Elizabeth vs Stalin: contest of the cult of personality 2

April 18, 2003

On the 400th and 50th anniversaries of their deaths, we pit England's virgin queen against the USSR's father and find more than a shared love of dancing. Christopher Read considers Stalin's passion for 'religion'

There can hardly be two figures further apart in the popular imagination than Elizabeth I and Stalin. One, an icon of national greatness, a leading female contender for Greatest Briton of all time, doyenne of the heritage industry, a figure beyond reproach, give or take a little gentle satire in Blackadder .

Her persona attracts devotion rather than criticism. Much beloved of Simon Schama in his television history series, regaled by popular historians and described in glowing terms by Michael Portillo in his introduction to an anniversary reprint of A. L. Rowse's Expansion of Elizabethan England .

"Queen Elizabeth I of England commanded adulation from her courtiers and people. She deployed a bewildering range of talentsI Elizabeth was extremely clever, well read, witty and acerbic."

The other, Stalin, brooding, pipe-smoking, malevolent, persecutor of untold millions. In a recent comparison of him - with Saddam Hussein, naturally - John Humphrys on the Today programme asked: "They are both psychopaths, of course?" without even awaiting an answer. Most people would make the same assumption.

However, a recent television programme about religion, superstition and witchcraft in England in the 16th and 17th centuries included various phrases from the participating specialists that struck a different note.

Trying witches, said one, was "a matter of state security". Witches, demons and Catholic priests were "enemies of the state". According to another it was the godly duty of a Protestant to "annihilate unbelievers".

Substitute, on one hand, the terms wreckers, kulaks and Trotskyists for witches, demons and priests and, on the other, communist for Protestant and Stalin would have immediately understood what was going on. Even the snowball effect seemed to be common to witch-hunts and purges. In their demonic torments, witches, like purge victims, often cried out the names of others who immediately fell under suspicion. Similarly, in Stalin's day, one arrested person would often denounce the next to be arrested. At a certain level, some points of comparison were coming into focus.

Let's try again. Who best fits this description? S/he was a great national leader, driven by ideology and threatened by the greatest power of the day, which had assembled the greatest military force of its type ever. S/he was so fearful that the dreaded external enemy had friends within that s/he developed a network of spies and repression to contain the threat. S/he showed ruthlessness in the face of enemies and put on show trials to demonstrate her/his own rectitude in the struggle. Her/his efforts were crowned with success and s/he was idolised by friends and despised by ideological opponents. S/he carefully nurtured a cult of her/his own personality.

One could push the comparison a little further. At a deeper level, the historical role of each of them was similar. They were both attempting to consolidate settlements, revolutions, brought about by their predecessors.

Elizabeth was instilling Protestantism into the English, Stalin was establishing communism among the Soviet population. Henry VIII was Elizabeth's Lenin. Of course, Elizabeth was no Stalin. There are vast differences, notably of scale, but despite them one can see Stalinist elements in Elizabeth and Elizabethan elements in Stalin.

Is there anything in such points of comparison beyond amusing intellectual games? Perhaps there is. First, it points us towards looking at Stalin against the backdrop of earlier "religious" campaigners. In many respects, Stalin's mission was quasi-religious. Certainly, it was not a conventional religion but a "religion" of revolution, a radical, atheist, humanist, Marxism-Leninism, but it did take the form of a universal belief system to be spread by propaganda and deed, a cause to which one could devote one's life.

For most Russian revolutionaries of his generation, revolution was their religion. One of the most prevalent misjudgements about Stalin is to see him as only or primarily a power-seeking careerist and political manipulator. Such a view breaks down as soon as we look at his pre-revolutionary career. What power-seeking careerist would have joined the revolutionary movement in the 1890s? To do so was a calling to self-sacrifice and service of the Russian empire's poorest and most exploited peoples.

The degree to which he remained a revolutionary all his life is open to question, but it appears to have been a major factor right to the end. If asked what he was doing, he would have said he was building socialism. His undoubted power-seeking and manipulative abilities were harnessed to this endeavour.

