Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Secret Life of Mass Murderers

Soviet Roulette has a very high regard for Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter. Previously, this blog described Svetlana's gentle book, Only One Year, which chronicled the author's third marriage, journey to India to bury her husband's ashes, and painful decision to defect to the United States in the 1960s. But Alliluyeva's first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, is an even more poignant set of reflections and reminiscences about private life in the inner circles of Stalin's brutal dictatorship. As the author admits, the memoir isn't an objective history of her father's life. As a teenager during World War II, and someone with only limited access to her father at the best of times, Alliluyeva isn't well placed to explain her father's political life. And what kind of a child could have come to terms with a mother's suicide (or perhaps murder) and the quiet elimination of countless friends and family members?

Notwithstanding its lack of objectivity, Alliluyeva's limited perspective is fascinating and perhaps useful in terms of understanding how evil operates. From the author's perspective, and this perspective is contested by some well-placed eyewitnesses, Joseph Stalin had the capacity to behave tenderly toward those around him. In fact, in the first six years of the author's life, Stalin was often happily surrounded by his wife's large extended family. Moreover, Joseph enjoyed the company of children and frequently sent the young Alliluyeva tender notes. According to the author, Stalin felt especially close to Alliluyeva's mother, Nadezhda Allilyuva, although the dictator could be stern and aloof to her as well, until Nadezhda Alliluyeva's committed suicide, isolating Stalin from her family members and perhaps feeding his sense of victimization.

Alliluyeva's portrayal of her father may not be strictly accurate in all respects. In the author's opinion, Stalin was severely manipulated by Beria, who constantly pushed the dictator to destroy Beria's enemies, many of whom were members of the Alliluyeva's immediate family. Even allowing for Allilyeva's natural prejudice, there's a ring of truth about her analysis of the mechanics her father's sinister decisions.

According to Alliluyeva, Stalin had many healthy tendencies, but he simply could not forgive or forget anything that smacked of betrayal. If men like Beria whispered that a close friend or relative of Stalin had turned against him, Stalin turned his back on that person and was unable to change his opinion. One imagines that the independent minds of the Alliluyeva clan sometimes voiced criticism of the Soviet leader, and that even mild criticisms were reported to the cynical leader who then turned the matter over to someone like Beria. As it turns out, Alliluyeva lost dozens of her closest friends and relatives to this strange pattern of destruction. When her brother was captured by the Germans, Stalin couldn't help but believe that perhaps his son was to blame. He felt little sympathy for him, and, even worse, decided that his son's wife must have pushed his son to surrender to the Germans. She was promptly sent to the gulag, as so many others were.

In the end, this gentle, moving memoir demonstrates that Stalin's murderous regime was born of relatively banal impulses. With no culture of democracy or civil rights, why shouldn't one ordinary man's lonely, unforgiving, and suspicious temperament lead to disappearances on a vast scale?

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