Why Joseph Stalin was chosen Time’s person of the year – twice

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From the “most hated man” to heroic defender of the Motherland – Time magazine’s attitudes to Joseph Stalin changed drastically throughout the years. But why?

Today, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is most often remembered as a ruthless dictator, who terrorized millions of people. So it might be a bit surprising to see his face on the iconic red-bordered cover of the Time magazine – right where nine-grader Greta Turnberg appeared just in January 2020. Yet, he earned that spot more than once – one of the four non-Americans to ever do so. And that is, in fact, telling, of the role the man played in world history.

1940 – for the Soviet-German non-aggression pact 

Year 1939. A war was imminent. Hitler had just taken Czechoslovakia and future allies – France, Britain and the USSR – were negotiating a multilateral defense treaty in attempt to stop Nazi Germany.

But talks were stalling. France and Britain were wary Stalin would use military help as a pretext to occupy neighbouring states – they hadn’t forgotten the Communists’ original idea of a worldwide revolution. Besides, they wondered if after the purges, the Red Army was actually capable to fight. As then-British PM Neville Chamberlain wrote to his friend: “I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatsoever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to.”

Stalin, on his part, suspected the other two hoped to steer Hitler’s expansion eastward - so that Communists and Nazis would weaken one another saving Western Europe all the trouble. He, too, has all the reasons to doubt them – both European powers had just betrayed their ally Czechoslovakia and stood idly as Hitler backed fascists in Spain, annexed Austria and shred the Versaille treaty to pieces.

It’s in that climate that Stalin made a final gamble - and chose a non-aggression pact with Hitler over what seemed a shaky alliance prospect with Britain and France. With the pact, he bought time to prepare for war and, as per the secret protocol, moved Soviet borders miles to the west, annexing the Baltics, eastern Poland and parts of Romania – roughly within the former Russian Empire’s borders. Hitler, on his part, secured the Eastern front and was free to wage war in the West.

The two leaders also revived economic cooperation that dwindled sharply after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Four days before the non-aggression treaty, Moscow and Berlin signed a massive trade deal under which the USSR was to supply the Third Reich with raw materials in payment for its machinery and factory equipment. To Stalin, it meant he could rely on German tech to complete the industrialization of the USSR, while Hitler, on his part, got access to vast Soviet raw supplies to maintain his war economy. 

Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

To say that the pact came as shock was mild. Time called it “a diplomatic demarche literally world-shattering” and named Stalin ‘Man of the year’ – for single-handedly “switching the power balance of Europe” and thus clearing the way for Germany to start World War II.

“By the one stroke of sanctioning a Nazi war and by the later strokes of becoming a partner of Adolf Hitler in aggression, Joseph Stalin threw out of the window Soviet Russia’s meticulously fostered reputation of a peace-loving, treaty-abiding nation,” the magazine reads lamenting Stalin’s move after years of him standing against the Nazis.

The European press was just as surprised. Britain’s Guardian called the move a “defection of Russia” and suggested the USSR and Germany might have agreed to divide spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. In France, Paris-soir newspaper said workers at plants and factories “rubbed their eyes reading the news” and compared the pact to a “bomb that exploded on the European diplomatic front”.

Meanwhile, the Soviet press had a shock of their own – after years of bashing the Third Reich as “fascists invaders” and “aggressors”, they suddenly had to use much more moderate language like “German troops” or “Germans”. Still, most newspapers praised the non-aggression pact as a step towards peace and published Foreign Minister Molotov’s speech on their front pages.

In it, he accused London and Paris of “sluggishness” and “negligent” attitude to the alliance talks which, he argued, left Moscow little choice but to look for “other ways to guarantee peace and eliminate the risk of a war between Germany and the USSR”. That, he said, was the ultimate meaning of the treaty – to end animosity between the two biggest countries in Europe and, therefore, strengthen peace.

Time, however, had its own idea as to why Stalin cut the deal with Hitler. “For long, Russians have been obsessed with the nightmare of a combination of capitalist nations that would turn against her,” the magazine reads suggesting it was perhaps “this haunting fear” that drove Stalin “to take measures... against easy attack”.

To this day, historians argue over the real implications of the pact. Did it boost the Soviet defense against Nazis or prove Stalin’s expansionism? Should Stalin have trusted Britain and France? Or did he outwit them at their own power game? Will we ever know for sure? 

Notably, that debate is not always polarized along Russia vs. the West lines, though both sides have their own mainstream approach to those events. American and European scholars often view the treaty as the single uniquely vicious act that started World War II. Thus, American author Timothy Snyder argues: “We don’t know how the war would have proceeded without the treaty... what we do know is that the war as it actually happened, with all of its atrocities, began with a German-Soviet alliance.”

Some take it further and claim that because of the pact, both Stalin and Hitler are to blame for all the horrors of the war that followed – a spirit echoed in the EU 2019 resolution, which claims that “the war was started as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet treaty on non-aggression... whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence.”

