Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rethinking Brother Joe

Amid the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, some Russians are getting a little nostalgic and misty-eyed over Joseph Stalin. Joe wasn't such a bad guy, they say. Movements are underway throughout the country to erect and re-erect statues, and a nationwide poll in March found "that 53% of Russians thought that on balance Stalin's rule was 'positive'."

One man born more than 20 years after Stalin died brushed aside the massive purge of political opponents: "This was right and necessary in this period. These were enemies of the people and the state. It was not possible to investigate and try them all." There is a slight discrepancy between the official number killed (which this young man cited) and the number historians believe: officially 750,000 died, but historians say it was more like 20,000,000. Then again, I suppose Stalin apologists might argue that those would just be more mouths to feed, so we should be glad they aren't around.

Russia also suffered perhaps 26,000,000 deaths during World War II (according to a recent, no longer free Los Angeles Times article, volunteers still search for ID tags). Unmentioned in the story of Stalin's resurgence in popularity was the likelihood that Russian losses would not have been so great had Stalin not killed so many of his best military leaders in the purges before the war. They may have threatened his absolute power, but apparently he didn't consider that he might need them someday.

Sure, Stalin led Russia to victory in World War II, but I suspect that the Russian people deserve more of the credit and that another leader could have succeeded with a lesser loss of life (a pretty safe bet considering the millions who wouldn't have been purged before WWII even started). And Stalin certainly shoulders plenty of the blame for starting the Cold War, a struggle that poised the world on the brink of nuclear destruction for a quarter-century after his death. So let's not put him on the fast track for sainthood.

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