A Conversation with Stalin

Russia.

I will write about Russia.

But what about research? I need to read so many books, visit so many places, view so many primary source documents! How can I hope to write about Russia if I do anything less?

And then, before me appears a shade. The shade takes form, translucent and ethereal. It is Joseph Stalin. I am mortified. What evil have I done to be visited by the likes of this tyrant?

He speaks: “So. You wish to write about Russia? It is simple. You know enough. Just do it.”

“No,” I say, “I cannot. While I know much of the official version of this and the official version of that, I know that in history, especially Russian history, the official versions often have little connection to reality. They serve their masters, not the historians.”

“You Westerners.”

How dare this thug judge me? “What do you mean, ‘You Westerners’? You say that like it’s an insult.”

“I do, yes. You obsess with notions of accuracy. So your government has never lied to you?”

Stalin had a point there. Once a month, the government told a lie when it reported unemployment figures. That was the first I thought of, then others came to mind. Stalin definitely had a point there. But I didn’t feel right about just copying so-called official versions without questioning them. I wanted to write a history book, not a collection of myths and fairy tales. I had a flash of inspiration about the matter: “Sure, they tell lies: but we can discover the underlying truth. That’s what I want to do about Russia. Take your history, for example. People should know you were one of the worst mass-murderers in history.”

“Why?”

Stalin’s arrogance infuriated me. “To judge you! To keep it from happening again!”

Stalin kept his cool. “What will judging me do? If there is a God, then He will already judge me: no man could add to divine wrath or subtract from divine mercy. If there is no God, then no man can do anything to modify my nothingness. And to keep it from happening again, as you say… will knowledge about men like me keep men like me from gaining power? Isn’t that precisely what men like me are most skilled at doing? All the men like me are, right now, gravitating towards the centers of power and are preparing to fortify themselves from the likes of moralists such as you. You will come after them, perhaps, in your righteous indignation, and they will give you a whiff of grapeshot, as Napoleon once said.”

“That’s immoral.”

“So? That’s power. Those who wish to hold it must be prepared to be utterly ruthless. Those who are less than ruthless will be oppressed. Perhaps the oppressed can rise up and, for a brief moment, behave as if the sun always shines on them. But whatever they do, the men like me will return and use whatever system is in place to their benefit. They will be ruthless and they will be there forever.”
What could I do to banish the ghost of Stalin? Was I hallucinating? Or, worse, was this experience actually happening?

Perhaps I could just dismiss the demon. “See here, Stalin, I’m busy. I’m trying to write a history of Russia and I have much to do. Just leave me.”

“Nonsense. I should stay here. I am Russia.”

“You are Joseph Stalin, one of many autocrats to rule over Russia. You are not the people of Russia. You are not the land. You certainly aren’t its past, and neither are you its future.”

“You are right that I am Joseph Stalin, but you are wrong about everything else. If you write your little book about Russia, you will be writing a fiction if you go into it with that attitude.”

“And if I don’t? What if I write it with the opposite view?”

“It will still be a fiction, but one that suits me better.”

“And if I research it impeccably?”

“That, too, will be fiction. Possibly more boring than the other two versions.”

Condemn this Stalin! There he is, before me, casting a shadow over my entire work. There was no getting around it: if I was to deal with Russia, I’d have to confront Stalin, head on.

Stalin… While I still didn’t agree with the idea that he was the people of Russia or the land itself, I did see more of him in the past, the more I thought of it. And, considering the pattern of Russian history, he was its future.

Russia has always been ruled by authoritarian leaders. Stalin was simply the most authoritarian of them all, a Platonic form, if you will.

I wrote that sentence and, instead of Stalin, Boris Yeltsin stood before me. “You say that I am an authoritarian? I, who ended the Communist grip on the government?”

“You, who ordered tanks to open fire on the Parliament?”

Yeltsin’s features faded and the shade returned to its Stalinesque appearance. It spoke again, “You see a little of me in every ruler now, eh?”

“Perhaps I do. Some more than others. It would explain the self-serving nature of official Russian history, from the Primary Chronicle of Kievan Rus to the structured image of Vladimir Putin today. The history isn’t there to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past, nor is it there to provide an objective, structured view of past events. It is there for a different reason.”

“And what reason is that?”

“To make gods out of men.”

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