A New Face in the Snakepit (8)

VIII. When he turned fifty, in 1928, Stalin was the supreme, incontestable leader of the Soviet Union, and a man who despised himself. From his lofty position, he remembered the lives he had taken, the people he had to betray along the way; the tricks, the doubts, the cheats, the mayhem caused in defense of a state he had come to detest. The lies. The deceit.
Whenever he tried to chart his course to absolute power, all he found was mud: he had informed about his comrades, sent them to prison or to death, to save himself and his wife, now dead and useless; he had gone through exile and war in panic of being betrayed himself; had pushed himself upwards so there would be as few men of power above his station; had “purged” these – in the fantastic euphemism so much in fashion in the country – so he would never feel threatened by anyone. He had had his fellow Georgians massacred for the sake of Kremlin politics; through a window in the Gorki dacha, he had seen Surolov’s face, twisted in a sad smile, just before he turned away and a bullet cut clean across his neck; every day that passed dozens, perhaps hundreds of Whites, socialists, anarchists, moderates, conservatives, uninterested died in the large network of camps created by Lenin – whom he had helped to rise to the very top, and then had eulogized in embarrassing tones after he died.
Still, the truth was that only a fraction of the dead and maimed and destroyed were his doing: most had been caught in the whirlwind created by others, not just Lenin and Trotsky, but the entire gang: the “rightist” Bukharin, the suave party operator Kirov, the self-righteous marshal Tukhachev. All of them had dreamt of a paradise to emerge from the ashes and the blood, and still expected one. Some were actively building their own paradises, in villas along the Sochi coast and Crimea, in country houses in the Moscow outskirts. The Czarist Russia of counts and ballerinas had been kidnapped, tortured and slaughtered in cold blood; and that was only the first step: now it was being replaced by new aristocrats with old tastes, with Stalin the straight, trustworthy man of moderation ruling over it all.
Stalin realised he missed Timowitz. He started to day-dream that Timowitz was still alive, hidden in some Kremlin cellar, receiving the reports Stalin sent him from his large Kremlin office:
“Trotsky is again writing a thick treatise on how he double-crossed the Mensheviks all by himself and then got in the habit of killing a thousand Whites just before breakfast: the footnotes only run to a hundred pages; recommend some exercise, less fat on diet”
“Gorki comes again with a petition to save a writer sentenced to death; I say we’ll execute the man faster to avoid unnecessary suffering: Gorki weeps and says how great a man I am, recommends death-sentences for a short list of surrealist writers; bodyguards drag him off kicking and screaming because I won’t let him lick my feet”
“Seeking to allay popular concern, we had an essay published in Truth newspaper that compares Moscow favorably with fin-de-siecle Paris: in the still of the night, one can hear the guns going off as young heartbroken romantic poets shoot themselves in the head.”
At some point, Stalin started to go far as writing this make-believe reports, and stash them in a locked drawer at his desk. Every day he would complete at least one in longhand, and then contemplate it with some fondness, before placing it with the others. He laughed at his own jokes, even in the presence of high-ranking officials: as they started to go off on some long speech about imaginary accomplishments, he would remember his own imaginary reports; or he would compose one inside his head. The officials were sometimes startled, but mostly pleased by Stalin’s affability and excellent humor, so unlike the rude “Soviet” behavior so widespread outside the Kremlin. They would shake Stalin’s hand intensely, and stare at this vacant eyes, seeing whatever they felt they were bound to see. For his part, most of the time Stalin only saw ambition in these people’s eyes: and the will to trample anyone. Sometimes, though, he found something else in those officials, something different and unexpected: a will to please and serve, a flickering of hope; workable plans.
That made him think long and hard: the Soviet Union had been created with just the barest inkling of a plan for the future, mostly based on the writings of the 19th century visionary Marx, in the naive expectation that international revolution was around the corner, and every piece would fall in place under the guiding hand of History, no arrangements required. Of course, complete disaster had ensued: that is, quick death for many of the supposed citizens of the state, hard labor and delayed death for many, and day-to-day slavery for the rest. Now, the Soviet Union had a chance to survive and prosper in those conditions; the slaves worked hard, and there was much to do in Russia: rivers to dam, roads to build, fields to till, trees to fell. The Soviet Union had inherited most of the Russian multinational empire and, after a few years of peace and the most moderate prosperity, the slimmest resemblance of stability, it could easily use its enormous size and power as a springboard for the international expansion of communism; that much even an obtuse, well-read man like Trotsky understood. Stalin would have been a simpleton he hadn’t seen that many of the most impressive officials he had met aspired to become little Trostskys first, and real-size Trotskys later, if given the chance: most were just ambitious Russian patriots – they served the Soviet Union faithfully; they would have served the Czarist state just as faithfully, had they been given the chance.
Stalin came to understand that the disasters the Red Revolution had brought to Russia were bound to unfold in neighboring countries first, and faraway places later – and they would be worsened by the fact that revolution would be transmitted not by local progressives, intoxicated with the chance of revenge against the rich and the prospect of absolute rule under a perfectly philosophical guise; but by foreign, invading armies, large Red armies committed to ruthlessness in defense of mankind, that most Soviet of traits.
Eventually, unavoidably, the revolution would roll on.
Communism, as designed by Marx and tinkered with by Lenin, could perhaps succeed after all: and turn the whole world into a slave-state like the Soviet Union, with a poor scared man at the apex. After all, men wanted financial security, and economic triumphs, as measured by the number of tractors and shoes produced, were within reach. Stalin had no way to know whether the masses would be contented with that, but supposed that sympathetic intellectuals would use whatever argument they could use to claim victory for their construct. Then, perhaps communism would fail, and the slaves would rise and kill their new masters, just as their old masters had been previously killed. In any case, Stalin saw he had helped to create a monster, a gigantic, ambitious, all-consuming monster: a revolutionary engine that would keep working even if those on command didn’t really want it to. What could be done if he, the first man of the Revolution was a non-believer himself, and still found no way to stop it? Was Moscow a future vision of Paris?
Day by day, Stalin was consumed by these terrible thoughts. He stopped writing humorous reports for Timowitz; instead, he tried to recall their few meetings, so many years ago, and imagine what kind of advice Timowitz would have given him, had he survived his trip from Manchuria, and hide in the Kremlin’s cellar. He stared in disbelief at the enthusiastic faces of party officials, dutifully marching on to the Kremlin to unveil evermore ambitious plans to divert rivers, dry off lakes and transport mountains. Kremlin secretaries commented that the leader looked haggard, had lost the moderate sense of humor he once had.

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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