An essay in response to the titular question.
Throughout most of Josef Stalin’s reign as leader of the Soviet Union, there was no doubt in the minds of most westerners that the man, and the country he represented, were pure evil. However, Stalin could usually shield himself from this behind the Iron Curtain, where the population were forced to worship his Cult of Personality. To some, though, Stalin was not only an enemy of the free world, but also of his own people. Was Stalin the destroyer of his own motherland?
Certainly, it is clear that Stalin cared little about the wellbeing of the people under him. In his handling of the collectivisation process, he showed no concern for the fact that thirteen million peasants starved to death during the famine he had caused. Noteworthy is that the USSR continued to export food abroad, and even leave large quantities of grain to rot directly beside the starving farmers. This shows that he placed little value on human lives, even in enormous numbers. He once pointed out to Winston Churchill: “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” and not only was he willing to let the masses perish by negligence, but he actively destroyed a great many of his own, too.
The Great Purges, in which anyone who even once so much as made a joke at the expense of the communists was arrested, imprisoned, killed and erased from history devastated the Soviet Union. An important thing to remember here is that, while Lenin and Trotsky before him has certainly been ruthless with their enemies, they had been fighting genuine threats in the name of advancing their ideals. Stalin, however, seemed primarily concerned with consolidating his own position. This is evident in the roles of those he purged. Leon Trotsky, the brilliant strategist, commander and motivator who had single-handedly built up the Red Army from the remains of the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Army and whoever else could be found in Petrograd, was unceremoniously turfed out of Russia and eventually murdered. In the Red Army itself, 90% of the Generals were purged. This meant that the USSR was a weak target for the Nazis and, though the Soviets eventually turned the tables on Hitler, destroying all of the German forces east of Berlin, it was not until they had suffered a huge blow. Stalin also removed old political rivals such as Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin. None were capitalists. All had been part of the original Bolshevik party, and all had helped the revolution. But while they were communists, socialists and Marxist-Leninists, they were not Stalinists, and so they had to die. Even at a ground level, Stalin persecuted artists and intellectuals who seemed too critical of his regime. Ultimately this had the effect of transforming the glorious new world back into the dictatorship it had been under the Romanovs. What all of this proves is that Stalin was easily willing and able to destroy all that the Revolution had aimed for simply to protect his own power. He was not working towards a free and equal society, but an enormous temple to himself, in which he could rule supreme. His aims to industrialise the Union were done purely to secure Stalin against his enemies. The result was far from what Marx would have wanted.
There were, however, some positive aspects to Stalin’s leadership. Thanks to the Five-Year-Plans, the USSR was finally brought up to the industrial level of Western Europe – if for the aforementioned wrong reasons – and began to modernise the Union by making education and medicine available to all his subjects. He also allowed everyone in the USSR a job capable of sustaining their needs (just). Furthermore, he not only repelled the German invasion, but added extra territory to the USSR by taking over much of Eastern Europe up to West Germany, creating an enlarged Soviet sphere of influence and advancing socialism further throughout the world. He also succeeded somewhat in terms of the egalitarian “worker’s paradise” as, although the overall standard of living remained considerably lower than in the West, there were far fewer cases of extreme poverty. For this, he deserves some credit.
Even so the fact remains that after Stalin passed away, his reputation as a demigod did not last long. Just as Uncle Joe had sought to remove his enemies from time as well as space, his replacement Nikita S. Khrushchev began too a programme of “De-Stalinisation” in which the former dictator was himself purged from history. Stalinist ideologies were discouraged, references to him in the national anthem were removed. In 1956, Khrushchev publicly attacked the Cult of Personality around Stalin, and encouraged people to distance communism from the man as far as possible. Stalin, it seemed, had quickly ceased to be a hero of the revolution and become instead a great embarrassment to the entire country. While it was never possible to completely unperson such an important figure, Stalin was not remembered as fondly as his contemporary cult might have suggested. Certainly, he never enjoyed anything like the posthumous fame with which Vladimir Lenin had been showered after his death.
Overall, it appears that, despite some noteworthy achievements, the quarter-century which the USSR suffered under the Stalinist regime was not the Soviet Union’s finest era. Stalin, for all his praise and worship, has been best remembered as a totalitarian dictator who massacred millions of his own people and destroyed freedom across Eurasia for decades. This reputation sadly tainted that of the entire USSR and by extension communism as a whole. Had a less ruthless leader taken his place, the Soviet Union might have averted its transformation into a police state and instead developed towards the perfect society that Karl Marx had written about, in which all were free and equal, not some more equal than others. Perhaps the original aims of the Bolshevik revolution would have been fulfilled, but now we shall never know.