Ben Carson’s campaign shrugs off fake Joseph Stalin quote

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Ben Carson‘s campaign is brushing aside concerns about the presidential candidate and renowned neurosurgeon using a fake Joseph Stalin quote in Saturday night’s debate.

“Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism, and our morality,” Carson said in his closing remarks, referencing a Stalin quote for which no historical evidence exists. “We, the people, can stop that decline, starting right here in South Carolina. If all the people who say, ‘I love Ben Carson and his policies, but he can’t win,’ vote for me. Not only can we win, but we can turn this thing around.”

In an email exchange on Sunday, Larry Ross, Carson’s communications director, repeatedly avoided answering the direct question of whether the candidate would apologize for his high-profile misstatement.

Ross initially pointed the Daily Dot to a page on the website Liberty-Tree.ca, writing, “See the source of the quote here.” When the Daily Dot pointed out that this was not evidence of its authenticity, Ross appeared to acknowledge the problem but still did not admit that Carson had made a mistake.

“I have never read or heard this remark before Saturday night’s debate. Stalin had plenty of other things on his mind.” 

“A campaign colleague queried academic experts who tried to personally fact check the quote on the Russian Internet and found it impossible,” Ross wrote. “As you are likely aware, the Full Collection of Stalin’s writings and speeches (in Russian) consists of 18 volumes, averaging 500 pages per volume. It would take several weeks to conduct a real fact check, assuming electronic versions for searches.”

But as the hoax-debunking website Snopes pointed out, scholars have already conducted such a search of Stalin’s works and speeches and found no evidence for the quote.

“Searching collections of Stalin’s speeches, writings, interviews, and other statements (such as the Josef Stalin Internet Archive and the University of Pennsylvania’s online library of Stalin documents) fails to turn up any reference to this quotation,” the website noted.

Russian history experts contacted by the Daily Dot agreed that the quote was almost certainly fabricated.

“I have never read or heard this remark before Saturday night’s debate,” Donald Raleigh, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, said in an email. “Stalin had plenty of other things on his mind.”

Ordinarily it would be difficult to prove a negative—that someone did not say something they are alleged to have said—but in Stalin’s case, the task is not so onerous.

“The USSR promoted a vast cult of personality that celebrated Stalin as Lenin’s rightful heir. For that reason, the party kept meticulous track of everything Stalin said or did,” David Brandenberger, an associate professor of history and international studies at the University of Richmond and a leading expert on Stalin, said in an email. “Because we can account for Stalin’s professional and personal life with such precision, it is possible to establish with unusual certainty what he discussed, demanded and decreed.”

“In the case of Carson’s ostensible Stalin quotation,” he continued, “there is no archival record of him ever saying such a thing.”

Golfo Alexopoulos, an associate professor and associate chair of the University of South Florida’s history department, said she was “immediately suspicious” of the quote that Carson used.

“Why would Stalin say that America is like a ‘healthy body’ (he would have denied this and called it a capitalist exploitative system)?” she wrote in an email. “Why would Stalin attribute America’s strength to its ‘spiritual life’? The Bolshevik party leadership hardly thought spiritual life was a source of strength.”

“It’s just a very odd quote for the leader of the USSR,” she wrote. “I would definitely question its veracity.”

Eric Lohr, a professor who holds the Susan Carmel Lehrman Chair of Russian History and Culture at American University, agreed that it was “probably fake,” writing, “Of course, it is more plausible than many other things Carson has said (pyramids and grain, gun control contributing to the Holocaust…).”

Brandenberger, who has studied Stalin’s writings and speeches extensively, concurred with Alexopoulos that the quote “makes little sense in terms of Stalin’s political thought.”

“Stalin was a Marxist-Leninist true believer and thought of the world in materialist, class-oriented terms,” he explained. “Had he speculated on the nature of U.S. power, he would have identified materialist factors such as the country’s vast economic and natural resources, its powerful economic base, its hegemonic control over the western hemisphere and its weak history of trade unionism and political radicalism.”

Stalin, Brandenberger wrote, would not have identified American patriotism as a bulwark against national decline.

“Had he ever speculated on its downfall, he would have recommended revolutionaries to focus on Marxist themes such as rising levels of economic inequality and growing labor exploitation,” he said. “Had he ever commented on America’s ‘patriotism, its morality, and its spiritual life,’ it would have been to dismiss these issues as illusory and vulnerable to class protest.”

Snopes

Ross, the Carson spokesman, deflected questions about the accuracy of the quote and instead suggested that it was only Carson’s broader argument about America that mattered.

“Let’s agree that the statement paraphrases Stalin’s general attitude,” he wrote, “and focus on Dr. Carson’s application about the current state of our nation and resulting impact on future generations unless things change.”

Update 2:55pm CT, Feb. 15: Added quotes from another historian.

Photos via Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | tomislav medak/Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix via Max Fleishman

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.