COVER STORY: Counting Stalin's victims 50 years on
by John Ballantyne
News Weekly, June 28, 2003
March 5 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest mass-murderers of all time - the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Probably as many Soviet people were killed during his reign of terror as perished during World War II at the hands of the Nazis. Yet many today still fail to grasp the magnitude of his crimes against humanity.
Many Russians in fact look back nostalgically to the Stalin era. In March this year, 53 per cent of Russians polled by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion, viewed Stalin's role in history as "absolutely positive" or "more positive than negative".
In the West, the BBC has recently created an uproar with its television drama, Cambridge Spies, about traitors Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, who, during the 1930s and '40s, used their privileged positions in the British establishment to betray secrets to Moscow.
The series - currently screening on ABC television - depicts the young men's devotion to Soviet Communism as an idealistic and understandable response to the plight of the unemployed and the rise of Fascism in Europe before the war.
Downplayed in all this, however, is the fact that, even in the 1930s, there was ample evidence available of Stalin's repressive policies.
Fellow-travellers who turned a blind eye to the reality of Soviet Communism were not misguided idealists, but were as morally culpable as Nazi sympathisers who whitewashed Hitler.
If certain Russians and BBC producers, in this anniversary year of Stalin's death, are so forgetful of a major and tragic chapter of European history, it is perhaps a fitting time to set the record straight and recapitulate the human cost of Stalin's terror. Certainly, his millions of innocent victims deserve no less.
One of the most bloodthirsty phases of Stalin's career began in the late 1920s after he had successfully isolated his political rivals and emerged as undisputed master of the Soviet Union.
He used coercion and terror to mobilise the working population to fulfill his grandiose five-year plans for industrialising the economically backward USSR.
Irish playwright and Fabian socialist, George Bernard Shaw, wrote approvingly of Stalin's methods:
"Every Russian knows that if he will not make his life a paying enterprise for his country ... an agent of the OGPU [Soviet secret police] will take him by the shoulder and will conduct him to the cellar of this famous department and he will simply stop living."
Stalin pursued an especially uncompromising policy towards the Soviet peasantry. He aimed at nothing less than depriving peasants of their land, herding them into state-run collective farms, and empowering the state to seize all their agricultural produce.
Standing in the way of this wholesale expropriation, however, were millions of peasant smallholders called kulaks. Stalin's drastic solution was to call for the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class".
The reign of terror which descended on the Soviet countryside was, in the words of the great Polish scholar of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski, "Probably the most massive warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens".
Special OGPU military units, armed with tanks and machine-guns, surrounded villages and fired indiscriminately into crowds of peasants. Mass arrests and executions followed.
Millions who escaped death in this way were rounded up, bundled into cattle trucks and deported to the notorious Gulag slave labour camps in Siberia or the Arctic where many perished.
In collectivising agriculture, Stalin met particular fierce resistance from Ukrainians, whose large population and sense of nationhood, he feared, could also prove a threat to Moscow's rule.
During 1932-33 Stalin used unprecedented means to bring Ukraine to heel. He had all of Ukraine's grain confiscated and her borders sealed so that no person could leave and no food could enter the country.
In what amounted to the first deliberately man-made famine in history, Stalin turned Ukraine - once the great breadbasket of Europe - into a vast wasteland. Millions died.
The writer Arthur Koestler was visiting Ukraine at the time. He described seeing from his train starving children who "looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles ... the stations were lined with begging peasants with swollen hands and feet, the women holding up to the carriage windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, stick-like limbs and swollen, pointed bellies."
Years later, when discussing farm collectivisation with Winston Churchill in Moscow in August 1942, Stalin coolly admitted that the four-year ordeal of carrying through this policy had cost more Soviet lives and been more stressful to him than the first year of Hitler's onslaught against the USSR.
Kirov's murder and the purges
After the collectivisation-terror, Stalin sought to eliminate from the upper echelons of Soviet society anybody who could conceivably pose a threat to his rule.
In late 1934 he clandestinely arranged to have his main potential rival, Sergei Kirov - the popular secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party - assassinated. To conceal his own culpability, Stalin had the assassins themselves killed and then blamed others for the Kirov murder.
