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The empathy of Joseph Stalin Nothing is more dangerous than a well-read dictator

Books didn't make Stalin a nicer person. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Books didn't make Stalin a nicer person. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images


February 21, 2022   7 mins

Once a book-hoarder, always one. In 1899, a promising young poet and would-be revolutionary dropped out of the theological seminary in Tbilisi, Georgia. He took with him 18 library books, for which the monks demanded payment of 18 roubles and 15 kopeks. When, 54 years later, the same voracious bookworm died, he had 72 unreturned volumes from the Lenin Library in Moscow on his packed shelves. At the time, the librarians probably had too many other issues with Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, aka Stalin, to worry about collecting his unpaid fines.

Those squirrelled library loans formed a tiny part of a vast collection amassed by the Soviet dictator, estimated by historian Geoffrey Roberts at 25,000 items. Joseph Stalin’s books, as Roberts recounts in his new study Stalin’s Library, belonged to “a serious intellectual who valued ideas as much as power”. He spent a lifetime as a “highly active, engaged and methodical reader”. His tastes and interests spanned not only politics, economics and history but literature of many kinds. The book-loving shoemaker’s son from Georgia grew into an absolute ruler who deployed his library not as a prestige adornment but a “working archive”. Its bulging shelves stretched across his Kremlin offices and quarters, and around his dachas outside central Moscow.

Stalin not only read, quickly and hungrily: he claimed to devour 500 pages each day and, in the Twenties, ordered 500 new titles every year — not to mention the piles of works submitted to him by hopeful or fearful authors. He annotated with passion and vigour. Hundreds of volumes crawl with his distinctive markings and marginalia (the so-called pometki), their pages festooned with emphatic interjections: “ha ha”, “gibberish”, “rubbish”, “fool”, “scumbag”; and, more rarely, “agreed”, “spot on”, or the noncommittal doubt conveyed by the Russian “m-da”.

Stalin also drafted, wrote, and re-wrote, keenly and tirelessly — everything from Communist Party propaganda to Soviet legal edicts and textbooks in history, Marxist-Leninist philosophy and economics. He loved to edit and, as Roberts shows, he did it very well, slicing through the verbiage of sycophants to achieve greater “clarity and accuracy”. Although not an original thinker, “his intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and populariser”. Robert Service, in his biography, calls the dictator “an accumulator and regurgitator” of ideas. Stalin never returned to the verse of his adolescence, but the young poet known as “Soselo” had won anthology places for the fragile tenderness of Georgian lyrics such as “To the Moon” (translation by Donald Rayfield):

Know for certain that once
Struck down to the ground, an oppressed man
Strives again to reach the pure mountain,
When exalted by hope.
So, lovely moon, as before
Glimmer through the clouds;
Pleasantly in the azure vault
Make your beams play.

Later, as a vigilant, hands-on editor, Stalin knew how to cut the theoretical waffle, keep things concrete and tell a striking story. In mass-circulation works such as the Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with its 36 million copies printed in the decade after 1938, he especially liked to strike out “laudatory accounts of his own role”. He insisted that cloying hero-worship made his stomach turn. “What are people supposed to do?” Stalin asked sarcastically as he toned down the official Short Biography of himself published in 1946. “Get down on their knees and pray to me?” No court jester dared answer: “Yes”.

Of all the mind-scrambling glimpses of the despot as an “emotionally intelligent and feeling intellectual” gathered in Stalin’s Library, none quite matches the record of a Central Committee meeting, held in September 1940, about the limits of artistic expression. The General Secretary spoke up firmly on the side of freedom. “You have to let people express themselves,” Comrade Stalin argued. Artists should avoid fairy-tales that toe the party line.

Take the wonderful Chekhov, who “has no heroes but rather grey people”. Stalin approves. Even the enemies of the Soviet Union should not be depicted as monsters “lacking all human traits”. Even Trotsky — here you imagine stifled intakes of breath around a smoky Kremlin chamber — was a “capable person” who must be shown with all his “positive qualities”. Was a capable person: just a couple of weeks earlier, Ramón Mercader had, on Stalin’s orders, buried an ice-axe in Trotsky’s skull in Mexico City. Thus putting a definitive end to his character development, positive or negative.

