A DIFFERENT TENSION
What is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Joseph Stalin? A twenty first century westerner may answer this question with the word ‘tyrant.’ A civilian living in America in 1943 may use the word ‘ally’. Two Russians, at any point between 1924 and the present day may say ‘saviour’ or ‘murderer.’ Within this simple question lies a deep debate over the issue of subjectivity in history, and how portraits differ over time.
The majority of western historians regard Stalin as one of the great tyrants and mass murderers, with a body count that arguably outstrips Hitler and Chairman Mao. Yet some portraits that are associated with him do not seem to be as villainous as the aforementioned. Indeed, throughout World War Two and in its immediate aftermath, despite the murderous purges carried out by Stalin in the 1930s, he was known as ‘Uncle Joe’ by British and American media, seen as a vital ally in defeating Germany. Whilst he was viewed with suspicion over his plans for Europe by Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman, he was portrayed as a cheery ally by much of the western world.
This portrait was highly different to the one he had constructed for himself within the Soviet Union. Stalin was able to manufacture a cult of personality in order to rewrite history, portraying himself as the saviour of the Soviet Union and giving himself a bigger role in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, whilst ensuring his image was everywhere within the USSR. This resulted in the depiction of Stalin as almost god-like, demanding the obedience and adoration of the Russian people. His image was further enhanced by the manipulation of photographs, as he was portrayed as physically massive and majestic, despite being only five foot five tall. This image hit its peak following the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, with Stalin often
being seen as defeating Nazism singlehandedly. The strength of this image continued throughout his death and Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation policies. In a 2008 poll of the greatest Russians, Stalin was placed third, while in a 2007 poll, half of the 16-19 year olds asked felt Stalin was a wise leader. These facts indicate that Stalin’s self-promoted image in Russia differs greatly to that projected in the western world, and in this way, shows the importance of investigating the background behind a historical figure’s status.
In contrast to the almost glorious representation mentioned above, the Cold War saw the west view Stalin as the face of the Iron Curtain and the brutal rule of the Eastern Bloc. His unwavering stance over issues such as the Berlin blockade and the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War led to his portrayal as an enemy of the west, especially that of the USA. Gone was the cheery ally endorsed by western media during and in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, instead replaced by a shadowy figure that, in a single moment, could bring World War Three to the planet. Again, in this portrayal it is important to note the subjective nature of it. The western politicians and media were aware of the power Stalin held over the Eastern Bloc, and as such recognised him as a potential enemy. In this way, he was presented as a brutal and oppressive leader, a far cry from the saviour figure he played for the Russian people.
Subjectivity throughout historical portrayals is an interesting topic as it throws up comparisons between representations of figures that split opinions dependent on the location and time period of the people creating the portrait.