of Fear" NYRB May, 2004
Review of Stalin:
The Court of the Red Tsar by
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Buruma: Dictators all have one quality in
common: striving for absolute power consigns them to a world of lies.
Stalin, the boss of a huge crime syndicate.
Stalin less as a gangster boss than as a malevolent high priest of a
sinister cult and stresses the fanaticism of the early Bolsheviks. This
religion—or science, as it was modestly called by its adepts—invests
man with a godlike authority. "Maybe it (ie
your death) can be explained by the fact that you lost faith." Some
Party stalwarts, betrayed by the very cause that they had served, still
believed that the Party and its Leader were infallible.
Stalin as Marxist or Totalitarian?
· Stalin shared with Mao one
conviction that does fit the logic of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism,
namely the belief that society was a tabula rasa, that man could be
remade, from scratch, given superior will and a sufficient degree of
ruthlessness. Nature could be safely ignored. "Lysenkoism," or
· Reality, like Soviet Man, was
endlessly malleable; it was what the Vozhd
said it was. Stalin also used capriciousness as a political tool to
keep his subordinates constantly guessing.
· "Did Stalin really believe it all?" Montefirore’s answer: “Yes, passionately,
because it was politically necessary, which was better than mere truth.
‘We ourselves will be able to determine,' Stalin told Ignatiev, 'what is true and what is not.'"
· Stalin told Beria that "an
Enemy of the People is not only one who does sabotage but one who
doubts the rightness of the Party line. And there are a lot of them and
we must liquidate them."
· "They arrested a boy," said
Stalin, "and accused him of writing Eugene Onegin.
The boy tried to deny it.... A few days later, the NKVD interrogator
bumped into the boy's parents: 'Congratulations!' he said. 'Your son
wrote Eugene Onegin.'" Stalin and
his gang found this hilarious.
Cannibalistic Times" NYRB April, 1991
Review of The
Great Terror: A Reassessment by
"Great Terror" and "Little Terror"
- The Little
Terror in Russia has been around from time immemorial. It has lasted
for centuries and continues to this very day. So many books have been
written about the Little Terror! Virtually all the literature of the
nineteenth century, which is so valued in the West, tells the story of
the Little Terror, sometimes with indignation, sometimes as something
taken for granted, and tries to understand its causes, explain its
mechanisms, give detailed portraits of its
victims: individual personalities, entire classes, and the country as a
whole. What is Russian society and why is it the way it is? What can
and must be done in order to free ourselves of this all-permeating
terror, of total slavery, of fear of any and everyone?
How do we ensure that an individual's fate does not depend on others'
whims? Why is it that any revolution, any attempt to rid Russia of
terror, leads to an even greater terror?
- The attempts of many
writers and researchers to explain Russian horrors by the Bolshevik
rise to power are naive.
Civilization vs. Sub-Conscious History
- civilization: the self-awareness of transnational
technological culture as opposed to the subconscious, unquestioned
stream of history
- In Russia there
is practically no civilization, and history lies in deep, untouched
layers over the villages, over the small towns that have reverted to
near wilderness, over the large, uncivilized cities, in those places
where they try not to let foreigners in, or where foreigners themselves
don't go. Even in the middle of Moscow, within a ten-minute walk from
the Kremlin, live people with the consciousness of the fifteenth or
eleventh century (the eleventh century was better, more comprehensible
to us, because at that time culture and civilization were more
developed in Russia than in the fifteenth century).
- the absurd... "the twilight zone" since Novgorod
- The Mongol
Conquest: “In the fifteenth and the
sixteenth centuries, when Novgorod was conquered by Moscow, letters
disappear, and instead of leather boots lapti
appear, a kind of shoe made from bast.”
- Ivan the Terrible: “the first government-wide
terror on the territory of what was then Russia, a terror that is
horribly reminiscent of Stalinist times. It is particularly appalling
in what would seem to be its inexplicableness, its lack of precedent. It was during his reign that someone said: "We
Russians don't need to eat; we eat one another and this satisfies us."
