The Charisma of Evil

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Reviewed by

Ian Williams

 

When Mel Brooks had Hitler tripping across the stage in the “Producers,” the campy banality makes the horror manageable and laughable. Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the banality of evil almost had her burning at the intellectual stake, but the concept is indispensable for understanding the real world – and perhaps no more so than the present.

The sight of Karl Rove doing a song and dance routine at the White House Press roast, despite its superficial resemblance to Young Frankenstein and the Monster tapping the boards, evokes nausea because its aim is to conceal the horror behind the banal. 

However, there is a reverse to Arendt’s thesis, which is the filtration from subsequent history of the charisma of evil, the retrospective denial of the appealing characteristics that put leaders in the position to do so much harm.

In the Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore has come to exhume Stalin, not to praise him. In the process, he has rescued one of history’s most influential characters from the caricatures of both his disciples and his enemies to give a rounded picture of his development, which does much to explain why he and the Soviet state became what they did.

Young Stalin shows how, although undoubtedly evil in his behavior, the Soviet leader was far from banal. He was a complex and charismatic figure, who commanded loyalty that, certainly in the early days, was not just based on fear and terror. The book’s well researched portrait of a complex, courageous, glamorous but ruthless rogue, philanderer and poet, intellectual and ideologist contrasts sharply with the common view of a boorish, uneducated and savage peasant whose animal cunning allowed him to prevail against his moral and intellectual betters.

Young Stalin is bound to disturb many in world where the bad guys are supposed to be bad in every aspect. In a recent review of “Mao” I praised the authors for revealing the depth of the Chinese leader’s crimes, including the deaths of millions of Chinese, but cautioned that their unremittingly negative depiction of the founder of modern China was unconvincing, and failed to explain how he had gained the unflinching support of so many of his victims. I was promptly accused of being an apologist for genocide.

The Manichaean view of history has deep roots in our culture and its dualism morphs easily into crude Marxism: good versus evil, thesis versus antithesis, heroes and villains. It is a rich vein in the popular imagination but it is always distressing to see it extended to the decision-making classes. Goodies and Baddies may be an effective paradigm for writing a Hollywood Western or a James Bond film, but are much less so for explaining history or politics.

 In an American presidential context, a clean-living, non-drinking, anti-smoking, pet-loving, vegetarian, faithful war veteran prepared to go to prison for his belief that his people had been wronged would certainly score points with pollsters – if his name were not Adolf Hitler.  We do indeed have examples in the current White House team of charming, affable people who neither rant like Tamurlaine, nor kick the dog, but have committed some very serious crimes and are directly responsible for perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Indeed, since real politicians rarely behave like the villains in a melodrama, or even in a Iago-like impulse of pure evil, the popular persistence of this model poses serious political problems, as the successive demonizations of Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or even Hugo Chavez have shown. On the other hand, their expedient canonizations by opponents of American foreign policy are equally dangerous. Our popular memory of Che Guevara is of the martyr in the jungle, not the supervisor of firing squads in Havana.

Facile comparisons with Hitler and Stalin are often part of such demonizations, so perhaps books like the Young Stalin will help exorcize such diabolical thought processes from the public consciousness.

 It is not easy to find an objective view of Stalin. During his reign, he and his acolytes buried much of the earlier “achievements” that Sebag Montefiore reveals - the messy business of bank robberies and direct action, not to mention his serial seductions occasionally tending to pedophilia. Such deeds were not conducive to painting the icon of the leader of the world’s proletariat, nor, indeed with their hints of underlying Georgian clannishness, were they useful for the leader of the Russians. Unlike the warts on Oliver Cromwell’s portrait, Stalin and his official iconographers painted them out – and sometimes expunged the very witnesses as well.

Since Khrushchev’s 20th Congress speech essentially confirmed the anti-communist charges against Stalin, the number of defenders of his record or his motives has shrunk considerably, even if there are probably still more than there should be. Leon Trotsky’s personal animus against the provincial “mediocrity” who supplanted him, still permeates many on the Left, who remain romantically attached to an idealist vision of the October Revolution, and seek to portray Stalin as an aberration from the purity of the Bolsheviks’ aim and methods.

But Trotsky’s own critique of Stalin’s ability, his “mediocrity,” was self-evidently contrafactual. It was Stalin who sat enthroned in the Kremlin while his bitter exiled rival frittered and fretted at the other end of the globe, stricken down by an assassin who died thinking he had committed an heroic deed. As Sebag Montefiore says, “Trotsky’s view tells us more about his own vanity, snobbery, and lack of political skills than about the early Stalin.” Both sides since have rewritten history, but it is clear that within the Bolshevik Party, Stalin commanded a support that Trotsky could not.

