A Statue for Stalin?
Mareeg.com-PRINCETON – Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast
scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere
else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his
birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of
all Soviet leaders.
The difference in attitude extends beyond the borders of the countries over which
these men ruled. In the United States, there is a bust of Stalin at the National
D-Day Memorial in Virginia. In New York, I recently dined at a Russian restaurant
that featured Soviet paraphernalia, waitresses in Soviet uniforms, and a painting of
Soviet leaders in which Stalin was prominent. New York also has its KGB Bar. To the
best of my knowledge, there is no Nazi-themed restaurant in New York; nor is there a
Gestapo or SS bar.
So, why is Stalin seen as relatively more acceptable than Hitler?
At a press conference last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted a
justification. Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to
Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century
English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and
Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to
describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in
Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in
“Ambiguous” is a reasonable description of the morality of Cromwell’s actions. While
he promoted parliamentary rule in England, ended the civil war, and allowed a degree
of religious toleration, he also supported the trial and execution of Charles I
and brutally conquered Ireland in response to a perceived threat from an alliance of
Irish Catholics and English Royalists.
But, unlike Cromwell, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of very large numbers of
civilians, outside any war or military campaign. According to Timothy Snyder, author
of Bloodlands, 2-3 million people died in the forced labor camps of the Gulag and
perhaps a million were shot during the Great Terror of the late 1930’s. Another five
million starved in the famine of 1930-1933, of whom 3.3 million were Ukrainians who
died as a result of a deliberate policy related to their nationality or status as
relatively prosperous peasants known as kulaks.
Snyder’s estimate of the total number of Stalin’s victims does not take into account
those who managed to survive forced labor or internal exile in harsh conditions.
Including them might add as many as 25 million to the number of those who suffered
terribly as a result of Stalin’s tyranny. The total number of deaths that Snyder
attributes to Stalin is lower than the commonly cited figure of 20 million, which
was estimated before historians had access to the Soviet archives. It is nonetheless
a horrendous total – similar in magnitude to the Nazis’ killings (which took place
during a shorter period).
Moreover, the Soviet archives show that one cannot say that the Nazi’s killings were
worse because victims were targeted on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Stalin,
too, selected some of his victims on this basis – not only Ukrainians, but also
people belonging to ethnic minorities associated with countries bordering the Soviet
Union. Stalin’s persecutions also targeted a disproportionately large number of
There were no gas chambers, and arguably the motivation for Stalin’s killings was
not genocide, but rather the intimidation and suppression of real or imaginary
opposition to his rule. That in no way excuses the extent of the killing and
imprisonment that occurred.
If there is any “ambiguity” about Stalin’s moral record, it may be because communism
strikes a chord with some of our nobler impulses, seeking equality for all and an
end to poverty. No such universal aspiration can be found in Nazism, which, even on
its face, was not concerned about what was good for all, but about what was good for
one supposed racial group, and which was clearly motivated by hatred and contempt
for other ethnic groups.
But communism under Stalin was the opposite of egalitarian, for it gave absolute
power to a few, and denied all rights to the many. Those who defend Stalin’s
reputation credit him with lifting millions out of poverty; but millions could have
been lifted out of poverty without murdering and incarcerating millions more.
Others defend Stalin’s greatness on the basis of his role in repelling the Nazi
invasion and ultimately defeating Hitler. Yet Stalin’s purge of military leaders
during the Great Terror critically weakened the Red Army, his signing of the
Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 paved the way for the start of World War II,
and his blindness to the Nazi threat in 1941 left the Soviet Union unprepared to
resist Hitler’s attack.
It remains true that Stalin led his country to victory in war, and to a position of
global power that it had not held before and from which it has since fallen. Hitler,
by contrast, left his country shattered, occupied, and divided.
People identify with their country and look up to those who led it when it was at
its most powerful. That may explain why Muscovites are more willing to accept a
statue of Stalin than Berliners would be to have one of Hitler.
But that can be only part of the reason for the different treatment given to these
mass murderers. It still leaves me puzzled about New York’s Soviet-themed restaurant
and KGB Bar.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate
Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation,
Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save.
Project Syndicate, 2014.