How many other people did Stalin kill? If Cold War-era historians such as Robert Conquest laid 15-20 million deaths at his door (in The Great Terror), post-Soviet research has led scholars such as Timothy Snyder to suggest a revised estimate of between six and nine million (Bloodlands). Even the lowest figure freezes the imagination. For almost a century, allies, enemies, victims and a wondering posterity have struggled to understand how this gigantic annihilation of life and hope emerged from the ideas and deeds not of a “psychopath” — Roberts rightly rejects the term — but a shrewd, calm, widely-read and thoughtful politician-manager who had learned both to “rationalise and abstract himself from his terrible rule”. Trotsky lies dead in a Mexican morgue. A shame: such a smart guy


Stalin, then, presents a challenge to anyone who claims a specific link between deep reading and the pursuit of ethical or social virtue. Learning nurtures wisdom in many ancient traditions. But the years since the millennium have seen a small explosion in research that tries to prove a non-trivial link between consistent reading and the empathy that allows us to inhabit other souls and walk a verst (or many) in their shoes. If literature doesn’t exactly make you better, runs the refrain of many experimental papers in psychology and neuroscience, then regular exposure to it — especially fiction — will enhance those social skills that demand an understanding of the world perceived through other eyes.

“Specifically, engaging with narrative fiction and mentally simulating the social experiences represented may improve or maintain social skills, especially skills of empathy and social understanding,” reports one widely-cited Canadian paper from 2009, referenced in the back-up materials for World Book Day (celebrated on 3 March). Toronto novelist-psychologist Keith Oatley, one of its authors, has emerged as a leading champion of reading as an empathy shot. (Interestingly, his University of Toronto co-researchers on that paper included Jordan B Peterson, later to find wider fame elsewhere.)

A survey of the evidence from 2016 affirms that “Readers of fiction score higher on measures of empathy and theory of mind (ToM) — the ability to think about others’ thoughts and feelings — than non-readers, even after controlling for age, gender, intelligence and personality factors”. The World Book Day outreach projects aim to put books into non-readers’ hands, on the basis that “Reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success — more than their family circumstances, their parents’ educational background or their income.” Here, empathy as social asset takes a back seat as voluntary reading becomes a sort of educational superpower.

Stalin, by the way, did read plenty of fiction, drama, poetry and narrative history in addition to political and economic analysis. He loved the novels of Émile Zola, made writer Maxim Gorky the most fĂȘted private citizen in the USSR, and ran the Stalin Prizes for creative writing from his own office. Dmitry Shepilov, Pravda editor and court intellectual, later wrote that Stalin “was probably better prepared for the meetings than anyone else”. Sinister tales abound of his creepily close-focus attention to the literary arts in Soviet Russia.

One of the best known, not mentioned in Roberts’s book, concerns the arrest and persecution of the poet Osip Mandelstam. In 1934, Stalin phoned the detained poet’s friend, Boris Pasternak. “Mandelstam’s case is being analysed”, Stalin reassures Pasternak:

“Everything will be worked out. Why haven’t the writers’ organisations come to me? If I were a poet and my friend had fallen into disgrace, I would climb the walls to help him.”

Then Stalin dons his critic’s hat to ask “But is he or is he not a master?” Pasternak replies “That’s not the point!”, and requests a meeting. But Stalin hangs up. In the event, the Kremlin Mountaineer — the title of Mandelstam’s famous anti-Stalin satire — did not exactly murder the poet. Exile, jail and illness killed Mandelstam in 1938. It was not quite an execution; not an exoneration either. More a lethal “m-da”.

Although it lies beyond the author’s remit, Stalin’s Library tests to destruction the consoling notion that long, wide, extensive reading confers the gift of empathy — or rather, that empathy is a value to cherish. Roberts, though, maintains that whatever vital sparks of humanity the Soviet autocrat lacked, the ability to conceive the independent life of other minds was not among them. Indeed, he credits Stalin with “too much human empathy” as the grand paranoiac envisaged the hearts of his rivals seething with non-existent plots and stratagems to oust him. What the ultimate scholar-slayer missed was any shred of the “compassion or sympathy” that might stay his hand before he sent the bodies of those minds to a slow, cold fate in the Gulag or a quicker end in the basement of the Lubyanka.

