“Don’t think, but look!”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
It is a dark tale.
Especially because it is true.
Standing in front of two hundred engaged individuals, I was in my twelfth year of telling the story of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. They had heard of his rough childhood, his failed aspirations as a seminarian, his revolutionary beginnings and his ruthless claw to the side of Vladimir Lenin and atop the Russian continent. This hardened man knew one thing above all: the intoxicating effects of power. And so, to achieve and maintain power, he would orchestrate the murder of millions in unwinnable battles, government-created famines, show trials, purges, Gulags and the Great Terror.
He was a monster. But was it as simple as that?
If that is all there is, then how could this happen?
Surely in his violence, his betrayal, his utter capriciousness, people must have known better, right? With such transparent evil, there must have been a way for his bloody rule to be averted.
Well, yes, in a way.
But Joseph Stalin was surprising.
In an interview with historian, Laurence Rees, Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore noted, “[Stalin] was always superb with people and again and again people thought that they were indispensable to him, even despite the obvious evidence that everyone was dispensable…. Stalin cultivated a sort of gentleness and a sort of quietness, a lack of showiness which people trust, but also he was very charismatic in a sort of feline way…”
He went on,
“[Stalin] was someone who took reading and thinking very seriously. He was someone who just lived for reading books. It just happened that he regarded human lives as at best, useful, and at worst, as utterly expendable in colossal numbers. So he was a very complex figure, and when he met these westerners he learnt to handle them extremely well and he listened to them gently. He played the part, which was part of his personality, the pipe smoking little father of Russia…”“I think the personal thing is hugely important. I think that Stalin the feline charmer is irresistible. It’s virtually impossible to find anyone who spent time with him who didn’t come out trusting him and thinking that they could do business with him, thinking that he was a two-dimensional character, not just a bloody monster…These things were extraordinary as well with foreigners because he could show warmth to people and show enormous care and he did this with his entourage, so it’s not just with foreigners. With his entourage he took immense personal trouble with people in a way that was irresistible. There’s the story I remember reading about Beria, his hideous secret police chief. When he moved to Moscow, Stalin went round and inspected his apartment, tucked his son into bed and literally read him a story. And that’s not a unique example. With every one of his leaders he went to their houses and checked the heating was good enough, literally. Here’s a man who wrote out by hand what car every family of the top 25 leaders had, and I’ve seen the documents where he decided it. So there’s an incredible attention to detail about things that mattered to people. And, as we all know, those little things are things that matter to people, so he was brilliant at handling people high and low, and that’s a huge talent. But then you’ve also got the fact that the West really needed Russia, and Russia was against the massive proportion of the Wehrmacht, and huge numbers of their allied armies were fighting there, and actually there was nothing else happening at that point, it was just the Red Army. And if the Red Army collapsed….so we really needed them.” (source below)
After spending hours with Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in crucial negotiating sessions, none other than Winston Churchill’s Foreign Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Anthony Eden wrote, “If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.”
To be sure, Stalin was Stalin because of the sheer odd complexity of who he was: Bloodthirsty and soothing, power-hungry and gentle, steely and jovial. But one can’t forget, much of the misery Stalin was able to exact was because those around him saw him for what they wanted, not what he was.
Indeed, Stalin was surprising. But so are we.
Franklin Roosevelt felt that his own powers of persuasion and charm could bring the despot around to an agreeable way forward, never to see the gross betrayals and ruthless manipulations that would follow Roosevelt’s death. Winston Churchill, more clear-sighted than Roosevelt, still at times entertained some hope that Stalin could be manipulated in one small way or another, only to realize he was wrong. Fellow Communist leaders, friends and family all found themselves drawn into the charm, mystique and wishful thinking that perhaps they were special in this man’s eyes…and perhaps they were for a time.
Until he no longer needed them.
In 1946 during the first stages of the Cold War, George Kennan, deputy United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union, lay in his sick bed in Moscow with some time on his hands. In response to the umpteenth letter from an American government official scratching his head about the mercurial nature of Joseph Stalin and his regime, Kennan gritted his teeth and penned a response. A cogent and refreshing analysis titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” aka the Long Telegram (as it would be colloquially dubbed) would reach its recipient and soon be circulated to the highest levels of government. Kennan, many remarked, was on to something.
With a hint of exasperation and a plea to common sense, Kennan implored to look past your wishful thinking. Look beyond the Soviet’s professed intentions. Look further than your analysis of Marxist doctrine. And instead, consider human nature. Or as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once admonished, “Don’t think, but look!” Winston Churchill, among the most astute of statesman, was clearly on to something in 1939 when he observed,
“[The Soviet Union] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Kennan went one step further and noted,
“It was the protection of his personal position that came first; and this was the key to [Stalin’s] diplomacy.”
More than ideology and politics, Stalin and his state were motivated by that most ancient and universal of human desires: Power.
As I considered the story of Joseph Stalin for the twelfth year in a row, I was reminded of something important. To simply call Stalin (or Hitler or Mao or countless historical others) a monster is to dismiss him too lightly. To get lost in the arcana of ideology or propaganda is to miss the greater truth. But to consider, truly consider, the sinful tendencies (of pride, greed, gluttony, rage, lust) deeply intertwined in our fallen nature is to begin to glimpse more accurately the evil that men (and women) do.
Don’t think, but look.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Source for Montefiore/Rees interview here