The dilemma with Stalin

Stalin looks at you…and smiles. Wonder what he could be thinking. Photo courtesy of solovki.ca

During this year’s 70th anniversary celebration of the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad, regional legislators voted to revert the city’s name, now Volgograd, to its wartime name a few times each year for war-related commemorations. In addition, the speaker of the Russian upper house promoted the idea of a city referendum on returning the name permanently. A very small personal observation on the Internet showed that most residents would prefer the money involved in such a name change be spent preferably on road repair. National opinions on this proposal are split along political lines, with Communists and pro-government forces supporting the reversion while liberals and human-rights advocates opposing it. This divided response to the idea shows Stalin’s equally divided legacy on the landscape he once ruled, the man remembered as either saviour of the motherland or cruel tyrant. It also makes us reflect on the phenomenon of people who left both good and bad in their historical legacies, and the complex and painful process of dealing with them.

Examples of mixed legacies abound around us, especially with political leaders. They range from Park Chung-hee’s responsibility for both South Korea’s political repression and economic prosperity to Castro’s guarantee of Cuban independence and social equality as well as its authoritarianism. Non-political examples are also present, like Wagner’s and Heidegger’s important contributions to music and philosophy, respectively, and their connection to Nazism. Even Hitler can be seen as a divisive figure if one is to account his contributions to Germany’s economic recovery before the war, which historians have given all sorts of explanations in an effort to dampen the importance of those contributions. This is one way this dilemma’s resolved – lessen the importance and give various explanations for the person’s positive achievements. This includes something basic as dismissing the positive contribution completely, saying “he did bring internal order, but his mistakes were greater,” or more elaborate as stating those reasons why that contribution is negligible, such as attributing the good events to external forces. The proponents of this view cannot believe or accept that a villain can contribute a good thing to the surrounding society, therefore the evil aspects of the person must be strongly emphasised and any contrary evidence to that characterisation must be either suppressed or clarified to the detriment of the person.

The other way to deal with the mixed legacy is naturally to emphasise the good part. This differs little from the character-bashing mentioned earlier. In this case, the historical figure’s positive contribution is highlighted while the negative aspect is mostly forgotten. In the Cuban case, Castro’s reputation of anti-US resistance has been acclaimed by progressives here in North America, Western Europe and elsewhere – without mention how this same resistance is responsible for the current state of Cuban democracy. Here in Canada, Trudeau’s legacy of civil rights and constitutional patriation are widely praised, without thinking how his ideas differed from the majority of Quebecois he claimed to represent. While such forgetful celebration of positive legacies is common for popularly-elected politicians, this is more dangerous for those otherwise seen as dictators. The risk of “whitewashing” the person’s image to the detriment of forgetting the darker aspect, thus endangering future generations, must be remembered when depicting the dictator as nice guy.

In fact, none of these approaches fully deal with the complexity brought by mixed historical legacies. They tend to emphasise one side while conveniently neglecting the other, and this happens even among experts careful in their objectivity. Complete disinterest in the legacy is no better, as it only lets the problem fester further. Perhaps one method in dealing with this dilemma is one based on three concepts: general moral principles, the role of the people, and human complexity. Does the legacy conform to principles widely recognised as morally good? What are the people’s contributions in dealing with their condition? How much of human nature is seen in that legacy? An approach that doesn’t seek balance but the complexity, morality and dignity of human life can be a way to deal with these confused legacies around us.

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