but I worry that Stalin as well as Stalinism continue to exert a dangerous influence over the imagination of ordinary people as well as intellectuals who are easily bored with liberal democracy and are indignant at what is perceived to be the arrogant power of American capitalism. The underlying hold of that attraction probably goes back hundreds of years in western thinking, even to the Renaissance, during the fierce debates over the difference between"traditional" culture and the culture then developing based on capitalism. I think the"Great Old Man" remains a symbol of opposition to the capitalist order and this should not be taken lightly. In Moscow, Stalin is taken very seriously as a hero by many people, as is evident by the recent polls. The opposition to American capitalism is evident in throughout Europe and the Arab world. It seems very doubtful to me that George Soros would have anything to do with staging tributes to Stalin.
Bukovsky: I don't think Stalin's continuous appeal in Russia has anything to do with hatred of American capitalism. He was never perceived as an anti-capitalist symbol over there (this role was reserved for Lenin). But it probably much more connected with the current pitiful state of Russia. Stalin's admirers today always hark back to his times as the period of greatness and strength, of"order" and of a sense of purpose. By contrast, Western Stalinists (who are no less numerous than in Russia) always perceived him as an ultimate opponent of Fascism. As far as Soros is concerned, I merely repeat what I was told in Hungary.
Menashe: So maybe Soros is at times a"useful idiot," albeit wealthy and well-meaning. As for the Stalin tributes in Europe, sad to hear. But not unexpected, given 1) the historic strength of the Left there; 2) the Communist collapse and the end of the Cold War (the Left joined the ranks of the unemployed); 3) The second Bush and his policies, particularly the Iraq war and the background debates to the war, make the U.S. a very fat target, reviving and re-launching the old charges of imperialism, U.S. hegemonic ambitions, etc. All of this a fertile field for Stalin nostalgia. Such trends paralleled in the U.S., though not quite as strong (at least no visible Stalin nostalgia, as far as I can tell). Very troubling, here and there, is that the relentless anti-Americanism of the Left is joined to anti-Zionism, which in turn is but a thin cover for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Add Islamo-Fascists, especially in Europe, and the picture gets ugly. And yes, now we get to Saddam, who is an admirer of Stalin. . . .
Glazov:Thank you Prof. Menashe. And so we get tothe issue ofSaddam and Stalin. What do you each of you make of Hussein’s veneration of the Soviet dictator? It reminds me of Hitler admiring Stalin’s set-up of the Soviet Gulag. What do you see significant or telling in Saddam’s context?
Habeck: This is one of the more interesting revelations about Saddam and his vision for Iraq. I understand that he had an entire room of one palace dedicated to Stalin: pictures, books and memorabilia from and about the dictator. His actions show that this is more than just hero worship. Like Stalin, he won the hearts of the poor and dispossessed by pushing literacy and education and opening up job opportunities. Like Stalin, he then carried out a coup that left him alone at the top with the complete loyalty of the bureaucracy, army and secret police. Like Stalin, he punishes any hint of dissent with the utmost severity. And like Stalin, he put thousands of informers and enforcers amongst his people to keep them in line. The resistance that we at first witnessed to the coalition in Iraq showed that Saddam's Stalinist strategy had succeeded in terrorizing any opposition while co-opting enough loyal followers to prevent mass defections.
Bukovsky: Yes, as far as I know, Saddam is Stalin's admirer. Not only does he try to look like Stalin, but he also models many of his politics on those of Stalin. For example, his way of playing games with the West, his brinkmanship, always reminds me of Uncle Joe. Also, his ruthless suppression of minorities and the way he uses the problem to strengthen his power. This is why I am so sure that Saddam, like Stalin, would never have stopped until he got nuclear weapons.
