Studying history in the Humanities includes reflections on values, ethics, judgments about humankind as a whole and the individuals who populate it both in the present and the past. One of the important aspects of history is that it forces us to confront the major issues humans deal with in life. As it was succinctly observed in the 19th century, "History is philosophy, teaching by example." How we judge the past, and its inhabitants, is in fact a reflection of our own particular values as individuals, and our particular place in historical time. Each student may judge Stalin differently; each "age" saw in Stalin those things that were of greatest importance to them at the time, extending to the present time. Still, to be truthful to the man and his own age, the student of history must also be faithful to the age one is studying; one must also understand the values of Russians and others during World War II, or during the 1930's, for example. We cannot expect historical figures to have known then what we know now. In summary, there are different kinds of judgments that are made of historical figures and their times: our own individual judgments; judgments based on topics of concern to the age we ourselves live in; and judgments based upon what the people of the times we are studying knew and thought.
Yesterday and today, and perhaps for all time to come, ordinary people, scholars, politicians, and others, have either praised or denounced Stalin. It is almost impossible to be neutral or non-committal, once one has studied the man and his era. Epithets abound. He has been called:
One could say that almost every crime imaginable was committed by Stalin. He truly was one of the great criminals in history. There are many criminals in history; but Stalin ruled a great part of the world using criminal methods. How could this happen? Only with cooperation from hundreds of thousands of others. Many in Russia gained greatly by following him. Many average Russians saw in him a "necessary evil" to get their country on track, and defend it against its international enemies, both real and imagined. Others to this day believe that Stalin was a good man, and Russia was corrupted by underlings who abused the power they were given. Many today are silent about Stalin, because they gained a great deal during his regime, and gained still by using his methods after he died. One of the reasons the Soviet people in recent years have turned against the Communist Party (as of 1993 it was outlawed), was that even after Stalin died, the Party retained the narrow ideological and undemocratic character forged by Stalin, and continued in Stalinist fashion as an elitist ruling machine accruing the most benefits of the country unto itself.
Judging Stalin in political terms, he was more skillful and therefore, more successful than almost any leader one can think of. He survived in a cut-throat world, and forced his own will upon millions in Russia and beyond. This is no mean accomplishment! A question that comes to mind here is: what about the morality of what happened? How does one deal with the fact that in the name of lofty Marxist and nationalist goals (the great PURPOSE), millions of innocent people died or were killed? One now famous Soviet dissident writer voiced this conflict dramatically:
"So that prisons should vanish forever, we built new prisons. So that all frontiers should fall, we surrounded ourselves with a Chinese Wall. So that work should become a rest and a pleasure, we introduced forced labor. So that not one drop of blood should be shed any more, we killed and killed and killed."
Can we hold a set of morals up to politics, though? Ever since Machiavelli, there is a strong feeling that the just and moral will fail in politics; that somehow, effective political leaders must play by different rules. When applied to whole countries, where often the question is the struggle for survival of an entire people (either real or imagined), the morality issue again takes on different meanings. It is not for nothing, that for the past two centuries Poland has been called "The Christ Among Nations," often because it put principles before reality, and was thereby divided, conquered, engulfed, and "crucified" by its powerful neighbors decade after decade. Stalin recognized that survival and greatness among nations has little to do with conventional morality. In a famous speech in 1931 Stalin stated bluntly:
To slacken the tempo [of radical measures] would mean falling behind... One feature of the history of Old Russia was the continual beatings by other nations. She suffered for falling behind..., for military, cultural, political, industrial, and agricultural backwardness.... Such is the law of exploiters to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism.... Do you want our Socialist fatherland to be beaten and lose its independence? If you do not want this you must put an end to backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop genuine Bolshevik tempo in building up.... There is no other way. We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.
Exactly ten years after this speech, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, but was not able to defeat it in large part because the Stalinist plan had indeed overcome Russia's backwardness; they were able to field and equip a huge armed force that ultimately drove the Germans out of Russia and out of eastern Europe.