Stalin: Taming the Intelligentsia

Note from me: I will probably continue to edit and add to this post – I dashed it off in a FEVER! I am continuing to pick at it – so if it continues to change as you look at it, that’s why.

I have now moved into “cannot put it down” mode with Stalin. It’s like approaching a dark hypnotic evil mirror – I swear, that’s how I experience this guy. Not a mirror as in: I am just like him, or I see my own reflection there (Sheesh, I hope not!) … but a mirror as in: opposites, inversion, everything backwards. I cannot cop out and say: “THE MAN WAS NOT HUMAN” because you know what? He was. He was a human being … and he cannot be written off as a “lunatic” – which is why I find him so scary. And interesting. I yearn to understand the motivations of someone so hidden, so calculating, so … so … ruthless.

And here’s the deal – for me, what is interesting here is the contemplation itself. I don’t need to come up with an answer – a label. To me, first of all, that diminishes the subject itself – which is rather enormous, and many-tentacled. To narrow the whole horror down to: A-HA! His mother beat him! And THAT is why he was so inhuman!! would be ridiculous. But a lot of people seem to want to talk about Stalin in that way. (Nobody here, by the way – I really get a lot out of the conversations we all have about Stalin.)

His unexplainability (??) is frightening. I get that. But to search for one label, a label that would make him small, explain-able, understand-able to people like you or me, cut him down to size, I think would be missing the point. Or at least, it can’t be the WHOLE story.

It’s almost like – well, here’s a guess:

Lenin and his Old Bolshevik pals had a lot of grand ideas. They thought they knew what they wanted. And who knows, maybe a lot of them DID want that. Maybe it wasn’t just a cynical power-grab – I am sure many of them were true believers. In a very short time, of course, all of that changed – and they literally just had to believe whatever Stalin told them to believe – (there’s that famous quote by some dude saying, “You must be willing to change your opinion in 24 hours notice if the Party tells you to …” woah.) They thought that it would be good to have a society based on certain principles, and they really wanted it to exist. Perhaps they didn’t think about the HOWS of it … like: HOW to destroy the peasants, HOW to get everyone on collective farms … I don’t know. The whole thing seems like such a crappy idea to me anyway that it feels like you would just have to be unbeLIEVably naive and abstract and – er – privileged – to EVER think that it would work … at least without massive bloodshed. It’s hard to get into their mindset. But from how I see it, their mindset was very abstract, lofty, and they probably used the word “should” a lot.

“And once that happens … then such and such should follow …”

All naive assumptions embodied in that “should”. Anyone who believes in a utopia (in the past or the future) probably uses the word “should” a lot. You know why? Cause they don’t understand human nature. They wish that pesky human nature would just … behave itself, goldurnit!!! Why can’t everyone behave the way they SHOULD behave??

Back to our Old Bolsheviks and their lofty ideas: Again, I am really not sure how much of them truly BELIEVED this shit, but here’s my guess: They thought that after a certain point, the peasant would just somehow … gradually … disappear … and the farmers would … somehow … gradually … move onto the kholkhozes … as they “should” … and the proletariat would rise … as Marx had predicted … and … somehow … this would all happen in the proper order … because that’s the way it “should” happen, according to socialist theory – which was dogma!

When push came to shove, the only one who had the guts – the only one who literally had the STOMACH to do what needed to be done – to actually carry out these theories to their logical conclusions was Stalin. (“Okay – you want to destroy the peasant and the Russian village? How ’bout a big ol’ honkin’ FAMINE? How ’bout that?? How ’bout we starve millions and millions of people to death – and then watch how gratefully they scurry into the kholkhozes – how ’bout THAT?”) – Now I’m not sure about that – and these guys were all pretty much cruel people, and ruthless in their minds towards “class enemies” – but being “ruthless in your mind” is different from actually have the GUTS to DO it.

To stand firm and strong while millions of people die? Literally begging for their lives? Entire populations of people starving, screaming for help? To stand firm. To refuse to bend. To stick to the plan.

That takes GUTS. That takes … well, it’s almost like it requires that you not HAVE something (like guts) but LACK something (like compassion). In order to not only allow a famine to occur, but to organize it and make SURE it occurs … you really have to be seriously lacking in certain emotional departments.

But perhaps Stalin was so untouchable – not just because of the Party apparatus that he created – but because psychologically he had the upper hand and he knew it. What he did with collectivization and industrialization was ACTUALLY what all of those intellectuals had been bickering about and chatting about for years on end. His actions were the end result of all their intellectual blithering. He didn’t TALK. He DID. Perhaps this, along with the terror of being killed, silenced many people because they realized, way too late, that what they had been chatting about naively for so many years, was, in actuality, the worst kind of totalitarianism. I don’t know … I don’t know how many of them had the presence of mind to even look at it that way. It seems that most of them, by that point, were pretty craven-souled opportunistic fellows – the idealists being run out of the country. Stalin surrounded himself with groveling Yes-Men who would do whatever they had to do to save their own hides. Even if it meant killing millions of people in the Ukraine.

I wanted to post yet another long excerpt from the book – the excerpt actually has nothing to do with the famine – I got sidetracked, as I so often do with the dark mirror that is Stalin … I found this FASCINATING, and also terrifying.

Stalin turned his attention to Russian artists.

Check this out – especially the anecdote about Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s kinda terrifying. But I do love the image of all of these persecuted intellectuals bascially crank calling each other. I love Radzinsky’s writing style. Again, he’s a playwright – and I can tell. He goes right straight to the psychological horror at work here.

From Stalin

All this time, from 1929 on, a campaign against “ideological distortions” proceeded in parallel with the trials of wreckers. The intelligentsia was being taught caution in its use of the printed word. The slightest departure from the official view risked an accusation of perverting Marxism-Leninism, or worse.

Biologists, philosophers, educationists, and economists were all assailed. All branches of learning reported the discovery of “distortions”. The “pseudo-academics”, as they were now called, obediently did penance at public meetings.

Stalin was gradually eliminating shame. Fear is stronger than shame.

The cruel years that had gone before now looked like a reign of freedom. Quite recently, in 1926, the Moscow Arts Theatre had been allowed to put on Mikhail Bulgakov’s Days of the Turbins. It was a fantastic success. Spectators watched in amazement a play which portrayed White officers (the enemy) not as the usual monsters but as likable, decent people. The production infuriated writers who were members of the Party. But the play proved to have one seemingly inexplicable devotee and defender. The Boss went to see it time and time again. Was this really odd? Not at all. The play dramatized the wreckage of the old empire. And Stalin, as he settled accounts with the leaders of October, could already see the empire of the future.

Still, he did not believe in playing favorites. In 1929, while he was taming the intelligentsia, the Arts Theatre accepted a new play from Bulgakov. Flight was about the end of the White army and its exodus from Russia. The heroes were the same, the ideas were the same as those of Days of the Turbins. But times had changed. The Boss had the play discussed in the Politburo. The body which governed the whole state was called on to examine a play which had not yet been shown. In his empire that sort of thing would be the norm. He knew that nothing was more important than ideology. He had taken to heart Lenin’s dictum “the slightest relaxation in ideology will lead to loss of power by the Party.” The Politburo accepted the recommendation of the commission it had set up that “staging of this play be deemed inexpedient”. The verdict of P. Kerzhentsev, director of the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda, is appended to the minutes: “The author’s bias is quite clear: he is making excuses for people who are our enemies.” As if at a word of command, the newspapers, each and every one, set about destroying Bulgakov. Agitprop did its job, and The Days of the Turbins was taken off. The experienced Kerzhentsev obviously intended to seek out the rightists in the arts.

The Boss, however, had other plans for Bulgakov.

My father was friends with Yuri Karlovich Olesha. They had both attended the Richelieu High School in Odessa. In the twenties and thirties Olesha was one of the most fashionable writers. But after that … well, he was never imprisoned; they merely stopped publishing him. He spent his time jotting down mundane aphorisms, drinking heavily, and, when truly drunk, throwing his scraps of paper into the wastebasket. In the fifties the whole street would turn round to look at the man with the disheveled mane of grey hair, the dirty scarf around his neck, and the aquiline nose.

