Joseph Stalin: Mass Murderer and Destroyer of a Nation

Was this murderer of millions sick or evil?

Posted May 20, 2020

Having gained access to secret documents in Russia’s archives, biographer Edvard Radzinsky wrote a comprehensive biography about Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) who, after dismantling the tsarist regime, became as powerful and cruel as any tsar who ever reigned in pre-Soviet Russia.*  Stalin is estimated to have killed 20 million people, not including another 20 million who perished fighting during World War Two. For 30 years, Stalin terrorized the U.S.S.R. as he engaged in mass arrests, implemented policies that resulted in wide-spread starvation, imprisoned millions in the notorious gulags, or concentration camps, and ordered the torture and executions of “enemies.”

Radzinsky remarked about Stalin, “His character and motives for his actions remain just as mysterious now as they were on the sunny March day of his death.” Radzinsky said that the “greatest riddle of Stalin’s reign” was why he destroyed the Leninist Party even after it became “completely subservient to him.” He stated, “The most frequent explanation is mental disorder.” 

It is understandable that this man of extremes, a person who trusted no one, an individual who quickly found enemies and ruthlessly exterminated them might be considered “paranoid” and in other ways mentally ill. The question persists as to whether Stalin was sick or evil. A reader of Radzinsky’s riveting treatise would be more likely to conclude the latter. Learning how Stalin functioned from the time he was young provides incontrovertible evidence that he had a criminal personality. Stalin was intentional about what he did, unrelenting in his quest for power, determined to remain in control, and would resort to any means to accomplish an objective.  The author refers to Stalin as “a connoisseur of character” who was “a great chess player” in that he “always thought several moves, many moves ahead.” Determined to wipe out any vestige of the tsars who ruled Russia for centuries, Stalin referred to “the need for a tsar on various occasions.” Stalin was to be that person.

The pursuit of power and control were central to what motivated this despot. Radzinsky wrote, “Stalin is a Genghis Kahn, an unscrupulous intriguer, who sacrifices everything else to the preservation of his power.” He was this way since childhood. The young Stalin was “a star pupil,” who ceased being interested in academics.  He was expelled from the seminary alarming his mother who “feared that God would abandon [her son] and the devil would set in.” Stalin was a force for others to reckon with even before adolescence. He was a youth whom others feared – “his secretive and vengeful character…his rough outbursts of anger.” He had a “knack for dominating others.” The youthful Stalin saw no reason to study or hold a job (he held only one ordinary job during his entire life). Instead, from early adulthood, he demonstrated an ability “to find a common language with criminals.” Radzinksy wrote, “Who could have known that this angelic little boy would become the man who would destroy [an entire nation]?”

The metaphors throughout the book focus on Stalin’s ruthless pursuit of power. Referred to as the “boss,” Stalin “pulled the strings” of his puppets, then “pitilessly removed them when they had played their part." Stalin had a sense of ownership when it came to anything animate or inanimate. “His mind turned to the future of a state that now belonged to him,” observed Radzinsky. He developed the tactics he needed to ensure there would be no opposition. He changed the laws to accomplish what he wanted, even declaring that children of 12 or older would receive the same penalty for “crimes” as did adults. In just one month, Stalin would send tens of thousands of citizens to their deaths. He ruled by fear, ensuring that people would remain subservient. The biographer describes in agonizing detail “the notorious conveyor belt set in motion” by Stalin and his underlings where “blows and lashes were only the beginning.” People turned on each other, desperate to avoid being dragged off to the “entrance of hell” where they would be interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, or summarily executed on the spot.

Stalin gave no consideration as to whom he harmed, including members of his own family. He was alert only to what harm might come to him by others who created dissension or opposed his consolidation of power. Stalin regarded himself as totally unique, superior to and smarter than others. He had a chilling ability to shut off fears of what might happen to him. Through it all, he maintained an image of himself as a good human being, doing what was necessary not only to achieve his own personal triumphs but also for the greater glory of the Soviet Union.

A man so calculating and adept at reading people for his own purposes and skilled as a master tactician in seeking self-glorification while ruthlessly holding onto power is unlikely to be mentally ill unless one tortures the definition of mental illness. As Radzinsky asserts, “Stalin created a unique image of himself: he was Tsar and God in one. He was the Boss.”

Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin. NY: Anchor Books, 1996.