Student Question

How did Joseph Stalin and Lev Kopelev justify their actions? To what extent is Kopelev, not just Stalin and Soviet leadership, responsible?

Quick answer:

In most cases, students and teachers of history should refrain from moral or ethical judgments. Stalin's USSR deviates profoundly from dominant standards and values of the time. This opens the door for moral, ethical, and value judgments of men such as Lev Kopelev.

Expert Answers

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The discipline of history, with only a few exceptions, struggles when it seeks to focus on concepts such as "blame" and "guilt" on the individual level. Often a student or even an instructor seeking to make such judgments will evaluate historical figures and events according to modern standards. Fairness dictates that historical subjects, including individuals and groups, be assessed relative to their own time rather than ours.

That said, when historical figures’ behavior features a radical contrast against generally accepted mores and values, it creates space for justification of moral judgments. For example, Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge was thoroughly corrupt, occasionally violent, and socially backwards relative to the industrialized world. The succeeding Khmer Rouge became a watchword for ideologically driven brutality, and the regime shocked even their neighbors in Communist Vietnam. One may allow some negative judgment based on that foundation.

In the case of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kopelev, we have examples of committed Communists who participated in the Bolshevik Revolution. The inconsistently authoritarian Romanovs gave way first to a brief republic, then to the Bolsheviks who murdered and terrorized on a scale not seen in Russia in centuries, if ever.

The childhood of neither Stalin nor Kopelev provides justification for the direction and choices made later. Stalin’s mother spent years trying to prepare her son for a vocation in the priesthood. Imperial Russia’s secret police focused on existing terrorist groups rather than fostering an all encompassing terror state. Even Lenin, its most dedicated enemy, served his prison time in a small country cabin rather than the kind of terrifying gulags he would later build.

While history should confer blame or guilt very sparingly in most cases, that of Lev Kopelev may deserve it. He chose to join a movement that even prior to the war had a reputation for wanton violence and cruelty. The regime’s turn against him (as well as against many other murderers such as Yagoda and Yezhov) does not in any way mitigate the crimes he committed in its name while he enjoyed favor.

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