Yuri Yarim-Agaev: I assume Stalin is a good example for Hussein. Yet, again I want to stress that systems are more important than individuals. During the Cold War Iraq had been on the side of the Soviet Union, not the U.S. The Soviet Communist system helped to shape Iraqi socialist system. They are akin. As long as Russia is ruled by the KGB, it will be friendly and supportive to Iraq, and North Korea as well. We should have no illusions that Russia is our ally. We shouldn’t be surprised when we find it supporting our enemy, like now in Iraq. All this talk about how the equipment and advisors come from some independent Russian military companies is ridiculous. As far as I know, there are no such independent companies there. The government controls the production and sales of military equipment in Russia. All issues related to Iraq are decided at the top level, which includes Putin himself. And Russia’s support comes not because Putin admires Hussein, but because of the affinity of these two systems. To me it is not as important whether those who are in charge of those systems have moustaches, or love jazz, or what I would see if I look in their eyes. They will perform their functions, as do Saddam and Putin.
Menashe: Yuri is right to stress systems over individuals, yet mass psychology and politics too are rendered in personal terms, and such personification is as important as systems in shaping behavior. And since Saddam is at war now it's useful to look at Stalin at war for comparisons. There are the same"systemic" terrorist aspects: Special NKVD units threatened wavering Soviet soldiers from the rear; we now hear that Iraqi soldiers are sent into battle at gunpoint. Yet defense of the motherland gets refracted into personalization: Soviet soldiers died with"For the Motherland, For Stalin" on their lips, while newscasts show Iraqi crowds hailing"Saddam!" and offering to die for him. Surely, among the many books on Stalin that Saddam is reported to have had in his library, he must behave studied the Stalin-at-war playbook.
Brent: I don't know enough about Saddam's biography to be able to comment in a great deal of detail on this subject, but it is evident that he has fully understood Stalin's tactic of using naked force and terror to win loyalty and provide legitimacy to what otherwise would be viewed as an illegitimate government. Saddam has also understood the lesson that nationalism always trumps ideology and has sought to promote a nationalistic, rather than a religious, leadership of the Arab world. The other lesson, it appears Saddam has learned is that securing your power base is more important than promoting or retaining the most talented individuals in your government. Stalin was always willing to destroy his most talented followers than to risk weakening his power.
However, I think as much as Saddam may admire Stalin, he lacked Stalin's mastery of what Stalin called"the middle cadres"--the masses of secondary workers whose loyalty to Stalin was essential in his final triumph over Trotsky. Stalin achieved this because he was nearly a genius in manipulating public opinion and earned the respect of his colleagues because he paid close attention to the details of economic and social management--despite having led his country to near catastrophic ruin as a consequence.
I would also suggest that Stalin would never have risked an all-out war with the U.S. unless he was certain of victory. This was Saddam's biggest blunder. This is not to say that Stalin did not make blunders--huge ones--but he was usually exceptionally cautious in conducting foreign policy, despite a great deal of bravado. Though he knew that conflict with America was coming and was"inevitable," he would never have pushed things to open conflict without being fully--from his point of view--prepared.
The other major difference, it seems to me, is that Stalin actually achieved enormous things for the Soviet people, whereas it's not clear to me that Saddam did. Stalin achieved industrialization that made it possible for the Soviet Union to become one of the greatest powers of the world. What were Saddam's objective accomplishments? Furthermore, Stalin comported himself as a"modest" man. He wore peasant tunics and slept on a cot. He would never have made palaces for himself with mother of pearl and gold encrusted accoutrements. He would never have tolerated the libertine behavior of his family, as Saddam has. Whether this was stratagem or true commitment, Stalin appealed to the imaginations of many people around the world as a result. Saddam, by contrast, surrounds himself with luxury, ostentatiously fires off shotguns in public, and often resembles a buffoon in his public appearances.
Yarim-Agaev: What greatness? I believe that this is the most important misconception, which still haunts Russia and does not let it to move forward. Do you call a country great, when majority of its population is rationed food on the survival level, when most people do not have their own homes, when any decent cloth is considered a luxury, not to mention a car. That was a great Soviet Union by the end of Stalin’s rule, when the majority of the population was absolutely impoverished. And what is so good about industrialization? Praising it implies that command economy in some instances can be more efficient than the market. I cannot accept this premise. What command economy can do is to concentrate all resources on few areas important for the system by an enormous cost not only to the majority of the population but to a total economic outcome as well. That is how the Soviet Union developed its disproportional military might and some areas, supporting it, like space and science. If we decide to measure the greatness of the country by its nuclear and hydrogen bombs, we should give credit to Saddam Hussein as well. He managed to develop chemical and biological weapons, and if not for Israel and the US, would have had atomic bomb by now.
