How did a “provincial-scope” leader managed to become the Leader of a great country?
He makes an unpleasant impression: he’s quite short – only 162 centimetres, a small tapering head with a flat forehead, his face is shallow, with brownish marks from smallpox, he’s stooped, with rotten teeth, because he refused to see doctors.
Of course, he’s always portrayed in a flattering light. Court painters remove the pock-marks and widen his degenerative forehead. They draw him with young shiny hair and gentle wrinkles around the eyes. His eyes are made all so full of unearthly wisdom and kindness. No one knows that he has a withered arm. No one knows that his toes on the left foot have grown together. His height doesn’t matter any more. Films and even documentary footage is always edited so that he stands taller than anyone. He is above everyone. Because he can kill a million people. And above everyone stand he who can kill more.
Art and history thus coincide. They do not reflect what really is, but what, in his opinion, should be. Later this will become the principle of socialist realism. The Leader awards the best workers. The Leader overlooks a majestic construction site of the century, the symbol of our victories. All around him – happy, ecstatic faces. These faces belong to prisoners, “enemies of the people”, who after the shift will go back to the barracks. The Leader surrounded by marshals and generals. The Leader with the athletes. The Leader with a little girl in his arms. That’s the trademark of communism. And ideological label replicated around the world. Locomotive “Joseph Stalin” is the most powerful passenger locomotive of Europe. Harvester “Stalinets” received a Grand Prix Diploma at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937. A tank as well – “Joseph Stalin”, built in 1943. What’s this tank so famous for? Which battles? Does not matter. It’s named after him – so it’s the best Soviet tank.
He’s got abnormal psyche. In 1927 Academician Bekhterev diagnoses him with “paranoia”. The next day Academician Bekhterev dies. The body is cremated, any investigation of the cause of death is prohibited. However, paranoid symptoms are obvious: an “overvalued ideas” complex, deforming behaviour, exaggerated view of self-importance, pathological selfishness, inability to critically evaluate his actions, suspicion, resentment, aggression – any dissenting person immediately turns into an enemy. Even Stalin’s daughter, who obviously sympathised with her father, note the sharp anisotropy of his mind: a friend could easily become an enemy, and there was no return from there. Once an enemy – an enemy for ever. And enemies should be destroyed.
He is ruthless, even with his closest relatives. He eliminated almost all Svanidzes – the relatives of his first wife. He ordered to arrest a friend of his daughter, with whom she was having a passionate affair. Nadezhda Alliluyeva, his second wife, committed suicide. He never forgave. He could wait for years to get his revenge. He sent the wives of Molotov and Kalinin to the concentration camps, executed the wife of Poskrebyshev, as well as his personal secretary, drove Kaganovich’s brother Michael to suicide, but named the Moscow Metro after Kaganovich, as if mockingly. He was unusually cruel. During the “Doctors’ Plot”, having learnt that the arrested suspects refuse to testify, he frantically screamed: “Beat them, beat them to death!..” He issues a decree on the application of the death penalty to teenagers. So that they could execute even children, starting with the age of twelve. He authorised torture, that weren’t any different from the tortures of the Middle Ages.
Hundreds of thousands of people were condemned as “social vermin”. After the horrors of World War II, after the cataclysm of the Civil War, he unleashed an “inner war”, where one part of the people ended up ruthlessly annihilating the other. This giant bleeding was unceasingly weakening the country.
He was a very bad public speaker. His speech was inarticulate, his voice expressionless, weak and lacklustre. He has a poor vocabulary. Until the end of his life, he didn’t manage to get rid of a Georgian accent. He didn’t not know how to power his word with his heart. He wasn’t able to stir, to lead the masses. Hence his hatred of the “talkers”, especially Trotsky – they were capable of something he wasn’t.
There are no well-known examples of his personal courage. The very same Trotsky himself led men into attacks. Stalin took part in three wars, but had never been on the front lines.
He had no military talent. During the Civil War he failed the defence of Tsaritsyn, an important strategic point, for which he was expelled from there by Trotsky. During the Polish war, against the orders of his command, he kept on persistently, together with Egorov and Budyonny, moving the south-western front to Lviv, opening the flank of Tukhachevsky‘s army. After the defeat Tukhachevsky did not deny that he believes Stalin to be the culprit of “disaster on the Vistula”. Stalin never forgave Tukhachevsky for that.
