Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Statue for Stalin?

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 London.)

“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 Jews.

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.

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    1. CommentedSlavomír Jančok

      Historical inaccuracy: Purge did not weakened Red Army, in turn, liquidation of group of such madmen as Tukhachevskyi saved Soviet union. So called "elite" of Red Army up to 1937 consisted mainly from old alcohol addict mass murder (e.g, Tukhachevskyi and his blood oppression against Tambov peasant rebellion). Soviet Union was no means unprepared, in turn was prepared for offensive war (there are tons of evidences open trough years). It seems to me very interesting, that this fallacy about "unprepared" Soviet Union is so long live also in english speaking countries. Imagine Britain invaded by Germans in the 1941 instead of Soviet union ? British resistance would not last more than a few months, presumably. And still, is it the reason to say: Churchill left the Britain unprepared to resist Hitler´s attack ?

    2. CommentedJoseph Jaroszek

      well partially, it's down to ideologically comatose 'what's left of Left' in the West, whose injured pride is further undermined by the lack of any viable alternative to neo-liberal rightist rip-off, witness the likes of the Guardian's Seumas Milne et al, him of the impotent anti-Imperialist brigade; when there's nothing you can do about your own situation with choices galore, you relapse to a kind of Stockholm syndrome nostalgia in hope of a 'strong leader' to correct all the wrongs. It's beyond pathetic really.

    3. CommentedAvraam Dectis

      The explanation is simple:

      Humans are a hierarchical herd species. Humans throughout history have always self organized into a hierarchical herd and therefore herd status and position are extremely important to humans.

      Stalin and Mao successfully led their herds and died in their beds. Hitler was spectacularly unsuccessful at leading his herd and dies in a bunker.

      It is that simple.

      The source of the original confusion was failing to understand the true dynamics of the human species.

    4. CommentedStepan February

      There are lots of Russians in New York, although KGB Bar is not Russian themed at all. Its a writer joint.

        CommentedStepan February

        Steve Barney's Parfit quote also tunnels to the answer.

        Trying to hurt someone is a cry of a hurt person. A child will cry because their parent has made them unhappy and will also hug him to make themselves feel better. Because the child depends of the parent.

        Stockholm syndrome is infantilistic.

        Russians still think they depend on authoritarianism for success as a community, even if it hurts them individually.

        No one has ever proven them wrong.

        Not so with Germans. They were proved wrong twice, which gave them the Pythagorean pivot around which they altered course.

        CommentedStepan February

        KGB Bar stands for Kraine Gallery Bar. KGB is referenced simply for counter-cultural shock value.

        As for the main question of the article, people like success a lot. We are predisposed to whitewash it. Communist revolution saved against all odds, WWII won, nuclear weapons, first in space. Remember, there were quite a few truly awe-inspiring things done under Stalin.

        I would not forgive him for the bads, though.

        The statue is Stockholm syndrome.

    5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      There was little difference between Stalin and Hitler, when it comes to crimes against humanity. While Stalin could get away with murder, Hitler will still be reviled in the coming decades.
      That Stalin's statues are tolerated in Russia, while Hitler memorabilia are publicly rejected in Germany has much to do with hard politics and soft power.
      The end of WWII saw the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, who stood trial at the Nuremberg tribunal. The western powers knew that Stalin was guilty of many of the war crimes against German prisoners. Yet they were forced to keep silent in order to maintain a public face of collaboration. For their part, the western Allies decided not to include the massive bombings of London, Warsaw and Rotterdam as a war crime.
      However the legacy of the trials was ambiguous and the legal instruments set up by the UN had not been able to prevent human rights abuses and genocide. Yet the most significant impact the Nuremberg tribunal has on our world to date, is its Holocaust theme in the film industry. High-profile movies had been made ever since and served to sensitise the wider public on the Nazi atrocities. As we all know Hollywood is dominated by a Jewish community. Germany for its part had been willing to come to terms with its troubled past and passed laws to criminalise Nazism.

    6. CommentedM Patel

      Neo-Nazi's don't rule any country. On the other hand, Ultra leftist, who worship Stalin, rule many countries and are a global force. For example, India's first prime minister, & a diehard Fabian Socialist, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his book "...all those rumors (about gulag) are not true...working condition (in labor camp) better than factory floors in mumbai..". In a speech in parliament he said "Marshall Stalin was a man of peace".

    7. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      Mr. Baney's comment was interesting, too. He did not seem to know things that I knew about Mao. This may be partly due to geographical difference. I live much closer to Mao's land than he. Another reason may be history. Japanese have paid far more attention to China than the American people.

      As we say in Japan, "The darkest spot is just under the foot of the lighthouse," the Chinese people who live just in Mao's land do know about what was perpetrated by him. The reason is not geographial but political.

