Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stalin's Role in Russia's Development

Joseph Staling by Tom Mallon
Joseph Stalin
There are those in Russia today wishing for a return to the days of Joseph Stalin. If history is any lesson, beware of what you wish for. It’s a dangerous thought. Stalin would regularly purge millions to make his government and economy work. Still, once the atrocities are grudgingly placed aside, it would be impossible to repudiate the social, industrial and scientific strides made by Russia under Stalin’s thirty-plus years of leadership, from his gaining control over the Soviet Central Committee in 1922 until his demise in 1953. The question remains, might not a benevolent rule of so vast a country bore more fruits?

Giving the Devil His Due (Воздаваң долҗное и двяволу)

If Lenin had lived, would his New Economic Policy, which Stalin cast aside for his own Five Year Plan for Economic Recovery, have worked? It’s doubtful, though difficult to say with certainty, since its clear today that Hitler would have invaded Russia in any event. However, it was Stalin who, quite by accident, would place the Soviet Union in a precariously sympathetic position, one that resulted in the very Western aid that would eventually place the Soviet Union at odds with the West.

Lenin and Stalin
Lenin with Stalin
Although Stalin’s western allies never fought beside Soviet forces and Russia had to wait until the last two years of the war before the U.S. put troops on the ground in Europe, the Western materials and technology shared with the Soviet Union would eventually force the retreat of Hitler’s troops. Also, it’s highly unlikely that the isolationist minded Lenin would have signed any pact with Herr Hitler and therefore not have placed Russia in a situation to warrant help from the West.

Granted, Lenin had previously managed to obtain technology from the West but most of it was agricultural and none military or of a strategic technology nature.

Russian T-34 Tank
The T-34 Tank
Moreover, it would be the shared military technology and its implementation that would lay the foundation for Russia’s own future growth during and after the war. Just one example was the foundry technology that led to the uniquely hardened armor on the T-34 tank. It was United States technology the U.S hadn't bothered to implement within the construction of its own Sherman Tanks, which the Germans would call "Der Eisenhower Eisenkassette" (Eisenhower's Steel Casket), because it was considered a death trap for American tank personnel.

Subsequently, it would be this collection of borrowed technology that would eventually enable the Soviet Union to move to its most sophisticated levels of industrialization and later travel into space and advanced sciences, long after Stalin was gone.

Man of Steel

Born Ioseb Besarionis je J̌uḡašvili, the son of an abusive, alcoholic, shoemaker, Joseph Stalin would remain self-conscious of his coarse Georgian roots being less than pure Russian throughout his tenure in power. Subsequently, the Russian term “stalin” was a literal translation of the Ossetic (spoken in Georgia and Turkey) term “Juga” within Stalin’s original surname J̌uḡašvili, both meaning "steel". Initially, he would use Stalin as a pseudonym pen name for early writings. Later, it would become a symbol of his can-do, ruthless style of leadership.

Key to Success

Stalin was not a personable man. Unlike Hitler, who surrounded himself with worshipers and industrialist that stood to gain financially, Stalin was somewhat of a loner with a troubled personal life. His second wife commited suicide and his daughter would expatriate herself. In the early days of the revolution he would toss down tumblers of vodka with revolutionary comrades but, as time went on, he became aloof. Ironically, the more he was separate, the firmer and more fierce his grip on power became. Subsequently, he would model Russia to be like himself, never quite fitting in with Europe, definitely not oriental, filled with internal calamities, yet, all the time striving towards a greater world presence.

The Survivor

If Germany had succeeded with their invasion of the Mother Russia, Stalin would have been captured and executed. He certainly must have reflected upon his good fortune in later years, clearly understanding it to be the survivalist nature he painfully instilled into the country which turned the war to his advantage.

The Young Stalin
Stalin at 23
Stalin was a survivor. He had survived infancy unlike his two earlier brothers, lived through his father’s brutal beatings, an assortment of child illnesses including smallpox, and a carriage accident that would leave one arm permanently shorter than the other. He had fought against the Czar’s Secret Police, been captured, sent to deepest Siberia and escaped.

