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The whitewashing of Stalin

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The whitewashing of Stalin

 

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Comedian Russell Brand's resignation video, with Stalin in the background

 

He had the blood of millions on his hands, yet Joseph Stalin has escaped the demonisation of that fellow World War II tyrant Adolf Hitler. For some, there's even a whiff of style icon about him. Why has history been so kind to this murderous leader, asks Laurence Rees.

 

A few months ago, when I was visiting one of our leading universities, I happened to see a poster prominently displayed in one of the students' halls of residence. It was of Joseph Stalin.

 

Perhaps it was meant as a kind of ironic reference to something. Perhaps it was simply covering a damp patch on the wall. But, in any event, no one seemed to take much notice of it.

 

But imagine if instead of a picture of Stalin, there had been a picture of that other horrendous tyrant of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler, hanging there? Think of the outcry.

 

FIND OUT MORE...

Laurence Rees' World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, the Nazis and the Westis broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Monday 10 November

Or catch up later with the BBC iPlayer

 

Nor do most people in this country seem concerned that Stalin is currently on the shortlist to be named "Greatest Russian in History" in a Russian TV version of the BBC's Great Britons. The final vote takes place in December. But once again, imagine if in Germany Adolf Hitler was in with a chance of winning the equivalent competition? The British press would be full of outrage.

 

It's all symptomatic of a broader point. Which is that Stalin appears to have got off more lightly from the judgement of history - or at least the judgement of the British man or woman in the street - than he deserves. Stalin, after all, was responsible for the destruction of millions of people. His suspicion and paranoia condemned many wholly innocent individuals to torture and death.

 

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Stalin will be in little doubt about his monstrous nature. But there's a logical explanation at the heart of why the Soviet ruler is still not seen as darkly as he should be; which is that we still exist, to some extent, in the long shadow of the rosy eyed material about the USSR churned out by the Western Allies during World War II.

 

Porcine portrayal

 

In Britain, many newspapers, notably Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express, were hugely supportive of the Soviet war effort, and the fact that George Orwell could not get his brilliant satire on the Soviet state, Animal Farm, published during the war suggests that there was little appetite - to say the least - for balancing material about the horrors of life under Stalin.

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The "big three": Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin line up in 1945

 

One publisher during the war, who had initially accepted Animal Farm, subsequently turned it down after an official at the British Ministry of Information warned him off. The publisher then wrote to Orwell, saying: 'If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators [Lenin and Stalin], that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships.

 

"Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are."

 

In the United States, the January 1943 edition of Time magazine put Stalin on the cover as "man of the year" for 1942.

 

"The year 1942 was a year of blood and strength,' reported Time. 'The man whose name means steel in Russian, whose few words of English include the American expression 'tough guy' was the man of 1942... Stalin's methods were tough, but they paid off."

 

'Expedient lie'

 

And in an even more positive article in Life magazine in March 1943, the Soviet Union was painted as almost a quasi America, with the Soviets portrayed as "one hell of a people... [who] to a remarkable degree... look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans." Whilst Stalin's infamous Secret Police, the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), was described as "a national police similar to the FBI."

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Stalin and government in 1938, with head of NKVD Nikolay Yezhov far right

 

But the prize for the greatest white-washing of Stalin goes to a film made in 1943 by Warner Brothers called Mission to Moscow, based on a book written by the former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies.

 

In both book and film, Stalin is portrayed as the father figure of the Soviet Union - a giant of a man responsible for massive projects of industrialisation. And the Stalinist purges, when tens of thousands of innocent people suffered, are glossed over as implicitly necessary for the security of the state.

 

Robert Buckner, the producer of Mission to Moscow, later described the film as an "expedient lie for political purposes".

 

Mission to Moscow was condemned as crass pro-Soviet propaganda in the 1950s, but during the war it was a hugely influential piece of work.

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Style icon: Mao, and on the cushion, Stalin with Lenin

 

And it isn't as if the British and American governments didn't know the truth about Stalin's murderous regime.

 

Not only did they learn how brutally Stalin's forces were behaving in occupied territory as early as 1940, but the US president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, even went so far as to suppress information which pointed to the fact that Stalin and his secret police had orchestrated a mass murder - the killing of thousands of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn.

 

But, of course, it's not hard to understand why the political leaders in Britain and America felt they had to paint a positive picture of Stalin and the Soviet Union. The reality was that the Soviet Union was a vital ally and the West needed to keep the Red Army fighting the Germans.