In his reading, Stalin preferred strong characters — real or fictional — with firmly-marked personality and agency, not blurred ciphers of a class or an epoch. “Peter was Peter, Catherine was Catherine,” he proclaimed about the great Tsars in the course of a critique of the over-theoretical Soviet textbooks of the 1930s, “They rested on certain classes 
 but they acted, they were historical figures”. Stalin may never actually have said anything like “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic” (though the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky did). But the apocryphal wisecrack at least captures an empathetic reader’s ability to feel the weight of individual lives and minds.

Stalin did not lack empathy, then, for writers or their work. He grasped too — as censorious heresy-hunters still do not — that books acquire meaning and value separate from their creators’ beliefs. Defending the genius of the “reactionary” Nicolai Gogol, he urged that “the world views of writers should not be confused with the impact of their works on readers”. Nothing in Stalin’s long, complex and sometimes subtle engagement with culture disproves the advocates of intensive reading as a highway to empathy. The flaw, rather, lies in treating that quality as a firm proxy for interpersonal goodwill.

However robust and reliable on its own terms, research on the reading-empathy connection comes out of a cognitive science that finds it hard to define and describe a social world far beyond its probings of the story-stimulated mind. The 2016 paper I cited on “Reading fiction and reading minds” leaps from a scrutiny of the brain’s “default network”, and its activation by reading, to the assertion that: “Historically, highly literate societies, especially societies that produced psychologically rich literature, function more empathically and less violently than less literate societies.”

Show me a society with a greater “psychologically rich literature” than Russia. Now show me one that, in modern times, has brutalised its own people and its neighbours with more savagery. China, perhaps, or Germany? Both are also powerhouses of “psychologically rich literature”. Without the norms, laws and institutions to scale up private understanding into public civility, the solitary reader’s empathy will be, at best, an advantageous knack. After all, every low-grade swindler, conman and fraudster depends on a serviceable theory of other minds and how they work. And, if your milieu and your ideology impose no veto on mass persecution and state murder, the ability to mess with your victims’ heads simply adds another weapon to the oppressor’s armoury.

Perhaps the empathy that books deepen can only do collective good if a community — whether a household or a nation — decides to reward the sort of fellow-feeling that brings help and not harm to others. Whereas in the moral wasteland of Stalin’s Russia, the insight into other minds conferred by some of these 25,000 volumes served as just another manipulative tool of domination. Reading alone, could not make Stalin less Stalinist. If anything, his lifelong bookworm’s habits seem to have turned him — to quote his own formula for the writer’s role — into a more cunning and devious “engineer of human souls”.


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

There is a tract in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography, Young Stalin, in which an onlooker describes a bank robbery that Stalin commits (It is little known that Stalin was a criminal before a revolutionary). 

In this particular scene, Stalin and his team of thugs have just thrown dynamite onto a horse carriage transporting treasures to a local bank.

The horse and travelling guards are blown to pieces. The onlooker describes how the mortally wounded horses and guards are so harrowingly disfigured, howling in pain and bleeding all over the snow, that Stalin’s own criminal brethren are stunned in shock and horror, unable to move.

Stalin himself, however, simply walks among the screaming figures and calmly collects the gold and other treasures, smears the guts and gore off the treasure bags, and walks away from the scene like he’s leaving a supermarket with eggs and butter.

Stalin, just as the author suggests, has “empathy”. But the author makes a mistake: he assumes that all empathy is created equal. And with this view of empathy he appears, as many on the Left do, to excuse a tyrant of his convenience.

Such people often assume, for example, that because Stalin sang beautifully, wrote poetry, and read widely, that he must secretly be a nice guy. In this view, the murder of 20 million people was some how an accident of “trying to do the right thing” with “the best of intentions”.

There are two types of empathy, in reality, that should never be confused: warm and cold.

A warm empath is someone who is able to understand people’s experiences and, with this understanding, has the desire to alleviate the observed suffering, or at the very least, not add to it further.

A cold empath, in contrast, has all the cognitive faculties of the warm empath, but simply does not care about the person they observe. Instead, they cynically use this knowledge to get what they want.
Stalin was famously able to decipher men in an instant, to know their weaknesses, dreams, corruptibility and whether they would be loyal to him. He had an exquisite cold empathy, which allowed him to manipulate people and, at other times, to delight in the suffering he was all too aware of causing.

