Stalin finally tired of the endless killing, or more likely the practical problems which inevitably resulted. The purges ebbed in 1938, though killings, including of Soviet defectors and “White Russian” exiles, continued. Soviet society had little time in which to recover before the German onslaught in June 1941.
His rule survived despite manifold costly blunders in the four years of horrific war that followed. With Soviet troops advanced well into Germany, Stalin won the peace, turning eastern Europe into Eastern Europe, with pliant regimes in control of most of his neighbors. Within the Soviet Union there was no new purge, but millions of people of suspect nationalities — Chechens, Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans, and others — were deported, with many dying in the process.
The Cold War sundered the war‐time anti‐Nazi coalition. With Moscow’s support, Mao Zedong and China’s communists overthrew the incompetent and corrupt Chiang Kai‐Shek. Stalin also created a satellite state in North Korea, headed by Kim Il‐sung, who launched his own war against the South in 1950.
However, the old paranoia appeared to rise again, with a show trial of Jewish Anti‐Fascist Committee members. There also were claims of the “Doctors’ Plot.” A medical cabal, with several Jewish members, was supposedly planning to assassinate Stalin and other officials. Historians believe that Stalin may have been planning the widespread arrest and imprisonment of Soviet Jews, and/or another party purge. However, time ran out for the man who had killed so many others.
He was struck with a cerebral hemorrhage on March 1, 1953 and died four days later. At least, that is the official story. There were persistent claims that KGB head Lavrenti Beria may have poisoned the dictator. He had good cause to fear, since the man he replaced, Nikolai Yezhov, ended up dead. As did Yezhov’s predecessor, Genrikh Yagoda. Dueling autopsies have reached divergent conclusions on whether Stalin’s death was natural or murder.
Stalin’s death triggered a lengthy power struggle among his associates, which saw Beria’s execution and Nikita Khrushchev’s eventual triumph. Moreover, in a secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for assorted crimes. In later years top officials, such as Khrushchev, lost power but were not executed.
However, the Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan called it, survived another 33 years. And Communism continued to kill many others, both in and out of the Soviet Union.
We will never know with any certainty the size of Stalin’s murder roll. Official figures suggest around three million, but they are not be reliable let alone comprehensive: for example, not counted are Soviet prisoners who were killed during interrogation or who died shortly after release, deportees who died in transit, and those killed by the Red Army, including Soviet deserters, Polish prisoners, and German civilians. Russian Vadim Erlikman estimated 9.2 million deaths: five million in the Gulag, 1.7 million from deportation, 1.5 million from executions, and 1 million from maltreatment of foreign POWs/German civilians.
Another ten million likely perished from famine and related causes, with Ukraine, once the Russian Empire’s breadbasket, the epicenter of death. Some historians argue that Stalin didn’t intend to kill so many people; rather, the deaths were the result of forced collectivization. But that is no excuse for enforcing a policy with such destructive consequences. Include famine deaths and Stalin’s toll is almost 20 million — in 2007 Robert Conquest figured at least 15 million — though some analysts believed that Stalin’s victim toll went as high as an improbable 60 million.
One could legitimately share casualties of World War II. Hitler almost certainly would have had his war anyway, but it would have been a very different conflict. Stalin made it easy for Nazi Germany to conquer western Europe before ravaging eastern Europe. Ignoring impending signs of Hitler’s assault also cost countless Soviet soldiers and civilians their lives.
Alas, peer back through a glass darkly and the millions of dead seem to be but a statistic, as Stalin is commonly if not necessarily accurately said to have observed. Hitler’s slaughter was unique given his attempt to eradicate an entire people; Mao’s direct killings probably were more numerous. But Stalin inaugurated mass murder as a standard policy tool for 20th century dictators, modeling the political purge, labor camp, and planned famine.
Yet the reputation of Stalin, a moral monster by any standard, has enjoyed a bit of a revival. He was denounced by Khrushchev in 1956 and many victims were released, if still alive, or posthumously rehabilitated, if not. However, even Khrushchev began to back away from active de‐Stalinization before he was ousted in 1964. While Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies did not revive Stalin’s murderous practices they ended reexamination of that era, forcing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn into exile after foreign publication of the latter’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago.
Mikhail Gorbachev allowed a renewed reappraisal, which became a flood after the Soviet Union’s collapse. However, once open records have closed and the chaos of post‐communist life created nostalgia for Stalinist order. When I last visited Russia pensioners were demonstrating in Red Square holding pictures of Stalin. Reason magazine’s Cathy Young, whose paternal grandparents were imprisoned for attempting to escape to Palestine, noted that a February poll found that half of Russians viewed Stalin’s role as entirely or mostly positive, compared to just a third who believed it was entirely or mostly negative.
This is depressing if not entirely unexpected, given the collapse in Russian power and rise of authoritarian Vladimir Putin. Less understandable, argued Young, is “the persistent double standard when it comes to communist and Nazi crimes.” Communist and even Stalinist apologists “are treated with a respect no one would ever dream of according to ex‐Nazis or Hitler whitewashers.”
Although it rarely seems appropriate to wish death on others, Stalin was a well‐deserved exception. Six decades ago he finally succumbed to the fate that he had imposed on millions of others. Yet his legacy, attenuated but real, lives on.