- the ocean from which the great terror arises: “The backward
motion of history, the submersion of culture under a thick layer of
gilded, decorative "Asiatic savagery," governmental piracy, guile
elevated to principle, unbridled caprice, an extraordinary passivity
and lack of will combined with an impulsive cruelty; incompletely
suppressed paganism, undeveloped Christianity; a blind, superstitious
belief in the spoken, and especially in the written, word; the sense of
sin as a secret and repulsive pleasure (what Russians call Dostoevskyism).”
The Terror as Consequence of the Russian Revoution:
- Critique of Conquest: he investigates only the Great Terror, not touching on the Little
- Destruction of the Intelligentsia: The Revolution and
the civil war that soon followed led to the exile and destruction or decivilizing of the Europeanized Russian
population (by Europeanized I mean people who were literate, educated,
who possessed a work ethic, a developed religious consciousness,
respect for law and reason, and who were also familiar with Europe and
the achievements of world culture)....Lenin hated them
more than anyone else, and they were the first to be slaughtered. When
Gorky wrote to Lenin in their defense, saying that "the intelligentsia
is the brain of the nation," Lenin answered with the famous phrase:
"It's not the brain, it's the shit."
- Homo Sovieticus? the Soviet model for the "worker" was
taken from the German or English working class and the peasant was
entirely dreamed up. Arrogant, impatient, cruel, barely literate people
took advantage of the historical moment (the war dragging on, the
military leadership's lack of talent, thievery in the army and the rear
guard; a weak tsar; and after the February Revolution, a weak
transitional government, widespread disorder, chaos, a dissatisfied
people, etc.) to carry out what they called a revolution, but what was
actually a counter-revolutionary coup against the Intelligentsia
- Lenin and Terror: the Bolsheviks: they were better organized and much
more cynical and unscrupulous than any of their opponents. Seizing
power turned out not to be too difficult. But governing the Russian
empire was almost impossible. (Even today no one knows how.) Terror
came into use. "We're not shooting
enough professors." Isn't this a portent of typical Stalinist methods:
destruction by category?
- Stalin and Terror: destruction by category: today they're killing miners, tomorrow they're
destroying railway engineers, then they'll get around to peasants, then
historians of local customs (students of local lore, history, and
economy were almost completely destroyed for being "spies")
times didn't emerge out of thin air. The people willing to carry out
Bolshevik orders had to ripen for the task. They matured in the murk of
Russian villages, in the nightmare of factory work conditions, in the
deep countryside, and in the capitals, Moscow and Petersburg. They were
already there, there were a lot of them, and they could be counted on.
"God forbid we should ever witness a Russian revolt, senseless and
merciless," our brilliant poet Pushkin remarked as early as the first
quarter of the nineteenth century. He knew what he was talking about.
- And how could a
Russian revolt be anything but senseless and merciless, when the
Russian government had exhibited a senseless lack of mercy toward its
own people for centuries? … The Stalinist regime didn't invent anything
three hundred years later, it simply reproduced the political
investigation techniques that were already a longstanding tradition in
the Russian state…. totalitarian thinking was not invented by the
Soviet regime, but arose in the bleak depths of Russian history, and
was subsequently developed and fortified by Lenin, Stalin, and hundreds
of their comrades in arms, talented students of past tyrants, sensitive
sons of the people.
- Thesis: totalitarian thinking was not invented
by the Soviet regime, but arose in the bleak depths of Russian history,
and was subsequently developed and fortified by Lenin and Stalin
- Because…In Russia, in
contrast to the West, reason has traditionally been seen as a source of
destruction, emotion (the soul) as one of creation. How many scornful
pages have great Russian writers dedicated to Western pragmatism,
materialism, rationalism! They mocked the English with their machines,
the Germans with their order and precision, the French with their
logic, and finally the Americans with their love of money. As a result,
in Russia we have neither machines, nor order, nor logic, nor money.
