Fifty years ago today, Stalin died. Or rather, 50 years ago today, Stalin’s henchman announced that Stalin had died. It is possible that he had died a day or two earlier, but the true circumstances of his death are so mired in conspiracy theory that even now, 15 years after glasnost, nothing about his demise — not the time, not the circumstances, not the medical causes — is clear.
But then, 15 years after glasnost and more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very little about Stalin and his reign is as clear as might have been expected. Often, these days, it is observed that Russia — a country with a tradition of grandiose war memorials — has no national monument to the victims of Stalin’s concentration camps and execution squads, only a few scattered local memorials. But how well do we in the West remember what happened in Communist Europe? Few of us have much sense of the depth of the tragedy, of the numbers: the 18 million people who passed through the camps, the 6 million or 7 million who died in Stalin’s artificial famine, the millions more who were shot in forests or died in exile, or died in orphanages after their parents’ arrest. Few, still, see much harm in a Lenin T-shirt or a hammer-and-sickle poster. Few are much troubled by the presence, in our universities, of people who tried (until archives made it impossible) to play down the viciousness of Stalin’s rule. It isn’t an absence of memory exactly, just an absence of strong feelings about what happened.
Up to a point, there are good reasons for this: While it was happening, we had no photographs, no documents and few memoirs. Perhaps because the movements shared some philosophers (Marx, Engels) and some language (the proletariat, the world revolution) a part of the Western left dismissed the significance of Soviet camps, from the 1930s onward. On the right, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s overzealous pursuit of communists in American public life ultimately tarnished the anti-communist cause. Our attitudes are also a byproduct of our idealization of the Second World War. No one wants to hear, now, that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.
Although these are outdated explanations — the left and the right argue about other things these days — they still have an impact. Recently Gore Vidal described the Cold War as “40 years of mindless wars which created a debt of $5 trillion.” Is that what it was — or was it a sometimes ill-fought, sometimes wasteful, sometimes embarrassing but nevertheless necessary battle against a totalitarian regime that murdered millions of people? Not long ago, a British journalist, writing in a conservative magazine, described the Cold War as “the most unnecessary conflict of all time.” Is that the case — or did our frequently clumsy interventions around the world prevent the Stalinist system from spreading, at least to a few places?
The answers to these questions matter at a time when the West is once again fighting an ideological enemy, in the form of radical Islam. If we remembered, truly remembered, why the Cold War was fought and how it was won, for example, we would know that it is unacceptable to alter our liberal democracy in order to fight the war on terrorism either at home or abroad. This week, I heard a university professor tell a television interviewer that he thought the use of torture in the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al Qaeda leader, was acceptable, as long as it is done abroad, and as long as it is not used on U.S. citizens. Elsewhere, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said, “We don’t sanction torture,” but there are “psychological and other ways we can get what we need” out of him — whatever that means. Comments such as these have sparked, once again, a mini-storm about whether Americans should be allowed to use torture or not.
Properly understood, the history of the Cold War should lead us directly to the answer: We fought Stalin’s system because it was inhuman, not just because it was powerful. Our weapons helped us to win, but our victory, in the end, had far more to do with the moral and material success of Western society and the bankruptcy of communism. On the anniversary of Stalin’s death, it is worth remembering that radical Islam will also come to a swifter end if we abide by our own rules of decency at home, and apply them to others as well.