There is little doubt that in many of its aspects Stalin’s period
was brutal and harsh, but so was Russian society at large. The
Bolsheviks had inherited from the tsars an overwhelmingly peasant
country, populated predominantly by a backward semifeudal mass—the
“dark people”—surviving into the dawning of the modern era.
Moreover, as a result of the harrowing experience of the First World
War overlapping with acute social conflicts of the 1917 revolution,
then followed immediately by the brutal fratricidal civil war, the
popular consciousness had been badly upset. It combined, in a
paradoxical way, the belief in a radiant Communist future with the
blind conviction in effectiveness of violence as an instrument of
modernizing society. The revolutionary romanticism of the masses was
blended with total disregard for human life. The Bolshevik leaders
themselves had not been raised in a test tube but reflected all the
flaws and imperfections of contemporary society.
is against this background that certain negative phenomena,
including high levels of state terror under Stalin, should be
assessed: not to condone such developments but to see them in their
historical context. Modernizations across the globe have given
examples of great human achievement, elevating to the status of
national heroes individuals as different as Henry Ford, Yuri
Gagarin, and the founders of the Sony Corporation. But
modernizations were also fraught with brutal and bloody conflicts,
wars, colonial aggression, acute social antagonisms, and so on.
Coercion and repression, jail and penal labor existed everywhere and
are part of Western, Russian, and other nations’ experience. The
important thing in the study of history is to distinguish between
those developments that were justified and necessary and those that
do not easily lend themselves to interpretations on the basis of
present-day wisdom and common sense.