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Luiz Romero
By Luiz Romero November 16, 2021

A false anecdote about Stalin and a chicken circulates again — adapted for the pandemic

If Your Time is short

• The tale circulated online for years, but this new version uses the story to criticize anti-COVID-19 measures.

• The anecdote was written decades after Stalin’s death by an anti-Stalinist author who used allegories in his work.

• A Stalin biographer said the anecdote is false.

As leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin is said to have coined the Russian word "dezinformatsiya" to describe the spreading of false reports in the media to mislead public opinion. 

A modern example of that is a viral image being shared on Facebook that mixes a critique of COVID-19 mitigation policies with an anecdote about Stalin himself. 

The image tells a gruesome story starring the dictator, who ruled the Soviet Union between the 1920s and 1950s. "Stalin once ripped all the feathers off a live chicken as a lesson to his followers," it says. "He then set the chicken on the floor a short distance away. The chicken was bloodied and suffering immensely, yet, when Stalin began to toss some bits of wheat toward the chicken it followed him around."

Stalin then purportedly told his followers: "This is how easy it is to govern stupid people, they will follow you no matter how much pain you cause them, as long as you throw them a little worthless treat once in a while."

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Conservatives have been sharing this claim for years on different platforms and in different languages to criticize communism. It was shared on Facebook by a conservative Brazilian politician in 2017 and on Twitter by a libertarian Venezuelan think tank in 2019.

The new post uses the story to criticize anti-COVID-19 measures, including relief payments, adding: "Stay inside. Shut your business down. Do as you’re told. We will take care of you. Help is on the way. Here’s $600."

Anti-Stalinist allegory

But the event described in the anecdote never actually happened.

Some versions of the story in other languages hint at that. A Spanish newspaper calls it a "fable," while a Brazilian website calls it a "rumor." But versions in English, like the Facebook post above, tend to present it as fact, leading people to wonder if it’s true.

Featured Fact-check

"Did Stalin really pluck the feathers off a chicken to demonstrate how his power worked?" asked a user on Reddit. "Did Stalin pluck a live chicken?" asked a user on Quora

Snopes traced the origin of this anecdote to the writings of Chingiz Aitmatov. 

Aitmatov had a "distinguished history as an anti-Stalinist," according to the New Yorker, and wrote his critical works amid an "extraordinary torrent" of anti-Stalinist works published in the 1980s — decades after Stalin’s death.

Aitmatov also used allegories and fantasy in his work, and was inspired by legends and myths, according to the preface of his book "The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years." An obituary of the writer published by Reuters in 2008 says that he "often interwove popular myths and folktales to create allegorical themes populated with down-to-earth characters."

Based on those traits of the writer’s work, Snopes concluded that the tale about the chicken is likely not a factual account, "but rather an illustrative sketch that Aitmatov either invented himself or heard elsewhere and subsequently attributed to Stalin."

Oleg Khlevniuk, a historian based in Moscow and the author of a biography of Stalin, told PolitiFact that the anecdote is false.

Our ruling

An image shared on Facebook claims that Stalin plucked a live chicken to teach his followers a lesson about political control. The image uses the anecdote to criticize anti-COVID-19 measures.

But there’s no evidence the anecdote is true. The story comes from an author who is inspired by legends and myths and uses allegories and fantasy in his work. A Stalin biographer told PolitiFact that the anecdote is not true.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

The New Yorker, "Letter from Moscow," Oct. 17, 1988. (As quoted by Snopes.)

Chingiz Aitmatov, "The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years," 1988. Kindle version accessed on Nov. 12, 2021.

Reuters, "Kyrgyz writer, perestroika ally Aitmatov dies," June 10, 2008.

Snopes, "Did Stalin pluck a live chicken as a lesson to his followers?" May 4, 2020.

Email interview with Oleg Khlevniuk, a history professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and the author of "Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator," Nov. 8, 2021.

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More by Luiz Romero

A false anecdote about Stalin and a chicken circulates again — adapted for the pandemic

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