Intelligent, cold-empaths, therefore, are the most dangerous type of psychopath (or narcissist) because they are adept at simulating what others want to see in them, and able, almost invariably, to read a crowd or individual and manipulate them. 

The criminal justice system usually captures psychopaths who are low on the empathetic intelligence spectrum, which is why they end up in prison to begin with.

Psychopaths with high levels of cold empathy, on the other hand, go on to become very successful, as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Che Guevara and Bernie Madoff demonstrate.

I find it amazing, given the behaviour of someone like Stalin, that people can still see “the good in him”.
My impression after reading books on Stalin, and after studying psychopathy, is that Stalin was a bog-standard paranoid narcissistic psychopath, but with the gift of extraordinary cognitive (ie cold) empathy.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Pretty much all CEOs of large Corporations, Banks, Finance, Industrial, Government, are the ‘Cold empaths/psychopaths’ you mention- but very high functioning ones. The WEF who are well on their way of forming the world to a one world government with them as the Stalin figures, are all this kind. Claus Schwab, Christine Leguard, Fauchi, Bush, Soros, Boris, Biden…..

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

Thanks for that Hayden, but my understanding of empathy is that it can’t be ‘cold’; it is the sensing and sharing of another’s emotions. Seeing someone suffer or endure pain or fear is almost unbearable for someone with a high Empathy Quotient (as per Simon Baron Cohen’s EQ/SQ theory).

Bob Hare’s discovery that psychopaths do not experience fear is said to explain why they have no appreciation of, or sympathy for, their victims’ suffering; what you cannot experience, you cannot understand or ‘feel’.

But I’m completely on board with the idea that psychopaths study ‘normal’ people, to better exploit them, and that there are more ‘amongst us’ (as Hare says) than we would wish. I think the estimate is 1% of a population?

At the risk of being inflammatory, the failure to police our borders is concerning, in that predatory psychopaths (and criminals who are not psychopaths) are known to move from communities where they have been exposed to new hunting grounds where they are unknown.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

I think the problem in part is that much is lost in semantics. In my estimation, your definition of empathy is ‘warm empathy’. If this is your starting point you are correct that psychopaths have no empathy.
My only push back is that I think it is possible to have all the faculties of empathy, cognitively speaking, without the final emotional connection required to make that empathy “warm”.
If the equation is just “warm empathy” versus “no empathy”, then it is difficult to explain autists, who, with the model you describe, have no empathy either, but are, nevertheless, usually not dangerous.
To me the distinction between high functioning psychopaths and autists is this: autists have low cognitive empathy, but high emotional connection to their acts. In this way, they do not wish harm on others and harm that is inflicted is simply the result of not emotionally comprehending their actions.
High functioning psychopaths, in contrast, have high cognitive empathy, but low emotional affect. In other words, they do understand exactly the human impact of what they do, on both a rational and emotional level, but don’t care. ie the cognitive mirror neurones are all there, without the final connection to the emotional centres of the brain responsible for “caring”, either because the connection is broken, or because the “caring” neurones don’t exist.
In recent years I have heard a few psychologists talk about empathy in the way that I have described above, so it seems some evidence now exists to support what was, I must admit, my own pet theory for a while based on my observations of an autist at work, and someone I retrospectively discovered was a murderous psychopath (thankfully now in jail).

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

Thanks Hayden. I suspected you had some personal involvement with the subject. Of course, Baron Cohen’s research focus is autism. I suspect a measurable difference between autism and psychopathy is primarily that many/most? on the autism spectrum are not ‘cold’ emotionally – they do experience (often intensely and to a crippling degree) fear and anxiety, for instance.

Having said that, I have often wondered if some serial killers were not on the autism spectrum, Dahmer, Nillsen

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Sorry, accidental send. Lack of empathy and difficulty forming close relationships and/or indifference or disinterest in others seemed to be fundamental to both Dahmer and Nillsen, though they both craved a ‘silent’ companion?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Really interesting discussion, thanks both

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

I don’t think I know enough about the serial killers you mention to hold a view one way or another on whether they have autism or not.
My observation of the autists I’ve known do mirror your own though in terms of them being capable of great depth of feeling and of sensitivity, all while not being able to interpret the feelings of others.
It was this intruiging observation, in fact, that forced me to consider that empathy was more complex than I’d previously believed.
Why, after all, are so few autists malevolent? (though, you raise, quite rightly, that it is probably possible that one can be both autistic and psychopathic simultaneously.)