      The Chinese elites have had gigantic political power in each dynasty; gigantic wealth has accrued to gigantic power; and the elites have needed, on account of the gigantic disparity in power and wealth, a gigantic ideology or gigantic lies, which have kept people in the gigantic darkness. People adore Mao Zedong, knowing nothing about the revolution, the purges, the One Hundred Flowers Bloom, the Great Leap Forward, etc.

    8. CommentedJose araujo

      I'm not here defending Stalin, but how many people did the English kill in Ireland, Scotland, India?

      I'm talking civilians.

      How many civilians did Truman Killed. How many did Churchill and Roosevelt with the bombing of Dresden and other cities raised to the ground?

      How many civilians did Bush and Blair kill Iraque?

      Stalin won the war, and only a disturbed mind would compare him to Hitler

    9. Commentedantin antin

      An obvious realistic explanation of why Stalin is relatively much more acceptable than Hitler: Hitlers lost and did not further shape his country. Hitler does not represent anything related to todays Germany and Austria, so he can safely be depicted as universally evil by his home country as well.

    10. Commentedhari naidu

      Utilitarianism may be a concept which explains the difference between Hitler and Stalin - two classical European totalitarian leaders. Whereas Hitler propagated the concept of one race - Aryan - and failed to achieve his hegemonic goal and rule over European continent; Stalin was more cunning, as a Georgian, and won not only Stalingrad, against Hitler's Army, but also won the praise of western leaders, including FDR & Churchill, at Yalta. The Conference which more or less epitomizes the rise of Stain as a global leader of Russia.
      However your last sentence exposes your own cultural ignorance of KGBs (total) prominence in restaurants in Vienna's 1st district, after WWII occupation.

    11. CommentedKakha K

      The attitude towards Stalin in Georgia is not topic of the article and I understand why author did not spend more time talking about what happened to those restored statues in Georgia, but I would hate readers to think they are still there, when they are not!
      First, there was a whole movement of painting those status in ridiculous colors (e.g. Pink), and later Georgian parliament made its move also and actually amended an existing law prohibiting restoration, and ordering removal of already erected statues. Here are couple links in that regard:
      1) explaining legislative initiative:
      2) Describing removal of Stalin statue in Telavi (using this new amendment)
      fyi, the Georgian writing on the wall behind the statue read: "murderer"; "down with totalitarianism".

    12. CommentedPeter Gosnell

      I thought I'd stick with Professor Singer's premise as encapsulated by the headline. Statues? It got me thinking. Then it got me googling. After an admittedly cursory search I can report that I could not find any record of a single statue of Hitler, either existing or erected pre-WWII and since destroyed. Certainly I could find no record of a statue of the type I imagined. Large. Cast metal. Occupying some significant public space. There are however records of statues erected in honour of Mussolini, a Fascist and Nazi ally. My own view of Stalin's cultural resilience is that at least outside Russia, a willfully ignorant Left Progressivism clings to symbols of revolutionary chic as a way of exhibiting "ideologically sound" rebellion traits against western civilization and capitalism, whilst simultaneously enjoying their many benefits. Not an uncommon hypocrisy. On a side note, I spent 10 days exploring Georgia in 2012. At one site we visited renovation work was underway. As we strolled the ground we came across a very large bust of a figure face down in the dirt. After a bit of effort I rolled it over and found myself face to face with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Maybe another article is in order: Why didn't Hitler like statues?

    13. Portrait of Minxin Pei

      CommentedMinxin Pei

      I am dismayed that Prof. Singer left out Mao Zedong, China's late dictator and mass murderer. Mao was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese and is considered the most brutal and blood-thirsty tyrant in Chinese history. Tallying up the deaths caused by his personal instructions and policies may be a challenge for Prof. Singer, but it is doable. In the early 1950s, shortly after Mao's regime gained power, Mao set an arbitrary target that one out of each thousand people must be shot because that was his ratio of counter-revolutionaries to ordinary people. Of course, when carried out, his zealous underlings killed far more people (this directive alone led to the deaths of more than 1 million people). In 1957, he launched a purge of the intelligentsia, sending half a million people to the prison camps. Tens of thousands never returned. Of course, Mao's greatest crime was committed during the Great Leap Forward famine. At least 36 million starved to death. During the Cultural Revolution, at least 3-4 million people were murdered. The trauma Mao's regime inflicted on Chinese society was deep and enduring. Even today, most Chinese who have lived through his reign of terror have a hard time bringing themselves to talking about those days.

      But Mao seems to have got away with mass murder. His body has been preserved and is on view for tourists in Beijing. His picture still hangs on Tiananmen. The Chinese Communist Party has revived some of his political rhetoric and is eager to preserve his image as a strong leader because the party is aware that classifying Mao as a criminal comparable to Stalin or Hitler would destroy its legitimacy. Last month, the party even staged a lavish ceremony commemorating the 120th birthday of the late dictator.

      I wish Prof. Singer had thought about Mao when commenting on who should get the title of History's Worst Mass Murderer.

