Stalin is the outstanding mediocrity of our party…Stalin is a nullity..an empty void
Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person.
“Thank you mama, for your kind letter,” Stalin wrote to the 70-year-old peasant woman, offering over her cow. “I do not need a cow because I do not have any farmland—I’m just a white-collar employee, I serve the people the best I can, and white collar types rarely do their own farming.” [emphasis mine.]
“I have just come from seeing Koba. Do you know how he spends his time?” Nikolai Bukharin wrote Trotsky in 1922. “He takes his year-old boy from bed, fills his own mouth with smoke from his pipe, and blows it into the baby’s face. ‘It makes him stronger,’ Koba says.”
“That’s barbaric,” Trotsky replied.
“You don’t know Koba,” Bukharin said. “He is like that—a little peculiar.”
By the end of the first two volumes of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental Stalin trilogy, an image, like a half-developed Polaroid, begins to emerge of the kind of person we are dealing with here.
He is the hardest worker. He takes on the most responsibility, makes sure the paperwork is filed, deadlines are met, makes the trains run on time. He advances rapidly within the institution, perhaps becoming the managing editor or the editor-in-chief.
He is easy-going, personable, and very, very reliable and accountable to the higher-ups. He strives to appear selfless and to be a mere executor of the will of the CEO and the spirit of the corporation—he is the all-around fixer and doer.
When the CEO or founder of the company gets sick, he goes to his house more than anyone else to cheer him up with jokes, to reassure him, to receive his instructions. The boss relies on him. He is the one that puts in the emotional labor. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the underlings from on high, he leverages his personal relationship to grow his stature within the organization.
His own will is singular, he is not split in any way—his will is to execute the founder’s will and stated principles. He lives for the job, nothing else. It is his life. He has never had any other dreams or goals or paths he could have taken. This is it.
He takes no vacations, never leaves town. The other leaders always seem to be convalescing at some nervous ailment health spa or reading French novels. He becomes indispensable to the company. His will melds with the company’s will, they become one.
He likes people and cultivates relationships with everyone around him, particularly his subordinates, who adore him. With each passing day, he creates more dependents, loyalists, people who rely on him for their positions and livelihood. In this way, he builds a no-bullshit organization within the organization. “Stalin’s power flowed from attention to detail but also to people—not just any people, but often new people,” Kotkin writes. He himself comes from nothing, a dirt-road backwater, and he has a bawdy sense of humor. The back-slapping, chew-chaw faction he builds resent and relentlessly mock the more pretentious, intellectual Harvard-Yale faction within the organization. This other group of Bolsheviks have lived in Europe. They've discussed philosophy in the coffee houses. Stalin and his team have never left Russia.
It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik organization happened. One recognizes his outlines from upper management and co-workers in various white-collar work environments where one has worked. We’ve met this character before. He is cunning, works very hard, presents himself as insignificant. During the interminable meetings, he keeps his cards close. He lets the people with strong views and positions have their say, and wear each other out fighting. At the very end, the view he puts forward is a middle-of-the-road synthesis, a compromise of all of the positions that have already been expressed by others. If you want to survive in a hierarchical, white-collar office environment, you learn to play the game, to keep your head down. You sublimate your ego, you keep your superiors happy, you appear busy and important, you flatter and undermine your colleagues—that’s it. That’s office politics.
A nothing, a nobody, the one in charge of the paperwork. No one particularly resents him or views him as a threat. His job is administering the bureaucracy and chairing the meetings.
He is a working-class ethnic minority from the periphery of empire—a diversity hire for the Bolsheviks, brought in to pad the ranks of the mostly white, urbane, and bourgeois leadership. He is simultaneously underestimated and tokenized. “Every time [Stalin] attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out,” Kotkin writes.
No one ever expects the quiet, back-of-the-room functionary, who makes sure the records are kept, to be put in charge. But really, who better to be in charge? Who better knows the organization and can make sure the deadlines are met and trains run on time? The one who has put in the most work, the one who has made themselves most indispensable. No one wants an ambitious, self-focused person to run their organization. A leader is expected to be selfless and stabilize the ship, not be a preening, mercurial egoist.
