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Stalin: The Man Who Wasn't

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

Stalin with his mentor, Lenin

Stalin with his mentor, Lenin

"I believe in only one thing, the power of human will."

So said Josef Stalin. It might have been more accurate for him to say that he only believed in his own will.

In spring 1935, German director Leni Riefenstahl released her Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will.' In the summer of the same year, the Soviet government, under Stalin's firm grip, called for the formation of an international popular front against fascism. Ten years later, as Soviet troops poured into Berlin, it was clear whose will had triumphed.

Of the three main allies against Germany - Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States - it was the Soviet Union that suffered the most casualties and lost much of its infrastructure. Without the Soviets, the war would have dragged on much longer. It was Stalin who led them to victory. But at a cost: an enormous cost that neither the Americans nor the British would have been willing to pay.

It's impossible to put a figure on the number of people who died under Stalin's rule. Many historians cite around 20 million, but this could be wrong - it could be a lot more or, perhaps less. By anyone's standards, a lot of people died. Some were executed, some died because of the economic policies that Stalin followed, and yet others through carelessness. What is clear is that Stalin was directly responsible. But why? What was he trying to do and why did the people of the Soviet Union have to pay so high a price?

The Fatherly Image

The Fatherly Image

Made of Steel

The man the world knows as Stalin was born Josef Jughashvili in Georgia. Bright enough, but not remarkable, Josef became involved in revolutionary politics at a young age. He took on the party name of "Stalin" - man of steel - at some time during his inexorable rise. He kept a very low profile within the Bolshevik party, but gradually moved into a position of power and, after Lenin's death, assumed the top post.

Once in power, Stalin crushed potential opposition and sought to quickly drag the outdated and inefficient Soviet economy up to speed. Through collectivization and industrialization, he wanted to build a socialist state that could hold its own against the capitalist world and defend itself in the inevitable clash with the west. The hostility that the developed nations had shown to the new Bolshevik state after the 1917 revolution, had convinced Stalin that the Europeans and Americans were not the Soviet Union's friends. To an extent, he succeeded in his main aims- as Germany would find out - although the Soviet economy was always wasteful and inefficient.

The only way that Stalin could succeed was by exercising ruthless power. I suggest that to do this, he submerged his own personality and became the man of his pseudonym.

There is a story that Stalin's son, Vassili, was throwing his weight around at school. Vassili's teacher must have been a brave man because he wrote to Stalin to complain. Stalin, as any parent would, had a word with Vassili. Thir conversation is supposed to have run:

Vassili (no doubt petulantly): "But I am a Stalin too!"

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Stalin: "No, you're not. You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin."

Stalin points to a portrait.

"That is Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and portraits, not you, no, not even me."

This way is my way.

This way is my way.

Persona Not Person

In "Two Essays on Analytical Psychology", published in 1953, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung defined a persona as "A kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression on others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual."

Isn't this exactly what Stalin did? I am not suggesting for one moment that the real person behind Stalin was a kindly, humorous man. I am suggesting that we will never know. The Soviet leader adopted a persona that would ruthlessly do what he thought needed to be done. It would have been impossible to appeal to Stalin's better nature simply because Stalin was a machine, not a man.

Churchill, who never trusted Stalin, described Russia in 1939 as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." At the time, the Soviet Union and Germany were signatories to a mutual non-aggression pact. This unlikely alliance suited both Stalin and Hitler. It bought the Soviet Union time to prepare for an inevitable war with the expansionist Germans. In this, it was typical of Stalin. What mattered was the result and the persona of Stalin measured success by results.

Everything he did, he did for the Soviet Union. However, this was exactly where the problem with Stalin lay. His view of the Soviet Union was very much a personal one. He would allow no dissent, no alternative version. What he thought needed to be done would be done. The cost in lives and missed opportunities was not a factor.

The polling center Levada suggests that many Russians today have a favorable view of Stalin.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Final Thoughts

The usual adjectives that are trotted out to describe Stalin - that he was paranoic, cruel, and ruthless - are true enough but they are largely meaningless. We are describing Stalin's Soviet power, not a person.

Of course, the difference would have been no consolation to the millions who died to keep the flame of Stalin's vision burning.


Quotes have been taken from and Wikipedia.

Background information from relevant Wikipedia articles.

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