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

I did a brief presentation during my MSc Psych comparing traits for psychopathy and autism. There is some crossover, but I suspect few people on the spectrum can ‘hide in plain sight’ socially (compared to psychopaths, whose lack of anxiety makes them bold).

Not socialising easily, often disliking eye contact, would likely impair the development of social skills necessary to become an effective predator? Just speculation of course. I know a good number of people with ASDs and the only one who gave me the chills was a child who had spoken of plans to murder his sister. Many people with autism are gentle and kind, to the best of their ability.

If you care to read about Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nillsen, I think you might agree that both could potentially be on the spectrum. Brian Masters (if I remember rightly) wrote a book about Nillsen called ‘Killing for Company’ speculating that an inability to maintain relationships drove his crimes.

But I suspect the actual desire to hurt and harm as a primary motive (and the ability to enjoy the process) is limited to psychopaths because their flat affect/low arousal means they are thrill seekers who need lots of stimulus (however grim) to get any reward.

I hasten to add that criminology is not my field; I am coming at this from an interest in personality disorders.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

I am not sure why anyone would think that reading would increase a person’s empathy in the sense of not only understanding someone’s emotions but positively responding to them. Indeed you could argue the contrary in the sense that reading calls forth and requires no positive response to the emotions of the characters whose suffering and travails are automatically distanced by their fictional or historic nature so that no response is possible other than to close the book.
Moreover, the truly empathetic reader could just as well emphasise with the suffering of great tyrants in their efforts to bring about a finer world than with the individual counter-revolutionaries seeking to thwart their noble aims. Empathy does not determine choice of action if the judgement is between the suffering of one compared to the many.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

I find it unlikely that reading fiction, or any other literature, either implies someone has empathy or would increase empathy. Bookworms, and many writers, can be solitary and introverted individuals who use literature as an escape from the messiness and complexity of life and other people.

It seems more likely that people with high empathy would seek and value relationships and human interaction, and choose to spend more time in company than alone with a books.

I think it more probable that Stalin was a classic psychopath who used literature to study and understand ‘normal’ human nature and behaviour. Psychopaths are known to be glib and superficially ‘charming’ (or socially skilled) because they observe and learn how to appear to be what they are not.

Zero empathy, which is the classic trait of a psychopath, would seem to me to be a prerequisite to the deliberate pursuit of evil. Just my opinion, and I’m interested to hear others.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Reading gives one empathy. This is just de-facto – the more one is immeshed the reality of others, one better understands their motivations, hurts, wishes, trials and victories – they become human, we relate, which means we get empathy.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Excellent post.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

Empathy is not the same thing as compassion. I wonder how the confusion started?

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Oxbridge.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

The whole article seems to be predicated on ’empathy’ being the summum bonum of learning. Admittedly this is what the pseudo-education of the modern humanities proclaim. Dare I suggest that not being uncultured, boring, stupid, ignorant or vulgar are far more important acquisitions?

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

I think ‘learning’, as in the accumulation of knowledge, can be overestimated as a driver of ‘good’ or ethical/moral (empathetic?) behaviour. Perhaps the belief that education always ‘improves’, and/or that it can ‘reform’ or enlighten is based on the premise that ‘nurture’ trumps ‘nature’ in human development.

The problem for basically decent people (the majority), highly educated or not, is that a minority are very much not like them and will exploit and victimise unsuspecting others without remorse. Trying to understand Stalin, Hitler, or Ted Bundy, if you are not a fellow psychopath, is probably futile. Hayden says the mirror neurones are not connecting to the emotional centres; I tend to think they have a module missing.

Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
2 years ago

So much has been written about Stalin. For two brilliant recent works about the horror and the terror and how nobody was safe: Slezkine’s, The House of Government (a literary as well historical masterwork) and Schlogel’s Moscow 1937, cannot be bettered.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Had the equally well read Adolph not idiotically interfered with the execution of ‘Operation Barbarossa’*Stalin would have been consigned to the dustbin of history as he so richly deserved.

(* German invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941.)

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

And the Nazi’s could well still be in control of Europe

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Is that a statement of fact or a question?
Given the Fatherland’s propensity for making really huge mistakes I think it unlikely.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

It is a statement of possibility – hence “could”

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

No punctuation left me confused. Thanks for the explanation.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Being well-read does not allow empathy with other humans. It allows empathy, instead, with the idea of what other humans should be and how they should behave – empathy with a theory.