Lenin, on his deathbed, receiving an affectionate letter from Stalin, brushes it off, telling his sister: “He is not at all intelligent.” An American specifically, one who has lived through Trump's dismissal and subsequent rise, knows better by now—everyone should know better by now. Woe be to those who underestimate the underdog.
Let us take a closer look at this person, get to know him through his own words, in his unguarded moments.
Letter to Voroshilov, 1932: “Have the bombers been sent to the East? Where, exactly, and how many? The trip on the Volga was interesting—I’ll say more: magnificent. A great river, the Volga. Damn.”
On the value of human life: “The loss of airplanes is not as scary (the hell with them) as the loss of living people, aviators. Live human beings are the most valuable and most important thing in our entire cause, especially aviation.”
On being asked to promote literature: “I am decisively against writing prefaces only for pamphlets and books of literary ‘big-shots',’ literary ‘names’…We have hundreds and thousands of young capable people, who are striving with all their might to rise up from below.”
On conflict with the imperialists: “We would be the bottom of the barrel if we could not manage to reply to these arrogant bastards briefly and to the point: ‘You won’t get a friggin thing from us.’” [emphasis mine.]
He has a face you immediately like. When younger, he was very handsome. But very short. The swarthy bankrobber with the famous haircut. Paralyzed in one arm. He worked nights at Tiflis Observatory, attempting to organize the meteorologists. He had been a poet, even got published. Was he still thinking about poetry, watching the stars and the planets cycle overhead until daybreak, up in Tiflis Observatory? Or had he already determined to give up on the path of art, the true path, and venture into the grubby world of organizing and polemics and politics?
In old age, his face is preferable. It is expressive, cratered with smallpox scars, the comically sloping mustache. A warm smile. His eyes are dense animal black. “In the Kremlin, on the ancient throne of orthodox czars, sat a small man with short arms and shiny black eyes,” Curzio Malaparte put it.
The face of a feline man. Intelligent, cunning. More cat than man. A cat who has somehow become a man. A person who has learnt how to play the game of life.
It is not a decadent and artistic face, like Hitler’s, the over-artistic Wagnerian conductor. It is the face of a person who views life with a bit of distance and irony. He loves cowboy movies, thermal baths, and novels. He understood that life was not some grand performance art. It was work. Just endless work.
It is hard to tell whether his self-pity was an affect, to garner sympathy, or if he genuinely believed that he was insignificant and small.
“Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person,” he said, during a critical politburo showdown against Trotsky. When his fixer and flattering loyalist Lazar Kaganovich suggested that Stalinism should replace Leninism, Stalin would violently rebuke him. “What is Lenin? Lenin is a tall tower! And what is Stalin? Stalin is a little finger. Sometimes when he made this remark he substituted an analogy, which, shall we say, isn’t suitable for recording here,” Nikita Khruschev remembers. He referred to himself as “shit” next to Lenin. Did he mean it?
A nothing. A chode. A nobody, a non-entity.
Then there were his constant threats to resign as General Secretary—a job nobody wanted to do. When cornered on some issue, he always offered up his resignation. At one point, Stalin asks to be relieved as General Secretary and sent to Kazakhstan. With all this, he seemed to be saying: this job is terrible, it's just white-collar drudgery, I’d rather be doing something real even if it meant being relocated to the periphery.
On the left, and specifically within Bolshevism—where all values and morals are inverted—there was much power to be had in appearing small, marginal, just a hard worker, just quietly do what you do, contributing in your small way, anonymous, without egoism or pride or approval or adoration-seeking. Leaders were expected to live modestly, work insane hours, and shun personal recognition.
These constant threats of resignation were a way for them to stress-test their political and social capital. To see who their friends and enemies were. They kept track, they remembered everything.
The paradox of power is, of course, that power repels those who grasp for it. People shrink from neediness, ego, and big personalities.
