I've just finished reading Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith; set in the USSR in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. The book is an excellent thriller, using as a factual inspiration the serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, also known as “the Rostov Ripper”, who was actually active during the 1980s.
What makes the book so good is the fact that it works on so many different levels. Behind the packing thriller/detective story, Smith explores and exposes the ghastly horror of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin and looks deeply at fundamental questions of individual morality and personal, existential redemption within such a gruesome, dehumanising system of terror.
Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known publicly as “Stalin” [man of steel], (1878-1953) achieved supreme power in the Soviet Union in the years following Lenin's death in 1924; by 1928 he had pushed all his rivals (the most prominent being Leon Trotsky) aside and basically ruled the USSR alone for the next quarter of a century. It became a period in which the people of the USSR suffered and died on a scale unprecedented before and since, even when compared to the years of civil war and chaos following the October Revolution. Apart from the 35 million Soviet citizens killed during World War II (still preferably known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, which, incidentally did not begin until 1941), experts reckon that somewhere between 10 and 20 million more lost their lives as a result of famines, purges, forced labour and comprehensive mistreatment and torture in the Gulags (the widespread network of prisons and labour camps, mostly in Siberia), compulsory collectivisation and forced relocations of whole ethnic groups. How could such horrors happen (even leaving World War II aside) and how could a whole people accept it?
There are many complex answers to these questions – the most hair-raising being the old saw that the Russian people (and the nations dominated by Russia up to the early 1990s) has always been one of ignorant, passive, lazy peasants who understand nothing but the whip and the cudgel. This is, of course, ridiculous, but one sometimes gets the feeling that even the present-day Russian elites still have this attitude. From an historical perspective, it can be argued that the former Soviet empire has little of a democratic tradition and that autocracy and rule by decree rather than law are deeply rooted in its tradition and history. This is true, as far as it goes, but the same could be said for a lot of European countries (including many Western European ones) as recently as a hundred years ago. No, I believe that the Stalinist system, building on the Leninist system, which is itself quite a particular perversion of Marxist themes, formed a diabolical structure within which terror was not only possible but predicated and which was so ideologically refined and practically organised that any dissent, or even the possibility of potential dissent was ruthlessly and effectively eradicated. In this sense, apart from all the millions of dead and the hundreds of millions condemned to living for decades in grey distrust, fear and deprivation, Marxism itself is a victim of its Stalinist perversion; enduringly discredited by the horrors carried out in its name.
Marx saw society as being in a state of evolution, a development in which structures arose and became more complex until they self-destructed under their own internal contradictions, the result being new societal structures in which the whole process began once more. This, admittedly drastically simplified, is what he called dialectics, or, more properly, dialectical materialism. Analysing society in the second half of the 19th Century, Marx posited that the most developed nations of Western Europe and North America – as a result, basically, of the Industrial Revolution – had entered the capitalist phase of societal development, following more primitive forms such as mercantile, feudal or slave-based structures. But capitalism itself was not and could not be the final, optimal form of society; in itself capitalism contained too many contradictions, contradictions which were growing and deepening. Capitalism had brought forth a new class of people, the workers, those who possess nothing other than their children – the proletariat.
As capitalism develops, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (the class of the capitalists) increases because their interests are ineluctably opposed. Eventually the tension becomes too great, the proletariat rises in rebellion, taking the means of production into common collective ownership, wiping out capitalism and inaugurating the perfect society, communism. Perfect, because there are no more contradictions to be overcome. It is the end of alienation and in this condition the state itself withers away because it has become superfluous.
The period of revolution and the eradication of capitalism is a transitional state, socialism, characterised by what Marx calls “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” a state in which hard measures and difficult positions must be taken to protect the revolution against the reactionary forces of bourgeois counter-revolution. The logic of Marx's thinking led him to expect that the revolution would begin in the most highly industrialised societies, where the tensions between capital and workers had reached their extremes – areas like Britain, Northern France, the Low Countries, Western Germany or the North Eastern United States. But it was obviously the duty of all enlightened people who had accepted the truth of his analysis to work to hasten the coming workers' revolution, which was historically inevitable.
This, in a vastly simplified summary, is the kernel of Marx's theory of society and the march of history. In its application to Russia, Lenin, the leader and chief ideologue of the Russian communists was faced with a major problem. Russian society, still dominated by agriculture and an aristocrat/peasant society, was – according to Marxist categories – still primitive, with capitalism still in its infancy there. Much would have to happen before it had developed enough to become an arena for a workers' revolution. Lenin and many other Marxists were, understandably, not prepared to wait. Lenin worked out a theory which would allow the revolution to take place in Russia; it would take an elite, a group of people who understood the processes of history and its inevitable development, who could – on the basis of this understanding – confidently decide which the next steps to be taken were and be sure that these decisions were always correct. A group which would form the “vanguard of the proletariat,” which could guide and lead the workers through the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, through the transitional phase of socialism to true communism. The Party.
In Leninism the Party is infallible – even more so than the pope, for the Party is infallible in every area of life and society. Nothing is too unimportant or trivial to escape its scrutiny, for the project during the socialist phase and the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing less than the purification of society of all remains of bourgeois influence, the practical perfection of communist humanity. The wishes and rights of the individual are insignificant compared with the importance of this project; “the individual is nothing, the collective is all.”
