Uncle Joe – the Man of Steel

February 25th, 2015 Sections: Soviet Union, Who's Who
Uncle Joe at his desk

Uncle Joe at his desk

Josef Stalin is, perhaps, one of the most enigmatic characters in Soviet history … one man who was, at the same time, both a hero and a villain.

Hero: The leader of the nation for thirty years, (from 1922 until his death in 1953), shaping the nation and bringing it into the modern world, leading it to victory through the Great Patriotic War, (the Second World War), … and so on.

Villain: the architect of the repressions of the 1930 … the “knock on the door” and arrests in the middle of the night which resulted in show trials and so many people being sent to the Gulags … or worse … the whole of the presidium Kyrgyz SSR being executed over two nights in 1937; presiding over the shortages and famines, the forced repatriations of whole populations … and so much more.

The name Stalin was a sort of nickname – it stood for “Man of Steel” – and this is the image that many people of the former Soviet Republics still have of him.  He is seen in the same sort of light as Churchill is seen by the British – the Strong man, the “man of the moment”.  They may agree that the excesses of his regime were exactly that: “excesses” … regrettable, undesirable and it would have been better if they had never happened … but there is a rationalization that “life was different” in those days … and “better” than in the post-Soviet period, leading to a hankering to return to those “better” times.  That’s why Stalin scored so highly in a Russian poll to name the Greatest Russian characters.

Of course … not everyone agrees – especially those who recall the losses of so many talented, educated and dedicated of the Kyrgyz elite (and not so elite) in the various purges.


He is often characterized as ruthless, ruling by fear.  There is a story, possibly apocryphal, (it may well be that this is just a “myth” but the fact that it exists is evidence of the fear that his ruthlessness evoked), about how a decision was called for, deciding between two competing designs for the Hotel on Red Square … but when he was presented with the two sets of architectural drawings he was apparently somewhat under the influence if alcohol and signed both – presenting the bureaucrats with a dilemma … who would tell him?  Apparently no-one would summon up the courage to do so and so the drawings were adapted and combined so that one facade was based on one set of drawings, and the other on the second design.

Joseph Stalin making a face at his bodyguard.

Joseph Stalin making a face at his bodyguard.

This may have cost him his life in the long run.  As he lay on his deathbed, one theory has it, it is possible that he could have been saved if his bodyguards and summoned up the courage to enter the room and summon medical assistance … but then there is also a theory that Beria, (or someone else), had plotted his death and ordered them to stay out … will we ever know what really happened.

.On the other hand, some of the photographs and storied that are told portray him in a totally different light … as human.


After his death, there was a time of reckoning … that even the “cult of personality” created around him could not hold off … and in 1956 his successor Nikita Khrushchev delivered a devastating speech denouncing and disowning much of his “legacy”.

A couple of years ago I used this “Secret Speech” as the introduction to one of my regular reviews of what has been happening in Kyrgyzstan during the week … and here’s the relevant excerpt:

In 2007, the Guardian newspaper ran a series ran a series of articles under the heading “Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century”.   Topping the list was Winston Churchill’s wartime classic, “We shall fight on the Beaches …”, closely followed by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you …”.  As always when faced with such a list, it contained a few surprises; both for some of those selected for inclusion and those that had “not made the cut”.

I am quite sure that several of Churchill’s wartime speeches would have been contenders and were, probably, omitted only because he couldn’t be allowed to dominate the list.  That’s probably the reason Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “We choose to go to the Moon” were excluded as well.   Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” made it into the list, as did Mandela’s “An Ideal I am Prepared to Die For”, but where was Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall”?, or …  well the comments on the series suggested many other contenders; by Nehru, Gandhi, Neil Kinnock, and even, (strangely for a liberal paper like the Guardian), Adolf Hitler.  But, even more strange were suggestions like Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.  I thought that Guardian readers were supposed to be “educated” and really should have been aware that it was delivered in 1863 – well outside the Twentieth Century.

I wonder how many people would have included number six on the list in their own personal selection of Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century: Khrushchev’s speech on “The cult of the individual”, delivered to the 20th congress of the Communist party of the USSR in Moscow on 25th February, 1956.  It is sometimes called the “secret speech” because it was delivered to a closed session of the congress, but in many ways that is a misnomer; if it was meant to be a secret then it was one of the worst kept secrets in history because, although the full definitive text wasn’t officially released until 1989, people soon knew all about it.  Copies were printed and distributed, to be read out at party meetings throughout the country, (where non-members of the party were, apparently, invited to come along to hear it!); there is even speculation that Khrushchev, himself, arranged for it to be leaked to a Western journalist so that within a matter of weeks people in the West knew all about it, if not all the gory details.

It certainly deserves to rank as important speech.  Khrushchev started speaking at about midnight and it took him four hours to deliver.  Castro, Chavez, Gaddafi and other demagogues may well have gone on for hours at a time, but it’s hard to imagine their speeches having the same sort effects.   According to some reports, the speech caused such shock to those in the audience that some of them suffered heart attacks … and others later committed suicide.  It led to protests and riots in Stalin’s homeland, Georgia; it has been credited with causing the Sino-Soviet split with China and Albania condemning Khrushchev as a revisionist and the Soviet Union as “state capitalists” and “social imperialists and paving the Hungarian uprising later in the year … to be followed ten years later by the Prague Spring, finally reaching a dénouement with glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev … and we all know where that eventually led.

Personality cults – Postcard from Bishkek, 25th February, 2012


As far as I can tell, Stalin never visited Kyrgyzstan – unlike Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

For the record: Gorbachev made it – but only in 1996, after Independence and the breakup of the Union … The Presidents of the Russian Federation – Yelstin, Putin and Medved – have made more visits in just over twenty years since Independence, than the leaders of the Soviet Union did in seventy years of the Soviet Union.

As the country’s leader he was honoured by having the capital’s main street named after him, (it was later renamed Lenin Prospect but is now known as Chui Prospekt), a statue erected in what was then the Central Square, (it was replaced with a statue of Marx and Engels sitting on a bench deep in debate … I have looked through various old books to see if I could find a photo but, so far, have failed to turn one up).

Perhaps his legacy, however, lies in the complicated borders of the Central Asian Republics.  Following the revolution in 1917, Stalin was give responsibility for dealing with the “nationalities” question … and he is often blamed for the apparently arbitrary borders that were drawn up – placing a city full of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and another full of Uzbeks in Tajikistan … creating enclaves … often characterized as using a principle of “divide and rule” … and by extension creating the basis of the ethnic disruptions of 1990 and 2010.




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