In this cruel, fallen world, there are hard people and there are soft people. Take for example, writers and editors. Writers work on the outside of institutions and editors work on the inside. They are symbiotic with each other, they need each other. Creative people with creative temperaments can be soft and sensitive, but to work on the inside of an organization requires a person to sublimate their ego and become hard. There is an attraction of opposites and mutual appreciation between these two groups, the hard and soft. Hard people often find themselves repulsed by other hard people—in fellow careerists and glad-handers, they see their own artifice and manipulation reflected back at them. But they tend to have a soft spot for soft people, for those who’ve managed to stay a bit on the outside and uncorrupted by the world.
Many he would later have killed seem to have earnestly appreciated him, even looked up to him and relied on him as an editor and a friend.
In 1928, Nikolai Bukharin and Lev Kamanev still felt like they were close friends with Stalin. They had been on the same team for a long time. Bukharin was the prolific theoretical wunderkind of the party. Stalin was the organizational head and editor. There seemed to be a little bit of a kid-brother dynamic to their relationship (you could imagine Stalin giving Bukharin a noogie) but Stalin clearly admired the younger man’s talents, before taking a position, always asking “Which way did Bukharin vote?”
Stalin moved Bukharin and his family into the Kremlin apartment next to his. Their wives and kids were close. Bukharin rode around in Stalin’s Packard. Their families were close. Bukharin thought they were friends, until they broke over collectivization—then Stalin began to sadistically manipulate his affections and trust. First, he gave him the silent treatment. Then he helped break up his marriage. Then he began to break the brilliant writer and theorist by tasking him with the most mundane assignments possible like drafting party program documents, crossing them out in red pen and rewriting them from top to bottom.
Yet, when Bukharin was threatened to be expelled from the Central Committee, Stalin became his protector. This was his customary move—two steps forward, one step back to show mercy. It seems that for Stalin revenge was a slow process of pushing people down and then pulling them back pretending to be their savior, like a medieval torture device.
There was a manipulative component to this friendship. In 1930, Stalin wrote Bukharin, “I have never refused a conversation with you. No matter how much you cursed me, I have never forgotten that friendship we had… We can always talk, if you want.”
People need each other and want different things from each other, but in the end, editors need writers less than writers need their editors.Writers can sometimes put their editors on a pedestal, respect them too much, see them as a father figure. Bukharin was the editor of Pravda, but sometimes the true interpersonal dynamics between people defy official status and position in the world.
Bukharin never quite shook the kid-brother-to-his-older-editor dynamic—even at the very end, when Stalin had him in prison, awaiting the Show Trial after which he would be executed. In 1937, he wrote many letters to Stalin, keeping him apprised of his literary efforts. He even asked Stalin to write the preface for one of his prison works. This is the editor as a cruel sadist. In the end, he resorted to begging his old friend to preserve his last book for posterity:
I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear…Don’t let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. Don’t let it be lost!… Have pity! Not on me, on the work!
After being shot in 1938, Bukharin’s four prison manuscripts were sent to Stalin for inspection and then deposited into his vast personal archive, where they sat and gathered dust for nearly sixty years, until being exhumed by an American scholar.
There is an old Soviet joke about the 1920s leaders of the Central Committee. They go out together and have a picnic. Once they get a little loose and day-drunk, someone asks, “What’s the best thing in the world?”
“Books,” says Lev Kamenev.
“A woman, your woman,” says Radek.
“Cognac,” says Rykov.
and Stalin?—”revenge against your enemies.”
For Stalin, revenge was everything. To never forget a slight, to live long enough for the tides to shift and be able to destroy someone who tried to break you. Before they both ended up on the chopping block, Bukharin wrote to Kamenev: “Stalin knows only one means: revenge. Let’s call it the theory of ‘sweet revenge.’”
Kamanev and Stalin had known each other since 1900. They had been in exile together. It was Kamenev who, in 1904, gifted Stalin a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Malaparte, the archcynic's droll assessment: “Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn’t have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.”
In the end, they couldn’t find the ruthlessness within themselves. In a 1926 politburo meeting, when Kamenev said that he could have destroyed Stalin years before, Stalin shouted, “Why did you not say it?” Kamenev said, “Because I did not want to employ such methods.” The big secret about the Old Bolsheviks is that they lacked nerve when dealing with their own. They still believed in friendship and good faith, even when unbeknownst to them, they had a wolf in their midst and the time for that had long since passed.