Harrison Mark, “Stalin and Our Times”, Irish Association for Russian & East European Studies, University College, 2003.
Does Stalin belong to history or the present day? Dead only fifty years, he is alive enough that some still wish to condemn him. In a recent interview Robert Conquest has asked us to note “‘a curious thing: Stalin comes out worse than we thought … You wouldn’t think it possible.’ To Churchill’s description of Stalin as unnatural, Conquest adds his own: unreal. [Stalin’s] will–power proved strong enough to project the illusion around the world, blinding the west to the true situation … In the end, it is Stalin's almost pointless cruelty, and the stupidity of his apologists in the west, that lingers” (“I Told You I Was Right”, Financial Times, 1 March 2003).
At the same time others wish to bring him back. A poll of 1,600 adults conducted across Russia in February and March 2003 to mark the anniversary of the dictator’s death found that “53 percent of respondents approved of Stalin overall, 33 percent disapproved, and 14 percent declined to state a position. Twenty percent of those polled agreed with the statement that Stalin ‘was a wise leader who led the USSR to power and prosperity,’ while the same number agreed that only a ‘tough leader’ could rule the country under the circumstances in which Stalin found himself. Only 27 percent agreed that Stalin was ‘a cruel, inhuman tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions,’ and a similar percentage agreed that the full truth about him is not yet known” (“More Than Half of All Russians Positive About Stalin”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline, 5 March 2003). Thus despite the best efforts of Conquest and many others the “unknown Stalin” is still with us. After sitting silently through my economic history course this year, a young Russian student told me she registered for the class expecting an advantage of prior knowledge gained from her background. Instead, she found how little she knew.
Perhaps, however, the failure of Stalin’s criminality to pervade popular consciousness is not so surprising. Many may find it hard to accommodate to the information that a monster effected evil pointlessly and on an incredible scale. Some may find it, well, incredible. Others who are willing to accept it as a fact do not know how to integrate it into their understanding of societies and human nature. A persistent fear among those who give primacy to the moral tasks of history is that to understand a little more may mean to condemn a little less. Rather than risk the contagion of understanding they now prefer to mock: thus “to Conquest, the depravities of the Stalin era and the wreckage of the Soviet Union resonate like someterrible comedy”; Laughter and the Twenty Million is the subtitle of Martin Amis’s recent Koba the Dread. A result of this is that the Stalin era remains surreal and therefore incomprehensible. And this is all the more regrettable in that Stalin will remain a figure of our times while there remain other secular tyrannies of his type.
I have a simple proposition: we can permit ourselves to understand a little more without moral hazard. Moreover, those who wish then to condemn will find that, by having condemned a little less at the outset, they may do so, if they wish, all the more effectively in the end. The understanding that I advocate is derived from studying the choices that rulers must make in the exercise of political power. The principles are derived mainly from the political economy of rent–seeking and game theory; they are not new and their spirit may be traced as far back as Machiavelli; they incorporate the proposition that to win and accumulate political power a ruler must use resources that may be combined in varying ways that give different results, and so bring in the economic
ideas of optimal allocation and equilibrium. This means, finally, that they also rest on
the idea of rational choice (e.g. Wintrobe, 1998). Inseparably related to economics, rational choice theory is not always a popular cause even among Nobel prize winning economists (e.g. Sen, 2002). It is often confused sometimes with the idea of perfect rationality, that is, a rationality that commands perfect knowledge of the present and future and never makes mistakes, and sometimes with the idea of maximising a self–interest that is myopic or excludes social interactions. But these are not necessary attributes of rational choice. Rather, rational choice theory presents us with an intellectual challenge: if people do what they want, subject to the resource and information constraints that we can identify, and if we do not understand what they do, then we are missing something important and we should not be satisfied to throw up our hands.