Bukovsky: Stalin's achievements? This must be a joke, right? He managed to ruin Russian agriculture forever through his collectivisation, destroying some 10 million best peasants in the process. His"industrialisation" is what ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union and what is still preventing Russia from converting to market economy. His modesty was all appearance: he had quite a few villas and luxurious dachas, not to mention palaces of Kremlin where he lived most of the time. True, he was a master of manipulation, and he was much more sophisticated than Saddam. To be sure, he was cautious in foreign relations, but he did provoke a war for which he was not prepared - a defensive war with Nazi Germany. So, let’s not talk about"achievements," Stalin's or Saddam's. They both ruined their respective countries quite thoroughly. As for similarities between them, they are obvious provided we keep in mind the difference in scale.
Glazov:Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to finish this symposium on, well, perhaps, somewhat of a strange note. I’ll go into a small tirade and then ask my question.
When we think of Stalin, and we think of what produced Stalin, we cannot escape the reality of the people over whom he ruled. Yes, obviously no people"deserve" to be tortured or oppressed or killed. And of course oftentimes people are not responsible for the despots that hijack power above them. But in other contexts, as we well know, the governments of a people are a result of the neuroses of the people they rule.
I was born in the Soviet Union. While I cherish many aspects of Russian culture, there are several aspects I am very happy to have escaped from and I now live my life very consciously trying to be as far away from those aspects as possible. For instance, in Russia, the boundaries between what is your business and other peoples’ business are always very blurry at best and non-existent at worst. The idea of an old lady approaching a person in North America to chastise him about his appearance or something he has done wrong (i.e. keeping his shoes on a park bench) is next to impossible, but in Russia, as many of us know, it is a common and everyday thing.
What I love about my life in North America is that, if it is cold and I do not want to wear a hat, a person might make a suggestion for me to wear one, but, if I don’t want to wear one, there is not much at stake. If I decide to go outside without a hat, there might, at most, be a chuckle or a shrug from the advice-giver and the event is over. Among Russians, it is very probable that you could be surrounded by a large group of people who simply will not allow you to leave the house if you do not put your hat on. And the articulated fear of you" catching cold" is, as we all know, a fictitious cover-up and lie, because there is something much more at stake. And part of it is that, because of the powerlessness that is felt in almost all other areas of life, these individuals attempt to insert control over realms where they can find a modicum of control and, in so doing, hopefully control others.
It is a mentality that I have been exposed to throughout my life among Russians and, aside from my love of my people, who I think are, on some levels of the human soul, among the most beautiful people in the world, it is something that I cannot talk about too long without getting very angry and my blood pressure rising to very unhealthy levels. So I desist. . . .
So let me get to my point: all of this is connected, in some way, to the fact that, during Stalin’s times, no matter what was happening, many Russians were thinking"Wait till Stalin finds out. He will be very upset and fix things." Somewhere Russians needed, and need, to believe that there is some powerful figure sitting somewhere thinking about them and in the process of fixing things. Look at the tears Russians shed for Stalin. They were different from the tears shed by Westerners for cherished leaders who passed away. Russians’ tears for Stalin spoke the language not of personal and heart-felt grief and bereavement, but of a dreadful terror that life would not, and could not, continue, because God had died.
What I have always loved about the West is that, growing up here, I was astounded, from a very young age, to know a lot of people, and have a lot of friends, who literally did not know who was in power in their own country – and also didn’t care. Now, although ignorance and lack of education are obviously not admirable qualities, there is one good thing that can be said about this kind of life in democracies: many people live their lives without any care or interest in government whatsoever – precisely because they are afforded this luxury by what we call"freedom." And they have power over their own lives, and enjoy implementing it. They don’t sit around clinging to some kind of delusion that some leader sitting somewhere is thinking about them. They couldn’t care less who is in power because it doesn’t affect their lives, in their eyes, one way or another. And they can often live their entire lives happily in this way. In Russia, this is simply unfathomable.
What do you make of my little speech? Am I wrong? Am I exaggerating? Please comment. And kindly conclude by answering these two questions: Is there something about Russia specifically that fertilized the soil for Stalin? And what must Russia do to truly de-Stalinize to a point where, like in America, a Stalin will simply be impossible?