Before World War II he practically wrecked the Soviet army. Of the five Soviet marshals three were executed, commanders (the next level in military hierarchy) were all repressed, the flagmen of the fleet (current – admirals) – almost all, corps commanders – almost all, commanders of divisions and brigades – more than a half. The army has lost its most experienced commanders.
He made a gross miscalculation with Germans attacking the USSR. Did not take any basic steps to bring the troops on alert. And for that he lost the air force, artillery, tanks, allowed the Germans to break almost a thousand miles into the Russian territory with only some minor losses.
His command in the early months of the war was talentless and badly informed. His ideas were guided by battle categories 20-30 years since outdated. He demanded that any position must be protected to the last, which is why hundreds of thousands of soldiers were ending up surrounded, and then in captivity. This lack of talent cost the Soviet people millions of lives.
He was quite a mediocre strategist in international politics as well. In the mid-1920′s he rejected the alliance of Communists with the European Social Democrats – the left front was divided, it cleared the way for Hitler.
He had no special administrative abilities. He transformed collectivisation of national agriculture into a disaster on the scope of an entire country. Hunger, which broke out as a result of trashing the agriculture and the peasants, took the lives of seven million people. The price of industrialisation of the USSR ended up being prohibitively large. All of his administrative activities were distinguished by low efficiency. Any result were being achieved at the cost of excessive effort and resources.
Back in his times, Lenin was discussing with the Politburo some delegation and said, with a grin: “Well, they won’t need anyone too smart there, send Stalin”. Contrary to the socialist legends, he did not enjoy reading and preferred movies. Sometimes, in his specially equipped movie theatre, he would watch two or three movies in a row. His education was impressive maybe only compared to his circle. Budyonny – a non-commissioned officer, Voroshilov – three years of village school, shepherd, Kaganovich – a loader, a shoemaker, Mikoyan – religious Seminary, Molotov – two years at the Polytechnic Institute, Beria – building school, Kalinin – a turner, a footman. He couldn’t stand the properly educated people – he generally regarded them with suspicion. He wasn’t well-versed in history, hardly knew any basic philosophy; mathematics, physics, biology for him were all grey areas. He reduced the entire Marxist theory to a few dogmas, which, however, he memorised by heart. The idea of building socialism “in one particular country” he has borrowed from Bukharin. The program of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation – from Trotsky. For him socialism represented a barracks, where the trained and combed people implicitly obey every whim of their Leader.
He had hardly any literary taste. He never appreciated the talents of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Platonov or Mandelstam. Most of the Stalin Literature Prize winners are painful to read. He liked to looking at obscene drawings of a certain German graphic artist, which were delivered to him by the State Political Directorate agents. He didn’t have much of a sense of humour. At best, he could crack a crude one. Jokes about him he could not stand at all. His Kuntsevo dacha was decorated with clippings from the Ogoniok magazine.
So how did he manage to win? Why did the “provincial-scope leader”, as he was called by Kamnev, managed to become the Leader of a great country? What helped him defeat formidable opponents, each of whom was clearly so much more talented than him?
Bazhanov, Stalin’s secretary in 1920′s, claimed that Stalin didn’t show any interest in the current affairs, was not interested in any papers, even from the Politburo, and relied solely on the opinion of his secretaries. But one day, when he happened to enter Stalin’s office without warning, Bazhanov saw Stalin attentively listening in on the phone, with wires running into the desk drawer. The wiretap was mounted by a Czech communist, an engineer, who was later executed as a spy.
And that was the true strength of Stalin. In the struggle for power, he did not recognise any restrictions and rules. For him, any means any method was justified, nothing stirred him.
Of course, the other leaders of the October Revolution weren’t exactly the beacons of morality either. But still they all had some boundaries that they could not cross. Wiretapping their associates wouldn’t have occurred to neither Lenin nor Bukharin, Trotsky would be too disdained, Dzerzhinsky and Zinoviev would simply be too afraid. Only Stalin saw it as quite a natural step.
He had a lot of those steps: destroying the old Bolsheviks, who knew about his rather modest role in the Revolution and Civil War, shameless rewriting of the history, lies piled on lies, creating a system of concentration camps in the “freest country in the world”…
In alliance with Kamenev and Zinoviev he crushed Trotsky, his main rival, in alliance with Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky he crushed Kamenev and Zinoviev, and then, based on his loyal staff, he crushed also these, already obsolete allies.
