Fear and fascination sixty years on

Posted by Helen Tuesday, March 05, 2013 , , ,

Ten years ago I wrote an article in the Salisbury Review about the fiftieth anniversary of Stalin's death or, at least, the fiftieth anniversary since it was announced. It is not on line so I found it in hard copy and decided to post it with some corrections - after all, some things have changed and, in any case, sixtieth has to be substituted for fiftieth.

Fear is the overwhelming theme of Russian history. People fear the rulers and the rulers constantly fear the people; members of the ruling caste fear both those above and those below; the intelligentsia fears the masses and the bosses. Sixty years ago these strands coalesced. On March 5, 1953 died Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, the dreaded master of Russia and other republics. A man so feared and so adored that his name was pronounced with awe or, else, people whispered nicknames and avoided naming altogether. A man whose closest colleagues sweated (and worse) with fear every time he summoned them. A man, who was so afraid of the people that he rejected the very idea of a home guard in Moscow as the German army rolled forward in 1941, certain that the guns will be turned on him and his immediate entourage.

His death provoked relief but also fear. The authorities were so afraid that on the day of the funeral side streets were blocked off with armoured cars. A sudden wave of panic drove many of the huge crowd to the barriers and hundreds, maybe thousands, were crushed to death. As he ruled, so he died: surrounded by a sea of blood.

In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe there were changes, immediate but slow. People were released from prisons and labour camps and mutterings of truth began, if only quietly. Hard-line politicians were superseded by others (in the case of the little Stalin of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, it was death that claimed him almost immediately). There were also uprisings in the labour camps that were put down with great ferocity, as was the first major East European revolt, the Berlin uprising of June 1953.

In the free and wealthy West his death was mourned far more. Liberals and left-wing politicians, writers, journalists, academics, entertainers, even the occasional trade union activist saw Stalin's Soviet Union as the shining beacon, the great hope of mankind. To do this, they resorted to greater and more extensive lying than any supporter of the Nazi regime had done. For decades the existence of labour camps and torture chambers, the death of millions of people and destruction of whole sections of the population was all denied.

Each small and carefully controlled revelation from the Soviet Union was greeted with shock and surprise. Those who wrote openly about the Soviet reality were vilified as cold war warriors, reactionaries, fascists. Only slowly has the truth about Communism been accepted. And really, has it? People know it was a nasty regime but there are relatively few discussions even if the South Bank has had to accept rather reluctantly that there was some fear in the Soviet Union as well. Any mention of Communist oppression tends to be dismissed as tiresome and unimportant. It is all finished. Let us not talk about it. How dare you mention it in the same breath as Nazi oppression? After all, the Communists meant well even if it always went wrong.

But we do need to talk about it. The man who died sixty years ago and his influence has distorted European and world politics much more than his equally vicious colleague and enemy Hitler. Yet Hitler's misdeeds are analyzed repeatedly and, more importantly, castigated. Any apologist for Nazism is denounced immediately and rightly. Apologists for Stalin, deniers of the Communist mass murder are still highly regarded or treated with sympathy and understanding. It is their opponents who are vilified. As we know even discussing the socialist roots of Nazism is considered to be beyond the pale, a tribute to the propaganda spread across the world under Stalin's auspices.

They may be divided in Georgia about Stalin (and that has much to do with the political situation there), President Putin may announce that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe but there is no excuse for Western amnesia. We must think very seriously about his deeds and their consequences. After all, we are still living with them.


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