WORLDVIEW: When tyrants try to prevail

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--In his army, the mustachioed dictator quipped, "It takes more courage to retreat than to advance."

It was his trademark brand of gallows humor, usually delivered with a smirk -- and a fatal punch line. His generals (at least the ones who hadn't already been shot) got the message.

For his legions, probable death lay ahead in battle with better-equipped opponents. But for any soldier who so much as turned his head, certain death waited behind from the pistols of political officers. Surviving prisoners of war who came home were shot as traitors or sent to prison camps. Few ever saw their families again.

Terrorizing the military was just one part of an all-encompassing social climate of dread. The dictator cultivated fear to crush any hint -- real or imagined -- of resistance to his rule.

Saddam Hussein? No, though the similarities are striking. These methods were perfected by one of Saddam's reputed heroes: a failed seminary student from Georgia named Iosif Dzhugashvili -- later known to the world as Joseph Stalin.

GRIM IRONY

He died 50 years ago March 5, safe in his bed, after spilling oceans of blood. It's a grimly ironic legacy for a poor boy from a provincial backwater of the Czarist Russian empire. His mother wanted him to be an Orthodox priest. He would later order the execution, imprisonment or exile of thousands of priests and millions of believers. He attempted to destroy every vestige of religious faith -- while creating a personality cult that verged on worship.

"O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples," proclaimed a psalm-like tribute from one of his many craven Davids. "Thou who broughtest man to birth.... Thou who makest bloom the spring.... O thou, Sun reflected by millions of hearts."

After rejecting his mother's dreams and his family name, the young firebrand adopted the moniker Stalin -- "Man of Steel" -- and joined his idol, Lenin, as communist revolution swept Russia.

Though relatively uneducated, Stalin demonstrated great administrative skill, limitless ambition, implacable will and absolute ruthlessness. He alarmed even the pitiless Lenin, who died in 1924 before he could stop the rise of his apprentice to total power.

GENOCIDAL PHILOSOPHY

"Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs," Stalin once sneered. Perhaps his most chilling maxim, however, was this: "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." That genocidal philosophy became his daily approach to governing.

The Soviet "sewage disposal system," as writer and prison camp survivor Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn called it, first swept away all active and potential political opponents. Eventually it consumed whole sectors of the Communist Party itself. In between, it swallowed wave after wave of religious believers (including Baptists), teachers, artists, leaders, workers, ordinary people.

Countless innocents were sucked in. The secret police had to meet quotas ("Arrest 500 enemies of the people by Friday!") or face doom themselves. Those who weren't shot outright disappeared into the vast Gulag camp network. "Any adult inhabitant of this country, from a collective farmer up to a member of the Politburo, always knew that it would take only one careless word or gesture and he would fly off irrevocably into the abyss," Solzhenitsyn wrote.

Long before the terror reached the highest levels in the late 1930s, Stalin deliberately engineered a terror famine in the Ukraine that starved up to 7 million human beings -- purely to impose collective farming and crush a proud people.

A grim fate also befell the many minority peoples within the Soviet orbit. Whole nationalities that incurred Stalin's wrath or suspicion were deported from their homelands, forcibly resettled, driven into frozen wilds. Thus did he earn the title applied to tyrants of old: "Breaker of Nations."

Why remember these crimes? Because only half a century after Stalin's death -- and little more than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union -- they are largely forgotten. That is itself a crime against Stalin's victims. Forgetting also makes it easier for Stalin's many imitators to use his methods elsewhere, as they have done to this day.

GOD STILL RULES

We sorely need to reaffirm in our own troubled time that God still rules the nations -- despite the men who try to break them. The Lord doesn't cause the suffering inflicted by despots, but he brings good out of it for his purposes.

Communism has brutally crushed age-old traditions wherever it has been imposed, leaving a cultural and spiritual vacuum. Yet into that vacuum the fresh wind of the gospel can blow, and it is blowing powerfully in the old Soviet empire, in China, in Cambodia and other places. Refined by the fire of persecution, local Christians are leading the way in church-planting movements.

God prevailed in the days of Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Caesar. He prevailed in the days of Stalin. No matter how many tyrants and terrorists rage in our day, he will prevail again.


Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: WHITHER STALIN.

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