Inside the Stalin Archives by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
April 27, 2010

Relatively new (2008) book by Jonathan Brent, professor at Yale, and leader of the Yale University project to publish declassified materials from the Soviet era archives.

Book is well worth a read.  Brent started the Yale project in 1992, and managed to make it work despite many obstacles in both Moscow and  New Haven.  Brent started off as Yale’s emissary to Russia and Russian scholars and scholarship and as time went on he equally or better became their emissary to Yale, as his involvement with the project, and involvement with Russia deepened.  Autobiographical account of his life in Russia from ’92 to 2007, and a valuable firsthand account of the changes in daily life in Russia during this period of great upheaval.  Brent’s own interest is Stalin, and his attempts to understand him are a most worthwhile part of the book.  Probably comes closer to explaining Stalin than anyone, certainly any non-Russian, ever did.

Any book on Russia has to have at least one good political joke in it–good as Hedrick Smith’s two books were, the parts of them I remember best are the political jokes in them.  Partially spoiling the ending, here’s this book’s joke:

Three Jews are walking down the street, and two of them are talking about their cars.  They turn to the third one and ask him:  “What?  You don’t have a car?  Well, we two have got plenty of money, and we’ll give you some to go buy one.”
Three Chechens are walking down the street, and two of them are talking about their dachas.  They turn to the third one and ask him:  “What?  You don’t have a dacha?  Well, we two have plenty of money and we’ll give you some to go buy one.”
Three Russians are walking down the street, and two of them are talking about their days in prison.  They turn to the third one and ask him:  “What?  You’ve never been in prison?  Well, we’ll see if we can’t get you arrested for something.”

Good episode in the book about the writer Venedikt Erofeev, who wrote somewhat in the same vein as Henry Miller.  Brent: “Erofeev is different.  His imaginative conception pierces deeper into existence than Miller’s; he depicts the fate of the spirit, which wanders like a drunken bum in an uncomprehending world.”  Erofeev, towards the end of his life, when he’d been operated on for throat cancer, became a darling of the extreme Russian right.  Rightists tried to get him to speak to them, have him give them his imprimatur, but he kept brushing them off until finally he gave in and agreed to speak at a Pamyat national meeting.  His wife wheels him out onto the stage, and he says nothing for a very long time, and the crowd gets restive.

“Finally, Erofeev makes a sign with his hand and the hall quiets down.  He lowers the microphone to the box in his throat.
“‘Thank you for inviting me,’ he whispers haltingly through the box.  ‘I am deeply moved because I know you truly love me for myself and my writing.  Nothing else explains this great crowd because…’  He paused a long time, his wife said, before finishing his sentence.  ‘Because otherwise, in fact we have absolutely nothing in common.’  That was it.  Everyone was stunned.
“Terrified the audience would kill him, his wife ran out and whisked him away before anyone could react.”

I’ll have to read his books sometime just because of this, I think.

And finally an excerpt about Stalin, and his legacy in today’s Russia.  From pp 270-1:

“Stalin required enemies more than friends.  The power of his regime depended on them because his regime was based on violence–in Lenin’s formulation, ‘the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie’–and the legitimization of this violence.  ‘The proletariat needs state power,’ Lenin wrote, ‘a centralized organization of force, an organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population–the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semiproletarians–in the work of organizing a socialist economy’.  Enemies legitimate the use of violence; violence legitimates the state.

“The violence is not sanctioned by any individual, as with Ivan the Terrible.  It is sanctioned by the collective, by a transpersonal abstraction.  Who is petty bourgeois, who is a semiproletarian, a kulak, or a counterrevolutionary at any particular moment is never fixed.  New ones will have to be invented once the old are destroyed, unlike the boyars, the powerful landowners Ivan the Terrible had to eliminate.  …Lenin in his March 19, 1922 decree, wrote that ‘it is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads [most of whom belonged precisely to ‘the enormous mass of the population’ that Lenin thought needed the protection of the state], that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.’  Instead of vowing to aid ‘the starving regions,’ and the people, mostly peasants, who suffered there, Lenin seeks to use their suffering to build the state.  Yakovlev understood this when he cautioned that the rampant corruption of present-day Russia does not weaken the government; it indirectly strengthens it by weakening the rule of law, thereby reducing restrictions on the government’s range of permissible actions.  The Stalinist state provides total freedom–not the freedom of a parliamentary democracy that comes encumbered with responsibilities and limitations.”

A deft and wise piece of writing, this book.  Put it on your read list.


Stalin, The Poet and Life’s Choices by Gaither Stewart

Reading Lenin in Modern Rome By Gaither Stewart