Yuri Yarim-Agaev: You are very precise in your observations. The behavior you describe, however, is not a peculiarity coming from some cultural and historic traditions, but a direct result of shaping individuals by the communist system. Those traditions may determine propensity of a country to adopt communism. Once it gets into it, however, the behavior of people becomes virtually identical, as was in Russia, China, Cuba. Orwell wrote"1984" not about Russia, but England, - the country with the longest democratic traditions. He new that it takes very short time after communism takes power, when behavior of people would be determined by the system not by their historic traditions. And you observed people after decades of communism.
Such change in people’s perception is not merely a psychological aberration caused by the communist propaganda. It reflects reality of their life. What if virtually all of your income is taxed away by the government, and you are left with only 5% of it, which doesn’t allow you to buy anything important? And you are totally at mercy of the government, which may or may not give you an apartment or allow buying a car. Wouldn’t you be concerned who is in charge? You would become very interested in a party line, which fully determines how many homes will be built and cars made. Decades of such life definitely change people’s psychology. That is why it is so difficult for Russia, after 75 years of communism, to move to true democracy.
Let us, though, not be complacent about us and remember Orwell’s warning. If, God forbid, this country ever falls into communism, you wouldn’t recognize many of your friends, since most people would start to behave as in any other communism countries. It is like a"black hole", and very few can resist its tremendous gravity. So we better be vigilant, and stay as far from it, as possible.
Brent: No, I don't think you're wrong. I well remember on my first visit to Moscow in January 1992, the old lady I was staying with would simply not allow me to leave the apartment one morning without--a hat. When I returned later that day she invited me into her bedroom where she lay stark naked on the bed with what seemed to me outlandish glass suction cups arranged on her back--her point was that THIS was Russian medicine, far more effective than anything the US could have devised. I think she said more than she could know.
There is an aspect of Russian life I love for its intimacy and closeness, but that can easily turn into intrusive control. Nevertheless, I think this is a manifestation of, rather than a cause for, the political situation of the country and of Stalinism. I don't think that Stalin arose only because of a psychological need for control. All people at all times have this craving, but it is the unique underlying political/historical reality of Russian life that has enabled this need to take the forms it has first with Tsarism and then with Stalinism.
I also think that we must credit some 200 years of glorious post-Enlightenment thinking for allowing the beautiful dreams of communist ideology to flourish and to win the hearts and minds of people around the globe--including here in the U.S. These are dangerous dreams under certain circumstances; under others, they can produce greater social justice and equality among people. I still think we have to look carefully at those circumstances and at the particular enticements offered by the ideology in order to understand evils of totalitarian dictatorship. This brings us back to a consideration of political and social institutions.
I believe that for Russia to truly change, these institutions must change, new institutions must take firm hold within Russian life. Only this will give rise to a new"mentality" among the people. But this is a long slow process. You need the wisdom of Tolstoy's one-eyed general Kutuzov to see over the heads of the small-minded bureaucrats and technicians in order to grasp the enormity of the historical horizon within which these developments must occur.
Menashe: I welcome Jamie's thoughtful biographical observations. He deals with several important themes, one of which is the old theorem that every people gets the government it deserves. There's a wicked irony at play here, but truth is embedded as well, not in the ethical/causal sense of the term"deserves," but historically: every society and state are joint products of time and circumstance. And what Jamie's reflections really highlight are personal liberty and personal privacy, neither of which have been characteristic of Russian society and politics, pre-Soviet, Soviet, or post-Soviet, but which are identifiable characteristics of the"Western tradition" as exemplified in North America. (Remember when journalists thought they found out that there is no word for"privacy" in the Russian language?) So, to answer Jamie's two questions --1) Yes, unfortunately; and 2) rendering Stalin and Stalinism impossible in Russia will take a vast historical epoch of transformation, a process -- if I may end on a hopeful, optimistic note -- only just beginning.
Habeck: I don't think that you do exaggerate, Jamie. I've been to Russia off and on over the last 12 years and I too have seen this mentality. Because of Stalin, freedom became a frightening thing for many Russians. They learned to depend on the government to tell them what to do, where to do it, when to do it and now are almost incapable of making a decision on their own. When my Russian friends who grew up under Sovdepia come to the US, the number of decisions that they have to make is almost more than they can bear and can in fact paralyze them.
