Edvard Radzinsky’s biography of Joseph Stalin, the first biography based on the secret files of the President’s Archive, the Communist Party Archive, and the Archive of the October Revolution, is a gripping tale. Simply entitled Stalin, Radzinsky’s rendering of the secret life of the Soviet dictator is a fascinating one. His paranoia, his cruelty, his willingness to sacrifice anything to satisfy his own thirst for total power – these aspects of his life of evil are almost beyond belief.
Radzinsky traces Stalin’s early life as a Marxist revolutionary operating under the code name Koba, through his rise to power as Lenin’s trusted assistant and eventually as Lenin’s successor, and ends with his death in 1953. While the story is a tragic one, in which the Russian people paid an enormous price, it also provides important insights into the country’s past, a past of which many Russian youth have little or no understanding.
I was particularly stuck by Radzinsky’s description of how Stalin devised an unprecedented propaganda campaign around the pending death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin, a former seminary student, used his theological training to develop a program to deify the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was Stalin’s belief that Russians were forever looking for a god-tsar, so he decided to present them a new god, in place of the one overthrown by the Bolsheviks. The new god-tsar was an atheist Messiah, the God Lenin.
Mobilizing the Communist Party’s propaganda machine, Stalin designed a campaign around the declining health of Lenin that could be called “The Departure of the Messiah.” Stalin organized ritual farewells in which delegations of workers or members of the Red Army were brought to Nizhni Novgorod, where the ailing Lenin was housed. The visitors were instructed to offer vows to the departing God that they would continue his immortal work.
Months before Lenin’s death, Stalin forced the Communist Party leadership to approve of a plan to transform the atheist Lenin into a sacred relic to be worshipped by the faithful. Despite the opposition from Lenin’s wife, Stalin devised a plan to have his body preserved and displayed, thereby demonstrating that the Bolsheviks could even conquer death. He was committed to producing an imperishable Marxist god.
Even the funeral itself was carefully planned by Stalin as a part of his deification efforts. The body of Lenin that arrived by train was carefully carried by his loyal disciples across Moscow to the Hall of Columns of the House of Unions. The locomotive and the compartment which held his sacred remains were subsequently stationed forever in a museum clad in granite and marble. When the public was first allowed to see his body, God Lenin lay there in his khaki tunic and Stalin keep vigil over him. Within a month, a wooden mausoleum was built near the Kremlin wall, while plans for the design and construction of a permanent home for the Marxist “Messiah” were carried out.
“The Boss” Becomes Tsar
Stalin’s conviction about the need for Russians to have a tsar-god not only shaped his plans for Lenin’s deification, but also his own. Radzinsky records how Stalin enjoyed the adulation of the crowds and how he often commented to his colleagues “The people need a tsar.” During a dinner hosted by one of his closest colleagues, Stalin said: “Bear in mind that in Russia the people were under the tsar for centuries, the Russian people are tsarist, the Russian people are used to having one single individual over them.”
His views on this subject help to explain the Great Terror that he unleashed on the Russian people in the 1930s. He had his mind on the monarchy of the future and, as one Russian émigré aptly remarked, “a lot of blood has to be shed to give birth to a Russian autocrat.” His campaigns of terror, targeted against most of his revolutionary colleagues – loyalists who had helped him to carry the casket of Lenin through the streets of Moscow – were designed to eliminate any potential rivals. Stalin was “The Boss” (as he was often called by colleagues), but more importantly he was a Tsar-God.
A Utopia Gone Wrong
Radzinsky’s book exposes the tragic story of how revolutionary fervor and utopian dreams ended in a nightmare. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they believed that their dreams of creating a new world would now become reality. They had not simply seized power, they were going to build a classless society, abolish money, and create a nation where the state would wither away. And they were going to build it quickly. This was the dream that would lead them, in Radzinsky’s words, “to create the most monstrous state of all.” The prophetic words of Dostoevsky now became reality and the “devils” of his 19th century novels conquered in the century that followed.
This is a history that must not be forgotten or ignored. It is a history that also helps us understand why so many Russian adults, who lived and suffered during the Stalinist era, no longer have utopian hopes or expect a “Messiah” to save them from the difficulties of slowly rebuilding society out of the rubble left by Communism.