Friday, December 07, 2007

Humanizing a Monster:

Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar is an excellent, even absorbing, cautionary tale of how even monsters have their human side.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Stalin is summarized by the best historian on the USSR, Richard Pipes:
How to reconcile such manifestations of humanity and intellectualism with the persistent sadism, clinical paranoia and debauchery that fill so many of the pages of this book? For life at Stalin's court was a kind of Grand Guignol, dominated by the unpredictable and irrational behavior of the leader -- with his ''swarthy pock-marked face, gray hair, broken stained teeth and yellow Oriental eyes'' -- who kept his entourage in constant dread of his outbursts. People were expelled from his presence for no apparent reason, sometimes simply demoted, sometimes arrested and tortured. In 1937 he had the Politburo formally authorize physical torture of ''enemies of the people,'' and he would add the words ''Beat, beat!'' next to a victim's name.His cronies learned to anticipate his moods in diverse ways, even from gestures he made with his pipe: ''Stalin was always pacing up and down. There were various warning signals of a black temper: if the pipe was unlit, it was a bad omen. If Stalin put it down, an explosion was imminent. Yet if he stroked his mustache with the mouthpiece of the pipe, this meant he was pleased.''

One mistake by his peers, and even though they lived side-by-side in the Kremlin & had children playing together & went to dinners & cinema almost every night, and the unfortunate Bakhunin or Rykov or Trotsky or Meyerhold or his oldest comrades from Siberian exile would be consigned to the "Memory Hole" Orwell memorably described in 1984.

And often tortured to death, like Meyerhold, AFTER he had confessed to imaginary crimes.

Something that comes across after reading books by Hitler of almost the same quality [Fest & Rosenbaum] was the similarities between Stalin & Hitler. Both came from homes with tyrannical fathers & loving mothers; both had training in intense religious environments; both had physical deformities [Stalin had a deformed foot & numerous illnesses, mental & physical including hypochondria & dipsomania; Hitler had only one testicle and was a fanatic teetotaler/vegetarian/drug fiend]; both had a wolf fetish; and of course, both were megalomaniacs who killed dozens of millions without compunction [Hitler specialized in killing Jews, Poles, and foreigners of dusky hue; Stalin liked to kill kulaks, Ukrainians, and dozens of the "nationalities" he oversaw, partially by 'ethnic cleansing.']

Stalin comes across as the ultimate auto-didact, who surprisingly had Frederick the Great among his historical heroes. Stalin, who came from the strain of Georgian nationalism that opposed the czar for decades in the 19th century, hated Russians and Jews, though he spoke Russian well with a thick Georgian accent.

The paradoxes in Stalin's life abound, according to Pipes:
The most fascinating chapters in this fascinating biography deal with Stalin's actions during the war with Germany. The motives behind his 1939 deal with Hitler are not delved into, but there is ample evidence of his unwillingness to believe a steady stream of intelligence, Soviet as well as Western, that his Nazi partner was about to attack him. Afterward he privately admitted that he had been wrong: ''When you're trying to make a decision, NEVER put yourself into the mind of the other person because if you do, you can make a terrible mistake.'' Apparently he had reasoned that if he were in Hitler's shoes he would not have invaded a country that assured him of a stable Eastern front, while supplying him with the raw materials he needed for his assault on Britain and its empire.

Once he had overcome his shock, Stalin took personal charge of the war effort, bullying and cajoling everyone including his generals but, unlike Hitler, in the end always acquiescing to their advice. Montefiore's biography leaves no doubt that his leadership was essential to Soviet victory both in organizing Russia's defenses and in sustaining public morale. But it was a victory that, in good measure, was gained by the unstinting expenditure of Red Army lives. Stalin emerged from the war utterly exhausted and more than ever convinced of his infallibility. In his last years he became inordinately capricious, suspecting everyone and ready to jettison on trumped-up charges even his most loyal followers. He spent much time vacationing in his lavish palaces. He indulged in drunken orgies, where he would force his ministers to dance for his amusement: ''He made the sweating Khrushchev drop to his haunches and do the gopak that made him look like 'a cow dancing on ice.' '' The Polish security boss, Jacob Berman, was made to waltz with Molotov. Stalin hated it if anyone disagreed with him, yet he admired the courage of those who did: ''Having created an environment of bootlicking idolatry,'' Montefiore writes, ''Stalin was irritated by it.''

His paranoia toward the end of his life centered on the Jewish population, which he came to suspect of being more loyal to Israel and the United States instead of the Soviet Union. He ordered the murder of a number of leading Jewish personalities and was about to give the signal for the mass deportations of Soviet Jews when death intervened.

This is what Simon Sebag Montefiore concludes about Stalin from his meticulous researches: ''It is no longer enough to describe him as an 'enigma.' . . . The man inside was a superintelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches. . . . This lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia . . . who believed the solution to every human problem was death.''

Which death fetish was also shared by Hitler.

I once had a long conversation in Los Angeles with a Jewish emigre from Russia named Alexander Dropkin. He claimed his father was one of Trotsky's generals in the civil war & subsequently was exiled to Kiev, than eastward, after 1929. Dropkin claims that his friends in Israel told him that Stalin was almost certain to "finish the job Hitler started" as his alcoholic paranoia reached new heights in his advanced age. Dropkin said that the doctors around Stalin somehow "arranged" his medical death, the so-called "Doctors' Plot" not because they were Jewish [they had been carefully selected not to be Jewish], but because of reasons of humanity & perhaps many friendships with Jews who would be affected.

As with many other aspects of his life, Stalin's death remains a mystery.

Hopefully, Vlad the Empoisoner's love affair with the glory days of Soviet power doesn't drive him to emulate this re-incarnation of Genghis Khan. Or Attila. Choose your Oriental despot [Saddam Hussain had a study lined with books on Stalin & Hitler].

Best to nip these characters in the bud.

1 comment :

Jeb Koogler said...

A fascinating read, Dave. Thanks for your insight.