He cleverly turned the resulting political turmoil to his advantage by unleashing a political witch-hunt directed against Communist Party members who had been prominent during the time of his predecessor, Lenin.
Mass arrests followed. Once mighty revolutionaries were broken by months of interrogation, torture and threats to their families. When they were ready to confess to concocted criminal charges, they were brought before especially convened show-trials in Moscow.
There, in front of astonished foreign journalists and observers, they made self-abasing confessions that they had been lifelong traitors and agents of foreign powers.
At the end of such a trial, the Soviet chief state prosecutor Andrei Vyshinski would cry: "I demand that mad dogs be shot - every one of them!", before the defendants were taken away to their deaths.
Stalin's Purges spread to every level of Soviet society. Citizens were encouraged to denounce neighbours and workmates as spies or saboteurs. Regional police chiefs frantically vied with each other to fulfill or over-fulfill their arrest quotas of alleged "enemies of the people" - or else faced being shot themselves.
The Kremlin went to great lengths to cover up the magnitude of Soviet population losses resulting from Stalin's reign of terror in the 1930s. It suppressed the results of the 1937 census because, according to an official statement, it contained "grave mistakes owing to the activities of enemies of the people". The real reason, of course, was that the census would have revealed a massive population deficit. So rather than disclose the truth, the Soviet government had the entire census board staff shot as spies.
A "revised" census was published in 1939 - this time, with grossly inflated population figures. But even this revealed that roughly 10 per cent of the Soviet population was statistically missing, i.e., some 15 million victims of Stalin's reign of terror.
World War II
Terrible though the sufferings of the 1930s were, they have tended to be eclipsed in popular perception by the ordeal the Soviet Union suffered after the German invasion in 1941. As the Western democracies owed their very survival to the enormous sacrifices sustained by the Soviet population in resisting the German onslaught, any criticism of Stalin since the war has tended to be muted.
But if the Soviet people eventually defeated Hitler, it was small thanks to Stalin who failed to prepare his country's defences adequately. During 1939-41, of course, Stalin was Hitler's ally and helped sustain the Nazi war machine by shipping vast quantities of Soviet grain, oil and other strategic materials to the Third Reich.
In addition, Stalin encouraged the Communist parties in the West to sabotage the Allied war effort. In the East, Stalin collaborated with Hitler in dismembering Poland, then invaded the Baltic States and attacked Finland.
When Hitler turned on his erstwhile Soviet ally, launching Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, the USSR was woefully unprepared. The Soviet military leadership had been severely incapacitated by the Purges. In 1937, Stalin had sentenced to death thousands of experienced military officers, including the Supreme Commander of the Red Army, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky.
During its life and death struggle with Hitlerism, the Soviet Union might have benefited from the help of the Polish army, but during the spring of 1940 Stalin had treacherously ordered the murder of 15,000 Polish army officers at Katyn Forest near Smolensk and other killing sites (a crime which he later blamed on the Germans).
As for Soviet civilians, Stalin's rural terror of the 1930s had sown the seeds of fierce hatred among Soviet peasants towards Communist rule. When the Germans invaded, many peasants prematurely hailed them as liberators, thus leading to a rapid collapse of Soviet resistance.
Hitler, of course, had no intention of winning the hearts and minds of eastern Slavs. Nazi racial doctrine held them to be untermensch (subhuman). The Nazis treated their despised subject populations as fit only for enslavement or extermination. The Soviet people, whatever their misgivings about their own country's régime, turned against their new oppressors and began waging partisan warfare.
Stalin's secret war
Estimates of Soviet casualties during the so-called Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 have varied according to political fashion. In 1947, the Soviets liked to boast that their victory had been won with "the least possible losses", and usually gave a figure of only seven million war dead. But, during the late 1950s, the Soviet leadership saw that a higher figure might be advantageous for propaganda purposes. The now familiar figure of "20 million Russian war dead" did not actually emerge until the 1960s, during Khrushchev's time.
In fact, the true number of Soviet people killed during the war years may well have been in excess of 20 million, but they were certainly not all Russian, and not all were killed as a result of the Nazi invasion.
