Fifty years ago today, a grey old man lay on a sofa, his lips turning black. In his daughter's words, "he was suffering slow strangulation" after a brain haemorrhage, yet he was so despised by the people around him that he was allowed to lie dying for 10 hours before a doctor was called. Suddenly, she continues, "he lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something up above and bringing down a curse on all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace." Joseph Stalin died as he lived: paranoid, full of hatred and cursing the world.
Still we do not take Stalin's crimes seriously in this country. While Le Monde publishes a pull-out supplement and the anniversary features on the front pages of most Eastern European papers, here there is a distracted silence save for a BBC documentary. Or, to give another, trivial but revealing example: Gordon Brown's former spin doctor, Charlie Whelan, used to keep the collected writings of Stalin prominently on his bookshelf, "for a laugh." Obviously Whelan is far from being a Stalinist; but can you imagine if, say, Amanda Platell, William Hague's spin-doctor, had kept Mein Kampf prominently on display in her office?
Some readers will find the comparison with Hitler offensive. In fact, Stalin was worse. Alexander Yakovlev, an expert on Stalin's crimes, estimates that his victims totalled more than 30 million. To give some idea of the scale of this: Stalin's body count is the equivalent to an army of 1.5 million Fred Wests, or 10,000 September 11 attacks. Yes, Stalin helped to defeat Nazism, but so would any Russian leader who had been attacked by the Reich.
One anecdote will have to suffice to give some sense of Stalin's contempt for human life. His wife Nadezhda began in the early 1930s to teach courses in textile production in an attempt to escape the misery of life in the Kremlin. She and her students carried out assignments in the Russian countryside, where she witnessed the degeneration of the peasantry because of Stalin's policy of forced seizures. According to the historian Robert Conquest, 3.5 million people starved to death, and cannibalism became rife. Nadezhda's students were so shocked that they insisted on reporting back to the great leader Stalin. They did, and Stalin had them all arrested for "sedition". Nadezhda killed herself not long afterwards.
I don't raise this only in order to provide a diverting history lesson. I raise it because Stalinism lives. Nazism is now a movement confined to the outer fringes of politics, yet Stalinists still control several countries and rule over a greater population than Tony Blair. Even after 50 years, the malign ideology of "Uncle Joe" has yet to join him in the grave.
I reported from a meeting of the British Stalin Society last year, where one elderly "comrade" tried to rally the meeting by declaring, "We still have Cuba and [North] Korea. We are not beaten yet!" He was right. Not only are there Stalinists in power today; there are apologists for them here in Britain.
For evidence of this, we only have to look at the most popular Stalinist nation on earth: Cuba. Every time I write about this, I am inundated with letters from enraged (and no doubt perfectly nice) hippies explaining that Cuban communism is all about being nice to children and cuddling small puppies who resemble Lassie.
Yet Fidel Castro recently, for the billionth time, explained his beliefs, and they are not so benevolent. Stalin "showed great wisdom," explains the billionaire leader of a bitingly poor nation. He continues: "Stalin established unity in the Soviet Union [by suppressing ruthlessly all the surrounding nations, and, for example, deporting the entire population of Chechnya to Siberia, as Fidel doesn't add]. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity [by butchering all his opponents]. He gave the international revolutionary movement a new impetus. The USSR's industrialisation [through forced labour] was one of Stalin's wisest actions."
Fidel runs his country on precisely the same lines as his hero. Amnesty International's latest reports detail the plight of the "prisoners of conscience" (otherwise known as democrats) and notes than even now, the number of people harassed "directly by the state," including "political dissidents, independent journalists and other activists," is increasing. It is worth remembering the name of just one victim of Fidel, plucked from among many: Bernardo Arevalo Padron has been festering in prison since 1997 because he called Fidel Castro "a liar" for failing (as ever) to stick to agreements on relaxing his authoritarian rule.
Yet still Tony Benn brags about the standards of the Cuban health-care system which, preposterously, he says are "better than America's." (If you are ever taken ill on a flight across the Atlantic, Tony, I suggest you test this by insisting on being flown to Havana rather than New York.) Still John Pilger describes the Cuban revolution as "a crucial model for challenging power." (For a man obsessed with hidden agendas, he very rarely discloses this agenda of his own.)
And then there is North Korea, a nation whose leadership is so fiercely Stalinist that the population are required to leave their radios on constantly so they can hear the latest dictates of the "Great Leader" Kim Jong Il. The punishment for switching off your radio is death.
The 21 million people left to rot in that Stalinist autocracy are among the world's great forgotten causes – although now their deranged leader has taken the step of trying to build nuclear weapons, we might at last begin to talk about them once more.
And – how can any columnist fail to mention? – there is another leader who lauds Stalin. According to his biographer Con Coughlin, Saddam Hussein became obsessed with Stalin's political theories during his time in exile in Egypt in the early 1960s. After the 1968 revolution, Saddam embarked on the "Stalinization of Iraq" by ruthlessly building a one-party state based on hierarchy, secrecy and discipline. He borrowed Stalin's vicious tactic of staging show-trials, and began to discover "Zionist spy-rings" across the country. Coughlin explains that "the only significant difference between Saddam's purges and Stalin's terror is that in Iraq there were no gulags; with a few exceptions, Saddam's intended victims stood no chance of survival."
George Galloway, the MP who greeted Saddam in 1994 with the words "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability," also has an ambiguous relationship with Stalinism. He describes Fidel Castro as "Cuba's liberator" and as "cool not cruel." He was asked by an interviewer last year if he would describe himself as part of the "Stalinist left", and he replied, "I wouldn't define it that way because of the pejoratives loaded around it; that would be making a rod for our own back. If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did . . . The disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life."
Re-read that sentence, and imagine that a Tory MP were answering a question about whether he sees himself as part of the fascist right in this weasly, equivocal way. I don't understand why the anti-war left (which consists mostly of decent democrats) are not more eager to distance themselves from this unashamed authoritarian.
The best way to mark the anniversary of Stalin's death is for each of us to make large contributions to Amnesty International to document the horrific crimes going on in Cuba, North Korea and (although not for much longer) Iraq – and for the National Executive Committee to expel George Galloway from the Labour Party.