Saturday, April 2, 2022

He was one of them

From John Gray's review of Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, "The cult of Stalin the intellectual":
.... Aspects of Stalin’s personality that were observed by his contemporaries are edited out from the self-effacing, book-loving figure Roberts presents. Stalin’s contemporaries were familiar with his taste for cruelty. His taunting of guests at late-night drinking sessions is well attested, as is his prolonging standing ovations to the point where his terrified audiences were sore-handed, exhausted and fainting. The manner in which he orchestrated the execution of Nikolai Bukharin is revealing. Before his show trial, in which he was accused of plotting to assassinate Lenin and Stalin, Bukharin wrote to Stalin begging to be executed by poison rather than by a bullet in the back of the head. In response, according to a report by a former secret service officer cited by one of Bukharin’s biographers, he was given a chair so he could sit and watch as 17 of his co-defendants were shot, one by one, until his time came. Bukharin’s fear and horror were multiplied many times over. There can be no doubt that the proceedings were scripted by Stalin. ....

Why so many intellectuals glorified Stalin is a nice question. Part of the reason must be that Stalin was himself an intellectual. During the Second World War he enjoyed mass popularity in Britain, where he was feted as “good old Joe”. But the cult of Stalin in the West was the work of intellectuals who saw in him what they would like to be themselves: leaders with the power to reconstruct society on the basis of their ideas. HG Wells, Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and others revered Stalin for this reason. Writing in the Thirties, the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry observed that “the mere notion that the life of men could be organised on a collective plan is enough to give birth to the idea of dictatorship”. More than communism, it was the dream of overseeing a social order they had constructed that attracted intellectuals to Stalin.

Among Stalin’s admirers is Vladimir Putin. ....

As Roberts shows in this flawed but valuable book, Stalin demolished Russia in an attempt to rebuild it on rationalist foundations. That is why Western intellectuals celebrated him: under his gruff exterior, he was one of them. .... (more)
John Gray, "The cult of Stalin the intellectual," The New Statesman, March 30, 2022.

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