Throughout the war the terrible death toll among the Gulag slave labour camp population continued unabated. Roy Medvedev, a famous independent Russian historian and Marxist-Leninist, has compared Gulag inmate numbers and deaths with actual troop casualties during the first phase of the war:
"The average number of prisoners in the Soviet Union in 1941-1942 was approximately equal to the number of soldiers on active duty in the army. At that time the loss of people [in labour camps and at the front] was also approximately equal."
Nick Eberstadt of the Harvard Centre for Population Studies has observed: "The USSR fought a two-front campaign in World War II. The first was against the invaders; the second was against its own citizenry."
Stalin waged this second war because he feared the animosity of his own people - so much so, in fact, that he was prepared to divert desperately-needed troops from the war front to deal with suspected enemies on the home front.
Stalin was particularly apprehensive that many non-Russian nationalities of the USSR might harbour pro-German sympathies, so he interrupted his war effort to unleash a campaign of ethnic cleansing against suspected populations.
Between 1941 and 1944, while Hitler was busy transporting Jews to the death-camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, Stalin uprooted 1,600,000 people from among the Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans and several Caucasian republics, including Chechnya.
He deported in cattle-trucks the entire populations of these small nations to eastern Siberia and the Sino-Soviet frontier. During the first 18 months, approximately one-third of them perished.
Other citizens who received no mercy were Soviet prisoners who survived internment by the Germans. During the war the Wehrmacht had captured about five million Soviet prisoners, of whom about 80 per cent died in captivity. The million or so survivors subsequently repatriated to the USSR, instead of being welcomed back at the war's end, were declared traitors to the socialist motherland.
On arrival, thousands were shot outright, whilst practically all the remainder were banished to slave labour camps where many more perished. As Professor Norman Davies has said: "It is a nice question whether these men, who had defied Hitler only to be killed by their own side, can properly be counted among the victims of the struggle against Fascism."
For many people in the former USSR, war did not end in 1945. Partisan warfare continued for some years after the war as people of Ukraine and the Baltic States resisted attempts by the Soviet Red Army and secret police to re-impose Communist tyranny on their nations.
After the so-called Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, Soviet propaganda glorified specifically "Russian" sacrifices, but belittled the terrible human and material losses sustained by the non-Russian nations of the former USSR, notably Belarus and Ukraine.
Yet even Soviet sources confirmed in 1987 that, although wartime military losses were mainly Russian, the civilian losses were overwhelmingly non-Russian. The Wehrmacht never occupied any substantial region of Russia for very long, but it overran and devastated Belarus and, above all, Ukraine whose wartime losses amounted to 5-6 million dead. (The Independent, December 29, 1987).
American foreign correspondent Edgar Snow who visited the USSR in 1945 said that the "whole titanic struggle, which some are apt to dismiss as 'the Russian glory', has in all truth and in many costly ways been first of all a Ukrainian war ... No single European country has suffered deeper wounds to its cities, its industry, its farmlands and its humanity." (Saturday Evening Post, January 27, 1945). Yet, as Norman Davies has commented:
"Thanks to persistent wartime prejudices, many British and Americans still harbor the illusion that most Ukrainians spent the war either as auxiliaries in the concentration camps or in the Waffen-SS Galizien [but] the Waffen-SS recruited three times as many Dutchmen as Ukrainians." (New York Review of Books, June 9, 1994).
Of Soviet population losses during the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War, at most two-thirds were victims of Hitler's invasion; the rest were victims of Stalin's secret war against his own people.
Stalin's régime, then, whether in peace or war, was as deadly an enemy to the Soviet population as any external invader.
Russian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn - himself an inmate of Stalin's Gulag for many years - has regretted the fact that Stalin's record of slaughter and terror has never captured the public imagination in the way that Nazi atrocities have. "[Hitler's] murder camps have made him famous," says Solzhenitsyn, "whereas no one has any interest in ours at all."
Stalinism, unfortunately, is not completely dead and buried if today it can still win a sizeable following among Russians and a sympathetic portrayal by British television producers.
In this special anniversary year, people in the East and West might do well to reflect on history and particularly on the warning words of the poet Yevtushenko to Soviet leaders 50 years ago on the death of Stalin:
So I ask our government
Over this tomb.