"We eat one another and this satisfies us…."
- The enslavement
of the peasants, which continued for three hundred years, provoked such
a feeling of guilt in the free, educated classes of Russian society
that nothing disparaging could be said about the peasants…. Some voices of alarm break through Russian
literature, the voices of people trying to speak about the dark side of
the Russian people, but they are isolated, unpopular, misinterpreted….
- During Stalin's
time, as I see it, Russian society, brutalized by centuries of
violence, intoxicated by the feeling that everything was allowed,
destroyed everything "alien": "the enemy," "minorities"—any and
everything the least bit different from the "average." At first this
was simple and exhilarating: the aristocracy, foreigners, ladies in
hats, gentlemen in ties, everyone who wore eyeglasses, everyone who
read books, everyone who spoke a literary language and showed some
signs of education; then it became more and more difficult, the
material for destruction began to run out, and society turned inward
and began to destroy itself. Without popular support Stalin and his
cannibals wouldn't have lasted for long. The executioner's genius
expressed itself in his ability to feel and direct the evil forces
slumbering in the people; he deftly manipulated the choice of courses,
knew who should be the hors d'oeuvres, who the main course, and who
should be left for dessert; he knew what honorific toasts to pronounce
and what inebriating ideological cocktails to offer (now's the time to
serve subtle wines to this group; later that one will get strong
They Believed in Stalin" NYRB April, 2007
Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia
by Sheila Fitzpatrick
on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin
by Jochen Hellbeck
- ordinary Russians' ardent responses to the demand to
refashion themselves into model Communist
"totalitarian" school depicts the Soviet people as passive consumers of
an ideology force-fed to them by their rulers.
historians of the "Soviet subjectivity" school argue that far from
repressing the individual's sense of self, the pressures exerted by the
Soviet state's revolutionary agenda worked to reinforce a drive to
self-perfection whose roots lay deep in pre-revolutionary Russian
- During the 1920s
and 1930s, advancement depended on the ability to prove that one was
really proletarian; ruin followed from the "unmasking" of citizens'
concealed class identity-- kulak or bourgeois-- on the basis of their words
- Citizens cast themselves in
roles based on established Soviet stereotypes-- worker, activist,
patriot, victim of past oppression. (Con men who flourished in the 1920s and
1930s, were immortalized in Soviet literature in the humorous novels of Ilya Ilf
and Yevgeny Petrov, whose protagonist Ostap Bender speaks Bolshevik with such
fluency that he can assume any role in Soviet society at will.)
History and the Sense of Self
- Liberal Historians: The Soviet
system worked to obliterate the individual's sense of selfhood,
creating, in Alexander Zinoviev's words, "behavioral stereotypes
without convictions." Self-presentation
took the place of self-exploration, as citizens worried "pragmatically"
about how best to conform to the model of the Soviet "new man."
- According to Fitzpatrick, Soviet society displayed a tension between,
on the one hand, the claims of the public sphere and, on the other, a
liberal conception of selfhood as the pursuit of individual autonomy.
- THESIS: Kelly argues that the Soviet notion of selfhood had deep roots in a
different cultural tradition which did not recognize the same dichotomy
of public and private: a tradition of introspection and moral
self-perfecting from Enlightenment rationalism, German romantic
philosophy, and French utopian socialism which taught people to strive
to create images of "new men," integrated personalities whose personal
fulfillment was achieved through heroic labors for the good of
society…. The romantic dream of self-realization through fusion with an
all-powerful collective force was transformed into alleged scientific
certainty by the Marxist account of the laws of history: a collectivist
version of Nietzsche's heroic model of personal authenticity.
- Bolshevik goals
and repugnant Stalinist methods produced "a peculiar duality of mind." We know now that very many who took
part in these campaigns were genuine believers in the messianic ideal.
