Let History Judge, Roy Medvedev

The concluding chapter of this book describes the last years of Stalin’s life. It describes, following Stalin’s 70th birthday, how “the old despot became more and more suspicious “. It describes that his paranoia extended to such lengths that he was nearly living in complete isolation, the woods surrounding where he lived would be filled with traps and mines, his personal bodyguard grew in number greatly, and all who had an audience with him where thoroughly searched. This suspicion resulted in considerable danger to anyone who dared challenge Stalin, to argue or dispute him “was equivalent to suicide “. Stalin became suspicious of even his most trusted aides, Molotov and Poskrebshev’s wives were arrested, and Kaganovich’s brother was driven to suicide. These once trusted men were driven away from important decision making, Stalin even publicly declaring some of these, among others, as enemy spies. It goes on to describe Stalin’s death through brain haemorrhage.

The main part of this conclusive chapter poses the main ideas and questions concerning Stalin’s rule, namely, did the costs of his reign, numerous as they are, outweigh the benefits to the communist movement, not only in Russia but the entire world. Medvedev gives the viewpoints from various perspectives; including bourgeois historians, Soviet, Interpretation from West German media, Marxist Historiography, socialist and revisionist, Dogmatists and Stalinists, other Communists interpretations from other countries (namely Communist China), and his own, Marxist-Leninist views.

The view of bourgeois historians, Medvedev states, typically see Stalin as the greatest leader of world Communism movement after Lenin, they generally acknowledge, and to some extent condemning Stalin’s crimes, they try to prove that socialism could not have been accomplished in the USSR without such a barbaric, criminal and totalitarian state. Medvedev cites Deutscher, one of Stalin’s biographers, Deutscher called Stalin the greatest reformer of all times and nations, that Lenin and Trotsky led the October Revolution and gave the Russian people the idea of Socialism, but it was Stalin who put these ideas into effect. Medvedev seems to be critical of Deutscher’s position, which seems to glorify Stalin’s actions in some respect, when in fact Deutscher was a polish-Jewish communist, expelled from the party in 1832 for Trotskyism; he always favoured democratic socialism and hoped it would overcome Stalinism.

Similarly, the West German newspaper Die Welt declared that Stalin changed Russia from a backward, unindustrialized country into a mighty force capable of resisting and challenging the German threat, something Tsarist Russia never mobilised itself to do.

Pietro Nenni, a historian from “socialists and revisionists persuasion “is cited saying Stalin “absorbed ‘Russian Reality ‘”. Nenni was intent on Stalin not being solely responsible for the multitude of events and processes associated with Stalin’s name, he identifies Stalinism as ” the communism of three decades, from the death of Lenin to the death of Stalin ” . Djilas expanded on this theme, saying that what Stalin aimed to accomplish “could not be accomplished in any other way… The forces that swept him forward and that he led… could have no other leader but him, ” Although showing that Stalin was necessary for the Russian communist movement, Djilas still describes him as ” the greatest criminal in history “.

Medvedev explains Dogmatists and Stalinists depict Stalin’s crimes as “mistakes”, although serious, this description is extremely limited and far too lenient in Medvedev’s eyes. Molotov, one of Stalin’s advisors, said “that particular mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes, are inevitable in carrying out such great and historical tasks. ” A communist Chinese editorial from the newspaper People’s Daily shared an equally lenient view saying “…Stalin did make certain mistakes…In the course of struggle to root out counterrevolution…many counter-revolutionaries who needed to be punished were justly punished, but innocent people were also mistakenly condemned. ” Medvedev describes, to his obvious disgust, how the article goes on to conclude that Stalin mistakes were useful, for they provided a lesson to other communists.

The second thesis of these groups is what Medvedev would call balancing; the groups concede that Stalin committed mistakes and crimes which were not necessarily needed for the building of socialism. But they also state that Stalin accomplished a great deal, and that if all his crimes and mistakes are weighed against his achievements and successes, the latter far outweighs the former. One dogmatist even stated that Stalin’s record is 30% crime and 70% accomplishment. The Peking People’s Daily stated in 1956 and 1963 that “If Stalin’s merits are compared with his mistakes, his merits are greater than his mistakes. ”

Medvedev gives the argument against Stalinism in the concluding paragraphs. He states that “Genuine Communists “cannot answer the questions, which were greater, Stalin’s accomplishments or crimes? This cannot be answered simply because this formulation contains the hidden suggestion that great merits give someone the right to commit certain crimes. He says that it would be immoral to suggest that a man who has saved a thousand people can receive infallibility from history if he kills one or two hundred people. Medvedev concedes that the Soviet Union did make progress under Stalin, but that it does not make Stalin a great Communist or Marxist Leninist, he says ” a good army can win even under a poor commander “. Progress undoubtedly made, is hugely overshadowed by the negatives of Stalin’s reign, he asks, in a tirade of rhetorical questions, would the people not have benefited from being spared from mass repression, a government that had not been destroyed and robbed of its most credible characters, economic and cultural progress not halted by the destruction of thousands of scientists, engineers, teachers, doctors and writers, military leaders, Anti Leninist agricultural plan. He goes on to state that the only possible thing Soviet Communists have to thank Stalin for is that fact that his 30 year rule did not “completely ruin the Party, the army, Soviet democracy, agriculture, and industry”

Medvedev, although completely entitled to his Leninist-Marxist viewpoint, is not a completely objective figure; his father was arrested in 1938 during one of Stalin’s purges, and died in a labour camp in 1941. This hugely influences not just his own opinion of Stalin, but his opinion on every other viewpoint of the Stalinist regime. Although he does cite the soviet and Stalinist viewpoints, he does so in a very negative and bias way, and although this may be justified, from an objective view of history, his interpretation and opinion cannot be taken lightly. Medvedev seems to want to distance Stalin away from Leninist-Marxism altogether. He argues that Marxist historiography should reject the claim that Stalin inspired the people with ideas of socialism as some bourgeois interpretations may suggest. He believes that “the door to education and culture was opened by the October revolution.” He gives the impression that Russia progressed despite the acts of Stalin, that workers in his concentration camps accomplished a great deal, making railways and industrial plants, but that these millions of innocent men would have accomplished a great deal more if they were free men. Medvedev states that the only alleged counterrevolutionary actions during Stalin’s time in power were committed by Stalin himself, the mass repression of 1936-38 were an assault on old Bolshevik individuals that were “honourably serving the interests of the masses”

In Medvedev eyes, Stalin was a hindrance to the Russian communist movement, not an aid to it; he believed that his few relatively insignificant merits, using the theory of balancing, were far fewer than his crimes and mistakes. He cited the philosopher G.Pomerants to illustrate his point “to restore respect for Stalin, knowing what he did, is to establish respect for denunciations, tortures, executions… is to set up a moral monstrosity near our banner… Even Stalin did not try to do that. ” Medvedev clearly shows how different cultures, interpretations and perspectives viewed Stalin, but his personal opinions, although in his case justifiable, do not necessarily give an objective picture of what Stalin achieved (or failed to achieve) during his time of leadership.

Medvedev describes Stalin’s reign as a disease, which resulted in Russia losing “many of its finest sons “(very possibly referring to his father), he scrutinizes any opinion which glorifies Stalin, giving a clear opinion that Soviet Communist Russia progressed despite Stalin, not through him. A final quote succinctly illustrates Medvedev’s viewpoint: “Stalin was for thirty years the helmsman of the ship of state, clutching its steering wheel with a grip of death. Dozens of times he steered it onto reefs and shoals and far off course. Shall we be grateful to him because he did not manage to sink it altogether? “