Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have a habit of making outrageous statements. In the latest, he compared Soviet atrocities under Stalin to American actions during wartime. “Yes, we had terrible pages [in our history],” Putin acknowledged, noting Stalin’s 1934-38 Red Terror, when one of every eight Soviet citizens perished. “Let us not forget that. But in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”
What could be more terrible than some 20 million of your innocent citizens starved or shot to death in four years? Putin had an answer, pointing to America’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and nuclear weapons against Japan. The latter is an interesting choice by a Russian like Putin, given that it was advocated by the grateful Soviet soldiers who (along with their U.S. allies) were spared a brutal invasion of the Japanese mainland that would have killed millions.
To be sure, America has its share of sins, a fact that even the most patriotic, flag-waving, anti-communist would have to concede. Yet, Putin is wrong to suggest the United States in any way outdid Joseph Stalin.
The fact is that Putin’s homeland set a standard for being “terrible,” beginning in 1917, when another Vladimir—Vladimir Lenin—transmogrified Russia into the Bolshevik monster that came to be known as the Soviet Union. Putin is very familiar with the monster, since he worked for one of its ugliest offspring—the KGB.
The USSR served as headquarters for a communist ideology that, according to conservative estimates, was responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people worldwide from 1917 through 1987. The late Alexander Yakovlev, a close aide to Mikhail Gorbachev who later assumed the grisly task of trying to total the victims of Soviet repression, estimates that Stalin alone was responsible for the deaths of 60-70 million, a stunning number two to three times higher than previous estimates. He recorded the gruesome details in his work A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press, 2002), a book that should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the period—particularly Vladimir Putin.
The examples of Soviet criminality are so plentiful that one need not go far to illustrate the point—in my case, as near as my office desk: Coincidentally, I caught Putin’s comments as I was suffering through the latest round of declassified documents provided courtesy of the archives of Putin’s previous employer. Specifically, I was scouring through correspondence from January to February 1930 between Alexander Likhachev, a Soviet official, and Ivan Tovstukha, personal secretary to Stalin. The pair was examining the ongoing “problem” of the ringing of church bells in villages. Such noise was strictly prohibited. Who were the cretins responsible for this counter-revolutionary activity? The good comrades discussed removing the church bells altogether and recasting them into “useful things.”
In one of the letters, Likhachev and Tovstukha considered the transformation of the glorious Cathedral of Christ the Savior, an eyesore to the atheists peering out their Kremlin windows a few blocks away. Czar Alexander I had dedicated the church in gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from Napoleon in 1812. It was the pride of Russia, with Michelangelo-like artwork adorning the towering ceilings.
Stalin, like Lenin before him, found all this reverence “stupid,” since he believed God did not exist. Stalin envisioned morphing the historic cathedral into a museum, maybe a museum to atheism, as had been done with many Russian churches since the 1920s, one of the pet initiatives of Lenin’s League of the Militant Godless. What to do with this monument to Christ, whom Soviet children were being taught was a mere man who had never performed miracles nor risen from the dead?
Stalin grew tired of the debate and the sentimentality. In December 1931, he had the ornate structure dynamited and reduced to rubble. The demolition was not simple: it took more than one blast and even more diligence to find a construction worker willing to push the button. Rumors abounded in Moscow that Stalin himself had happily pushed the button, perhaps consummating a search for the most unholy man in Russia to do the dirty deed.
Whoever the culprit, Stalin hastened to replace the majestic structure with another monument to himself and his ideology. In its place, the communists would erect a sacred Palace of Soviets. Predictably, however, the incompetence of central planning—or perhaps an act of God—delayed construction, as the site was flooded with water from the nearby river. Ultimately, the mess was converted into a large municipal swimming pool, but not before Stalin commenced his orgy of violence three years later. He first shook his fist at God, and then ramped up the killing machine.
This is one of literally millions of painful reminders of the everyday evils of Stalin’s Russia. Each victim has a name and page in the book of history, a tome that would run millions of pages.
So, what is Putin thinking? Pick your poison: It is not hard to illustrate the wretched, unparalleled lengths of Soviet barbarism. President Putin understandably does not like these facts, but they are undeniable. We should not dishonor the victims by downplaying their tragedy.