By Vikas Datta
There are just a handful of statesmen who have greatly influenced the course of the 20th century — for good or bad. But can we categorise leaders on this moral standard — for the most evil may have done some good, or vice versa. We could try the more tangible measure of success and failure, but how much importance should be given to the means they used? How about their literary presence?
And in as per actual appearance, express or implied, rather than works set in their era, Stalin could win hands-down, against Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong and Nelson Mandela, though he could face some challenge from John F. Kennedy and Vladimir Putin. The Soviet Union’s second — and longest — ruler crops up in a wide range of works in English, spanning political fiction to historical thrillers — a trend which continues even now.
But why is Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), whose 139th birth anniversary falls on Monday, so favoured, given he is not a very positive figure?
Josef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, or Stalin (his revolutionary pseudonym), was insecure, devious, did not take insults lightly, held grudges until he could exact revenge, and was unmoved by the suffering or deaths of his enemies (and their families) and other victims — including his second wife and at least one son.
As a ruler, he caused enormous suffering and nearly wrecked the country. Millions of Soviet citizens died, were killed outright or perished in camps due to crimes, real and imagined. His purges went on decimate top defence personnel, the government (including two secret service chiefs) and even the Communist Party, where almost all the old Bolsheviks were eliminated.
Then Stalin entered into an opportunistic pact with Hitler that began the Second World War, but soon his one-time ally turned on him and overran large parts of Soviet territory.
However, soon the Germans were soon stopped and chased back to Berlin. And the Soviet Union emerged as one of the two superpowers — with nuclear weapons (with information stolen from the West), and a large part of Central and Eastern Europe under its control.
On the other hand, Stalin, could read at an incredible pace, had over 20,000 books — which he had all read as per his notings in them — had an excellent memory, an appreciation of both high and low culture, and could be charismatic when he wanted — as British novelist H.G. Wells and Yugoslav communist (later dissident) Milovan Djilas could attest.
With all this making him a fascinating, though equally repellent, figure, and his literary debut dates from 1940 with Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”. Set in 1938 during the Great Purge and dealing with the fate of an Old Bolshevik now accused of treason, it doesn’t name either the Soviet regime or its leader, who are just referred to as “the Party” and “Number One”, but the reference is obvious.
More famous depictions include George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), where he is Napoleon. However, the author commends his bravery in staying on in Moscow as the Germans advance, with the scene where Napoleon stays upright during an explosion even as the other animals duck.
Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” or “1984” (1949) is an attack on a totalitarian regime, that could be either Nazi or Stalinist, though it leans toward the latter with the sort of “cult of personality” shown in it. Similarly, “Big Brother”, with his prominent moustache, could be more Stalin than Hitler, who had a toothbrush growth.
Stalin, as himself, is a major player in the Inspector Pekkala series of crime fiction by Sam Eastland, the pseudonym of American academician and novelist Paul Watkins. Starring Pekkala, an uncanny Finn who was once Tsar Nicholas II’s trusted investigator, they seem freed from the Gulag by Stalin, who gets him to work for the regime by heartless manipulation.
In the seven installments from “Eye of the Red Tsar” (2010) to “Berlin Red” (2016), Stalin sometimes appears even benign but rapidly comes back to his scheming, heartless self, once even ordering Pekkala be eliminated after a self-serving denunciation.
A more realistic depiction is in British historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow Trilogy — “Sashenka” (2008), “One Night in Winter” (2013) and “Red Sky at Noon” (2017). Montefiore, who has also written “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” (2003) and “Young Stalin” (2007), draws on his knowledge to show Stalin in all his colours — the all-night orgies, the despotic style — but especially his cunning and viciousness — making promises he doesn’t intend to keep, being cryptic in his orders to claim deniability, setting subordinates against each other, and keeping everyone in line by even targetting their families.
There are more, but these should suffice for a good idea of Stalin, who could be said to have done “great things — terrible, yes, but great” as Harry Potter is told when he selects a wand in the start of his adventures.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)