He was winning because he understood the secret essence of power better than others. Power is when anyone and in any moment can be ruthlessly crushed. A decorated Marshall can be beaten and mutilated, turning him it into a quivering semi-corpse. A musician, a renowned composer, can have his eardrums pierced with a nail. The state power obeys no rules. Rules are constraints, and the real power does not recognise any constraints. That’s something that has been crystal-clear for Stalin. In his kingdom he has created an atmosphere of all-encompassing fear. An air of an incarnated deity, whose thoughts cannot be comprehended by anybody. Only he knows whom to pardon and whom to punish. Only he is free to determine the fate of the people and the country. From him you cannot hide, no wall will hide you. The Big Brother, as baptised by Orwell, always hears you. The Big Brother always sees you, sees inside your every thought. Only in this case it wasn’t a brother, it was The Father. If they had to reject the Heavenly Father, who has suffered for man’s sins, if his “portraits” were removed, his “houses” closed down, then there had to be the Father on earth, equal to him in every way. People need someone to pray to. God is alive and domineering as long as he inhales the smoke of sacrifice. Power is fear, but fear is also power. The victims, worn out by their helplessness, begin to idolize their executioners.
The twentieth century was the century of mediocrity. Ortega y Gasset defined this phenomenon as “revolt of the masses”. The driving force of the history was the crowd, and it began to create idols in the image and likeness. Trotsky knowingly called Stalin “the most outstanding mediocrity of our party”. Stalin was the way the creaturely unconscious of the masses wanted to see him. Yet, the very same Trotsky, when someone said that Stalin is a nonentity, immediately sensed the error and said that he’s not: “mediocrity – yes, but a nonentity – no”. Mediocrity can also reach staggering heights.
At the end of his life his own fear devoured him. Absolute power breeds absolute loneliness. Being at the top, you cannot trust anyone, because sooner or later in the eyes of even the closest allies you begin to read the deadly question: Why him and not me?
He was about to denounce his loyal Voroshilov as a British spy, ordered to prepare materials on Marshal Zhukov, whom he has previously trusted implicitly. Sometimes, during reports, he would suddenly throw a mysterious look at Beria, and the latter will break into sweat, so that his eyeglasses would steam up.
In Kuntsevo at his dacha, he used to take a long time to choose a place to sleep, wandered from room to room, thought, groaned, finally, pointed the guard: here. And after the guard has made his bed and quietly slipped out, he used to take the blanket and pillow and drag them to the other sofa. In Likani Palace in Borjomi (his last trip to the South), accompanied only by his chief bodyguard, he used to strolled along the park alleys. Emptiness all around him. Silence became his destiny. He has killed anyone with whom he could have a conversation, and those who remained have turned into trembling pets.
Sometimes, during long meals (he did not like to eat alone), listening to all the same jokes, anecdotes, stories, time-tested and safe, he used to look across the table: who? Who will slip him the poison, who will sneakily shoot him, who will stab in the back?
He felt that everyone awaited his death. The country was languishing. It was struggling for a breath. No one spoke of it out loud, but tension was felt everywhere.
An era was coming to an end: people have grown tired of their god.
Finally the insane “Doctors’ Plot” broke out. He arrested the people who for decades watched over his precious health. This was accompanied by a struggle against “cosmopolitanism”, and it was not clear why the blow fell precisely on the Jews. It all smelled of some kind of mystical background: something medieval, some fear of conceited “Jewish perfidy”.
Although, he didn’t trust the new doctors either. He began treating himself: drinking water with iodine, almost resorting to using tallow. Old rural paramedic recipes from the Civil War were coming to his mind. He quit smoking and lack of nicotine was now constantly tormenting him.
No one knows what he was thinking of in his last days.
His mother, whom he visited very rarely, once told him: “You should have become a priest”.
On March 1, 1953 the staff got alarmed that Stalin wasn’t answering their calls, they broke down the door of his Kuntsevsky country house and found an old man lying unconscious on the floor…
They triumphantly exclaimed:
- The tyrant has fallen!
This text was originally published by Novaya Gazeta at http://en.novayagazeta.ru/politics/57064.html, translated from the original in Russian originally published at http://www.novayagazeta.ru/society/56002.html. Minor corrections and additions to the translated text were made, based on the Russian original, by Rove Monteux and published at http://rovemonteux.net/2013/03/10/joseph-stalin-and-his-gangsters.