“Fifty years ago today, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died. Never was a death more welcome, overdue or deserved. The man was a monster, perhaps the worst ever to hold power. In the course of about 20 years as absolute ruler of the Soviet Union, Stalin executed, starved, tortured and worked to death an estimated 20 million people, most of them innocent of any crime....” - Editorial in today’s Columbus Dispatch
And - as Christians often like to remind me - Stalin was an atheist.
As if that fact alone explains everything.
As if every atheist on earth would kill 20 million people if only he or she had the chance.
What better day than today to examine the logical flaws that lurk behind these common Christian beliefs?
Let’s start with the obvious: Not every atheist murders other people (in fact, very, very few do); not every theist or Christian refrains from murder (in fact, there is reason to believe that Christians are more likely to take the lives of other people than are atheists); therefore, atheism alone cannot explain the murderous behavior of Stalin.
What does explain Stalin’s behavior? I recently went to the library and consulted the best source I could find in an attempt to find out.
The source I found was Robert Conquest’s Stalin: Breaker of Nations (Viking: 1991). Robert Conquest is an historian and a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute. He has written at least 14 other books on Stalin and Soviet history. I had no idea what Conquest might say before I borrowed his book and read it last month. If he made a good case that Stalin’s atheism was responsible for his murderous ways, I was willing to hear him out and revise my views accordingly.
As it turned out, Conquest did no such thing.
Instead, I learned a wide variety of things having nothing to do with atheism which seem to explain Stalin’s behavior far better.
Stalin grew up in a primitive, violent household. His father was a drunk who beat him. A bad case of smallpox left his face permanently marred. A carriage accident early in life left his left arm permanently shortened and stiff.
Perhaps most significant of all, he was short - a mere 5'4". This fact seems to have weighed heavily on his mind. According to Conquest, here’s how Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin (a high-ranking Communist colleague of Stalin’s) described the situation:
“Bukharin later said ‘it makes him miserable that he cannot convince everyone, including himself, that he is a taller man than anybody else. That is his misfortune: it may be his most human trait and perhaps his only human trait; his reaction to his ‘misfortune’ is not human - it is almost devilish; he cannot help taking revenge for it on others, but especially on others who are in some way better or more gifted than he is...’” (p. 12) Then again, not every short person becomes a brutal Napoleon or Stalin....
His beloved mother wanted him to become a priest - and Stalin was apparently quite happy to oblige her. He consequently spent five year at Tiflis Theological Seminary - the leading educational institution in his native land of Georgia.
It was not a happy place. The students there had long been in conflict with the people in charge. In 1886, a recently expelled student actually came back and murdered the rector. According to Conquest, “The Seminary had two outstanding negative characteristics. First, and increasingly so, it represented the Russian Church in its much resented Russifying role. Second, the methods of supervision were sneaky in the worst ecclesiastical tradition - reminding one of the ways of the nastier teacher-priests in Gabriel Chevalier’s splendid Sainte Colline” (p. 19).
The rector and his assistants “conducted a continual campaign against suspect students.... Among the more idiotic of the school’s rules was the banning not only of suspect Western literature, but even of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy.” Stalin’s locker was broken into and his banned books were confiscated.
“It is hard to imagine a system less likely to produce loyalty to authority, and devotion to the idea of the priesthood for which the school was supposed to be training its pupils, let alone to bring out the best in an already difficult character. Some commentators have derived from his seminary experiences much of Stalin’s gloomy and suspicious personality in later life. In a broad sense this seems reasonable.... As Stalin himself said later, this atmosphere of constant petty espionage, or as he put it ‘the outrageous regime and jesuitical methods prevalent at Seminary’ left him ready to become a revolutionary” (p. 19).
Stalin studied Liturgy and Scripture extensively. He got high marks his first year and his piety was remarked upon by fellow students. A year later, he had been transformed into a very rebellious 16-year-old not by atheists but by the brutal Christians in charge of his life....
Although Stalin did become an atheist (as more or less demanded by the Marxism that was then sweeping Europe), it seems to have been his seminary experiences which left the greatest impact on his way of thinking.
“It has often been suggested in both friendly and hostile biographies that Stalin was greatly influenced, if not by the beliefs, at least by the forms of ecclesiastical education.... Stalin’s way of expressing himself throughout his life was very much in the tradition of the catechism” (p. 17).
In May, 1899, Stalin was expelled for missing his exams. This was hardly unusual, however: Out of 300 students who had matriculated up to 1900, only 50 managed to stick it out to the end.
(To be continued....)