Consequently, Stalin himself developed an uncanny sense of survival and would put it to the test with the 1907 Tiflis Bank Robbery, an attack so deadly it would make the front page in newspapers around the world. Stalin himself had orchestrated and presided over the heist of 341,000 rubles (equivalent to about $3.5M today) from a Czarist government stagecoach and strongbox, enough money to fund Lenin and the Bolsheviks for years to come. The extreme violence surrounding the dynamiting of the stagecoach cost the lives of some 40 people with both human and horse body parts found blocks from the scene of the robbery. This reported violence, the earliest known incident of modern terrorism, would soon become Stalin’s trademark, making him Lenin’s righthand man while instilling fear within other revolutionaries jockeying for position, including Lenin’s other lieutenant, Trotsky.

In school and private life, Stalin had leaned well how to advance through fear. He had previously been a student of Easter Orthodox Church which ruled alongside the Czar. A church whose confessors had regularly sold confessions to the secret police, perpetuating and preserving their own position.

School of Hard Knocks

During the stone-age times of the Czar, Ioseb J̌uḡašvili secured the best and only education available at that time, parochial training within the Eastern Orthodox schooling system. He had obtained entry with the help of his mother who managed to also secure him a scholarship. In the autumn of 1888, Stalin entered the church school in Gori. In 1894, he graduated to the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Tiflis to become a priest. After five years he would be expelled in 1899 at the age of 21. This schooling, in an otherwise backward and illiterate country, would today be considered a good college education. The reasons remain unclear about Stalin’s dismissal. However, Stalin authority and author Simon Sebag Montefiore has written about considerable friction between Stalin and his seminary superiors, who were apparently looking to expel a pupil that had simply outstayed his welcome, one who was also reading and sharing revolutionary literature.

Cultural Development

Milkmaids Novella, by Nikolai Baskakov
Milkmaids Novella, by Nikolai Baskakov
Stalin did more than just industrialize and advance the sciences within the Soviet Union. He had been a published poet by the age of 17. Once involved in revolutionary politics he would lay down the pen, but never his voracious appetite for poetry, reading and the arts in general.

Paradoxically, Stalin would be as responsible for the deaths of artists as he would be for the fame artists of that time still enjoy today. Although Stalin’s personal passion remained literature, his broad government sponsored support for the arts is without rival in history. To further illustrate the irony, more than 250 Soviet artists died during the Great Purge. Conversely, composers Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Shostakovich (Stalin's favorite whipping boy) would emerge as great composers of the 20th century. Pasternak and Simonov were to be literary giants to survive under Stalin.

Stalin's government also supported the emerging cinematic arts, including the works of Eisenstein. In regards to fine art painting, most Western attention has previous to now been placed upon the rather stoic, heroic social paintings. However, Stalin enabled a broader movement of impressionism and post-impressionism. This body of work is today applauded in the West, with paintings regularly being sold in auctions (i.e.: Sotheby’s, Christie’s) at record prices. Over $1 Billion sold at just Sotheby's in the past 10 year.

Ilya Repin's "Ivan the Terrible"
Ilya Repin's "Ivan the Terrible"


Some today would dust off and restore Stalin’s historic legacy, admitting his acts to be miscreant but necessary for the greater good, that Stalin dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern age away from Czarist blood and mud. Still, others insist that aside from his education and employment of the vast masses within Russia, Stalin was a degenerate criminal that deserved the execution with rat poison administered by his own protégés.

Today, considerable organized crime has been sited within post Soviet Russia. However, when compared along side previous criminal regimes, including the Czar’s and the Soviet Union, it would be difficult to say today's crimes can even come close by comparison. In fact, it would be difficult to argue that Stalin wasn’t himself a modern Czar. Afterall, Ivan the Terrible did undergo considerable restoration during the Stalin years (Алты́нного во́ра ве́шают, а полти́нного че́ствуют).

Post Cave Dwelling

"Bears" by Charles R. Knight
"Bears" by Charles R. Knight
On printed page and in cinema, Russia is often depicted in the West as endless hoards, trampling Czarist and Germanic oppression as well as the occasional surprise attack from Japan. Looking back on the fallen Soviet era, one can’t help but wonder if more art, education and general advancement of the population might have been nurtured under a more benevolent rule, creating an altogether different image.

Russia's history persists with its own unique culture distilled from centuries of despots and war. Perhaps with today’s decline in Western fortunes, a more peaceful Russian bear will have finally left that cave to have its day in the sun. That is, if the bear can claw its way ahead of its rapidly emerging neighbor, China, with its own endless hoards, contained within a considerably more confined space (Аппети́т прихо́дит во вре́мя еды́).

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