Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 October 2004

Father Knows Best, or Does He?

One of the most astounding statistics from the Cold War and its aftermath reflects Russians' continuing love for Stalin. Over half a century has passed since Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s critique of his reign of terror deep in the Soviet Plenum. The KGB’s files were open, at least for a time, and the vile secrets of Stalin’s inconceivably bestial regime are well known. Yet survey after survey, at least during the nineties, showed 70% of the Russian people still revered Stalin as a “strong leader” who “saved Russia.”

What is so astonishing about this statistic is that the facts suggest just the opposite. Soviet Russia beat Hitler on the Eastern Front and survived despite Stalin, not because of him. It was the courage, effort and incalculable sacrifice of the Russian people that saved Russia. Stalin’s paranoid policies, programs and decisions only hindered their efforts and prolonged their sacrifice and suffering. Many of Stalin’s decisions could not have been more brutal and stupid had Ivan the Terrible made them half a millennium before.

Not only did Stalin make it easy for Hitler to invade Russia by destroying the Polish officer corps before the war, decimating the Ukraine, and generally weakening every political social and military power west of Moscow. He sapped the Russian people’s strength and will by starving them, purging them, imprisoning them, killing them, and squandering their lives on one of the world’s cruelest forced-labor public-works programs since the Pharaohs built the Pyramids. He deported virtually every concentrated non-Russian ethnic group inside the Soviet Union, many of which, if properly motivated, would have been happy to fight Hitler’s troops. He second-guessed his generals, sidelined his best general (Zhukov) until it was almost too late, and then, when the Nazis were at his doorstep in Moscow, prepared to flee to the Urals to save his own skin. Stalin stopped his flight only after his generals and commissars told him that, if he fled, the Russian front would collapse.

Stalin famously said that the greatest human feeling is not love, but revenge. He lived that ethic, killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands or real and imagined enemies, some of whom were the best and brightest minds in Russia. The great aircraft designer Tupolev and his entire crew worked in a prison in Moscow for several years at the height of the war, designing military planes under the watchful eye of commissars reporting directly to Stalin. Their every thought, meeting, plan, drawing, and procurement request was subject to political review for any hint of treason or disloyalty. Can you imagine any more inefficient way to design aircraft? But Tupolev, like the Russian people, somehow persevered and designed decent aircraft from prison, despite the impossible conditions that Stalin’s paranoia imposed.

Stalin’s deathbed was a metaphor for his life. A radio broadcast in Moscow in the mid-nineties described the scene, as reported by eyewitnesses. Stalin lay in his bed with his advisors and personal physician clustered at a distance. The room filled with fear. All quaked at the thought that Stalin, with a word or gesture, might condemn them to prison or death if, in his paranoia, he blamed them for the state of his health or anything wrong in Russia. The very doctors who treated him feared condemnation for the fact that Stalin, despite their best efforts, was dying.

As Stalin died, his hand slowly rose as if to point out a traitor, and all quaked with fear. Only as his last breath expired did the reluctantly assembled doctors, advisors, and confidants breath something like a sigh of relief. This had been the monster that Russians believe saved their country from Fascism.

What lessons does this tragic history have for Americans? It demonstrates the inexplicable power and danger of unthinking popular bonding with leaders in times of peril.

Stalin, or course, is an extreme case. There is little doubt today, outside of Russia, that he was one of the worst leaders in human history. From whatever perspective he is judged—military, political, educational, scientific, commercial, industrial, or legal— little that he did survives critical scrutiny. In the end, his legacy was death, suffering, misery, fear, lies, backwardness, and incompetence for Russia. Yet nearly three-quarters of Russians revere him as their savior.

That is a riddle of the human psyche that deserves long and careful study. The Russians are among the best-read people on the planet, and they have been rightly obsessed with their terrible losses in what they call the “Great Patriotic War.” It is simply inconceivable that so many Russians, well into the nineties, did not know the truth about Stalin. Much more likely, they simply could not accept the truth when told. Some deep psychological “bonding” with their leader displaced their critical faculties, not just for the moment, but for the rest of their lives. For them, “Father knows best” became not just an admonition for children, but a life-long state of mind.

Wartime Russians, we may assume, knew far, far less about the conduct of their government then than we know about ours now. The Soviet propaganda machine made sure that Soviet citizens knew all about the Red Army’s successes and victories, and little about its failures. In contrast, we live in a free country, and our press has so much better technology and coverage today than it did in wartime Russia.

Yet the bonding of Russians to their wartime leader—one of the worst in world history—was strong enough to overcome their later knowledge of his unprecedented reign of terror. It was strong enough to induce them to continue to revere him for decades after the truth became known. If the force of psychological bonding with a leader in times of war was strong enough to cause Soviet citizens to suspend judgment about a despicable tyrant for several decades, then it might well be strong enough to induce citizens of a democracy to suspend critical judgment of an ordinary leader in extraordinary times.

I hasten to say that I am not comparing President Bush to Stalin. That comparison would be ridiculous. Any informed American, myself included, would a thousand times rather live under Bush than under Stalin. One would have to be insane to think otherwise. What begs comparison is the behavior of Russian and American citizens, under the stress of wartime conditions, in assessing and judging their respective leaders. The issue is whether a citizen’s instinct to follow the leader overcomes critical judgment.

According to polls, many Americans support President Bush as a “strong leader” who is “consistent” and “steadfast.” They seem to think it enough that he is our leader, is on our side, will not give in, and wants us to win. Yet Soviet citizens could have said the very same things—with complete truth—about Stalin during World War II.

Soviet citizens might be excused for taking such a shallow view of things. They had no choice in their leader; merely to question Stalin was to court imprisonment, torture or death. Furthermore, wartime Soviet citizens had virtually no relevant information about what was going on; all that they read and saw was carefully concocted Soviet propaganda.

In contrast, we Americans have a choice. We also have all the information we need to make an intelligent judgment who should lead us in these perilous times. Unlike wartime Soviet citizens, we can determine our own future. And we can change leaders if we find that one is not performing well.

This is a grave responsibility, and it requires more than an instinctual response. We can and should evaluate and judge each candidate, his character, his background, and, in particular, his record of success and failure. If we do not, if we stick with the President simply because he is our “leader” and is “strong,” then we will have allowed the instinctual process of bonding to subvert our democracy. In the process, we will have reduced our critical faculty to that of animals blindly following an alpha male. If that happens, we Americans will have surrendered intelligent choice to instinct and ultimately may fare no better than the Russians who continue to admire Stalin to this day.

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