The Ghost of Stalin Still Hasn’t Been Laid to Rest

Joseph Stalin died 70 years ago today, having stamped his indelible mark upon the Soviet system. Stalin’s legacy continues to haunt the post-Soviet landscape, right up to the present war with Ukraine.

Joseph Stalin in his coffin, March 1953. (API / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The event itself was quite banal — the dismal, solitary end of a life. Joseph Stalin, at the time unarguably the most powerful man in the world, died alone seventy years ago today in his dacha, Kuntsevo, in the woods outside of Moscow.

He had been carousing the night before with his closest comrades — Lavrentiy Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and a few others. They had watched a film and drunk quite a bit, and Stalin saw them off early in the morning in a very good mood.

He retired to his office, where he slept on a couch with instructions not to be disturbed. There on March 5, 1953, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. A long, slow final agony brought his sanguinary reign to an end.

Stalin’s Legacy

The legacies of a great despot, however, do not die with the man but still haunt the country he shaped for a quarter of a century. The author of a transformative “revolution from above,” which turned a vast agricultural economy into an industrial power second only to the United States, Stalin saw himself as the heir of Vladimir Lenin, who had in October 1917 brought their party, the Bolsheviks (later Communists), to power in the largest country on the globe.

But Stalin was the architect of a system based on state terror that undermined the original aspirations of the revolutionaries of 1917 to create a socialist state anchored in the active participation of ordinary people through the soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers. That first revolution was inspired by popular desires for democracy, in the socialist sense of empowerment of working people. Stalin’s second revolution was a desperate forced march into industrial modernity, driven by a leviathan police state that imagined itself to be the “vanguard of the proletariat.”

Western historians of the Soviet Union were divided between those who saw Stalinism as the inevitable outcome of Marxism, Leninism, or the utopian ambitions of Russian radicals, and those more doubtful about “iron laws of history,” who contextualized and historicized the degeneration of a popular revolution into a vicious despotism. Explanations for the rise of a second-level comrade of Lenin to supremacy ranged from Stalin’s personal drive for power to the opportunities for dictatorship (rather than democracy) offered by the backwardness of an overwhelmingly peasant society.

Stalin’s own mentor, Lenin, harbored serious reservations about the possibility of building a socialist society in Russia without the aid of successful socialist revolutions in the more developed West. He gambled that a seizure of power by militant Marxists in Russia, the “weakest link in the capitalist chain,” would propel workers in the aftermath of World War I to rise up and overthrow their own kings and capitalists.

But after a brief flurry of strikes, protests, and insurrections, Europe and the United States settled down into a new era of stabilized capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Soviet Russia was left isolated, and the Communists were forced to retreat into Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP (1921–28), a kind of state capitalism, and to make major concessions to the peasant majority of the population and the non-Russians of the new USSR.

After the death of Lenin in January 1924, Soviet Communists debated how to restore the devastated economy of the country, and the NEP seemed to work best as a cautious, moderate program of reconstruction. In the mid-1920s, Stalin and his close collaborator at the time, Nikolai Bukharin, banked on the productivity of the peasantry and promoted Lenin’s gradualist policy as the best road to build “socialism in one country.”

International revolution had receded as a possibility, except, perhaps, in colonized and semi-colonized countries. Even as Moscow’s usurpation of real sovereignty from the non-Russian republics made the Soviet Union more and more resemble an empire of a new type, the USSR saw itself — and acted abroad accordingly — as the major enemy of European imperialism.

In the period between the two world wars, the USSR was the source of inspiration for anti-colonial movements in what became known as the third world. The Communist International, which never managed in its thirty-four years to launch a single successful revolution anywhere in the world, nevertheless encouraged young radicals like China’s Mao Zedong or Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh to gnaw away at the sinews of colonialism and Western domination. Outlaws in their own lands, they were for better or worse disciples of Stalin.

Building the State

Of the Communist leaders in the Soviet Union, in sharp contrast to his nemesis Leon Trotsky, Stalin was the least interested in the internationalism of Lenin’s vision. His principal concern was the preservation and progress of the USSR — its industrial development, its unity, and its security.

He was first and foremost an étatist, a builder and promoter of the state, and his idea of the state was one in which centralized power, the elimination of dissent, and maximal security had been achieved. What was imagined in the West as totalitarianism was never actually reached. The “little screws,” ordinary people of whom Stalin spoke fondly and condescendingly, never completely succumbed to the will of the state. But Stalin’s aim was as close to totalitarianism as could be imagined.

To eliminate the economic power of the peasants, he forcefully, brutally drove them into collective farms, appropriated their grain, and caused famines from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. To discipline the intelligentsia, he terrorized any deviation of the official line, ending the avant-garde experimentation of the 1920s and enforcing a conservative conformity that combined realist style with romantic depiction of an idealized Soviet people. And to enhance his own power, he deployed the police to eliminate all who stood in his way, including most of the closest associates of Lenin — among them Bukharin.

The legacy of Stalin remains deeply contradictory. The country was industrialized and became more urban. Despite the purges that decimated the highest ranks of the military, he and his generals forged an armed force able to destroy the menace of fascism. Stalin led the Soviet Union to a victory that made the world safe for capitalism and liberal democracy.