Stalin succeeded in gaining total control of the Party and so attained an unparalleled position of infallibility and power within Soviet society. He did this by a combination of cunning political manoeuvring and absolute ruthlessness. Having achieved ultimate power, he kept it by a combination of the same political manoeuvring and ruthlessness, accompanied by an indomitable will and a terrifying unpredictability. Terrifying is the only applicable word, for terror was Stalin's basic tool and he used it with an unerring instinct, refined probably over years of criminal thuggery prior to the 1917 Revolution.
In much of this, Stalin appears as a mirror-image of his greatest adversary, Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the only real significant difference between them is that Stalin won. There were some who appeared to have realised his dangerous nature; in the last months of his life, Lenin tried to warn against him but by that stage Stalin had already established too much control within the Party and Lenin's misgivings went unheeded or, at least, not heeded enough – Trotsky seems to have recognised the danger, but Trotsky had already been outmanoeuvred by the Man of Steel. In the course of the Second World War, Churchill also seems to have realised it, but was basically powerless to do anything about it; exhausted by the war, the western allies had no stomach for an immediate continuation of the war and Roosevelt in particular, tired and ill, consistently underestimated the Soviet leader. And so, Eastern Europe was handed over to Stalinist domination and the people of the Soviet Union were left in their purgatory. The allies failed the nerve and the strength, the ruthlessness and the stomach for carrying on the war against a new enemy – and given the situation in May 1945 who can blame them? France was in ruins, Britain exhausted and US concentration was now focussed on the Pacific theatre. In practical terms, defeating the Stalinist USSR would probably have entailed the use of atomic weapons on a scale far beyond that used against Japan (and in May 1945, the US still hadn't perfected the bomb).
As far as we can tell, Stalin seems to have believed in the political ideology of the Party he so completely dominated. And it was indeed the widespread genuine belief in Marxist-Leninism within the Soviet system which made his tyranny so effective. Even many of those denounced as dissidents and enemies of the Revolution who were subjected to show-trials and subsequent execution during the thirties accepted their fates as being justified, since the judgement of the Party was the judgement of history and could not err. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon is a wonderful depiction of this mindset. The personal journey of Leo Demidov, the hero of Smith's Child 44 also has much to do with this viewpoint and its results for those who hold it. Demidov is an officer of the NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), Stalin's public and secret police organisation. His position has involved him in the observation and prosecution of thousands of people suspected of subversion or anti-Soviet actions or opinions. At the beginning of the book, he has no problem with any of this; such actions are necessary to protect and advance the development of Soviet society toward true Communism. The Party and the Soviet state cannot err – those suspected of illicit thoughts and activities are probably guilty because otherwise there would be no reason to suspect them of illicit views and actions and are treated accordingly. His problems begin when he comes across evidence that a serial murderer may be at large. This puts him into an ideological quandary because the Party position does not allow for the existence of such a pathological criminal within socialist society; such deviants can only exist in the corrupt, decadent society of the bourgeois west.
It was this unquestioning belief in the rightness of the Party – and its great leader, Comrade Stalin – which gave his absolute power such a firm foundation. In this context, Stalin's cynical question about the number of battalions commanded by the pope becomes almost modest, for he might also have boasted that he himself commanded more unquestioning fanatical believers than the pope. But, having moved beyond automatic faith in the infallibility of the Party line as defined and determined by the all-wise Comrade Stalin, Demidov is faced with the deepest question of all; what are the options for any decent person who is willy-nilly part of an all-pervasive structure which is fundamentally evil and corrupt? When resistance or even the smallest acts of non-compliance – even the private, internal choice to doubt the system – almost inevitably means his own death and the destruction of the lives of all those he cares for?
This is the final, infernal subtlety of the Stalinist system; the victims themselves are co-opted as perpetrators, everyone becomes implicated and there are no innocents. But, lest we become too thankful for the fact that we do not have to live within such structures, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would rather not know where the wonderfully cheap jeans, pair of shoes or laptop we bought recently were made and how much human suffering, misery and exploitation were involved in their manufacture? How much are we implicated in, perverted by the many-layered, complexly woven, corrupt systems in which we daily find ourselves? Is it possible for us to free ourselves from these structures at all, without becoming ascetic monks? And how much of the cogent criticism non-dogmatic Marxist-inspired thinking and critique might bring to such questions has been irrevocably sullied by by its deadly Stalinist parody?
Stalin's legacy lives on. Others learned from him, his use of terror, propaganda and the cult of personality; Mao, for example, Enver Hoxha in Albania, or the still-ruling Kim dynasty in North Korea. And even today in Russia, Stalin still enjoys considerable popularity, the darker basic truth airbrushed away in favour of the man whose indomitable will pushed through industrialisation and modernisation in the Soviet Union and whose stubborn refusal to surrender led the Red Army and the Soviet people to victory against Hitler's Germany in the Great Patriotic War (never mind that the USSR was a passive ally of the Third Reich up to 1941 - passive, that is, with the exception of Poland). But then, Vladimir Putin sometimes seems to have learned a thing or two from his predecessor (looking at the way the independent press has been treated in Russia in the past years, for example) and he did, after all, begin his career in the KGB …
It wasn't easy to find a musical accompaniment for this post. Pink Floyd's “Waiting for the Worms” somehow seems to suit.