Bukovsky: Well, well... Yasha [interlocutor’s Russian name], you are just rumbling. And you sound ridiculous. I suppose an old babushka might chastise you for placing your feet on a public bench (by the way, Yasha, don't do it please because someone might sit on that bench later and ruin his/her dress), but I can't even imagine someone in Russia approaching me in the street and saying:"Don't you know that smoking is bad for your health" (like it actually happened to me in California).
In present-day America, with all its political correctness, you are anything but free from being patronised, controlled, dominated by any bunch of righteous jerks who are noisy enough to scare the tired majority into submission. Also, I would not mistake today's public apathy and ignorance for freedom because both are the worst enemies of democracy. Yes, you are free to be apathetic and ignorant, but then don't complain when you wake up one morning in an undemocratic country.
Of course, there is a connection between people's mentality and the government they have. But this connection is much more complex than you suggest, and we have no space here to explore it.
For the purpose of this discussion, however, suffice it to say that the people in the West are incredibly lucky not to experience life under a totalitarian regime. They could have easily got it in the last century, and did not get it my a miracle.
Glazov:Well Vladimir, old babushkas chastising me for placing my feet on a public bench would have been the story of my life if I had remained in Russia, because my manners are very bad. But in any case, my point exactly: old babushkas running around believing they are serving some kind of important purpose by keeping young men’s feet off public benches -- because the rest of their own lives are totally out of their control.
Vladimir, the reason no one in Russia would tell you to stop smoking is because life has been so hopeless for so long that lung cancer is the last thing people are concerned about – and that is why everyone smokes. The few people who don’t smoke just drink vodka all day (like the people who smoke). It is next to impossible to live in Russia without smoking or drinking vodka, but this is a subject for another symposium.
Suffice it to say that it is just an undeniable given that most Russians engage in perpetual and unbearable intrusiveness into each others’ lives.
But let me change the subject to wrap this up:
Mr. Brent says:"I also think that we must credit some 200 years of glorious post-Enlightenment thinking for allowing the beautiful dreams of communist ideology to flourish and to win the hearts and minds of people around the globe--including here in the U.S."
Certainly many good things came out of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking,. But the"beautiful dreams of communism"? If this is Mr. Brent’s sense of humor and use of sarcasm, then fair enough. But just in case it is not, let me ask this:
Isn’t the only thing uglier than what socialism has perpetrated the idea of socialism itself? Equality? Perfectibility of human institutions and of the human race? Are there any ideas more nauseating, repulsive and horrifying than these? What else can represent more hatred of life and of what we are as humans, than these notions? A world where everyone is equal? What would happen to individual talent, to individual creativity and difference, to the reality that some are clever and some are not, that some will achieve and some will not, that some will sing beautiful songs, and others will be incapable of doing so? What would human life be if our humanity, in its magnificent yet simultaneously imperfect nature, was purged from it?
Isn’t the very nature of our human condition the fact that we are flawed and live in an imperfect world, and that there are limits to human hope? Isn’t it precisely within this context that we can still, hopefully, along with our fallen state and personal suffering, find the meaning of love and experience joy and other elements of our humanity?
Isn’t the evil of the socialist impulse clearly illuminated by the simple fact that humans will always understand Shakespeare’s tragedies, even in future generations thousands of years from now? Because humans, at least in this world and until some potential redemption from above, will always be who they are?
And so isn’t that the greatest lesson of remembering Stalin? To remember and stress that the"beautiful dream" of socialism is the first brick that begins building the Gulag?
Yuri-Yarim Agaev: This is what I will make of our entire discussion. When the Nuremberg trial over Communism and Stalinism will finally happen, all intellectuals should be allowed there only as silent spectators on the balcony. The jury of common people, not experts, should carry out the sentence. Otherwise its deliberation will become as perpetual as our symposium, and communism will be never indicted.
