Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Historians will judge it an appropriate time to delve into the past — a lamentable past that includes a man whose very life ironically led to the death of millions. For those too young to remember the unspeakable cruelty of this man, it may be a time to learn. For the survivors who tragically experienced the atrocities perpetuated by this man, it may be a time to mourn.
We recently spoke to one such individual. Dr. Valentine Kefeli was born in Moscow in 1937 and recently gained U.S. citizenship. After spending 60 years in the USSR, he is now a professor of biology in the Macosky Center at Slippery Rock University, a small college in Western Pennsylvania. A genial, goodhearted man, Valentine vividly recalls one especially chilling occasion that was all too common during the Stalin era. It was 3:00 AM, and there was a knock at the door. Valentine, a child at the time, awoke only to enter into a real-life nightmare. He remembers his father emerging from bed and bravely declaring, “I am ready.” As he answered the unsolicited knock, the men on the other side asked him, “Is this apartment 52?”
“No, it’s apartment 50,” he replied. The men departed.
Valentine’s father closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. They had made a mistake, and the present nightmare was over for the Kefeli family. Unfortunately, it was just beginning for many individuals and families across Soviet Russia.
This was life in Russia during the 1930s. It was the height of the Stalin purges. Valentine was born amid the “Great Purge,” the Red Terror, which claimed millions of lives from 1936 to 1938 alone. The doomed were swiftly arrested and subsequently executed by their own government. A countless multitude was enslaved in forced labor camps, known as the gulag.
In his gripping narrative of life in the gulag, Man is Wolf to Man, Dr. Janusz Bardach recalls a young girl he met who had been imprisoned because she was 10 minutes late for work. Valentine knew of similar stories: “For five minutes late, you got an administrative write up-a memo in your records. For 20 minutes, you got the gulag.”
This was all deemed necessary for creating the communist utopia — for the workers’ paradise. Although the numbers vary widely, Stalin is believed to be responsible for 20 to 30 million deaths. Russian officials admit that at least 20 million were victims of Stalin’s purges. Some 5 to 10 million died as a direct result of famines caused by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture.
In an attempt to put Stalin’s brutality into perspective, one could compare his mass murder to that of Adolf Hitler, who killed 6 to 10 million Jews and others he labeled “misfits.” To further get a feel for the numbers, the United States lost 300,000 men in all of World War II, and 118,000 in all of World War I. Among all the nations who participated in World War I, a total of 8.5 million died — a pittance when compared to the body bags that Stalin produced. Some of history’s worst plagues killed fewer people than Stalin.
Stalin had a simple rationale for his penchant for murder — actually he had a couple. “The death of a single individual is a tragedy,” he averred. “The death of a million is a statistic.” He also surmised: “Death solves all problem. No man, no problem.”
As ghastly as these remarks were, there may actually be a remnant of truth within his second comment. After all, many Soviets rightly saw Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 as a problem solved.
And yet, oddly enough, the state-coerced affection — in which Stalin was elevated to omniscience, to god-like status — left many of his subjects in a brainwashed state of cognitive dissonance upon his demise.
Valentine remembers Stalin’s death. Some people openly cried out, “What will we do? Our father is dead? How will we survive?” This was what Stalin wanted — a paternalistic state of complete communist dependency. Valentine said that his family, however, knew better. “We knew that we were members of Animal Farm.”
Ironically, while this week marks the 50th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, it also marks the 20th anniversary (March 8, 1983) of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, in which Reagan declared the USSR “the focus of evil in the modern world.” In a nefarious system that took innumerable lives, Stalin managed to stand out as the most evil of them all.