Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- In 1931, during the liquidation of millions of kulaks, Josef Stalin granted an audience to George Bernard Shaw and Lady Nancy Astor. Astor bluntly asked: "When are you going to stop killing people?" To which Stalin replied: "When it is no longer necessary."

Stalin found it necessary to the end of his days. He was a hardworking dictator, often in the office 16 hours a day. It takes considerable effort to cause the deaths of perhaps 20 million human beings. And death was Stalin's primary political instrument.

Statues and busts of Stalin were once mass-produced in Russia as icons of a political cult. Few can now be found on public display outside his hometown of Gori, Georgia, where some people remain perversely proud of a local boy made bad. But a newly cast memorial bust of Stalin now stands at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., accompanying sculptures of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. A plaque recounts Stalin's practice of "eliminating" his opponents. But Stalin would doubtlessly be pleased by the likeness and its setting.

Others are not so pleased. The Bedford County Board of Supervisors, the local congressman and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation have called for the bust's removal.

Americans have sometimes viewed Stalin with more ambivalence than, say, Adolf Hitler. For a period during World War II, "Uncle Joe" was an ally. Roosevelt sent about $11 billion worth of war materiel to Stalin under Lend-Lease.

But Stalin had previously been an ally of Hitler as well, both inspiring and admiring Nazi methods. Following Hitler's purge in 1934 known as the "night of the long knives," Stalin told a meeting of the Politburo: "Some fellow that Hitler. Knows how to treat his political opponents."

One reason that Stalin has sometimes gotten more favorable treatment than Hitler is the conviction, mainly found on the American left, that communism is less evil than fascism. Stalin may have been a monster, but at least he was not a genocidal racist. His methods were barbaric; but the goals of Soviet socialism -- economic equality and justice -- were nobler than National Socialism.

This attitude once turned some Western leftists into Stalin apologists. The durable belief in communist good intentions led, according to historian Robert Conquest, to "feminists applauding women who were bowed down by hundredweights of coal, Quakers applauding tank parades."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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