Now, as one few living encyclopaedists, I must say some good words about the Enlightenment. The Age of Reason was a great period in our history, which stimulated very intensive thinking, … and dreaming, .. and aberrations. Yet, hardly either Voltaire, or Diderot or even Rousseau would have approved of Stalinism. One can argue that their philosophy paved the way to Robespierre’s guillotines (though, just after it to Napoleon, as well). Yet, the same philosophy was also greatly responsible for creation of our country, which ever since became the main fortress of democracy and human rights. To blame the Enlightenment for all further socialisms and communisms is like to blame Newton and Einstein for North Korean nuclear bomb, or recent revolution in biology for making possible human cloning. And let us not forget that the Reason was behind the main opposition to communism, - it was not accidental that so many Russian dissidents were scientists.
With my last paragraph I do not want to start a new round of debate, which has very remote relevance to our main subject. We should separate those complicated issues from the clear-cut case of Stalinism. Mixing them together does not help to resolve any of them. We should first indict Stalinism and then revisit some of its possible roots . It is like with war with Iraq. At this moment, as Iraqis celebrate and the regime crumbles, we should concentrate on finisheing the enemy off completely. After it is totally won, Hussein’s regime is indicted, and our position is proved, we should raise all questions of why and how it happened, and to scrutinize our own foreign policy. Yet, while the war is on, to get involved into excessive debates about this policy, or Islam, or possible relation between Ba’thism and Hummurapi’s laws would be counterproductive.
The same is true about communism. It is long ripe to be indicted in a criminal rather than intellectual court. If there is any issue to be debated, it is not Stalinism as such, but rather why it has not been indicted yet and what forces prevent us from doing it. I have great regret, for example, about the lost opportunity with Milosevic. Had he been tried by Serbian democrats, the trial would have turned inevitably into a judgment on Yugoslavian communism. For some reason, Yugoslavian communism was saved from being sentenced by smuggling Milosevic into the Hague, where instead of a trial over communism we merely have a sluggish and unnecessary process against Serbia.
Menashe: Well, we're getting into deep waters here. I think what Brent wrote regarding"glorious post-Enlightenment thinking" was tinged with sarcasm. But he also hit on something undeniable: the appeal of ideas about human perfectibility that came not only with Enlightenment thought, but with the19th-century faith in infinite progress, thanks to science. (Marx in the societal sphere equals Darwin in the biological sphere, according to Engels.) The Bolsheviks and their 20th-century acolytes shared those ideas and that faith. Ah....but putting them into practice.....The result, the 20th century has also shown, when they are imposed from above by absolutist thinking, is Stalinism.
Jamie avers that the very ideas themselves contain Stalinist seeds, and inevitably lead to the Gulag. I don't think he believes in original sin, but yes, we live in an imperfect world, and yes, we are all too human; yet much of that Sweetest Dream, as Doris Lessing titles her wonderfully debunking last novel, is not a bad thing to hold on to as we seek to better ourselves and our social world. I agree with Irving Howe when he wrote that socialism is (should be?) an ideal on an ever receding horizon. And I agree with Jamie: Vive la Difference!
Brent: Well, I have to confess that my comment was a bit sarcastic. On the other hand, communist ideology flourished among many intellectuals who truly believed in its propaganda concerning equality, social justice, freedom and happiness. Many such still can be found North American universities and colleges. I certainly share Mr. Yarim-Agaev's feelings for the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and elsewhere. As for the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment, there has certainly been much of great worth to have come out of this truly glorious tradition of thought, but some of it has been twisted into the satanic dreams of many twentieth century dictators. What I meant to imply was that the communists were very expert at appropriating and exploiting the great accomplishments of this tradition for their own ends.
This article is reprinted with permission from frontpagemag.com.
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Jacob Remes - 4/14/2003
Bukovsky says he's sure that Hussein wouldn't stop without nuclear weapons because he's an admirer of Stalin and tries to look like him. Where's the logic in that? Hussein has similar facial hair and oppressed and murdered ethnic minorities (and religious majorities)--thus, because he is in some ways similar to Stalin, he must also be unwilling to stop without nuclear weapons? Does that logic work in the reverse, that anyone who wants nuclear weapons (FDR, say) must look like Stalin? Shouldn't we be making judgments about Hussein based on Hussein and the evidence about him, rather than based on our knowledge of Stalin?
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