Saturday, September 12, 2009

Evil Emperor

You really can’t get very far in Soviet history before you’re forced to confront the nature of evil. And confronting evil means confronting Stalin. So many historians have written about Stalin that it’s difficult to know to begin.

The crimes are clear enough. There are personal betrayals of former allies, the purges, the murder of Polish officers, the deportations, the gulag, the prosecution of veterans returning from the war, the doctor’s plot, and so much more. One can read a book like the Court of the Red Tsar, which opens with the suicide of Stalin’s wife and follows up with a murder or mass murder on nearly every other page, to get a glimpse at pure villainy. One can read The Whisperers to see the kind of evil that made an entire country fear speaking out loud for fear of the political police or ubiquitous informers. But if you study Stalin or Stalinism long enough you need to develop a philosophy or theology of evil.

Cosy Communist

What could compel somebody to imprison the wives of even one’s closest political ally? A few related questions present themselves. First, which is more evil, Stalin, or the Communist system which allowed a man like Stalin to achieve power? Second, did Stalin’s evil lead to any positive good, such as the Soviet triumph over NAZI Germany? Third, was Stalin evil because he was clinically psychopathic or are is evil inherently insane? Fourth, how unusual was Stalin’s criminality? In other words, if Lenin had lived, or if Trotsky had won, would life have been much different in the Soviet Union? My own sense of who Stalin was influenced by the book, Young Stalin.

To my mind, the book goes some way to brilliant Stalin toward explaining that however brilliant, Stalin was one of a type. The revolutionaries were, of necessity, gangsters. Stalin thrived in the lawless society of Tsarist Russia. The state, itself devoid of moral authority, simply didn’t have the ability to dominate large segments of the population. Places like Georgia, to say nothing of Baku and indeed large cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, were anarchic. In such a society, Stalin was at home. His type, the criminal one, was rewarded by success. Young Stalin doesn’t deny the argument that Stalin’s moral fabric might have torn at a very early age. His father was a drunkard who apparently beat him.

However, it’s not necessary to see this abuse as central to Stalin’s eventual brutality. One thinks of any semi-criminal or totally criminal world. In prohibition, people like Al Capone rose to power. Dillinger also thrived. What is interesting, is that even in Depression-era America, these people became famous and respected. In a place like the Russia Empire at the end of the 19th century, where the State had far weaker claims to the conscience of a people (especially when the people weren’t even Russian, as in Georgia), one would surprised to learn that anybody other a criminal would rise to power.

The wonder is that Stalin didn’t just become a bank robber—though he did that too. Instead, he seems to have genuinely bought into a revolutionary ideology and then espoused that ideology for the rest of his life. The case reminds one of Columbia in the 1980s, where one sees a political movement with legitimate grievances utterly immersed in a culture and economy of drugs and violence. At any rate, Stalin’s proclivities for secrecy and radicalism and even violence would have been reinforced in the tsarist prison and exile system.

In exile—really a badge of honor in a autocracy with few admirers even in the bourgeois world—Stalin would have learned few values related to traditional morality. Of course, many people—notably Koestler via Darkness at Noon—argue that Communism as a way of thinking is immoral. It’s undemocratic, anti-religious, materialist, utilitarian, and anti-capitalist even at its best. This ideology probably did unleash the potential for evil politics, and would have done so even without a man such as Stalin.

Many authors spend a great deal of time on Lenin, showing his own commitment to an evil form of politics. Certainly the Civil War made things worse, permitting the previously unpermittable on both sides. Then there is the argument that the flip side of an utopian ideology is that its sponsors would inevitably espouse brutality if it meant defending hope in the impending arrival of absolute good. But back to Stalin… I think all of this background is true and means that Stalin’s personal proclivity for immoral action isn’t as important as one might suspect in light of his crimes. More than that, one does notice a host of evil actors in a host of evil regimes. They exist today, and have existed in almost every era.

To my mind, that means that there were probably hundreds of Stalins lurking behind Stalin. The wonder to me is that Stalin continued to project some kind of balance and perspective with outsiders whenever this was required of him. He could still charm visitors such as F.D.R. when he needed to do so. Throughout the 1920s, he could still win arguments based on logic and apparent moderation as opposed to brute force. Although many of the policies seemed cruel beyond belief—one thinks about the Ukrainian famine and policy of de-kulakization—the record of his personal behavior and speech and thought process doesn’t seem to suggest any form of lunacy or irrationality.

I’d go farther. I’d say that if the rules of even the most ordinary office job changed, if a few checks and balances were removed, we’d see a form of Stalinism emerge overnight. In terms of immorality, it’s only a degree of difference between getting fired and getting killed. And who doesn’t know a colleague who, if given the right opportunity and robbed of any oversight, might not begin his or her own reign of terror?

The banality of evil should be closely linked to the rarity of courage. Courage, as such, doesn’t exist in many places. It’s a purely cultural artifact. It didn’t really exist in Soviet Russia, or at least in wide parts of it. We know of few assassination attempts against Stalin. And few against Hitler, except in the midst of unprecedented military disaster on the Eastern front. And if there is no courage, it doesn’t require a unique monster to create a uniquely monstrous regime.

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