Dictators, whether of left or right, have a way of totally isolating themselves from their subjects. The historian, Robert Conquest, thus writes of Joseph Stalin that “his social life was an imperfectly maintained pretence, which eventually degenerated into forced jollity with coarse and terrified toadies”. On February 28, 1953, Stalin had his last supper in his dacha with four of these toadies — Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev, and Bulganin. They watched a film, and then had a five-course meal with plenty of liquor. The meal ended at five in the morning, with Stalin “pretty drunk and in high spirits” — as he would be, having done much of the drinking, and all the talking.
After dinner, Stalin took a steam bath, and crawled into bed. When he had not emerged until ten at night, his bodyguards broke into his room, to find him lying on the carpet, conscious but unable to move or speak. Doctors were now sent for, who plied him with injections and pills and fed him with a spoon. The Lord of Greater Russia had regressed to being a child. Indeed, according to one eyewitness, almost the only gesture he made in these last days was to point at a picture on the wall of children feeding a little lamb from a bottle, as if to say — that is what I have now become.
Stalin eventually died on March 5 — the cause, as officially diagnosed, a burst blood-vessel in the brain. The central committee of the Communist Party of India sent a message to their Soviet counterparts: “With sorrow too deep for tears, we pay our homage to the memory of Comrade Stalin. Mankind has lost its noblest representative, the movement for human liberation its greatest leader, the cause of Peace its indefatigable champion... Stricken with grief at the passing away of this titan of human thought and action, we, Communists of the present generation, shall ever recollect with pride that we have lived in the same epoch as Comrade Stalin, have been guided and led by him, have been taught by him how to serve the working class and the people to the last drop of our blood.”
Only slightly less effusive was the tribute offered by the ex-communist, M.N. Roy. Roy had once known Stalin, while they worked together in the Comintern. Later, they had drifted apart, and by the late Thirties, Roy had left the party altogether. Yet, as Gene Overstreet and Marshall Windmiller write in their history of Indian communism, Stalin never lost his hold on him. Roy always remained, as he put it, “a personal admirer of my ex-friend”. When Stalin died, Roy penned an extraordinary apologia in his journal, Radical Humanist. He admitted that his friend was widely hated both within and outside Russia, but argued nonetheless that “No great man has ever been an angel. Greatness is always purchased at the cost of goodness…Our plea is that some justice should be done to the most maligned man of our time. He deserves better justice; because, but for his caution and wisdom, and also his fanatical faith in the inevitability of revolution, war might have already overtaken the civilized world. If the charitable obituary notices on his death do not acquit Stalin of the charge of preparing a war against the democratic world, they would be hypocritical and unrealistic… He was the greatest military genius of our time…Stalin was undoubtedly the tallest personality of our time, and as such is bound to leave his mark on history.”
Roy seems here to be suggesting that Stalin somehow played a role in preventing the Cold War from becoming hot. This thesis was also accepted by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who in the course of an over-generous tribute to Stalin in the Lok Sabha, referred to him as a “man of peace”.
Let us now turn to a less charitable obituary notice. This was the handiwork of Philip Spratt who, as it happens, had once been a member of the CPI, and later an adherent of Roy’s brand of radical humanism. By 1953, however, he was a confirmed, perhaps even obsessive, anti-communist (he was a leading light in the Indian wing of the Congress for Cultural Freedom). He lived now in Bangalore, where he edited the liberal weekly, Mysindia.
The weekly carried an editorial, ostensibly anonymous but clearly written by Spratt, which began with a brilliant burst of sarcasm: “The official announcement of the death of Stalin is conclusive proof that Soviet science has not yet conquered death, that Jewish doctors had no hand in it, and that he died in the natural course like almost everybody in the still unregenerate parts of the world groaning under the sway of capitalists, exploiters and warmongers.” The editorial went on to critically assess Stalin’s career, before rounding on Nehru for praising him. “Of all the pronouncements made on the death of Stalin,” remarked Spratt, “the most unnecessary, fulsome and fatuous was that perpetrated by our unique leader in his official capacity as the head of the Government of India…To say, as the Pandit has done, that Stalin has been a power making for peace all these years, is a howler of a type that would be amusing in an examinee; but coming from the head of a government…[it is] a blunder of the first magnitude.
“Was it in pursuance of the love of peace that Stalin entered into the notorious pact with Hitler when he denounced the war as that of imperialists' Was it his love of peace that enabled the Chinese to get a prodigious supply of arms and equipment from the Russians in the course of the present Korean diversion' Was it the love of peace that prompted Stalin to traduce the Indian proposal for Korea as a Democratic trap'”
In praising Stalin, Nehru had not only ignored the cynicism of his maneuvers in the international arena, but also his crimes against his own people. Spratt suspected that, in a “moment of perversity”, Nehru had “given the go-by to the basic ideas which he says he has learnt at the feet of Gandhiji. Chief among these is that the means and ends should correspond or cohere or harmonize. Stalin waded his way to the throne of the Czars through slaughter and the shedding of an ocean of blood. The latest purge of a handful of doctors is as much his doing as the liquidation of millions of Kulaks, of bands of dissidents, deviationists and traitors all through these dreadful years which are hailed as the years of glory. Are we to take it that Pandit Nehru subscribes to the view that the ends justify the means' On no other basis can we account for that extraordinary performance with which he has compromised himself and the country by an eulogy…which was so blatantly at variance with the facts and the truth.”
M.N. Roy and Philip Spratt were once very close friends: through the Forties they worked together in the radical humanist movement. I don’t know whether they were still in touch at the time Stalin died. They wrote their pieces at the same time; for both appeared in the issues of their respective journals bearing the date, March 15, 1953. But their assessments could not have been more different. Roy appeared to believe that the ends justified the means. Spratt disagreed; nor did he share the optimism about Stalin’s ends themselves. Besides, the life of Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated that greatness was not necessarily incompatible with goodness.
Consider again these three contemporary assessments of Stalin: provided by, respectively, the CPI, a brilliant ex-communist, and a maverick communist turned anti-communist. From the hindsight provided by fifty years of reflection and research, we can see that it is the last assessment, that of Philip Spratt, which has endured the best. It certainly resonates with the views of the man who is regarded as the greatest living authority on Stalin and his times. This is Robert Conquest, whose works, The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow, first conclusively established the human costs — running into tens of millions of deaths — of the dictator’s policies of forced collectivization and the liquidation of political opponents.
In 1991, Conquest published a biography of Stalin, which ended with these words: “Stalin represented dogmatism, belief in millenarian theory, at its crudest level. Yet ordinary, coarse and limited though his personality may seem, the last thing that can be said about his career is that we can learn nothing from it, or that it was uninteresting. But it was interesting mainly for the extreme and massive scale of the physical, moral and intellectual destruction it inflicted. If we can now begin to write Stalin into the history of the past it is in the hope that no one like him will appear again.”
The readers of Ganashakti will dismiss this as bourgeois propaganda. For in the pantheon of heroes of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Stalin is still placed adjacent to Marx, Engels and Lenin. But the rest of us should take Conquest’s verdict as a very close approximation to the truth. It is endorsed by all responsible and serious historians of Soviet Russia and, perhaps more significantly, by the Russian people themselves.