Stalin: 'It Isn't the People Who Vote that Count...'

From the urban legends mailbag: A quote attributed to Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin, Secretary-general of the Communist party of Soviet Russia

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Consider the following quote, widely attributed to the USSR's Communist leader Joseph Stalin: "It's not the people who vote that count. It's the people who count the votes." At first blush, it seems curious as to why a totalitarian dictator, who never had to stand for public election, would even care about votes at all. But is it just another net hoax, or could the quote have some context to actually be attributed to the strongarm leader?

Elections in the USSR

Arguments against its likelihood of being uttered by Stalin aren't completely lacking in merit, but they are based in part on an erroneous assumption. Granted, Stalin never faced a nationwide popular election, but he did have to cope with the Communist Party Central Committee, which periodically cast votes on membership, policy, and leaders. Though Stalin was able to negate the Central Committee's authority when it suited him, he did so by carrying out brutal reprisals against those who voted contrary to his wishes, not by controlling how the votes were counted.

Variations on the Stalin Quote

It bears noting that more than one version of the attributed statement exists. For example, this more formal variant is cited at least as often as the one we've been discussing: "Those who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything."

One historical source for a version of the quote comes from Boris Bazhanov's "Memoirs of Stalin's Former Secretary," published in 1980 in Paris and 2002 in Moscow and appearing to be available only in French and in Russian.

The pertinent passage, which appears near the end of chapter five, reads as follows (loosely translated with the help of Google):

"You know, comrades," says Stalin, "that I think in regard to this: I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how." A search of the Stalin Internet Library yielded nothing resembling the quote in the Soviet leader's published writings, though the possibility remains that it could have been excerpted from an unpublished speech or private conversation.

Bazhanov

Bazhanov's first memoir was written in 1929–30, after he escaped from the USSR in 1928. He had been secretary of the Politburo from 1920–28 but planned his flight when he couldn't stand being part of the cruel regime any longer. He took with him government documents to prove his identity and claims and had to dodge government agents tracking him as he fled and trying to assassinate him.

Even if that particular book isn't available in English, there is a book that was translated from the French called "Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin," published by the Ohio University Press in 1990. In it, Bazhanov details how Stalin's governmental machine was built through vote-rigging, tapping into opponents' communications, and extinguishing those who had a moral center.

Additional accounts of the secretary's interrogation by British intelligence officials are a part of the book "The Storm Petrels: The Flight of the First Soviet Defectors" as well.