        CommentedSteve Barney

        That's a very interesting comment about Mao, and I didn't know about that, but I must say that Singer did not comment on "who should get the title of History's Worst Mass Murderer," as you put it. Instead, Singer posed the question: "why is Stalin seen as relatively more acceptable than Hitler?" But I thank you for your important comment on Mao.

    14. CommentedMarc Laventurier

      I have a design for a portrait of Ronald Reagan in the Tijuana Black Velvet-Elvis style, featuring a tiny tear-drop for Freedom and vignettes rendered in the corners including Oliver North's swearing-in at congressional testimony and the National Guard machine gun nest I saw set up in Berkeley when RR was governor. Also have a 'performance' piece planned for Dick Cheney's grave.

    15. CommentedSteve Barney

      I know people of a non-European/American decent who are puzzled by my outrage over Hitler and his minions. One actually asked me why I feel that way about Hitler, since Hitler is merely another bad man, like countless others, such as Mao or Stalin or Pol Pot. I was temporarily left speechless, at that moment, but it seems, in that case, that, as a devote Bible reader, he was all too familiar with extremely bad characters and violence of Biblical proportions. That familiarity has apparently made Hitler, in his mind, almost boring. So I guess the Bible essentially desensitized him to the horrors of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc., and I find that a bit scary. Outrage, shock, and horror are certainly much more reassuring and appropriate responses to such attrocities, compared to acceptance, resignation, or indifference. Somehow, all this reminds me of a somewhat puzzling passage by another great philosopher:

      "When people treat us or others wrongly, we can justifiably be indignant. And we can have reasons to want these people to understand the wrongness of their acts, even though that would make them feel very badly about what they have done. But these reasons are like our reasons to want people to grieve when those whom they love have died. ... We could at most be justified in ceasing to like these people, and trying, in morally acceptable ways, to have nothing to do with them."
      --Parfit, Derek (2011-09-27). On What Matters:Two-volume set (Kindle Locations 5214-5219). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

      I think that is to say that we have reasons to want people to understand the loss of a loved one, even though that will make them grieve and feel bad, just as we have reasons to want people to understand the wrongness of their acts, even though that will make them feel bad. The understanding is the essential key element, and that trumps the badness of the associated or consequent feelings. It's tough, but justified, in such cases.
      Similary, we have reasons to want people to understand the badness of leaders who led them to commit attrocities, even though that will make them feel badly, and to cease to like these leaders, and to want to have nothing to do with them. A statue in their honor would seem to indicate a lack of such an understanding, and the promote bad characters.

    16. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Maybe the worst key incident of the 20 century was the United States entering the 1st world war and the hypocrisy of Wilson which avoided an earlier peace and undermined the crtedibility of humanist policies. Nazis and Communists drew the ideological consequences of this failure, a sudden massive distrust in democracy.

    17. CommentedShuvabrata Nandi

      Why question only Stalin and Hitler? Countless Anglo American leaders (considered a hero by many) have mass genocide on their hands. Why don't you condemn the likes of FDR or Harry Truman? Or Japanese lives mean nothing to you? They were also civilians. I am not even getting into the American mass genocide in Vietman, Iraq and Afganistan. Shame !!!

    18. CommentedRoman Podolyan

      Well, it was Stalin who sat near Churchill and Roosevelt, not Hitler. And it was Europe who had colonies all around the globe — where hunger and oppression was too, not only under Stalin. Also, as one man suggested in comments even before me, under Mao there were numerous deaths and repressions, but who questions now statues or portraits of Mao in China?

      So please do not compare Stalin to Hitler before you answer why western Allies was with Stalin, how many died under the Western rule and how West. accepted Mao and his depiction in China.

      And before you asking why Muscovites accept statue of Stalin, ask yourself how many officials of colonial empires and allies of Stalin were accepted in Europe.

    19. Commentedhari naidu

      I suspect you're confusing political morality of individual world leaders with ethical and cultural norms of a society.

      If you're a Kremlinologist from Cold War period you'd first read 20th Party Congress of CPSU held after (March 1953) death of Stalin by Khrushchev, new Party Secretary of CPSU.
      There you'll find first official store of info on Stalin's political crimes and more.

      Mainland China was celebrating Mao's 120th anniversary on 26th Dec 2013. Mao is considered father of PRC and CCP.
      If he didn't exist, they'd have to invent him somehow, methinks.

    20. CommentedArthur Dayne

      The real question is why is virtually every single US president of the 20th century is portrayed as "acceptable" by the Western "intellectual" culture regardless of their comparable atrocities throughout the world. When we start judging Stalin and Bush with the same objectivity is when the term "prominent intellectual" (not for every single one of course) will seize to be the synonym of servant of power.

    21. CommentedMr Econotarian

      Is Mao, with his starvation of tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward and keeping hundreds of millions of Chinese in absolute poverty any better? There is a restaurant in LA called "Mao's Kitchen". It's tagline should be "over 20 million starved to death!" (That doesn't even cover a million killed and more tortured during the Cultural Revolution).