Jonathan Freedland: Stalin is alive

Fifty years after his death, Uncle Joe still casts a dark shadow over the left, the current crisis, and the world

These days it takes two schoolgirls pretending to be lesbians, kissing and fondling on stage, to get people to pay attention to Russia. But there was a time, long before teenage pop act Tatu, when Moscow mattered the way Washington matters today. Half the world was in its thrall, the other half in its shadow.

That era seems long gone now; the cold war and the seven decades of the Soviet Union live now only in the history books. Or at least that's how it looks. In fact, today marks a good moment to realise that the reverberations of that place and that time have not stilled just yet: they rumble on even now.

For today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin, found lying in a pool of his own urine, killed by a stroke and left, perhaps deliberately, to die. At the time, there was uncertainty in the Soviet reaction: should people mourn the father of the nation, who had transformed a backward peasant economy into an industrial superpower, mighty enough to defeat the Nazi war machine; or should they cheer the death of a tyrant whose purges, labour camps and avoidable famines had killed millions upon millions?

Some of that ambivalence lives on. Witness the recurrent debates over the scale of Stalin's crimes, always asking versions of the same question: should he and Adolf Hitler share equal billing as history's most evil dictators, or can Stalin claim admirable achievements in mitigation? But if the debate lives on, so too does the man. A half-century later, the shade of Stalin still walks the earth. He is still a presence in our world.

Start with his homeland. In Stalin's native Georgia - like both Napoleon and Hitler, Stalin was not born to the nation he came to symbolise - social gatherings can still dedicate the first toast of the night to Uncle Joe. Latest polling finds 37% of Russians believe Stalin did more good than bad for the country, compared to 29%who believe the opposite. A rival survey put the positive figure at 70%. Last year citizens of Volgograd mounted a serious effort to have their city's name changed back - to Stalingrad.

President Vladimir Putin has been canny enough to massage this vein running through Russian public opinion, whether by reviving the old Soviet national anthem - a belter of a tune, it must be said - or lacing his state-of-the-nation address with Stalin-era slogans, only slightly adapted.

What explains this nostalgia, given the great terror unleashed on his people? How can Russians appear to hanker for a past that saw, according to Anne Applebaum's upcoming new book, Gulag, 18 million people pass through the camp system, another 6 million exiled and up to 7 million die in the "artificial" famines of the 1930s?

Maybe it's a combination of ignorance - besides splurges of admission in the Khrushchev and Gorbachev periods, there has never been a full accounting of the communist past - and denial, with Russians reluctant to face up to a history in which so many of them are implicated. But there is more to it than that. If the Stalin period looks rosy in hindsight, it's partly because things are so lousy now. Economic hardship, chaos and corruption in government and collapsing health and welfare systems have fed a sense of hopelessness: 67% tell pollsters the last decade is the worst they can remember. By comparison the Soviet days, even those under Stalin, seem now like a time of order and stability, with the Great Leader fondly recalled as the constant, guiding star.

But Russia is not the only land where Stalin's ghost still clanks his chains. The spectre can claim credit for two of the three spokes on George W Bush's axis of evil. For who does Saddam Hussein cite as his role model? "When we take over the government," the ambitious young buck used to say back in the 1960s, "I'll turn this country into a Stalinist state." Note too the testimony of a one-time visitor to Saddam's innermost private office. Crammed in there was a soldier's plain iron bed and also a small library, packed with books on only one subject: Joseph Stalin. As the visitor told Saddam biographer Said Aburish: "One could say [Saddam] went to bed with the Russian dictator."

I f Stalin is the chief influence, Saddam has learned from the master well. He shares his mentor's taste for the murderous elimination of all possible rivals as well as friends and even family. And he has been just as tireless in the construction of a gigantic, mythic personality cult.

The second prong on the evil wheel, Kim Jong-il, is no slacker in that department either. He too is a self-conscious devotee of the master of terror, revering the unblinking use of pain to assert power - and lovingly tending to the armoured railway train given to his father by Stalin. In other words, the two nations currently deemed rogue states, engaged in potentially lethal stand-offs with the "international community", both bear the mark of Stalin.

Indeed, his legacy seeps into several corners of the current crisis. The battle is played out in the United Nations, a set-up created jointly by Stalin and his allies following the victory over Nazism in which the Soviet Union played such a critical role. And it is prompted, in part, by Saddam's desire (Kim's too) to wield the secret weapon that Stalin acquired and which made the Soviet Union a world power: a nuclear bomb.

Even the current diplomacy is darkened by Stalin's shadow. Donald Rumsfeld welcomes the support of "new Europe", the Bulgarias and Polands who were once forced to bear the yoke of the Warsaw Pact. "These are countries which know a thing or too about living under dictatorship," nod the US punditocracy approvingly. "Because they remember Stalin, they know how awful life must be under Saddam."

The anti-war side play the same card. They note the opinion polls which show that popular support for a war against Iraq is actually even lower in the new Europe - Romania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia itself - than it is in the old. It is the governments, not the peoples, who have fallen into line behind America, the new dominant power in the region. "Once a satellite, always a satellite," say the anti-war camp, taking their lead from Jacques Chirac. The suggestion is that the habits of vassal obedience, learned under Stalin, live on today in the age of Bush.

But perhaps the dictator's greatest impact is on the left. Stalinism and its excesses have seared into the human mind a scepticism about all projects aimed at fundamental change. The fear is that any revolutionary ambition for society will always end in disaster, that any goal larger than gradual reform will lead to a bloodbath - and it is Stalin who stands as the cold, unbudging precedent. This has been disabling for the left. For half a century it has feared articulating a grand vision for humanity, lest it stir too many echoes of the Georgian. It has contented itself with smaller, more incremental plans. Few would have predicted it but, 50 years on, Stalin's corpse has barely relaxed his icy grip.


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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