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

From the Urban Legends Mailbag: A quote attributed to Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dear Urban Legends:

Consider the following quote, if you will, which people on the Web have been tossing around like a towel in a men's room ever since Florida disrupted our national slumber for the second time in a year (the other time being the Elian thing):

"It's not the people who vote that count. It's the people who count the votes." (Joseph Stalin)

Now, I don't want to sound too obvious here ... But has anyone ever wondered why a man who a) never had to stand for election for anything, b) never had to hold an election for anything, and c) would ordinarily never give a crap about anything to do with elections in general since he was a TOTALITARIAN DICTATOR... would even care about votes at all?

I mean, it's not like the guy needed anyone's votes for anything. In terms of being undemocratic and thoroughly unconcerned with elections, you'd be hard pressed to find a better poster boy for electoral indifference than Stalin. He had 20 million Russians murdered just because he could, which by itself makes Hitler, Idi Amin and Slobodan Milosevic all look like a bunch of kids sitting around on a playground busting toy pistol caps with a rock.

Now, if someone like, say, Papa Doc Duvalier, or William Marcy Tweed of Tammany Hall fame or Fernando Marcos said something like that — or better yet, if Slobodan Milosevic or even Hitler said something like that — this would be a really powerful quote! (Tweed did say something similar — I think his quote was roughly "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?") And all the guys I mention in this paragraph at least pretended to have an election.

But since our boy Stalin pretty much acquired his political power using the Machiavelli playbook and to the best of my knowledge (I could be wrong here) never once stood for election, I find this quote to be highly suspect, and thus a potential Net hoax. If you essentially got the top job in the Soviet Union through internal Communist political intrigue and mayhem, why would you logically make a statement like this?

So my question is: Do you have a reliable source to attribute it to, as opposed to just someone's website? I'd love to know.


Dear Reader:

(UPDATE: A published source for this quote has been found. See addendum below.)

The quoted passage is indeed frequently attributed to "our boy" Stalin, but I have yet to find a citation confirming he ever actually said it.

Your arguments against its likelihood 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.

It's conceivable that Stalin uttered such a statement in the context of a broad polemic against capitalist politics. Marxists are prone to assume, after all, that the real power in capitalist countries resides permanently in the hands of the monied elite, hence so-called "democratic" elections are presumed to be bogus.

Who counts the votes? Those who already have the power. In this light, the quote can be read as a blanket condemnation of what Stalin surely regarded as a thoroughly corrupt political system.

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." Neither variant shows up in standard quotation dictionaries. I checked with's experts in 20th Century History and Russian Culture, both of whom told me they're unaware of sources authenticating such a remark. 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.

Lastly, I explored the possibility that Stalin has been wrongly credited with someone else's witticism. The closest matches I could find by other public figures weren't quite close enough, however. In addition to the Boss Tweed remark mentioned above, I found the following line from Tom Stoppard's philosophical play, Jumpers, first produced in 1972: "It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting."

A similar but different thought.

Update: A historical source has been found for one version of this quote. The source is Boris Bazhanov's Memoirs of Stalin's Former Secretary, published in 1992 and only available, so far as I know, 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."