 The snobbery of Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin comes oddly from a would-be champion of the proletariat. Sebag Montefiore reemphasizes what other recent historians have pointed out, that Stalin was a voracious and minutely attentive reader, with a personal library of over 20,000 volumes, many of them with marginal notes scribbled in the censorious leader.

He was already a renowned and published poet in Georgian despite his humble origins, but that too was an inconvenient accolade for the helmsman of the Russian-based Soviet empire and was lost from the official historiography.

As an autodidact after his expulsion from the Tiflis seminary Stalin was able to wage class warfare within the Bolshevik Party to isolate Trotsky and other intellectuals and call upon the loyalty of those who had stayed. Sebag Montefiore shows how the Bolsheviks who stayed inside and did the dirty work, wrestling in the mud and blood with the Okhrana had their own cohesiveness and loyalties, which did not necessarily extend to the intellectuals who lived safely abroad.

He demonstrates how Lenin, more than the other exiles, maintained contact and encouraged this sub-culture back in the Empire, and has no truck with the idea that Bolshevism in practice was some forced aberration from cozy social democracy. The exiles lived off the proceeds of the banditry of Stalin and his comrades, even as they snootily despised them.

Stalin was at the core of this group of Committeemen who “had been raised on the same streets, had shared gang warfare, clan rivalries, and ethnic slaughter, and had embraced the same culture of violence.” Sebag Montefiore demonstrates the extent to which the Bolsheviks on the ground shared Stalin’s gangster origins, so that the sectarianism, ruthlessness and perpetual paranoia that we associate with Stalin was in fact an integral part of Bolshevism rather than a personal aberration.

He summarizes, “Leninism-Stalinism is comprehensible only if one realizes that the Bolsheviks continued to behave in the same clandestine style whether they formed the government of the world’s greatest empire in the Kremlin or an obscure little cabal in the backroom of a Tiflis tavern.”

Far from being the “colorless gray Blur” of legend, Stalin was in fact a colorful and almost heroic figure in those underground years, mixing attributes of James Bond with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Women found him attractive, and he responded often, but was often callously exploitive of them, abandoning them and the children he fathered, several of whom Sebag Montefiore has tracked down. While he was never a “nice” person, he was murderous, but not a psychopath, although the cover blurb on the book calls him such. On the one hand he could see inconvenient friends and relatives die with nary a tear, but then he could send gifts and money to old acquaintances down on their luck.

In fact, what Sebag Montefiore shows was that quite apart from Stalin’s personality, he shared with other Bolsheviks a psychopathic philosophy, in which family, friends, indeed any person, was disposable for the cause.

Compare for example Hitler and Stalin, the twin demons of the Twentieth Century. I suspect that most readers would tilt the balance of evil towards Hitler. Rationally, how do we distinguish between them? What made rational people choose one over the other, often as if there were no other choices?

In any calculus of evil, Hitler may have killed his tens of thousands by 1941, but by then Stalin had slaughtered millions. Hitler had swallowed up Czechoslovakia and much of Poland, but Stalin had by then committed the crime of aggression against Finland, the Baltic States, and by the end, Poland. The Holocaust was yet to happen, and it could be argued that the fate of the Kulaks in Russia until then was worse than that of the Jews in Germany.

One can only conclude that at least part of this inclination to regard Hitler as further beyond the Pale than Stalin derives from intentions. Despite the folk wisdom about the paving material for the Road to Hell, we tend to excuse good intentions and sincerity.

Aryan supremacy was not a cause that most progressive or liberal thinkers see deserving human sacrifice on such a huge scale. But Stalin’s degenerate worker’s state, as even exiled cofounder Trotsky saw it, and the promised socialist commonwealth to come allowed people to don moral blinkers about the sordid and cruel reality of the road that purported to lead to it.

Was Stalin sincere in his desire to bring about a socialist paradise? Sebag Montefiore does not directly answer this question, but his work suggests that Stalin was indeed a true believer, a romantic who wanted to reshape presently imperfect humanity into a more suitable form, no matter the cost in individual human lives. For most of us, in a culture where sincerity is seen as a virtue outside of any connection to reality, that poses much more of an intellectual problem than a caricatured villain out of James Bond or Batman.  

It is a question with deep roots in politics. Sebag Montefiore has done the world a service with his portrait of young Stalin – not because of any concern about rescue the dead dictator from libel, but to remind us that in the real world poets and bibliophiles can be gentlemanly and genocidal at the same time and that they might even profess desirable ends. It should be evident that in any rational political analysis, we cannot separate the end and the means. It is not what politicians, governments, guerillas or terrorists profess that matters. It is what they do.