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Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

The whitewashing of Stalin

Russel Brand and Stalin
Comedian Russell Brand's resignation video, with Stalin in the background

He had the blood of millions on his hands, yet Joseph Stalin has escaped Hitler-style demonisation, and even become a trendy pin-up. Why has history been so kind to this murderous leader, asks Laurence Rees.

A few months ago, when I was visiting one of our leading universities, I happened to see a poster prominently displayed in one of the students' halls of residence. It was of Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps it was meant as a kind of ironic reference to something. Perhaps it was simply covering a damp patch on the wall. But, in any event, no one seemed to take much notice of it.

But imagine if instead of a picture of Stalin, there had been a picture of that other horrendous tyrant of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler, hanging there? Think of the outcry.

Laurence Rees' World War II: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, the Nazis and the West is broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Monday 10 November
Or catch up later with the BBC iPlayer

Nor do most people in this country seem concerned that Stalin is currently on the shortlist to be named "Greatest Russian in History" in a Russian TV version of the BBC's Great Britons. The final vote takes place in December. But once again, imagine if in Germany Adolf Hitler was in with a chance of winning the equivalent competition? The British press would be full of outrage.

It's all symptomatic of a broader point. Which is that Stalin appears to have got off more lightly from the judgement of history - or at least the judgement of the British man or woman in the street - than he deserves. Stalin, after all, was responsible for the destruction of millions of people. His suspicion and paranoia condemned many wholly innocent individuals to torture and death.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Stalin will be in little doubt about his monstrous nature. But there's a logical explanation at the heart of why the Soviet ruler is still not seen as darkly as he should be; which is that we still exist, to some extent, in the long shadow of the rosy-eyed material about the USSR churned out by the Western Allies during World War II.

Porcine portrayal

In Britain, many newspapers, notably Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express, were hugely supportive of the Soviet war effort, and the fact that George Orwell could not get his brilliant satire on the Soviet state, Animal Farm, published during the war suggests that there was little appetite - to say the least - for balancing material about the horrors of life under Stalin.

Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin
The "big three": Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin line up in 1945

One publisher during the war, who had initially accepted Animal Farm, subsequently turned it down after an official at the British Ministry of Information warned him off. The publisher then wrote to Orwell, saying: "If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators [Lenin and Stalin], that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships.

"Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are."

In the United States, the January 1943 edition of Time magazine put Stalin on the cover as "man of the year" for 1942.

"The year 1942 was a year of blood and strength," reported Time. "The man whose name means steel in Russian, whose few words of English include the American expression 'tough guy' was the man of 1942... Stalin's methods were tough, but they paid off."

'Expedient lie'

And in an even more positive article in Life magazine in March 1943, the Soviet Union was painted as almost a quasi America, with the Soviets portrayed as "one hell of a people... [who] to a remarkable degree... look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans." Whilst Stalin's infamous Secret Police, the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), was described as "a national police similar to the FBI."

Soviet government
Stalin and government in 1938, with head of NKVD Nikolay Yezhov far right

But the prize for the greatest white-washing of Stalin goes to a film made in 1943 by Warner Brothers called Mission to Moscow, based on a book written by the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies.

In both book and film, Stalin is portrayed as the father figure of the Soviet Union - a giant of a man responsible for massive projects of industrialisation. And the Stalinist purges, when tens of thousands of innocent people suffered, are glossed over as implicitly necessary for the security of the state.

Robert Buckner, the producer of Mission to Moscow, later described the film as an "expedient lie for political purposes".

Mission to Moscow was condemned as crass pro-Soviet propaganda in the 1950s, but during the war it was a hugely influential piece of work.

Film director Roland Emmerich's London home, featuring a mural of Mao and a sofa cushion with Stalin's face

And it isn't as if the British and American governments didn't know the truth about Stalin's murderous regime.

Not only did they learn how brutally Stalin's forces were behaving in occupied territory as early as 1940, but the US president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, even went so far as to suppress information which pointed to the fact that Stalin and his secret police had orchestrated a mass murder - the killing of thousands of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn.

But, of course, it's not hard to understand why the political leaders in Britain and the US felt they had to paint a positive picture of Stalin and the Soviet Union. The reality was that the Soviet Union was a vital ally and the West needed to keep the Red Army fighting the Germans.

The trouble is that the legacy of these "expedient lies" has still not entirely left us. Which is why I hope people will come to realise just how appalling Stalin was, and students might think twice before hanging pictures of Stalin on their walls.

Below are a selection of your comments.