At the risk of straying from the point, I have seen people who go from door to door explaining how everybody should behave in a Christian way and ‘love thy neighbour’ and then go home and treat their own close family very badly.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“Although it lies beyond the author’s remit, Stalin’s Library tests to destruction the consoling notion that long, wide, extensive reading confers the gift of empathy”

Reading without wide life experiences is like watching shadow puppet plays set in another land. Your mental pictures, and the characters, conjured up by the words have no real basis. You cannot actually understand it all really – you just see what you read as an extension of your own, limited, reality. That Stalin had a remarkably hard life in a hard place and time – and likely is a psychopath, gave him a reality of experience which made his empathy of a very different kind from ours, but I am sure his reading made it much more pronounced.

“Show me a society with a greater “psychologically rich literature” than Russia. Now show me one that, in modern times, has brutalised its own people and its neighbours with more savagery. China, perhaps, or Germany? Both are also powerhouses of “psychologically rich literature”.”

Come, on – Russia has great literature, but it is of a type. Kafkaesque stuff – harshness, souls in torment, gratuitous cruelties, obstructionism, oppressed and oppressor, War, and dreary bureaucrats endlessly trapped in squalid jobs they do badly out of spite, broken hearts and worthless scoundrels, soldiers and serfs… Kind of like German actually(Both with dark Fairy Tails). I do not know Chinese literature, but always assumed it to be unreadable as I have not run into any of it.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I had a period in they teens where I devoured Russian literature (i’m told many teens do that). I re-read the books in my forties and found them beautifully written with wonderful psychological insights, but oh so utterly depressing.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

I found them depressing in my teens, as well. This was a large part of the appeal — to contemplate the tragedy of human existence, a necessary (but not sufficient) start to the project of ‘how to build a meaningful life’.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago

Solzhenitsyn: Cancer Ward, as you say, beautifully written but crikey!

Last edited 2 years ago by Karl Francis
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

However, George Borrow,*an inveterate English traveller thought this about the Russians in the mid 19th century:-

“The best-natured kindest people in the world, and though they do not know as much as the English, they have not the fiendish, spiteful dispositions and if you go amongst them and speak their language, however badly, they would go through fire and water to do you a kindness”.

(* 1803-81.)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Same here, and with my sister more so. I remember watching ‘The Seagull’ by Chekhov in London in a remarkable theater performance, and have always carried the feel – that Russian one of hopeless darkness which drives one to drink and forced masking of that existential despair… Story: group gathered in a Dasha – a man shoots a seagull for no reason, they talk, and in it one gets awareness of the condition of life. I lived many years remote, mostly very solitary, in the wildest Northern nature, and I have always felt this coldness, this cruelty and hopelessness of a living creature, as we are all set up for suffering, as that is how nature is designed to be. I always got the Russian zeitgeist from my years in the Far North – I get their mindset….

“TRIGORIN
I shall never forget you. I shall always remember you as I saw you that bright day–do you recall it?–a week ago, when you wore your light dress, and we talked together, and the white seagull lay on the bench beside us.””

” “I am a sea-gull—no—no, I am an actress.”

” “If my life can ever be of any use to you, come and take it.””

― Anton Chekhov,

It is beautiful, but so dark…. I read a lot of them, but none were like seeing it

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

Interesting article, but it only focuses on one part of Stalin’s life and upbringing. He was also had a religious education, hated the Tsarist rulers, escaped from exile multiple times, and was adept at organizing and violence. He also led a gang called The Outfit that fought Tsarist and Cossacks while supplying revolutionaries with funds they obtained through criminal activities like armed robberies (not just against soft targets), ransom, and extortion. Later he would be involved in leading Red Army Troops against the White Army. All of these things would shape him into the man or monster he would become.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Rob Keeley
Rob Keeley
1 year ago

Very slightly off topic perhaps, but it’s worth recalling Stalin’s love of classical music (along with Georgian drinking songs). Shostakovich, for one, would have preferred it if the Great Leader were not so interested in music, and let’s remember too the last thing he heard before his death, Mozart’s wonderful 23rd piano concerto, so memorably used to open Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin.