“Grokking” Stalin And The Murder of Kirov

Update: I just realized that my description of 3 a.m. anxiety may obscure the rest of the post, which would be unfortunate. So if you want to skip over that part to get to the Stalin stuff, feel free. You know me … I always have to set up everything in some sort of emotional context.

Okay, so onward:

Yesterday the term “grokking” was explained to me, in detail, here on this blog. Beautifully done. Here are some of the definitions provided for me by readers:

“Grok” basically means “to understand,” although the term is intended to be somewhat more imprecise than “to understand.” If you have a feeling for a concept, if it makes intuitive sense to you, even if you might not necessarily be able to articulate your understanding, then you grok it.

Another one:

To grok is to understand something beyond the strictures of language, to see that something truly and in its entirety.

Astronomical distances might be a good example. We all understand that space is big, you might think it’s a long way to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts… (sorry)

As I was saying, we understand space is big. But when you really think about, truly comprehend those distances and it takes your breath away, you’ve grokked it.

Hmmm. Fascinating. And here’s more:

Grok technically means the sharing of water. You’ll want to remember that Mars, where it originates, is a desert planet; water-sharing is deep sharing, against odds. So to grok something is more or less to really, really get it. Like walking a mile in the same shoes.

I think I grok grokking now.

I had a terrible time getting to sleep last night. Tossing, turning, snow blowing against my window, I could hear it, and the wind … and my mind was restless and uneasy. I hate that. No matter how tired I was, I couldn’t slow my mind down, and I kept thinking of things I needed to get done, things I had left undone, and then finally … at around 3 a.m., it got all existential and huge, like: I HAVE MADE NOTHING OF MY LIFE.

I don’t know if any of you guys out there torture yourselves like this, and I really try not to, but sometimes, at 3 a.m. (the “wee smas” as the old Scottish saying goes) these thoughts come. Now I can recognize the signs. I start to toss, and turn, going over: “okay, I need to get that done … I need to get THAT done …” (usually trivial things, like pay bills, whatever). Then it starts to magnify: “Okay, I need to accomplish THIS by this time next year … and I need to accomplish THAT by the time I’m 40…” which very quickly devolves into: “I have made nothing of my life. I suck.”

So what does one do when these horrible thoughts come? You can do what I did last night. Get up, turn on the light, have a glass of water, wash your face, curl up in your chair, and read a couple chapters of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. Sure. Makes total sense. You want to calm down, relax enough to get to sleep? Immerse yourself in the horror of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

I have read two of Conquest’s other books (on the famine in the Ukraine, and then his small biography of Stalin, can’t remember the name) – and always held off on this one, even though I was drawn to it. It seemed like a huge commitment. This is not the first book I have read on this topic. As a matter of fact, it’s been one of my raving interests since I first learned about the “Soviet Union”. Maybe it all started from reading 1984 in high school. But also, I grew up in the 1970s, 1980s … when the Soviet Union was still the bogeyman. Totalitarian regimes, state-sponsored horror, atomized societies, show trials, made-up “confessions” … I have an entire bookcase in my apartment filled with book after book on these topics. It’s not just the history that fascinates me, although that’s a huge part of it. It’s something else. Something deeper. The human element, I suppose. What happens to human beings when they live under such regimes … and also … how does it even happen in the first place? The beginnings of the horror in Cambodia, the beginnings of the horror in Russia, etc. Where are the seeds of this stuff? That’s the hook, for me.

Remember in 1984 – when he gets a hold of the secret book? That explains how the regime works? And what terrified me to my core in high school when I first read it … and what is reflected to me, again, in Robert Conquest’s book … is that underneath all of the nice this-will-make-society-better rhetoric (which people in the West were fooled by and still are fooled by) is a naked hunger for personal power. The secret book in 1984 says something like: “and this is the greatest secret of all. This is what no one will admit to. Everything else (all the theories and pontificating) is just a smokescreen for what is the real point of this whole thing: One human being who will be the will of the state. That is the point.”

People continue to apologize for all of this, make excuses, they say that Stalin was a bad example of Communism, that true socialism still hasn’t been seen on the earth yet, and that the one bad example of Stalin shouldn’t spoil the theory. I think this is a disgusting attitude. I think that what we saw in the USSR was communism, in all its unbridled unmasked awfulness. Theory schmeory – what happened there is not to be written off as “a mistake” or “Stalin’s fault, not the fault of communism.” There is no excuse for it. What we saw was not the result of one man’s excess. It was the natural result of the theory behind Communism. Orwell goes a bit farther in 1984 and says that the leaders, the proponents of communism and socialism, knew this all along. I find this a very compelling theory, and one that makes a lot of sense, historically. If you only want to look at this stuff abstractly, as theories, fine. Be my guest. Live in a utopia. But if you look at the record, I honestly do not know how you can maintain the fiction that communism is good, socialism is still possible, and Stalin just happened to be a bad seed.

Orwell says (in the secret book in 1984), and Conquest says: The theory of Communism is actually this: “Power needs to be in the hands of the very very few. Fool the people into thinking it will be about them, that this revolution is for them, and keep it a state secret what we really want … but the point is to hold onto power.” The secret was to never let on that that was what they were doing, to keep up the fiction, to maintain the pose that this was for “the workers”, etc, when all along, it was NEVER for the workers.

All of this lying and self-deception is conscious, as well. That’s the point of the secret book in 1984. What I just described above was a CONSCIOUS deception. To me, the ‘secret book’ section is one of the most frightening parts of 1984. Perhaps because it gets a little bit closer to describing the heart of that darkness. The darkness at the heart of man. The seeds of evil. You can believe the theorists if you want. You can believe that communism is great, and Stalin was just a bad example. I choose to not delude myself.

One of my favorite novels is called Hopeful Monsters, and it’s by Nicholas Mosley. One of the lead characters is a little girl, half-German half-Jewish, growing up in Berlin following World War I. Her father is German, a scientist, but he sees what is happening and he does not like it. He watches the growth of the Nazis with disgust. At one point he says to his daughter, “The thing is – at this point, the Nazis are the only ones who are saying what they will do if they win. It’s just that nobody believes them yet.” His daughter says, “What will they do if they win?” Her father answers, “Kill everyone who isn’t like them.”

Conquest says over and over and over again, in his book, about the people around Stalin (the ones hoping that THIS purge will be the last, that NOW they can start to live a normal life, that NOW the repression can be relaxed): “They did not understand Stalin yet.” That’s the big word he uses: His comrades, in the early 30s, didn’t yet “understand” Stalin. A chilling chilling word, in this context. (Maybe a better word is “grok”. By the time you really “grokked” Stalin, it would be WAY too late.)

The blatant-ness of his message … the lack of secretiveness about it … the open feeling that one is entitled to kill the millions who get in your way, and the millions who MIGHT get in your way … with no regard to public opinion … It takes the breath away.

And so Conquest says over and over again, “They did not understand Stalin yet.”

It’s because the human mind balks at understanding a man capable of such horror. You CAN’T believe he means what he says. But Stalin was saying all along what he meant, and what he wanted. It’s just that nobody believed him.

AS I am reading the thing, I am shaking my head in awe. It’s kind of similar to my response when I first read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The book is so dense, so researched … and all I can imagine is the literal MOUNDS of paper the author had to sift through. And somehow make sense of, somehow put it together: Okay, so THIS random memo was really sinister … because it then led to THIS report … It also is amazing to me that these regimes kept such immaculate records. Immaculate records of their evil.

What BALLS. Why? Was it such an insane looking-glass atmosphere that they were somehow PROUD of this horror and thought the rest of the world would look on it, in retrospect, with admiration? Or just that it takes enormous human organization to atomize and terrorize and crush an entire society, and therefore there will necessarily be a massive paper trail?

Conquest, in the first version of the book, had to deal with the fact that there were huge gaps in his knowledge, that a lot of it was guesswork – because the documents proving his conjectures were either destroyed or hidden. With glasnost, the archives opened up – and Conquest (whose last name is feckin’ APT, if you ask me) was able to prove all of his theories, and he realized he had actually UNDER-estimated the numbers of those killed in The Great Terror in the original version of the book.

But still. The paper trail amazes me. The fact that these people left such evidence of their depravity behind … How on earth did they justify that? Is it that in such a world, no air gets in, no breath of reality or morality for that matter can penetrate … and down equals up, right equals left … and anything even resembling normal or moderate cannot be heard?

Conquest talks a lot about people lacking certain “restraints” (or “ruth”), and that Stalin surrounded himself with those people. Ruth-less people. People who didn’t have the normal human response, (“No, I won’t do that”) to being asked to do horrible things. Now – this again goes back to that Scott Peck conversation we had. You can blither at me until you’re blue in the face about “we all have horrors within us, who knows what you would do in similar circumstances” and that STILL does not explain a horror like Stalin, and the monstrous excuses for human beings surrounding him. It also does NOT explain that there are countless examples of people who did not break, who COULD not break, actually, under the pressure of Stalin’s regime. These were people who were, at one time, at least many of them, true believers in socialism, they were a part of the machinery of the state. And yet – there are those who, when push came to shove, had SOME smidgeon of human feeling left, SOME residue of compassion that could not be wiped out. These were the people who refused to confess, even after weeks of torture, people who even on the stand at their own show trial were saying, “This is all a lie…I didn’t do anything” … And then, there were others who had NO restraints, and NO morality – Stalin’s henchmen. Were they unloved as itty-bitty babies? Did their mummy not wuv them enough? I don’t care. In my mind, there is no logical explanation … except that there are people who LACK certain things, like morality, like a sense of right and wrong.

Stalin didn’t have the restraints that normal people have, the restraints which I would call our birthright, as human beings (animals, yet with consciousness), and so he didn’t want the people around him to have restraints either. It would be a reminder.

But … still …

There’s a mystery at the heart of all of this. I can’t quite get to it, though. Perhaps the mystery is: that Stalin was, to some degree, CONSCIOUS of who he was. Maybe to a greater degree than anyone. He said, at the grave of his wife, “With her dies any warm feeling I could have for any other human.” (Something like that.) He KNEW he had no feelings for humanity. Other people did not seem real to him. Nothing was real except his lust for power and total control. And he SAID this.

Also – in his choice of henchmen: he was quite careful, quite cunning. He knew the types he could not trust, he knew the types he could. And so, on some level, he had to KNOW that he was “missing” certain things (like a heart, like a moral compass) … Right? He KNEW he didn’t have these things, and so he chose his top men accordingly.

This, to me, is a mystery. I mean, I understand it intellectually, but there’s something else going on there. Something we cannot know, because we don’t know what was going on in Stalin’s head. And maybe it’s the MYSTERY that keeps me coming back to this topic. We can theorize, and guess, and psychoanalyze a monster like Stalin … but still. Still. What terrifies me is how EASILY people succumbed to being controlled (this is the main reason why cults remain a huge fascination for me), and also … how we never really can know. We can never really know what Stalin FELT. We can only look at what he DID. All we need to know about Stalin can be found in his actions.

But there’s that child-like part of me, the voracious part of me that wants to KNOW. I want to get inside Stalin’s head, for just an hour or so – so I can look out of his eyes – and see what it’s like to have no human feelings. You know? Maybe many of you don’t have that curiosity, but I sure as hell do. Always have. What is it LIKE to be Jeffrey Dahmer? What is it LIKE to be Hitler? What was it really like? There has been a part of me that is so fascinated by cults that I have considered joining one – just to see what it was like. But then I’m afraid that I’ll get so sucked in that my parents will have to hire some thug to drag me out and lock me up in a Motel 6 for days on end to de-program me. But still. My curiosity about the brain, and how it works, and … how it can (or cannot) be “programmed” is a never-ending source of fascination.

Robert Conquest’s discussions of Stalin are chilling, mainly because of how deeply Conquest understands all of this – the unknowable-ness of many of my questions. Especially with someone as cagey and secretive and elusive as Stalin. Historians make the mistake, over and over again, of coming up with some psychological explanation for how tyrants are made … (“his mother didn’t love him enough”, “he was rejected as a painter”, “he was a closet homosexual” … etc.) And while all of these may be interesting components of the personality, certainly not to be ignored … they do not and can not explain everything. There are tons of people who were “rejected as painters” who didn’t end up killing 6 million Jews. If you start with a psychological theory, and then go through the person’s life, finding stuff that backs up YOUR theory … it doesn’t wash. At least not for me. I am not saying that it’s not interesting or relevant – the background of monsters like Pol Pot or Stalin … it’s just that that’s not all there is. That can’t be all there is. Plenty of people grew up uneducated, or unloved, or short, or with a small penis. And they don’t turn themselves into tyrants with iron fists, ruling over millions.

From where does evil like Stalin’s spring?

What motivates a man like Stalin?

Again and again, Conquest reminds us that we ourselves must not under-estimate Stalin. There is no one explanation.

If you go with one theory (he was mediocre, lazy, and ambitious – this was a common view of him) – then that doesn’t explain a host of other events, where he was not mediocre or lazy. He could be lazy. Yet he also could move with amazing dispatch, like a cobra striking, and nobody saw the attack coming.

Some Soviet official who knew Stalin said that Stalin had that rarest (and most dangerous) of combinations: patience and capriciousness.

*shivers* Scary stuff. Very scary.

The murder of Kirov was really when Stalin’s gloves came off, or when he showed his fangs (to mix a metaphor) – although the signs had been there for some time. Conquest, in the chapter “The Kirov Murder”, takes us through it, step by step. The chapter was re-written after glasnost because suddenly he could piece together what really had happened, with the opened archives, etc. archives opened up, etc. Conquest writes very well. There is a feeling of slow inevitability, like a glacier. It cannot be stopped. Stalin cannot be stopped. There is also the fear, reading it in retrospect, because I know the end. Kirov, murdered in 1934, touched off the “purges” – which, all told, killed millions and millions of people. All of them were supposed to be connected, somehow, to Kirov’s murder – as though there was a vast country-wide conspiracy of assassins… but meanwhile (and this was the big secret), Stalin was the one who ordered Kirov killed. The murder of Kirov gave Stalin the excuse to bring the terror to another level. He had been waiting for that excuse all along. He NEVER believed in “the people”, or the revolution. He believed in power, for himself.

George Orwell describes it perfectly in the secret book within 1984. Evil is not random, or thoughtless. It is cunning, very smart (way smarter than “good” is, sometimes, because good can be naive – Evil never is), and evil can afford to take its time. I find Stalin’s patience most frightening. He never forgot or forgave an injury. It could be years before Stalin would get his revenge – but Stalin always got revenge. Always.

I began this long ramble of a post talking about “grokking”.

I guess what I really want to say is at some point last night, as the snow piled up against my window, for about two seconds I “grokked” the Great Terror. It was 4 a.m., I couldn’t sleep, and reading the chapter about Kirov’s murder was a revelation. I know it all intellectually, but what I felt was on another level. I “got it”. I had to put the book down. It was too horrendous.

This is only because of the power and clarity of Robert Conquest’s writing. I’ve read 20 books about the Russian Revolution. And 50 books about the USSR. But I don’t think I really “grokked” it – until last night – when I read about the planning and executing of the murder of Kirov.

Conquest writes:

This killing [the murder of Kirov] has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens, including the most prominent political leaders of the Revolution, were shot for direct responsibility for the assassination, and literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it. Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet peoples.

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30 Responses to “Grokking” Stalin And The Murder of Kirov

  1. Stevie says:

    There’s no gettin’ away from 3AM angst for any of us. But darling Sheila, you are SOOOOOO accomplished, and it’s here for all the world to see – just from the small portion of yourself that’s visible on this blog it’s evident that you’re a marvelously talented writer, a thoughtful, compassionate, and interesting person with an intellectual curiousity that’s breathtaking. Besides, you’re hilarious! Methinks these are the most important accomplishments and traits a person can have, and baby, you have ’em in spades!

  2. ricki says:

    Don’t know about Stalin, but I can tell you YES, YES I know that feeling. That horrible cold-sweat feeling of waking up and realizing you’re doing boo with your life, that it’s not what you planned it to be at 16…and you don’t know what to do to fix it.

    I turn 36 in two days, so it’s been particularly bad for me this week. (Also, it’s that horrible grey blah middle-of-the-semester time, so I have students either not showing up, or cracking jokes about “can we get out of class today?” which only makes it worse, because then I tell myself: there, see. You suck even at your chosen profession. You cannot get butts in seats, nor can you keep them there. You should just hang it up, now.)

    in a way, it’s comforting to know that you, who are such a wonderful writer, and who matters to so many people (that’s another thing I’m feeling right now: that I matter to utterly no one, and if I dropped dead in front of the stove tomorrow night, no one would notice for days) also feels that way.

    It may just be an angsty time of the year, I don’t know. I’m trying to write my case of it off on the fact that allergy season’s started here, and I always react to allergy season with fatigue, dysphoria, and sometimes even near-paranoia.

  3. rozzo says:

    concerning 1984: when I read it the first time, I felt the same fear and terror like you, about this secret book and the revelation, that O’Brien is part of the system and so on…but now, my point of view is different. 1984 is no analysis of the real world, of real political systems. The key to what it is can be found in room nr. 101. Winston might look as if he had been broken at the end. But in fact he is saved. And O’Brien is truly his friend, the secret book is just a fake, and so on…By the way: the word to grok is just an invention of novelist Heinlein in the book Stranger in a Strange Land. It has no real meaning at all…

  4. “I don’t know if any of you guys out there torture yourselves like this”


    Sounds like you did indeed grok.

  5. Let us consult the authority on the English language. From the almighty OED:

    grok, v.

    US Slang

    a. trans. (also with obj. clause) To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with. b. intr. To empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment.

    Bah, I like our definitions better.

  6. red says:


    Well, first of all, I disagree with your analysis of the end of 1984 completely.

    Second of all … I know grok comes from that book you mention. That was the whole point of my bringing it up.

  7. red says:


    Thank you for that. Truly.

    A funny thing – my friend Mitchell said once, in the middle of some rotten February:

    “February is the shortest month.” Long pause. Then he screamed: “BUT IT NEVER ENDS.”


    This, too, shall pass.

    And happy pre-birthday. :)

  8. red says:


    I like your collective definitions better, too – All three of you (I think it was you, Linus, and Bryan) came to my rescue with the grokkiness.

  9. red says:


    Thank you. :) I’m not feeling all restless and uneasy NOW … no worries there. It was just a 3 a.m. thing.

  10. ricki says:

    thanks, red.

    I’d be a lot worse-off, except that it seems that everyone around is feeling it – Lileks has been writing about his “black dog” (using the same metaphor as Churchill did) and people I know in real life have been dragging around like every last speck of life-desire has been sucked out of them. So at least I realize it’s not just me, but that still doesn’t help with the waking in the middle of the night.

    I usually get up and stare at the Weather Channel, myself. Somehow, that helps – all this weather going on and no one on earth can do a thing about it. And the fact that the forecast is repeated almost verbatim every fifteen minutes is something I find strangely comforting.

  11. JFH says:

    Gee Whiz, too bad you don’t have “Fluffy Bunny meets Hello Kitty” on your book wish list. That might have made better reading than Conquest during a 3:00 am anxiety incident.

    I personally can’t relate to your experience last night, it’s never happened to me… on a Thursday Night/Friday morning; mine always come Sunday – Wednesday Nights.

    I agree that these are more likely to happen in February. Unfortunately, unlike you, instead of losing myself in a book that adds to my knowledge, I surf my cable for TVMA movies to forget my anxiety.

  12. Julia says:

    This whole February blahs thing is also a matter for perspective. My birthday is in February and I love having my birthday, so I can’t be mad at the month. Back in university days, my birthday also occurred during reading week so it was sort of nice to have the whole week just for me. But I had also started to suffer from depression (without knowing what it was) in my first year away and in fact, that first reading week was hell on earth.

    I guess I am writing this because I am having a really great February this year and I am only working part time (less stress) and I am going to the gym at least 4 times a week (good endorphins). I am 47 and I still don’t know what great thing I should be doing with my life, but now it matters less and less. Maybe my life isn’t about “one great thing” but it’s about lots of little things. I guess I’ll know more when I’m older!

  13. John says:

    I think, Sheila that monsters undergo a process of self-discovery just as the rest of us do throughout life, and that gives lie to the simplistic explanations put forth by historians for the root causes of monstrosity. Stalin started out as a little git, suspected of betraying his companions in Baku to the Tsarist Okhrana. At least some of his proclivities to purging probably sprang from his guilt over this betrayal. Once he discovered a means to getting rid of the Old Bolsheviks with memories of those rumors, he became bolder and more depraved. But was he sociopathic to start with? Certainly, at least to some degree.

    One facet of his character was humorlessness. I once translated an article written by one of Stalin’s assistants. He mentioned that Stalin only told one joke in his presence over years of service. Stalin came out of his office, looked at a high ranking party functionary, and said “you know, my Grandmother had a goat that looked just like you”. “Goat” is a mild insult in Russian. One joke over almost a decade, and it was demeaning. Says a lot, doesn’t it? This same article also mentioned Stalin’s quest to dress up his purges in ideological terms, while the assistant noted that everyone in the Party hierarchy knew it was the struggle of “ ‘s’ in a jar”. That turn of phrase stuck with me. Stalin as the biggest, baddest ‘s’. Fitting (especially, to you, I’d imagine).

    Stalin was lazy, certainly, but he put his efforts where they counted most. When Trotsky, Lenin and the rest were studying Western languages in exile, he studied Russian to get rid of his accent. Lazy, yes, but calculated. He knew that his thick Georgian accent would not be welcomed in a leader by the Russian peasants. I’ve heard recordings of him, and his accent was there, but not bad, certainly better than most Georgians. (Writing that, I had aural hallucinations of Jimmy Carter speaking Russian with a twang, but I digress…;-)

    I think it was von Moltke who wrote about recruiting officers to the German General staff who had a certain kind of indolence, but who had energy when the circumstances called for it. Otherwise, the overly ambitious worry their staffs and soldiers to death. A good commander knows when to leave well enough alone. A lot of creative types and scientists have this personality trait as well. A scientist sits and mulls over the literature, observations in the lab, and it looks to an outsider as if the researcher is doing nothing. Then, suddenly an idea hits and you’ve got a fiend on your hands working 120 hour weeks until the experiments are done. Then quiet for a week, then repeat experiments (more slowly and carefully), and then the writing process begins.

    I think Stalin had that kind of indolence. A cat’s indolence, sleeping 80% of the day, then springing, claws out, onto his prey.

    I’m fascinated by Stalin’s political evil. Who knows how much was natural and how much was learned? The best psychological portrait I’ve ever seen of Stalin was in Anatoly Rybakov’s novel “Children of the Arbat”.

    As for the henchmen, I see a lot of parallels with the secular fanatics of today (including the humorlessness). Many of these people are looking for something higher than themselves to devote their lives to, and lacking faith in God, they transfer their devotion to a cause. Once the devotion is transferred, the cause can not be questioned, or it calls into question the self-worth and morality of the questioner. So many in the upper circle (lower functionaries were more likely to be defiant at trial) accepted their fate without argument because it was the Party judging them, and the Party is always right (that’s not my analysis, rather it’s that of Conquest and Roy Medvedev). A few fought back, mostly the soldiers in the Red Army, men of action, rather than ideologues.

    Did you ever see the film “Burnt by the Sun”? I highly recommend it if you haven’t, it dates from the post-Perestroika period when the Russians were really exploring this stuff.

  14. red says:

    Wow John, there is so much to ponder in what you wrote … thank you, thank you. I need to sit with it a bit. The one joke thing … Yeah, it’s stuff like that that really hooks me in, makes me wonder: what the hell? what creates a Stalin??


    And I adore Burnt by the Sun. I saw it in a teeny little art house here in Manhattan – up by Carnegie Hall – and I’ll never forget it. One of the images that sticks with me is … a balloon, a huge balloon, with Stalin’s face on it … floating through a wheat field. Am I remembering that right?

  15. red says:

    John – one of the anecdotes in the book which terrified me (and I thought was really illuminating about who Stalin was) – is here – The context is too much for me to describe, but suffice it to say that it’s in the beginning years of the purges, and “Centers” of oppositionists are being made up out of thin air. (The Leningrad Center, the Moscow Center) Stalin was going after these imaginary “centers” ruthlessly. Anyway, here are Conquest’s words:

    “Smirnov had been proposed as the leading Secretary of the Party in 1922, just before the job went to Stalin. After being exiled with the other Trotskyites in 1927 he had recanted but, during the Ryutin period, had spoken approvingly of the proposals to remove Stalin and had been in jail ever since. Stalin thus had a particular grudge against him.

    Perhaps it was this that led Stalin to insist on his inclusion in the “Center” in spite of the physical impossibility of his having participated in anything of the kind. For, as even Agranov is said to have tentatively objected, there would be some difficulty in making the charge plausible, since Smirnov had been held in jail throughout the period of the alleged plot. Stalin ‘gave Agranov a sullen look and said “Don’t be afraid, that’s all.” ‘”

    Okay, that’s the anecdote.

    This is very scary and very revealing. “Don’t be afraid”. It has so many levels.

    Don’t be afraid to be ruthless. Don’t say NO. Don’t think of the objections and why it can’t be done. Don’t be afraid to say YES.

    But what Stalin was asking them all to say Yes to was terror. “Don’t be afraid, that’s all.”

  16. John says:

    Yes, that’s the movie. If you can get ahold of a copy of “Children of the Arbat”, it’s worth it. I’m not sure if I still have my English copy. If I find it, I’ll send it to you.

    I saw a play based on “Children of the Arbat” in a little town in southern Russia. The dude who played Stalin was a “national artist”, the highest rank in Soviet arts. (Can you imagine being ranked as an artist just as if you were in the Army?) His performance was spine chillingly correct in every detail.

  17. red says:

    I think being a “national artist” (as opposed to just a plain old “artist”) might mean a bit more job security! But what do I know!!

    I will definitely look for Children of the Arbat – Amazon might have it.

  18. JFH says:

    I remember some movie about Stalin’s projectionist, played by “Pinto” of Animal House (or, for those of you more cultured, Mozart in Amadeus) during the purge period… Or am I hallucinating again.

  19. red says:

    JFH: Tom Hulce!

  20. red says:


    Yes, indeed. Depressing, ain’t it?

  21. The actor is Tom Hulce and a quick jump to IMDB revealse the film is titled The Inner Circle (aka The Projectionist).

  22. David Foster says:

    Don’t the Scandinavians refer to 3 AM as “the hour of the wolf?”

    I’m less interested in Stalin than in those who enabled him..and there were concentric circles of these enablers. There will always be individual evil people: what makes them dangerous on a more than strictly local level is those who go along with them.

    Sheila, you really should read “Darkness at Noon.”

    But probably not at 3 AM.

  23. red says:


    Believe me, it is on the list! :) it was sent to me by another kind reader, and I have yet to get to it.

    Conquest quotes from it quite a bit.

  24. Jay says:

    Awesome, important post. But honestly, it seems to me a little like the Mr Obvious show. I can see how someone would be fascinated with how people evolve (devolve?) into being power hungry monsters such as Stalin, Mao, Pot, or Hitler. Or whether such people are largely spring loaded to become who they become. Like most things, it is probably a multifactorial process. I really never have been overly interested in such things. The question of how such people come to be, is a black hole. Semi-normal people will NEVER be able to understand. It will never make sense. Sorry, but I believe you will never grok the likes of Stalin. The important point is to recognize that such people always have been and always will be part of the human race.

    A quick perusal of human history, current society, and virtually anyone’s personal experience should demonstrate that there always have been such people. Sociopaths, to varying degrees. From petty criminals who value their own interests above those of others to the point that they are willing to steal, to bullies who get kicks off of pushing others around, all the way to the mass murdering power starved monsters mentioned above, as well as others throughout history.

    The real question is what to do about such people. I think an important lesson to be learned by study of history, and of the above mentioned characters specifically, is the sociopolitical systems under which they are able to carry out their atrocities. Always those institutions that allow very centralized power, where the interests of the state or the ruling class supercede those of the individual. We can’t just kill off all the “bad” people (Although I believe we should be able to kill off select persons. Some people just don’t need to continue living..Bin Laden, Zarqawi, etc…). It is imperative rather that we do those things necessary to minimize the possible effects such people may be able to have. That is why I love the organization of our government, the devolution of power, the checks and balances. At least the concept of our governmental organization. It is unlikely that people such as those above would be able to acquire the power necessary to cause such mass destruction. We must however, be vigilant that in our rush to acquire security (physical, monetary, otherwise), we don’t migrate slowly to a system where we are totally dependent and the state is our only source of sustenance. Those people who long for or actually strive for such sociopolitical systems, although mostly of good intention, are delusional. Their ideas are dangerous. It demands either a near complete ignorance of human history and human nature, or a willful disregard thereof. Neither should be allowed to stand without rebuke. Uhhh…OK, getting a little carried away, but I guess you get my point. Evil, and lets call it that, is a problem we will never understand. Instead of giving into our tendency to get caught up in the “I can’t believe such people exist” or “How does evil arise?”, recognize that the problem exists and do all we can to minimize the impact. FIDO.

    Not at all a swipe at you Sheila. I truly enjoy reading about your thoughts and fascinations. You seem to have the gifts of insight and the ability to convey your thoughts in a clear and engrossing manner. But I’m a very simple man and I fall into the stereotype of always wanting to identify and fix problems. And the topic you brought up, or at least the one I addressed, is important to me. Sorry again for long posts.

  25. red says:

    It feels a bit like a swipe. Mr. Obvious Show? I don’t need to be reminded about the eternity of evil, and all the examples. I KNOW. And also I resent your wording:

    “The real question is what to do about such people”

    Dude, this is my blog. I don’t care what YOU think the “real” question is. MY question is from where does evil spring? That’s what I’M interested in.

    Any time I post something like this – with my openness, and my willingness to NOT know the answer (that’s the key, that’s what people seem to latch onto – it makes them uncomfortable or something) I get a response like yours. A fix-it response.

    Now do not get me wrong. I am GLAD there are fixers in the world. Thank God there are. I am glad there are those who want to identify and fix. We NEED you.

    But we need the others, too. We need the people like me, who give a shit about why. Even if there are no answers.

    But another theme which you struck in your comment – which often comes up when I post like this (it happened when I talked about the Columbine killers too) … My interest is psychological. Not in a way so that they can be EXCUSED (that’s where people always jump all over me – God, do you people all get the same memos? I guess I was absent that day.) – I am interested in psychological abnormalities. I am interested in asking WHY.

    I am fascinated by:

    — cults
    — serial killers
    — totalitarian regimes
    — religious fanaticism
    — sociopaths

    Always have been. I’m drawn to it. I want to know what it’s LIKE, I am fascinated by how the brain works, and how it can be molded and shaped …

    Many people misunderstand me and think that because I want to know WHY, means that I am saying that the horrible things they did were right.

    I think that that’s a function of not really listening to what I’m saying.

    The more I read your comment, the more I don’t like it. I may be over-reacting. Highly possible. But you sound condescending … as though I am unaware that history gives us countless examples of evil.

    Uh … yeah, it does. I find that fascinating and disturbing.

    What’s your point?

  26. red says:

    Like most things, it is probably a multifactorial process. I really never have been overly interested in such things.

    And so … because you’re not interested in something means it’s not interesting?

    Or … do you realize how condescending you sound?

    “A quick perusal of human history…”

    Dude! That’s so obnoxious.


  27. Jay says:

    I sincerely apologize. IT WAS NOT MEANT AT ALL THE WAY YOU TOOK IT. I do not think that you were trying to rationalize evil. And as I said, I really, really like that you express your fascinations such as you did in your original post. And no, just because I am not as interested in such things as you are, does NOT mean that such things are uninteresting. Believe it or not, I am nowhere near being that much of an asshole. Everybody has their interests and opinions. I was just trying to expressing my perspective. And obviously failed!

    I work in an environment where most people are very much in favor of socialist or near socialist ideals. My comment about a “quick perusal of history” was not to say that you can get a complete picture in this way. Or that you don’t know much history. I know that I am not as well read as you and that I couldn’t hold a candle to your history knowledge base. I was trying to convey rather, that to me at least, it seems pretty obvious with even quick look at history, the dangers in concentrating powers so that at some point the Stalin’s of the world can use such power for their purposes, however they arise.

    My tone was not meant to be condescending towards you, but rather to express my dismay at people who would try to put in place those institutions that would allow such great horrors. Even though nearly most all people who do so do it with the best of intentions, because of their concern for others. But, they don’t look at the possible ills that could be wrought, the secondary and tertiary concerns, and so on.

    I am truly sad that I made you say “GRRRR” at me.

    But my offer for free stuff still stands, even if it entails getting you a book with every known analysis of every known mass murderer, cult leader, or the like.

  28. red says:

    I am sorry – I did misinterpret what you wrote – and I completely accept your apology.

    Like I said to you: I do agree that it is important to want to fix this stuff, and figure out what to do with these people. It’s just that my interest primarily lies elsewhere, in the psychological anomalies that make up these tyrants.

    I can’t read enough books about all of them – in the hopes that I will get closer to understanding, to knowing what drives these people.

    It may be, too (and sorry if this sounds artsy-fartsy, but you have to remember how truly artsy-fartsy I really am) – that this fascination of mine stems from the actress side of my personality. There is NOTHING in humanity that doesn’t interest me, and … although I do feel revulsion for people who lack a moral compass … I do so want to step into their shoes, and see what it FEELS like. Or at least try to portray it. That’s the greatest challenge. Actors who have been able to do that – who have been able to fully abdicate their own sense of humanity (think of Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs) have my deepest admiration and envy.

    It’s easy-peasy to play a person who has a moral compass. But to step into the shoes of a monster? Like John described above – the actor in Russia who was able to portray Stalin? That so interests me.

  29. skinnydan says:

    Sheila, I’d recommend you take a look at this bio of Kruschev if you’d like to see the aftereffects of Stalin’s work. Nowhere near as terrifying as Stalin, Kruschev’s approach is still very difficult for free westerners to understand.

    I don’t think it’s more horrifying, but Stalin’s legacy to those who followed was fear, suspicion, and the pursuit of absolute power. Kruschev learned everything at Stalin’s feet, and you can see the same calculating disregard for anyone but Kruschev himself.

    Taubman’s book is both long and dense (apparently true of the author himself, according to a friend of mine who knows him), but I think if you’re interested in the Stalin years this will shed some more light. From underling to successor, Kruschev had a lot to do with Stalin’s actions and their aftermath.

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