This is something I have wondered about for years. I have a German mother, born 1927 and who therefore went through the Nazi education/propaganda machine and was in the BMD (girls' equivalent of the Hitler Youth). I can't talk about my "Nazi mum" in public, even though her involvement was way beyond her childhood & teenage control. Compare with my grandfather - active communist all his adult life. Stalin was his hero even when the pogroms were well known and the world saw the brutality of the suppression of the Hungarian uprising & policing of the Berlin Wall. However, it is OK to talk about my Commie grandfather, as Stalin and the whole brutal Soviet regime are considered "possibly wrong but definitely romantic" in polite society.
Ruth, London

One might also say the same (although clearly not to the same extent) about Che Guevara. I have read articles saying that Castro disapproved of some of the brutality dished out by Guevara. One thing is true about all these men, Guevara, Hitler, Stalin, Mao etc - they are all (for better or worse, mainly worse) iconic and were giants in their time in history.
Chris Burnell, Putney, London

I cannot help to think that the fact that Stalin was mostly bad to his own people and that his policies actually weakened his own country had something to do with the fact he is mildly looked upon in the West (compare this to Hitler who brought destruction to everyone else's doorstep). No doubt that if Hitler was an ally of Britain and had restricted his genocide to within Germany, his crimes would have been swept under the carpet by the British press for the benefit of the greater good. It is sad to see that even today, when deciding on foreign policy, US and Britain don't consider right or wrong, but only strategic gains. (Of course, no country is an exception to this rule, but for those that proclaim themselves to be leaders on human rights, this is deplorable.)
Not entirely convinced, Lausanne, Switzerland

Stalin had a very keen mind and a sense of humour absent in Hitler and Mussolini. His interview with H. G. Well is worth reading.
Steve Abrams, London

I've always found it strange how Communist dictators and terrorists are viewed in a different light to their fascist counterparts. Once upon a time it was at least politically engaged, albeit terribly naive, students who wore their adoration for these communist heroes literally on their sleeves, but now such images seem even more mainstream. How is a mass-murderer of one political ilk any different than another? Stalin and Mao should be morally repugnant to any right-thinking person.
Owen Gibbs, Chesterfield

I think this was excellently dealt with in an episode of C4's Peep Show - the fact that in High Street stores you can buy T-shirts with the faces of Stalin or Chairman Mao on them. "...the 21st Century, with its meaningless logos and ironic veneration of tyrants". I think "meaningless" is the unfortunate truth.
Brenda, Armagh

A couple more reasons why this psychopathic mass-murderer may still be "getting away with it":
- The average, desperate-to-be-trendy, historically-uninformed, not-as-worldy-as-they'd-like-to-think student may consider a poster of Stalin to be a witty anti-American statement.
- Knowing several intelligent Russians, I'm pretty sure they are still being bombarded with internal pro-Stalin propaganda, which is pretty sick, to say the least.
Rick, Cambridge

I think you overrate the influence of pro-Soviet propaganda from the 1940s on modern perception. The fact is that Stalin, like most brutal dictators, killed people whom he thought were a threat to him, his government, or his country. Being the paranoid individual he was, that amounted to tens of millions, to the point where an old joke my father used to tell was that WWII was over a bet between Hitler and Stalin over who could kill more Russians. Hitler, however, was a bit special, even as murderous dictators go. He killed Jews, homosexuals, Catholics, etc, not because they were a threat in any way to Germany or himself, but simply because he hated them. It's not the quantity of the killing that distinguishes Hitler as being demonically evil, it's his purpose in doing so. Stalin engaged in mass murder to keep (from his warped perspective) power; Hitler engaged in mass murder because he despised groups of people, and wanted to wipe them from the face of the planet.
Nick, New York City, USA

This is a repeat of tired Cold War propaganda. The truth is that the Red Army led by Stalin defeated Hitler, defeated the Fascist Armies and saved the world.
Steve White, NYC, USA

Stalin was a brutal murderer who was no better than Hitler. The Baltic states still suffer to this day the after effects of his "cleansing". It is a shame movies have not been made by the survivors who could put this monster in the proper light. It sickens me to see posters, T-shirts or any other material depicting this murderous butcher.
Andrew V, Canada

In a country where one of histories worst genocidists and war criminals is worshipped for his supposed championing of "democracy", I find this righteous indignation laughable. Britain - know your sins.
Oskar Scuddeli, Stafford

We seem to have a blind spot where Stalin, History's greatest mass murderer is concerned. Our education system perpetuates this. History now is taught on the basis of The Tudors followed by the Nazis. Under the National Curriculum quite some time is rightly spent learning about the Holocaust. However no comparison is made with the Soviet camps, where extermination took place. More were murdered by the Soviet regime than under the shorter lived Nazi regime. I have heard teachers state that Communism was well intentioned but subverted by some renegades. As a parting comment should we not consider why didn't many of the academics who had either supported the Soviet Union or "made allowances", not admit they got it wrong when Communism finally collapsed?
Richard, London

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