However, in the Cold War competition with the West, he opted to set up Stalinist regimes in East and Central Europe, isolate East from West, and hold firmly onto an external empire as a buffer against his feared opponents in Europe. The USSR lost the Cold War, not in 1991, but already by 1953 as the United States rallied the major industrial powers into the anti-Soviet NATO alliance, economically and militarily far more powerful than the Soviet-led bloc.

The countries of the Warsaw Pact suffered through an unequal competition for half a century until an idealistic reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, attempted to reduce the chasm between the two blocs and surrendered the spoils of World War II for aid from the West that never came.

Distrusting the People

Stalin was a Bismarckian realist, a Machiavellian master of political power, who believed it was better to be feared than loved. For him, politics was war by other means. He did not trust his own people, especially those closest to him, who lived precarious lives until the day he died. He remained suspicious of their deviations and wavering lack of faith, and at the end of his life referred to his closest comrades as kittens lost without him.

And he did not trust the working people to whom the whole Soviet project was dedicated. He told various people that the masses had the “psychology of the herd” — they were “like sheep who would follow the leading ram wherever he might go.” That ram was the vanguard party, as well as its leader. To a relative he confided his belief that the common people needed a tsar, “a person they can worship and in whose name they can live and work.”

He believed that he understood the dynamics of history and society; he had learned them from his reading of Marx and Lenin. But from an early age he was convinced that the scientific sociology of Marxism had to be effectively taught to the masses, who would have difficulty advancing beyond their personal life experiences.

What kind of socialist was Stalin? Was the emancipatory message of Karl Marx destined to end up in the tyranny of one man and his obedient party? What had happened to the trust in the possibilities of empowering ordinary working people and making it possible for them to govern themselves in both the political and economic realms?

Such an original socialist idea, buried in Stalinist Russia, required a deep faith in the potential of human beings to respond to and learn from both experience and education and seize the opportunity to emancipate themselves from capitalist (and statist) exploitation and religious illusions. Like other political thinkers on the Left, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, whatever their occasional doubts and setbacks, were confident that human nature contained within it the possibilities of acquiring socialist consciousness. That positive evaluation of human potential is the opposite of how conservatives and reactionaries think of human nature.

The Sword of Justice

For those on the Right, humans are condemned by their brutish nature — their original sin, their aggressiveness and competitiveness, their acquisitiveness, greed, and individual self-interest — to live in realms of inequity and exploitation. Creating a good society will do little to make humans good, they claim. As the reactionary writer Joseph de Maistre eloquently summed up the philosophy of the Right, “In a word, the mass of the people counts for nothing in every political creation.”

Or, even more to the point:

All greatness, all power, and all subordination depend on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Take from the world this incomprehensible agent, and in that very instant order gives way to chaos; thrones collapse, and society disappears. . . . The sword of justice has no scabbard; it must always menace or strike.

In the pantheon of political thinkers and actors, Stalin was a man of the Right, deeply suspicious of his own subjects, convinced that there was no alternative to governing through coercion and satisfying the basest needs of the people.

And yet, when his state was severely threatened by the deadliest political movement in modern history, he relied on those “little screws,” and they sacrificed themselves for a cause that the dictator had sullied. Stalin emerged as a beacon around which to rally. Before being executed by Nazis, victims shouted, “Za rodinu. Za Stalina” (“For the Motherland. For Stalin”).

Initially, Stalin was shocked at Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR, but he soon set the tone for the amalgamation of Russian and Soviet patriotism as he portrayed the Soviet struggle as a global resistance to fascism and a war of liberation. As Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer argue:

Despite the losses, Stalin conveyed optimism, contrasting the Soviet cause, defending one’s native land, with German aims, an empire to be built, in Hitler’s own words, on “the extermination of the Slav peoples.”

Russian and non-Russian nationalisms fused with Soviet patriotism, as Jonathan Brunstedt’s work has shown. A pan-Soviet internationalist, even supra-ethnic, story of the patriotic unity of the Soviet people was generated during the war and prevailed into late Stalinism and afterward.

Rising Again

While the images on Soviet posters of radiant working-class and peasant heroes and heroines of diverse nations did not reflect the actual lives people led, they represented ideals and aspirations that inspired colossal sacrifices. Yes, ordinary Soviet people worshipped Stalin, whom they were prevented from really knowing, but his cultish self-presentation gave them strength and guidance. The regime itself may have been criminal and thuggish, but its representatives and representations visually, in poetry, in prose, in celebrations, and in songs resonated in their affective connections to protecting a homeland and building a new society.

Some months after Stalin’s coffin was removed from the Lenin Mausoleum in October 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko memorialized the event:

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.

As Yevtushenko warned, Stalin’s phantom continues to stalk the Soviet and post-Soviet landscape, right up to the present war with Ukraine. The worst instincts of a dictator are on display in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: the overcentralization of power; the repression of dissent; the futile attempt to fool all of the people all of the time; and the search for security in expansion and isolation.