Mental Health of Leaders: Stalin


WAIS thanks Daryl DeBell and Cameron Sawyer for their contributions to its survival and development fund. Daryl is a psychiatrist, and that takes us to a basic political issue. The building blocs of politics are individuals and crowds.  The most important human is the leader on whose physical and mental health, which are intertwined, the fate of the nation belonged. That issue became most serious in the cases of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  WAISer Dr. Herbert Abrams was a member of a committee which studied the problem.  I do not know if the committee included a psychologist or psychiatrist.  It should have, because in a political leader mental health is more important that physical health. Take the case of Stalin, whose physical health was generally good.  Psychologically he was a mess. His megalomania led to paranoia.  He was convinced that his enemies, even his close colleagues, were out to kill him.  One wonders how Khrushchev survived.  Although after Stalin's death he denounced him as a criminal, he must have been very cautious during Stalin's life.  Is there a study on the relations between the two men? 

As Stalin's power grew. so did his paranoia.  He traveled by a specially designed train, and  crowds were kept at a safe distance from it.  He became convinced that his Jewish doctors were out to poison him and had them purged.  Then he became suspicious of intellectuals, and many of them were sent to gulags. Power had ruined his family life.  His daughter Svetlana got a divorce got a divorced, broke with her father, and sought refuge abroad. His incompetent son was given a military post for which he was unqualified.  He became an alcoholic and was jailed after Stalin's death. How would a psychologist explain Stalin's behavior?  He was the son of a poor, unsuccessful¡ Georgian shoemaker, an alcoholic who beat him mercilessly.  Was that the origin of his psychosis?

What about the Russian masses?  Despite Stalin's excesses, when he died they mourned, and even Orthodox priests were seen weeping.  Then came Khrushchev's posthumous denunciation of him, and the crowd's attitude changed. Now, according to a poll, he again is revered as a hero by the Russian people because he made the USSR a great power.  It is like the recent poll in France which showed that Napoleon is the ruler most admired because he made France great.  How far similarly does this explain the popularity of President Bush?  The fate of President Nixon shows how fickle the masses can be. This calls for a study of crowd psychology.

What can be done about the leader and the crowd?  Do psychiatrists have a role to play?  My friend Sidney Raffel, MD thinks that the problem lies in man's genes and that therefore a solution is impossible,  We are back to the old argument about nature v. nurture.  Unfortunately Dr. Abrams' committee was disbanded.  There should be a permanent committee, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to counsel the public on these matters.  I am not optimistic. The American Bar Association used to be consulted on candidates for the Supreme Court. This wise precaution was dropped; the Association gave politically incorrect answers.  We would appreciate the views of Herb Abrams and Daryl DeBell.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004

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last updated: November 20, 2004