He often visited my father to ask him for money, and they would talk for hours. On one such occasion he told my father how Bulgakov, driven into a corner, decided to write a letter to Stalin. The idea was put into his head by a dubious character widely believed to be an informer. Bulgakov had no money at all, and had tried in vain to find work with the Arts Theatre. He nerved himself to write a desperate letter asking Stalin to let him go abroad. This was suicide when so many intellectuals were standing trial. As Olesha told the story: “It all happened in April. It was April 1 and we all played April fool jokes on each other. I knew about this letter, so I rang him up and said, with some sort of accent, ‘Comrade Stalin wishes to speak to you.’ He recognized my voice, told me to go to hell, and lay down (he always had a nap after dinner). But then the phone rang again. A voice at the other end said, ‘Comrade Stalin will speak to you now.’ He swore and hung up, thinking that I just wouldn’t leave him alone. The phone rang again immediately, and he heard Stalin’s secretary say sternly, ‘Don’t hang up. I hope you understand me.’ Another voice, with a Georgian accent, cut in. ‘What’s the matter, are we getting on your nerves?’ After Bulgakov had got over his embarrassment and greetings had been exchanged, Stalin said, ‘I hear you’re asking to be sent abroad.’ Bulgakov, of course, answered as expected, that ‘a Russian writer cannot work outside his Motherland,’ and so on. ‘You are right. I also believe that you want to work for the Arts Theatre?’ ‘I should like to, yes, but … they’ve turned me down.’ ‘I think they’ll agree.’ With that he hung up. And almost immediately there was a call from the theatre asking Bulgakov to start work there.”

So Bulgakov wrote Moliere, a play about a king who was Moliere’s only protector against a spiteful court camarilla. Kerzhentsev — who else? — instantly denounced the author to the Central Committee. “What is the author’s political intention? Bulgakov … sets out to show the fate of a writer whose ideology is at odds with the political order, and whose plays are banned. Only the king stands up for Moliere and defends him against his persecutors … Moliere has such lines as ‘all my life I’ve been licking his (the king’s) spurs with only one thought: don’t trample on nme. Maybe I haven’t flattered you enough, maybe I haven’t crawled enough?’ The scene concludes with Moliere’s exclaiming, ‘I hate arbitrary tyranny’ (we amended ‘arbitrary’ to ‘the king’s’). The idea around which the author builds his play is sufficiently clear.”

The Boss agreed with Kerzhentsev’s recommendation to take the play out of the repertoire. But he remembered that only the king had helped Moliere and took note of Moliere’s readiness, much as he hated tyranny, to serve his only protector, the king.

In 1936 the old Bolshevik Kerzhentsev would be shot. But Bulgakov survived.

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18 Responses to Stalin: Taming the Intelligentsia

  1. John says:

    It was the incident over that got Bulgakov to start writing “The Master and Margarita”. That one did not see the official light of day until well after Stalin’s death.

    Days of the Turbins ran until 1929 in the Moscow Art Theatre. I don’t think a play about White officers would have run for 3 years without Koba’s patronage.

    That shows one aspect of Stalin’s genius: he played on the old notion of the peasants that their lot would be better if only the nobles and bureaucrats didn’t hide things from the Tsar. When he intervened, it was as protector, and even intellectuals such as Bulgakov, who knew better, knew the system was completely designed by Stalin, bought into that myth, because only Stalin could protect them from the machine he’d created.

  2. red says:

    John – did he even try to get master and margarita published? Or did he just hide it away until clearer skies – knowing it would cause him trouble?

    You may have told me that story before – sorry if you have.

  3. John says:

    As far as I know he never tried, in fact he burned an ealier manuscript and then recreated it from memory, leading to the leitmotif that “manuscripts don’t burn”.

    He read it to his inner circle of friends in ’39, and died in ’40, so I don’t think he ever attempted publication.

    Have you read it or “Heart of a Dog” yet?

  4. red says:

    Nope – not yet. Master and Margarita is next on my “pile”. My huge book pile. Sigh. Life is not long enough to read everything I want to – but I’m doing my best!!

  5. red says:

    I am amazed he could recreate something from memory. Wow. An entire manuscript??

  6. John says:

    Well, technically, I think he was only half-finished at the time, but it’s a complex book, with really 3 separate plotlines.

  7. bill says:

    handsome movie stars and genocidal dictators.

    What odd interests we share, sheila!


  8. red says:


    You have a little Stalin, a little Cary Grant, and then you have a nice lunch. You got your Pol Pot, your Jean Harlow, and you take a nice walk.

    Ad nauseum.


  9. brendan says:

    here are my thoughts on stalin:

    i really didn’t like how he blew off what paula said about his body language, y’know? and then he got ryan’s grandma to spy on simon at home? what the funk was that about? and if anyone is going to go to a work camp it ought to be barry manilow, not the black guy. he has no lower register and he keeps stumbling over the english pronunciations in his song choices…like “back in ZE ussr you don’t know how lOCKY you air”…totally lazy. if he wants to win this competition he better step it up a notch.

  10. red says:

    LOCKY you air?

    Bren – I swear to God, you are totally insane. Your comment is funnier (and dumber) every time I read it.

    LOCKY you air?

  11. Stalin

    That lack is what we would call sociopathy – the absence of feeling for others.

    Sociopaths are different. I’ve known a few. They may seem a little like you and me, but they are lacking in empathy – the ability to truly understand how others feel. …

  12. Noonz says:

    Pickler’s rackfest of a prom dress….to Stalin.

    This is why I read you.

  13. Zwerg says:

    Right, dictators are fascinating. Reading about them, thinking about all the horrible things their existence implies about humanity — it’s what I call turning over flat rocks. A great speculative undertaking.

    Marx & Co. said “should” a lot, yep. There is a contradiction in this, however. Those old guys were, as you say, really believers, True Believers in Hoffer’s term, because science was on their side. Marx had shown that history can be scientifically understood as evolution toward an end. It’s an inevitable process: eventually capitalism dies (because it contains the seeds of its own destruction, there’s Hegel in that), the dictatorship of the proles, etc etc until true stateless communism naturally arises. After that, evolution stops.

    Now if they had understood what they believed in, they would not have tried to hasten the arrival of communism or even help capitalism fall apart. Violent revolution was going to take place only when it was ready to, with or without their help. So they could have been observers, not inciters and rebels. For all they knew, their efforts might have started the revolution before history was ready for it, and actually thereby retarded evolution.

    Marx did not set a timetable, IIRC. Things would take place if they could, and if they could not, that was because circumstances were not ripe yet.

    Ugh. All those people enslaved and killed for a cause that never needed to be promoted, according to the teachings of its founder. After all, if it’s scientifically inevitable…we can sit back and let it happen without us.

    Ever think of that? It suggests that maybe the Engels – Lenin – Stalin types did not really understand or simply did not believe Marx. Which means they hijacked a philosopher’s musings in order to gain political power, not to advance human economic/cultural evolution. Aha, we knew it all along….

    Maybe you have been all over this in past posts on your weblog. I’m new here, so forgive me.

  14. David says:

    Sheila, I’m requesting “Stalin” from our library tonight! Right now I’m reading “Gulag, a History” by Anne Applebaum, who is a wonderful writer. David

  15. red says:

    David – I heard a lot about that Anne Applebaum book – I read her columns all the time, and you’re right – she’s pretty terrific.

  16. red says:

    Noonz – hahahahaha Thank you!!!

    All I ask of people when they visit me is that they are okay with major SEGUES!!! hahahaha That’s really all I ask.

  17. JFH says:

    “And once that happens … then such and such should follow …”

    Hmmm, I think I’ve seen this before:

    1. Collect underpants
    2. ???
    3. Profit!

  18. CW says:

    I have long thought about just how a nation or civilization could go so far off the rails to make a character like Stalin possible. I’m sure an awful lot of Russians thought then, and later, “there’s just no good that can come out of this” – but it was a long time before the system finally collapsed.

    Also I think about comparisons between the Soviet Union and our current nemeses the Salafists. On the one hand, they have a lot in common in terms of intolerance and brutality. But on the other, the Salafists truly believe they have God on their side, and more importantly, lots of other people believe God is on their side. That makes them, I believe, a lot more dangerous than the Communists.