After Stalin's death was announced, huge, weeping crowds filled Moscow's streets, while his embalmed body was placed alongside Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum. The country that he had ravaged continued to honor him--but only for a time. In February of 1956 his successor, Nikita Krushchev, addressed a "secret session" of the 20th Party Congress, where he spent three hours denouncing Stalin, thus beginning the process known as de-Stalinization. The departed dictator's name was removed from public buildings, streets, and cities (Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd); his cult of personality was denounced; his body was removed from Red Square and reburied elsewhere.
But the Soviet state that he had built survived for another forty years. The Cold War went on, Eastern Europe remained in thrall to the U.S.S.R., the gulags still operated, and the cruel grip of the state on the Russian people was not relaxed. Indeed, Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, actually made an effort to rehabilitate Stalin's reputation, to cover up the few crimes that Khrushchev had exposed, and to return him to place of honor among Soviet heroes. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the final crack-up of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 that the world was allowed access to the record of Stalin's crimes--and even that information remains incomplete, so careful were Stalin's contemporaries to hide his corruption.
Just as we may never gain full knowledge of his crimes, we may never possess a true understanding of his personality and motivations--of the inner Stalin. For decades, he and his fellow revolutionary justified their deeds by saying that their goal--the building of a utopia--necessitated the sacrifice of some lives in order to make life better for all. Leaving aside the fact that no such Marxist paradise emerged--indeed, that Marxism in general has proved to be a bloody, costly, and ultimately disastrous experiment on human nature--it still is not clear to what extent Stalin was guided by ideology or utopian dreams in his career. Certain policies, like the Five-Year Plan and collectivization, bear the stamp of Marxist orthodoxy, and he seems to have nursed a hope of an imminent worldwide revolution even in his last years. But he was never a great theoretician--many of his rivals were far better versed in revolutionary ideology than he--and his political behavior seems to been ruthlessly practical, rather than rigidly Marxist. In his cunning machinations of the 1920s, when he played off Bukharin's "Rightists" against Kamenev's "Leftists" without ever committing himself to either side; in the Great Terror and all the little terrors that he directed against enemies real and imaginary; in the Nazi-Soviet Pact and his expansion westward after World War II . . . in all these instances, and many more, the coarse, pockmarked Georgian with the tiger eyes showed himself to be a man interested not in a workers paradise, but in the steady increase and permanent preservation of his own power, at any cost.
And the world continues to suffer the impact of this cost. This, more than anything else, is the lesson that Stalin has taught us--the extent to which one man's unbridled appetite for power can devastate millions of lives. Stalin broke the Soviet people, ruined the Soviet economy, and reduced Soviet culture and intellectual life to slavish dependency on the state--and the consequences of his terrible rule still reverberate all across Russia and the former Soviet Union. He tortured and killed so many of his own people, with guns or famine, that the exact number can never be known--Russians today refer to the victims as the "Twenty Million," and even that may be too low an estimate. His belligerent policies helped to unleash the Cold War that locked our planet into a "balance of terror" for some forty years. He supported and inspired copycat dictators, from Kim Il Sung in North Korea to Pol Pot in Cambodia, whose own toll of victims reaches into the millions. He was a destructive force, perhaps the most destructive human being of this long and bloody century--more destructive even than his great rival, Hitler, whose own regime went down under the boots of the Red Army. He was a political genius with the soul of a sadistic thug, a paranoid and cruel man with his hands on the reins of a great nation; the shadow that he casts, even today, is long and dark and full of terrors.