 

The trouble is that the legacy of these "expedient lies" has still not entirely left us. Which is why I hope people will come to realise just how appalling Stalin was, and students might think twice before hanging pictures of Stalin on their walls.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7719633.stm

 

 

 

Interesting and pretty true.

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

:(

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Guest alex

I was in town the other week and there were some studes peddling copies of the Social Worker and doing an anti-war protest at the Monument. They were flying a Che Guevara flag without a hint of irony.

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

 

My mum's got this in the downstairs lav...

 

http://www.allposters.com/-sp/German-Leade...s_i3783532_.htm

 

:(

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

Has Stalin ever had a Broadway hit based on his life story though?

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

 

My mum's got this in the downstairs lav...

 

http://www.allposters.com/-sp/German-Leade...s_i3783532_.htm

 

:(

 

 

That explains a lot. :D

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

Has Stalin ever had a Broadway hit based on his life story though?

Again though isn't that basically the point of it? (and that it wouldn't "work" as intended with Stalin, even though it should?)

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Hmmm, I'm not sure Brand is a big Stalin fan so much as he placed the picture purposely in his vid to pointedly wag a finger at the Beeb and the press about the Stalinesque response to him and Ross.

 

;)

 

 

Maybe, but either way it's true that Hitler would never be used like that (or at least there'd be an unholy :(-storm of biblical proportions if he was).

Has Stalin ever had a Broadway hit based on his life story though?

Again though isn't that basically the point of it? (and that it wouldn't "work" as intended with Stalin, even though it should?)

Well, it would have been in equally bad taste if you did a Stalin one in post-war Germany. He does get off lightly though, in terms of perception. I did quite a bit about Stalin at school so I know about the purges etc. but it's surely mainly down to Hitler's Germany fighting against us in the war. If a student had a Hitler poster up in halls of residence there would be hell on though. Having a Stalin poster up on the other hand lets everybody know you're a twat.

Edited by alex

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I'll admit I prefer Stalin.

 

Hitler bombed England. Stalin helped beat him, despite the atrocities, he's done something for us.

 

I think it's the same as that Gary Glitter's boots joke being more acceptable than a Jamie Bulger one, because Bulger's killers never wrote a number one hit.

 

:(

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Stalin is a better example for the "all atheists are immoral, genocidal bastards" argument though.

Than Gary Glitter?

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Stalin is a better example for the "all atheists are immoral, genocidal bastards" argument though.

 

I know religion gets a bad rap when it comes to the causes of war, but has religion (or lack of) really had much to do with any war in the past century?

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Stalin is a better example for the "all atheists are immoral, genocidal bastards" argument though.

 

I know religion gets a bad rap when it comes to the causes of war, but has religion (or lack of) really had much to do with any war in the past century?

I think religion has often been an excuse or a justification for conflict rather than the real cause anyway (wealth/land and power usually).

Edited by alex

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Well, it would have been in equally bad taste if you did a Stalin one in post-war Germany. He does get off lightly though, in terms of perception. I did quite a bit about Stalin at school so I know about the purges etc. but it's surely mainly down to Hitler's Germany fighting against us in the war. If a student had a Hitler poster up in halls of residence there would be hell on though. Having a Stalin poster up on the other hand lets everybody know you're a twat.

 

Stalin certainly gets off lightly compared to Hitler when you consider how many they both had killed in death camps.

 

 

I'll admit I prefer Stalin.

 

Hitler bombed England. Stalin helped beat him, despite the atrocities, he's done something for us.

 

Yup, that is the point. :(

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Wasn't Oliver Cromwell up for greatest Briton in that thing that was on telly?

Aye. Voted for by Celtic fans.

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I'll admit I prefer Stalin.

 

Hitler bombed England. Stalin helped beat him, despite the atrocities, he's done something for us.

 

Yup, that is the point. :(

 

Hardly a revelation then is it? "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is as old as time.

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I'll admit I prefer Stalin.

 

Hitler bombed England. Stalin helped beat him, despite the atrocities, he's done something for us.

 

Yup, that is the point. :(

 

Hardly a revelation then is it? "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is as old as time.

Except he wasn't your friend (and wasn't even the enemy of my enemy post-WW2), and was really rather a bit of bounder and a cad, but "gets away with it" which again is the point. ;)

 

 

I know you like arguing, but the point in this thread where you start to argue Stalin was great is one I'm immensely looking forward too. :(

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