The sacrifices involved in the country's industrial transformation were
prompted not only by coercion and fear but also by the efforts of
individuals to perfect themselves in line with Party directives based
on the Bolsheviks' claim to the sole knowledge of history's path.
- A secularized
form of belief in the coming of a millennium, Stalinist ideology aimed
to transform not only society but the very nature of man. Hence the
endless campaigns of purification, personal and public, ranging from self-criticism in the workplace
and Party cells to the show trials of the Great Purge. True believers
could explain away the worst excesses of Stalinism by viewing the
present from the perspective of eschatological time. In this form
of secular religiosity, history, like Providence, was seen to move in
mysterious ways; when the goal was attained, it would become clear that
policies and actions which now seemed objectionable or senseless all
had their place in the overall grand design.
- Bukharin's faith in the Party's collective infallibility
made opposition to Bolshevism from within untenable for him.He was executed in 1938.
Stalin-era Diaries: Homo Sovieticus
- Jochen Hellbeck's
searches in private collections and his personal inquiries have yielded
a rich harvest of Stalin-era diaries which give important new insights
into the ways in which Soviet citizens struggled to rationalize the
monstrous irrationality of Stalinism as they worked on perfecting their
inner selves. He emphasizes
the importance of the traditional ethos of the intelligentsia and its
ideal of the new man in shaping Soviet citizens' attitudes toward the
regime: an illiberal notion of selfhood, according to which authentic
self-fulfillment was realized through collective acts fulfilling the
laws of history. Revolution could
spring from an urge for self-expression and not, as is often claimed,
from a desire for self-effacement.
- Zinaida Denisevskaya: a thirty-year-old
provincial schoolteacher's who converted to Bolshevism, beleived she was perfecting the "personality" that defined the Russian intelligentsia as
a whole. She expresses envy of the comradeship of Communist activists and
fascination with ritual expressions of collectivism, such as the
military parades and workers' marches on revolutionary festivals. In
1931 she takes the symbolic step of joining a demonstration to
celebrate Labor Day and exults at her sense of oneness with the
collective: no longer just an onlooker, "I was a drop in the sea."
In the end she came to consider the Soviet regime the sole legitimate
carrier of core intelligentsia values: a new man appears as but a
variant of the preoccupation with perfecting the "personality" that
defined the Russian intelligentsia as a whole.
- Stepan Podlubny: the son of kulak, demonstrated skillful adaptive techniques that enabled him to
avoid being marginalized as a class alien and to become a brigade leader
in the factory school of the Pravda printing plant. His primary goal was to root out the
habits of a "useless person" and transform himself into a Soviet new man.
- Leonid Potemkin was one of the
multitude of Soviet citizens from a deprived background whom the
Revolution permitted to fulfill their dream of a higher education. As a
mining engineer he had a significant part in the industrialization
process and rose in the Party administration to become deputy minister
of geology. Potemkin was shaped by the Soviet state as one of its new
elite. The smoothness of his trajectory to the top suggests a careerist
focused on honing his adaptive skills, but his diary is devoted to
charting the successes and setbacks of an elaborate program of physical
and psychological self-improvement inspired by Gorky's and
Lunacharsky's socialist version of the Nietzschean superman who glorified strength, beauty, daring, and heroic will as the components
of collectivist subjectivity.
- Alexander Afinogenov joined the Party while still at
school, and became a director of the Association of Proletarian
Writers, the most militant and doctrinaire Soviet literary
organization. Afinogenov was no careerist,
despite the substantial material privileges he enjoyed as a leading
exponent of socialist realism. He took his role very seriously,
comparing Soviet theater to a church which showed people how to live
and behave by exposing the vestiges of the past and depicting the seeds
of the future. "gymnastics for the soul"
Stalin-era Diaries: The Terror:
- Violence is acceptable if it serves self-realization: the dual consciousness that allowed many to accept
the mass slaughter of collectivization and the Terror and to justify
the violence inflicted on them and those they cherished for crimes they
did not commit.
