Buruma, "Master of Fear" NYRB May, 2004

Review of  Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Interpretations of Stalin:


·         Buruma: Dictators all have one quality in common: striving for absolute power consigns them to a world of lies.

·         Conquest: Stalin, the boss of a huge crime syndicate.

·         Montefiore sees 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 "creative Darwinism."

·         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.'"


Result? Complete Paranoia!


·         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.



Tolstaya, "In Cannibalistic Times" NYRB April,  1991

Review of The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

"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

  • civilizationthe 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 one.
  • 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")

Cannabalistic Times:

  • Cannibalistic 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



  • BecauseIn 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 liquor).


Kelly, "Why They Believed in Stalin" NYRB April, 2007

Review of

Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia
by Sheila Fitzpatrick

Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin
by Jochen Hellbeck

homo Sovieticus:  

  • ordinary Russians' ardent responses to the demand to refashion themselves into model Communist
  • The "totalitarian" school depicts the Soviet people as passive consumers of an ideology force-fed to them by their rulers.
  • Cultural 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 culture.


Manichean Politics:

  • 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 or practices.
  • 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.

Dual Consciousness
  • 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 non-party member."

  • 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 historical progress.

  • 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.



  • Hellbeck's 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 political violence.
  • 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.