A New Face in the Snakepit (5)

V. A few weeks after his arrival to Saint Petersburg, Lenin appointed Stalin editor of the party’s newspaper, hopefully named Truth, and that gave Stalin a chance to step back and contemplate the events of the calamitous year of 1917 from a safe distance. He saw several governments collapse, until the Bolshevik leaders imposed their will and managed to usher the fumbling Menshevik leader Kerensky into the prime minister position. Stalin himself, praised from all sides due to his aloofness from internal party strife, became a member of the increasingly powerful clique of Lenin stalwarts, the Politburo where a second, irreversible revolution was being prepared with very little discretion.
Stalin’s role in the Bolshevik coup of November 7 was as small as possible: a group of ultra-radical activists led by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev organized most of the details for the uprising, spending days on end in clandestine meetings of what they called the Military Revolutionary Council. The same group later created the grandiously called Red Army, and entrusted its top leadership to the best, angriest speech-maker of the Council, Trotsky himself, despite the fact that he had no military experience and didn’t know how to properly load a gun.
Stalin understood that he had to go with the flow. Always waiting for a sign, he accepted the post of People’s Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, since every other party leader thought he had to be thus rewarded for his book on the issue – and he was a member of a “nationality” himself, unlike either the Russians or the Jews of the Politburo. As the dead bodies of rightists, monarchists, Mensheviks and Bolshevik deviants started to pile up in and around Saint Petersburg, he was happy to be posted out to the front, as top political commissar on the fronts against the so-called White Army; in such post, he continously urged defense and slow warfare, secretly expecting that the squabbling White generals would eventually reach some kind of understanding and would go on the offense against the pitiful, if massive, army Trotsky was creating out of scratch. That, of course, never happened – Stalin’s caution was frequently overran by Trotsky’s men and Trotsky himself, who favored disastrous frontal assaults that invariably left tens of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides, and resulted in minor territorial gains for the Reds, as well as much distress at the smaller White ranks.
At the Ural front, Stalin became involved with a local woman, who bore in 1918 his second child, another boy who would eventually grow up in secrecy. He also secured a solid reputation there, as a thoughtful leader who – unlike Trotsky and his cronies – would never throw unarmed or unprepared men against the enemy; a man who knew the value of blood and knew how to load his own pistol.
Favorable reports from the front led to Stalin’s recalling by Lenin, now to the new capital Moscow. There, the shortage of experience leaders meant that he was given additional responsibilities, as Commissar for Workers and Peasants – that is, mostly everyone but the Whites. By that time, Lenin had already ended the war with the Germans and Austrians with the Brest-Litovsk pact that surrendered the Baltics and the Ukraine; and then the collapse of both enemies had allowed the Red Army to storm back into the Ukraine in chase of the Whites, who increasingly looked like a definitely lost cause. Stalin had little to look forward: he was trapped in a key position atop a state he detested more and more, seeing heads roll at his feet, while Lenin and Trotsky continued their own mass-scale bloodbath in search of the ideal Bolshevik society. Longing for some unarmed company, he decided to marry Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a young woman of moderate looks, red to the core, who had long been in love with him.
By 1921, the Communists had emerged triumphant and consolidated its power in most of the territory of the old Czarist empire, renamed Soviet Union by the new overlords. A few western provinces – the Baltic States and Poland – escaped the embrace of the new, rejuvenated mother Russia. But all others were eventually overrun by the Red Army, and that included Georgia himself.
Following Lenin’s suggestion, Stalin traveled to the front and joined the troops right after they entered his homeland; he had been away almost two decades, and was surprised to feel little emotion at the sight of the now devastated lands of his youth – he had been hardened by years of crimes and war, and there was nothing left for him in Georgia: his mother had aged and become an frightful daily churchgoer; his father was somewhere in Tiflis, surviving. When some groups of Georgian nationalists started agitating against the Red occupation, and took some shots at Stalin’s troops, he found himself at a loss, once again. He could read the faces of his subordinates, some fierce Communists, others fierce Trotskyists, others simple imperialist Russians in Red clothing: they all expected him to crush the Georgians and prove himself as a good Socialist and a good Soviet leaders, above tribal affiliations. It wouldn’t do to act cautious as he had done in the war against the Whites. There was no Russian lives to be saved among the Georgian rebels.
Stalin was never closer to leave the party for good than those days. He procrastinated, ans requested instructions from Moscow, in the full knowledge that they would take days to arrive; and when they did they would be simple, direct and murderous. He thought of running away: simply take a chauffeur and an official car and drive to the Turkish border, or to some port where he could sail away. These fantasies entertained him for a while, left him to linger in the illusion that he was still capable of acting freely, that he was still his own master. Eventually, he accepted that he had a role to play, that there was no escape for him: he was a Soviet leader now, a great person, a historical figure in charge of shaping events. And he wouldn’t go very far if he escaped: he would be found and dishonored before being shot. They would certainly make up evidence to accuse him of having been a servant of the reaction all along, the fools.
Nothing other than extreme repression would set the party mind at ease. And such repression would also have the advantage of stunning the Georgians into acceptance and defeat, he reasoned, rather than let them engage in slow, costly war of attrition they would eventually lose at a higher cost. So repression he ordered: and his wishes were fulfilled. In a matter of weeks, the Georgian rebels were exterminated, bombed out, shot, hanged, dismembered. The charlatans who provided them moral support – “the Georgian intelligentsia” – was decimated, and the survivors sent to labor camps, a Lenin improvement over the old Czarist camps where dissidents and revolutionaries contemplated the wondrous Siberian nature while plotting against the regime. In the Soviet labor camps there was no time to contemplate or to plot: only to work for the benefit of the state and then, shortly thereafter, to die.
Stalin soon understood that a further Leninist twist was needed to keep the Georgian Soviet Republic in a state of tranquility: and so he turned his minions against the local Communist leadership, a band of knaves and opportunists, some of whom he knew personally, who anyway would have been of little use to anyone – and of much harm to most. They too were sent to the camps. And some who complained with excessive vehemence, or used back-channels all the way to Moscow, were simply shot on the spot, as per Stalin orders: a bullet on the back of the neck worked wonders, especially if delivered in front of a group of scared prisoners.
Back in Moscow, Lenin couldn’t help but to express admiration: Georgia, a traditionally restive region, had become an oasis of peace where the local chiefs wouldn’t move a finger if the Politburo didn’t agree in writing. That kind of order was needed in the party top echelons, since too many successful generals and political commissars were returning to Moscow with secret thoughts of becoming the next Napoleon, or the next Lenin perhaps; so the current Lenin made Stalin general secretary of the Party Central Committee – that central commitee being the place where all local heroes ended up looking for a national-level post – and gave him all power to organize the ranks with all ruthlessness, crushing any challenge that might appear as he saw fit.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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