Russian historians vehemently rebut this stance, saying the pact was only the last in a series of selfish and short-sighted political moves that enabled Hitler. “Colluding with Hitler was a scenario tested first by Western democracies,” writes Artyom Malgin from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Soviet actions, he argues, were just as cynical as France and Britain’s appeasement policy, but “the USSR resorted to collusion with Hitler when faced with a much greater military threat to its own territory and at a time when Germany was far better prepared for war”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his 2020 article for the National Interest publication, points out that “unlike many other European leaders of that time, Stalin did not disgrace himself by meeting with Hitler, who was known among the Western nations as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

One thing is clear, though - the events that followed cost Eastern European nations dearly. After Stalin annexed their territories, he started mass arrests and deportations to crush any resistance before it could take shape. In Poland, 22 thousand officers were executed in the Katyn massacre and some 325 thousand ordinary citizens were sent to special settlements and camps between September 1939 and June 1941, as estimated by international rights group Memorial. In Estonia, 10 thousand people were deported over the same period, and Latvia and Lithuania had 17 thousand and 17,5 thousand people taken away, respectively. At least 30 thousand citizens were also deported from the annexed regions of Romania.

In 1989, the Soviet Union condemned the pact’s secret protocols, saying they were illegal and violated other nations' sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 1940, Time magazine gave a much harsher judgment saying that, by attacking its neighbours, Stalin had betrayed socialists worldwide and matched the fuhrer “as the world’s most hated man”.

1943 - for the heroic Stalingrad defense

But whatever damning depiction Time gave its ‘Person’ in 1939, three years later, it would discover his other side – that of an iron-willed leader, an untiring statesman standing firmly against Nazi hordes – and turning them “into dust”. 

In fact, the magazine stops short of saying Stalin saved not only Russia - but the whole European continent – by the way he stood ground in Stalingrad.

“Had German legions swept past steelstubborn Stalingrad and liquidated Russia’s power of attack, Hitler would have been not only man of the year, but he would have been undisputed master of Europe,” Time reads describing the biggest, bloodiest battle in all of World War II. “...But Joseph Stalin stopped him.”

Indeed, it’s on the scorched, blood-soaked streets of Stalingrad that the Soviets broke the backbone of Hitler’s war machine. Overall, Germany and its allies saw up to 850,000 of their troops perish there – killed in battle, wounded and captured. The Red Army paid a heavier price – 1.1 million casualties, including those who received serious injuries and died on the battlefield or in captivity.

Civilian losses were grave, too, as people died in the thousands under the merciless bombing, from disease and starvation, or directly at the hands of the invaders. In 1943, a special state commision investigating Nazis’ crimes in the area reported that 38,554 ordinary citizens of Stalingrad region were deliberately killed or tortured to death by the occupying forces, while 42,797 died from the shelling and 64,224 were taken to Germany for slave labour. Today, historians say the actual number may be higher – some estimate at least 235 thousand civilians died both in the city and the wider region during the battle, though the issue largely remains understudied.

Still, after 5 months of brutal fighting, Stalin dealt Hitler a defeat the fuhrer would not recover from. And that he did it, Time argues, running on little more than sheer will – that of his own and the Russian people.

A large chunk of his armies were gone; along with farmlands and industries; millions were taken to the front so at home, men now chopped woods and worked at plants along the women and often children. The U.S. aid would come too late, disrupted by German attacks on the routes and a second European front would not open until 1944…

“Only Stalin knows how he managed to make 1942 a better year for Russia than 1941,” the Time article says, “But he did... Stalingrad was held. The Russian people held.”

“The magnificent will of the Russian people to resist” was key, but so was Stalin’s own tireless statecraft and diplomacy, Time writes. As his people, underfed and overworked, fought in battles, he devised strategies, picked able army leaders and boosted the nation’s morale by promising aid from Allies – and pushing for it relentlessly.

The latter didn’t always go smoothly. In Autumn 1942, when aid deliveries via the Arctic route were suspended and the Stalingrad battle was raging, Joseph Stalin penned a letter to AP’s Moscow correspondent Henry Cassidy urging Western leaders to “fulfill their obligations fully and on time”. He also quite bluntly called the Allies’ help “little effective”, as compared with “the aid which the Soviet Union is giving the Allies by drawing upon itself the main force of the German Fascist”.

So the plants and factories Stalin had built in his ruthless, ground-breaking industrialization played a huge role in 1942, where the USSR held on by a thread and couldn’t rely much on the Allies. As the magazine puts it, the USSR’s world-surprising strength in World War II showed that Stalin, indeed, managed to build Russia “into one of the four great industrial powers on earth”. Time even went as far as to claim that Stalin’s “tough” methods had “paid off” – an unthinkable thing to say given the horrible human cost of his grand projects.

Battle of Stalingrad.

Stalingrad beyond doubt turned the tides of World War II against Hitler. True, the Allied forces scored other crucial victories in 1942 – the British beat Germany at El Alamein in North Africa and Americans were successfully pushing back against Japan in the Pacific. But, as Time says, their accomplishments, “worthy though they may prove… inevitably pale by comparison with what Joseph Stalin did in 1942”.

So here they are, two Time issues and two stories of how Joseph Stalin horrified and stunned the world – first as a brutal tyrant and then as a stouthearted fighter leading his nation to victory. An opportunist and a shrewd statesman, a ruthless dictator and defender of the Motherland, an architect of mass-scale purges and the man behind industrialization – 80 years on, the world is still debating which part of his legacy to remember. 

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