Stalin's Joke

Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Stalin's Joke


When the French Foreign Minister suggested the USSR might placate the Pope by tolerating Catholicism, Josef Stalin famously quipped, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" It is an irony of history that the figure whose weakness Stalin scorned helped to catalyze the fall of his empire.

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The late Pope John Paul II is widely regarded as pivotal to the events that ultimately led to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. With his churches providing meeting places that promoted the rise of Poland's Solidarity Movement and his preaching against fear and for "fidelity to roots," John Paul II confronted Communism's philosophy of oppression and promoted a revolution of peace. By the late 1980s, Soviet domination in Eastern Europe was crumbling under a wave of peaceful popular revolt. As former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged in 1992, "Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this Pope."

History delivered a decisive verdict: the joke is on Stalin. The joke is, however, too easily dismissed as only a joke, as one more blunder of a terrible dictator and one more myopia of his obsolete system. The tale is also a cautionary one that should give cause for reflection. Modern practitioners and theoreticians of international relations agree that power is important, but deciding how expansively to define power remains, now perhaps more than ever, a central question. It is the question that guides this symposium. What is power? By extension, how has power changed, and what is its future?

Power has assumed an evasive identity that academics and politicians alike struggle to pinpoint. Some realists say military power is preeminent, papal proclamations notwithstanding. Some emphasize the economic basis of power, believing political ascendancy impossible without economic dominance. Some swear by people power--roughly the "soft power" of Harvard's Joseph Nye--that is earned and obtained through domestic public opinion. Still others focus on power wielded through diplomatic means, noting the importance of individuals such as US President Woodrow Wilson, architect of an international order.

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