'If only Stalin knew'

When Comrade Stalin ruled in the Kremlin, his many apologists and admirers could never bring themselves to admit that he was responsible for the many terrible acts of the Soviet Union. Indeed, they often insisted that he could not possibly have known about such things as the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, the purge trials and executions of loyal communist officials, and the operation of the vast prison-camp system termed by writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as The Gulag Archipelago.

Joseph Stalin couldn't possibly have known, they said. If he had known, he'd have put a stop to it all. Or maybe not. Maybe he knew, but couldn't stop it, because evil people with great power were doing it. Lavrentiy Beria, for example ...

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And yet, given the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union, it was obvious that Stalin not only knew, but was the driving force behind the Kremlin's crimes against its own citizens.

Yet again, while it might have been obvious, when Stalin died, millions mourned him, and their mourning was genuine, impassioned and heartfelt. It's worth pondering the popularity of totalitarian leaders, and not fall into the comfortable but misleading trap of assuming that the supreme leader and his henchmen either don't know what's really going on, or, because of presumed internal divisions, can't stop it.

I was recently reminded of these little mind games while reading the punditry about Hamas, which was well described in The New York Times by David Kirkpatrick. In his telling, there are really two quite distinct components to Hamas: a political faction and a military wing. The political wing negotiates agreements and talks nicely to journalists like Kirkpatrick. But the politicos have nothing to say about the terrorist assaults against Gazans and Israelis launched by the military faction. One of Hamas's chief politicos, Mousa Abu Marzook, put it categorically:

The Hamas brigades "are completely separate," Abu Marzook said.

Hamas's civilian, political wing had put itself under the government, he said, and its political leaders continued to speak and set policy for the military wing. But he insisted that the Hamas fighters would remain outside the new government's control. "Of course, they are outside the unity government," he said.

So whatever the level of bloodshed carried out by Hamas, don't blame the political leadership. Nice totalitarians like Marzook don't do such nasty things.

The myth of the nice-totalitarian-leader-who-just-doesn't-know-the-evil-being-carried-out-in-his-name is very widespread. Perhaps the best current example is Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Invariably described as a moderate, during his first year in office more than a thousand Iranians have been executed. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — certainly not considered a "moderate" — never approached such a figure. Moreover, under Rouhani's presidency, Iranian troops and Iranian-trained killers have fanned out throughout the region, including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, as well as in Africa.

Yet nine times out of 10, if you read about Iran, you will find Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called a "hard liner," while Rouhani is treated as a more or less impotent nice guy. This, despite the fact that Rouhani was only permitted to run for president after gaining approval from a notably hard-line committee, and there is not the slightest reason to believe that there are any serious conflicts or even disagreements between him and Khamenei.

There are no sweet innocents atop totalitarian regimes. Remember Stalin!

Ledeen, the author of more than 30 books, is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was special adviser to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and a consultant to the national security adviser during the Reagan administration.