Denisevskaya : classic instance
of a dual consciousness: As a researcher
at an experimental station in the countryside, she witnessed the
horrors of forced collectivization at first hand, but she
unquestioningly supported the campaign. Aware that "bad things" were
being done in its name, she insists that such instances are peripheral
and should not deflect attention from the "main background to life —the
serious and active creation of new forms of life." "I'm forcing myself to overlook petty details.
One must not confuse the particulars with the general. It is very
difficult to maintain a broad world view all the time, especially for a
Podlubny: He was
recruited by the secret police and given the task of unmasking class
enemies with class origins just like his own. He regarded the
development of willpower as the distinguishing mark of the new man he
wished to become. This cult of the will determined his attitude toward
the victims of Stalinism. Starvation?" It
has to be this way because then it will be easier to remake the
peasants' smallholder psychology into the proletarian psychology that
we need." Podlubny's
coolness deserts him, however, when Stalin turns his violence against
the Party in 1934. At the height of the Terror Podlubny's origins were
publicly revealed. He was expelled from the Communist youth
organization and his mother was sentenced to eight years for
"concealment of social origins." He reacts to her arrest with indignant
defiance, denouncing the policies and personality cult of "our Russian
Nero." But this rebellion undermines his self-image. Forced to give up
his university studies, he ponders his "useless" existence. His diary
stops with his arrest for involvement in a minor deal involving
speculation, and resumes a year later with his release and entrance
into military service during the war.
Afinogenov's response to the Terror was dictated
by his urge to remain in step with history. "Genuine
History is upon us, and we are granted the joy of witnessing these
turns, when Stalin mercilessly chops off...all the unfit and weakened,
the decaying and empty." He sees the purge of the
Party ranks as the climax of a revolutionary agenda of purification. However, he was expelled from the Party on suspicion of
involvement in a Trotskyist plot to undermine the Soviet system.
Trapped in the absurd world of Stalinist paranoia, isolated from the
society that gave meaning to his individual existence, and threatened
with imminent arrest, he clung to his faith in the all-seeing Party,
seeking to locate the blame for his fate in his own personality. He renounces his "selfish" concern with
his own fate and accepts his role as a tool in the hands of
- Potemkin consciously modeled himself on the critic
Vissarion Belinsky, a leader of the Russian Romantics of the 1830s
whose thirst for self-perfection was inseparably bound with his
commitment to build a new society.
attempt to situate the Bolshevik project of self-transformation within
a wider cultural and historical perspective (a dimension too often
lacking in Western studies of the Soviet era) is one of the outstanding
virtues of his impressive book.
- The huge feats of
modernization accomplished by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in
contrast with the economic crises rocking the capitalist systems of the
West, seemed to many to be convincing evidence of the imminent
realization of the Communist ideal..
- The modes of thought that encouraged Soviet citizens
to accept violence in the service of self-realization were not specific
to the Soviet Union or the political left. In the first
half of the last century the attraction of movements promising
fulfillment through an all-embracing worldview led intellectuals across
Europe such as Ernst Jünger and Georges
Sorel to extol the morally and aesthetically purifying effects of
- Kelly's perspective? Belinsky's
brief exaltation of tyranny is a notorious example of the moral abyss
to which the Russian intelligentsia's longing for wholeness could lead,
but the humanism inspiring his passionate defense of history's victims
was also a significant strand in pre-revolutionary Russian culture. Its
most outstanding representative is Alexander Herzen, who outgrew his
early enthusiasm for Hegel's vision of progress to write From the
Other Shore, one of the most prescient attacks on historical
determinism in all of nineteenth-century thought. Many Russian
liberals, as well as writers such as Turgenev and Chekhov, warned
against the dangers of the search for ultimate certainties. Many
radicals, too, were torn between their thirst for utopia and the
promptings of conscience. Not all resolved their battle in the same way
as Hellbeck's subjects.