MOSCOW — Wednesday was the anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death. The sordid man who for 30 years held the Soviet Union in an iron grip expired 50 years ago, but still casts a long shadow.

The two critical issues of spring 2003 are related to the diseased dictator — Iraq indirectly and North Korea upfront. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein rode to power on a wave of leftwing anticolonialism, instigated and nurtured by the Kremlin. Stalin didn’t live long enough to see revolutions in the Arab world, but he tried to launch one in Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, as early as in 1945 — and thus provoked the Cold War.

The totalitarian regime of Hussein resembles Stalin’s dictatorship so much and Hussein imitates Stalin so closely that Russians, with always a weak spot for outrageous rumor, are now saying that Hussein is Stalin’s biological son. Although the supposition is ridiculous, it is interesting to note that the two do look very much alike: same paternalistic mustache, same low Neanderthal brow, same facial expression — majestic, unsmiling, all-knowing, wise, and yet a bit stupid. Can one regime pass on its genes to another like father to son?

Stalin had more heirs — on the Korean Peninsula. In 1945, Stalin personally molded the communist regime in North Korea. Its dictator, Kim Il Sung, who stayed in power for nearly 50 years, was initially Stalin’s lap dog, lifted from obscurity into the limelight by a random decision of the Soviet ruler.

For Stalin, the choice proved wise. Not daring to challenge the United States in Europe, he was looking for a conflict that would enable him to confront the West militarily. Kim was more than happy to oblige, and in 1950 he started the Korean War. Since then, neighboring countries have been paying the war bills in the form of instability, the threat of war and constant provocations from the North.

Stalin’s ghost must be delighted this spring. If the previous decade has been disappointing following the specter of communism’s collapse in Europe and its decline in Asia, the beginning of the 21st century has seen a number of crises between Stalin’s heirs and the West.

Both Hussein and the Kim dynasty have learned a lot from Stalin. The late Soviet dictator was an exemplary tyrant, whose authority was never challenged either by popular revolt or a palace coup d’etat. Although responsible for periods of horrific famine and terror and having almost lost a war against Germany, the man quietly died in his country house, unchallenged and unpunished.

He abided by a set of rules that were hard to copy, but Hussein and the Kims did their best to master the theory and practice of dictatorship. The first rule is: Kill at random without giving your terror rationale or logic. The more you kill, the better. If terror has logic, it can be anticipated and thus opposed. But if you make a plumber feel as unsure of his future as the chief of secret police, nobody will dare challenge your authority.

Rule No. 2: Never permit reform, even if the economy is crumbling, for any and every attempt by a bad government to reform itself results in its collapse.

Rule No. 3: Seal the nation from the outside world; shoot people if they listen to foreign broadcasts; jail them if they greet a foreigner on the street.

Rule No. 4: Create a preposterous cult of personality. Link it to some ancient cult of a ferocious deity — absurd, loud, irrational. In a word, a dictator must deify himself and sell the icon to the people.

If Stalin had written something like a dictator’s catechism, it probably would have contained these rules. The hypothetical text would have been in great demand, since Uncle Joe remained in power for 30 years.

The ideal state of things is when wrapping something in a newspaper carrying a dictator’s picture is regarded as sacrilegious and punishable by 25 years of hard labor. Even in the summer of 1941, when the Soviet Union suffered the most painful, unexpected and humiliating defeats at the hands of Adolf Hitler, Stalin never had to face the music.

Hussein found himself in a similar situation in 1991, when he lost the Persian Gulf War against the U.S-led coalition. In spite of everything, his regime didn’t collapse as many hoped it would.

The same is true for North Korea. When Kim Il Sung died, people said his chubby offspring, Kim Jong Il, didn’t stand a chance and that the country would see either an uprising or a military coup d’etat within weeks. Yet, nine years since his death, Kim Jong Il has been able to cope with famine, international isolation and domestic opposition.

U.S. President George W. Bush says that removing Hussein from power is one of the ultimate goals of his campaign against Iraq. That means that Washington has all but given up hope for a popular anti-Hussein revolt in Iraq or a coup against him. So far, Washington has said little about North Korea in spite of Kim Jong Il’s bragging about his country’s nuclear capability. That is more dangerous than Hussein’s tired snarling.

Could it be that the North Korean regime is trying to blackmail the world because it smells its demise and needs economic assistance urgently? Or is this just another propaganda campaign to boost domestic morale — borrowing a rule from Comrade Stalin’s catechism?

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