Exactly sixty years ago today, Iosef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, the Georgian son of an illiterate shoemaker, and better known to the world as Joseph Stalin, died in his bed. The relative peacefulness of his death, set against the ruthless torment he inflicted on millions of his “own” people, is emblematic of why Robert Conquest called the twentieth century “the ravaged century.”
It was a time filled with the relentless pursuit of empty ideologies. We will never know the full extent of this madness–Boris Pasternak wrote of the Holodomor that it “would not fit within the bounds of consciousness”–although historians like the brilliant Timothy Snyder are slowly filling in the gaps in our knowledge. Stalin’s atrocities were not limited to the Gulag, but extended into the fringes of the Soviet empire, in the barren landscapes of Ukraine and Eastern Europe (what Snyder calls “the bloodlands”) where millions were starved (both intentionally and accidentally) as a result of Communist greed before, during, and after the Second World War.
Immediately after Stalin’s death, the Soviet government began to acknowledge the breadth of his cruelty. Everyone knows about Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” but this did not completely exorcise Stalin’s ghost from Soviet or Russian society. During glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s, the Communist government admitted even more embarrassing horrors like the Katyn massacre; the opening of Soviet archives during the Yeltsin era, after the USSR’s dissolution, carried this process of discovery further forward. Historians and researchers, however, still have millions of documents to tackle. This work, I believe, is a moral duty to the victims.
One document in particular, for me, symbolizes everything that is cruel and unusual and horrible about ideology in general and Communism and Stalin in particular. It comes from a transcript of Stalin’s comments at an October 1932 meeting with Maksim Gorky and other prominent writers in a Moscow villa. At that meeting, Stalin said:
“As someone here rightly said, the writer cannot sit still, he must get to know the life of the country. Rightly said. Men are transforming life. That is why I propose a toast to the engineers of human souls.”
As if we needed more irony, Stalin’s death coincided with one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history: James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s (and, yes, Rosalind Franklin’s) discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA in March 1953. This discovery, and the research that followed it, has saved many lives and has dissolved many secrets about cancer, genetics, and disease. This was the work of the truly democratic West, and those scientists didn’t need a mountain of skulls or a five-year plan to accomplish it.
There are still many in Russia and the former Soviet republics who are nostalgic for Communism—I’ve met and talked to them; it’s a gruesome spectacle to hear Stalin’s name invoked positively—but few seem interested in the real accomplishments of free societies. Theirs is a world of shame and self-pity and envy. Be glad you live where you do, dear readers.