Second, recent research has tended to establish, more or less beyond question according to the available evidence, that Stalin's purges were driven by a paranoid, perhaps, but no less genuine fear of external enemies, pre-eminently the Nazis, spawning a vast array of associated internal enemies. The rise of Hitler, murder of Kirov (which Stalin seems not to have ordered) and the tauntings of Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed , in which he claimed to have tens of thousands of followers ready to rise up, sparked the terrible onslaught.

In Elizabeth's case, the achievements reign supreme and the costs are forgotten by all but the specialists. In Stalin's case, however, the cost is largely (but by no means universally) seen not only to outweigh but often to completely obliterate the achievements. Why? It was not always the case. As Stalin neared his end, Isaac Deutscher, no Stalinist for sure, summarised Stalin's role in Russian history by pointing out that he found Russia using the wooden plough and left it using the atomic reactor.

At the time of the 25th anniversary of Stalin's death in 1978, the discourse was very different from that of today. Comparisons with Napoleon were made, again a figure who built national greatness at immense but often forgotten cost. Twenty-five years ago Stalin was slotted more confidently into the Russian tradition of state bullies who "saved" their country.

However, the same moment also saw the first explosion of information about the vast scope of Stalin's repression. From 1973 onwards, Solzhenitsyn's incomparable Gulag Archipelago shattered the remnants of Stalin's image for many.

The change in the world political climate after 1979 was also reflected in historical studies. Massive figures for Soviet camp inmates and deaths were produced. So ridiculous were the most extreme, it was pointed out that they would have meant something approaching half of the adult male population of the Soviet Union being a prisoner or a camp guard. For the past generation, we have worked under the impression of overinflated figures for the "costs" of Stalin's "achievements". The opening of former Soviet archives has produced a lower, though still appalling, set of figures - 1.5 million arrests, 700,000 executions - for the purges of the 1930s. But the old figures linger on in the public imagination.

Be that as it may, the issue of the relationship between victims and achievements remains acute. Will Stalin's "achievements" in the field of national greatness - industrialisation, urbanisation, defence, defeating Nazism almost single-handedly (only a maximum of 20 per cent of Hitler's armies faced west even after D-Day), massive educational expansion and so on - for ever be outweighed by the toll of victims?

Most national heroes stand on a mass of corpses. "Civilisations" from Athens to the American colonies were built on slavery. Sparta practised infanticide. Napoleon brought death to millions. Nelson is no hero in Naples and so on and on.

Elizabeth's achievements also had a darker side. Enclosures, like Stalin's collectivisation, brought misery to the rural population. The regimes of both were severe. Savage penalties were imposed by Elizabeth's courts not only for spying but for regular criminality. Hundreds of Catholic priests were disembowelled. Military service was brutal and deadly even in peacetime. Elizabeth's regime rested on savagery towards large parts of the ordinary people of her age.

However, in most cases, all this is overlooked in the name of national greatness. Perhaps Elizabeth's key advantage is that it is the 400th anniversary of her passing but only Stalin's 50th. Eventually, the memory of the victims fades but not that of the achievements. Perhaps the re-evaluation has already begun. In a Russian poll at the time of Stalin's anniversary in March this year, 36 per cent thought Stalin was more good than bad and 29 per cent thought he was more bad than good. Perhaps his reputation has hit rock bottom and is about to rise again to present him as an agent of Russia's national greatness.

At the end of the day, the question arises as to what "national greatness" or even "national interest" is served by policies that stand on heaps of corpses of "one's own people". If the 100 Greatest Britons is anything to go by, the question is seldom confronted. Those who defended the ordinary people against the megalomaniac schemes of their rulers - John Ball, Wat Tyler, Gerrard Winstanley, the Tolpuddle martyrs - never got a look in.

They were swept away by a torrent of warriors and imperialists. Perhaps, after all, the unlikely comparison of Elizabeth I and Stalin can reveal some worthwhile points about the nature of collective memory, historical reputation and the construction of myths to die for.

Christopher Read is professor of modern European history at the University of Warwick and editor of The Stalin Years , published by Palgrave in December (£11.99).

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments