My Summer with Stalin

Michael Blim

For me, summer reading choices have always been something of the voice of the unconscious speaking. If I am lucky, I figure out why I devoted my summer to one topic or another before the next summer rolls around.

Last year, as some of you may remember from a fall column, I spent the summer with Hitler – or rather reading accounts of his life and regime. It didn’t seem an odd choice. In the small town library I was using over the summer, non-fiction choices came down to three – or two and a half – topics: Hitler and the Second World War or the American Civil War. Their only rival was the children’s section, which prompted the wicked in me to wonder if tales of gruesome wars and a venomous dictator are in practice children’s books for adults.

This summer it was Stalin. In comparison to Hitler, he has inspired no universal obsession, no midnight reading in the garden of evil. As in the case of Mao, you might say that Stalin’s accomplishments are still vastly under-appreciated in relation to those of Hitler. Perhaps as the body counts under their regimes rise, Stalin and Mao may yet achieve admission into the pantheon of great 20th Century evil-doers. Hitler may yet find his peers.

Yet will Stalin’s admission be whole-hearted? Look around us: nothing draws universal outrage and dramatic protests as quickly and easily as the neo-Nazi movements that pop up in Europe and America.

By contrast, Vladimir Putin has made Stalin and Stalinism fashionable in Russia again. In Putin’s Russia, state authority is unitary and inviolate. The state develops Russia’s economy and dictates the terms of life and labor for the Russian people. When force and violence are necessary to defeat anti-state forces, they will be used, and the use will be held accountable only by the agents of the state itself. In other words, Stalinism without the millions dead.

Communism’s kulaks have won. The Soviet state class has not only survived the empire’s collapse, but has parlayed its prior advantage into a new system of privilege. The stakes are no longer two cows and a plow, but access to enormous wealth and power held once more via the state.

Stalinism is not in style in the West, but indifference to its effects, save in the survival of the new satellites the West has acquired, is palpable. If the Russian state creates something of a neo-Stalinist hell for its people, the West appears only vaguely interested in their fate.

Then too, the West has seemed to treat Stalinism as the lesser of two evils when compared with Hitlerism. Perhaps it was a matter of their priorities rather than ours. Hitler had no use for creating Nazis. He had all he needed to rule the world, and for him, the rest of us were low-life mongrels useful only in murderous domination. Revolutionary Stalin was a universalist: he sent out Communists of all nationalities to convert and revolutionize their own. Consequently, no European country since the Thirties has lived without some home-grown Stalinists in their midst. Even the United States has had its Stalinists, or what’s a Gus Hall for? R.I.P.

Perhaps the presence of home-grown Stalinists for three generations in the West humanized Stalin’s Stalinism in ways that Hitler, save for Mel Brooks’ The Producers, has never found.

Still, the monstrous facts of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union have been known for generations. Khrushchev’s 1956 finally not so “secret” speech to the 20th Soviet Union Communist Party Congress put Stalin’s crimes into circulation throughout the socialist world and into the hands of the West’s spymasters and anti-Communist intellectuals and policy advisors. George Kennan, 20th Century America’s master foreign policy intellectual had published extensive accounts in the sixties of the costs of the Soviet Union’s brutal journey to world economic and political power.

The obituaries commemorating Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s death short weeks ago are also reminders that accounts of Stalin and his deeds still circulate widely in the public domain.

No one can pretend ignorance of Stalin’s record as one of the supreme killers in the 20th Century.

But it is not only Putin that is propelling Stalin back into style. The decade-long thaw that occurred in Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union enabled researchers to finally get their hands on documents in archives that had long been sequestered, or whose very existence had heretofore been unknown. We have a better chance now at understanding Stalin and Stalinism in its historical context.

The thaw and the newly opened archives have fueled accounts of two kinds. One is the re-exploration of Stalin’s life and character, as well as his relation to the Soviet regime. The other focuses on the impact of state terror on the everyday lives of citizens caught up in the chaos and upheavals of post-revolutionary Soviet society.

Regarding Stalin, well surely it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy, and that’s nothing new. But the vast amount of new material available has enabled historians to take a closer look at Stalin’s character. The result is: complexity, thy name is Stalin.

I rely on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar for providing me some of the facts from which I derive my impressions.

I’ve gotten to know another Stalin. Malice, murder, and mayhem there are in requisite abundance for satisfying one’s earlier stereotype. But Montefiore in spite of himself as well finds a Stalin possessed of vast intelligence and a cultural literacy that would easily surpass that possessed by any American president in the 20th Century:

“’He worked very hard to improve himself,” said Molotov. His library consisted of 20,000 well-used volumes. Svetlana (Stalin’s daughter – MB) found books there from the Life of Jesus to the novels of Galsworthy, Wilde, Maupassant and later Steinbeck and Hemingway. His granddaughter later noticed him reading Gogol, Chekhov, Hugo, Thackeray and Balzac. In old age, he was still discovering Goethe. He “’worshipped Zola.’” (2003: 97)

According to Montefiore, Stalin “adored the Last of the Mohicans, amazing a young translator whom he greeted in faux-Red Indian: ‘Big chief greets paleface!’”

Stalin experienced enormous love and friendship. He inspired devotion as well as fear among his closest associates. As for Sergei Kirov, the fabled Leningrad party chief as his only likely successor, one will never know if Stalin’s love for him was faux, or Kirov’s end at Stalin’s hands was like Otello’s parting kiss.

No one would ever say that Stalin was not the author of his crimes. He signed tens of thousands of death warrants personally, occasionally with comments appended such as “make him really suffer.” He rendered pitch-perfect the endless propaganda campaigns against enemies of the people that exposed people to torture, exile, and death by privation or execution, and in the millions. The mandates given his henchmen were explicit, as were the body counts sent back to Stalin at the Kremlin.

The henchmen too lived in a state of frenzied activity on behalf of the regime while at the same time possessed of abject fear that they too, or their loved ones, would be caught up as victims of the terrors. In one of the strangest tales from this schizoid world, Stalin imprisoned Molotov’s wife for associating with Jewish nationalist even as Molotov was helping Stalin keep Hitler at bay via the 1939 non-aggression pact. Molotov’s wife would go to prison a second time after World War II; her husband would remain loyal to Stalin until the latter’s death.

Stalin, in my view, was no madman. He was possessed of the Manichean worldview of a revolutionary caught up in a violent struggle for power who believed it virtuous to transform Soviet society by any means necessary. But the more he succeeded in subjecting Soviet society to his demands, force and violence became ends in themselves. They became the normal tools in perfecting and finishing the task of revolution.

As with Molotov, so too with so many of the millions of real victims of Stalin’s regime. New scholarship, access to archives and frank oral histories, reveal something even more fascinating to recount than the extraordinary career of Stalin. Several new books allow us a glimpse of how Soviet citizens were reformed or reformed themselves in the caldron of post-revolutionary terrors. Some citizens hid their characters and beliefs from the state, hoping to avoid death or social annihilation. Others sought to change and perfect new characters that would be at one with the revolution’s mission and final triumph in a truly transformed, just, communist society.

Orlando Figes, eminent scholar of the revolution and of the post-revolutionary period, argues for his part that many people resisted “conversion” to a Soviet-ophile character through concealment, the creation of false identities, the aid of kin, and even the occasional kindness of strangers. In The Whisperers (2007), Figes also relates the stories of people’s whose beliefs and characters had been colonized by the Stalinist state. Bolsheviks languished in prisons still believing in the cause. Others might not have believed that their accused father, for instance, was an enemy of the people, but this is in no way diminished their belief in enemies of the people. Still others believed that if their father were accused, he must be guilty.

In Figes, we have an exemplary account of the power of fear. In Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (2006), we see the workings of desire, as he shows how people worked to transform themselves into instruments of revolution and a new communist society. His discovery and recounting of diaries written by ordinary persons during the terrors reveals how people worked on their basic characters to create revolutionary subjects. For society to hurl itself into the new world, so must its devoted citizens. Their diaries were the account books for their change.

There are those who work with rapture daily to be one with the proletarian revolutionary movement represented in the party. There are others for whom the pain of denunciation redoubles their efforts to become worthy Soviet citizens. There are still others who recount their psychic battles to contain or destroy the bourgeois impulses of the past.

The greatest impression left by my summer with Stalin is that Stalin, save as a subject for “big-man” history, is not finally the source of useful knowledge that the study of life under his regime is.

Why? Because we live in times no less subject to mass persuasion, coercion by force, and state violence. What lives do we fashion, re-fashion, under their influence?

Of the heroic tales we tell ourselves, can the strength of character as a human absolute be the biggest whopper of them all? In the story of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, Stalin hardened his character into a violent force of nature. Ordinary Soviet citizens discovered how fragile, how plastic, and how friable were theirs.

And so might we.

Did you have a good summer? And what did you learn?

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