Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monsters Inc

The House That Stalin Built | The National Interest

Here's a very favourable review of (yet another) biography of Stalin.  A sample:
Stalin, whose party nickname was Koba, succeeded, against incalculable
odds, in helping to create a Bolshevik dictatorship in the world’s
largest country; through adroit maneuvering, he positioned himself in
absolute control of that dictatorship. The result, however, bore no
resemblance to the proletarian utopia predicted by Karl Marx. In fact,
the Bolsheviks were turning Marxism on its head by launching a
revolution in Russia. Marx always thought that the revolution would come
in Western Europe. The notion that a Communist revolution would emerge
in Russia, where there was no real proletariat, would have dumbfounded
him. According to Kotkin, the Russian empire’s dissolution in wartime
meant that “the revolution’s survival was suddenly inextricably linked
to the circumstance that vast stretches of Russian Eurasia had little or
no proletariat.” The regime scrambled to come up with a theory
justifying tactical alliances with local “‘bourgeois’ nationalists,” a
term that had as much bearing on reality as did the later employment of
“kulak,” which implied that any peasant who owned a cow or two was
somehow part of the exploitative class. 
 I've never read a book about Stalin, and this one sounds quite good.  (It is further described in the review as "uncommonly entertaining".)

I am currently reading a (not very big) book on Hitler, concentrating on his life up to the time he was diagnosed with hysterical blindness after being in a gas attack in World War 1.   (I knew he had been in a battlefield gas attack, and that this was believed to be why he would not countenance use of such weapons in World War 2, but had not  known he had psychological blindness as a result.)   The book's argument is that the doctor who treated him for his blindness really set Hitler off psychologically on his future path, but I haven't got to that part yet.

There are many other things I hadn't realised before - that he was very likely the result of an incestuous marriage; how long he had tried to make it as an artist, and that his school teachers found him irksome as well.  He was very depressed after his Mum died. 

Certainly, he was an oddball from a very early age. 

Update:  here is an interesting extract from an earlier review of Kotkin's bio of Stalin:
One might disagree, however, with Kotkin's assumption that Stalin's paranoid, vindictive nature was a product of, not a motive for, the pursuit of power and that it was slow to develop. Stalin's youthful sexual liaisons may have been normal ('Stalin had a penis, and he used it,' Kotkin remarks), but his impregnation of the thirteen- or fourteen-year-old Siberian orphan Lidia Pereprygina was, even by the standards of the most unbourgeois Bolshevik, the kind of behaviour to be condoned only in a male stoat. Kotkin omits many of the acts of the young Stalin that mark him as a creature of exceptional turpitude among the thugs, bandits, fanatics and misguided adolescents of the Transcaucasian Social Democratic Party. For example, when General Griaznov was assassinated in Tbilisi in 1906 and a bystander, Joiashvili, was arrested, Stalin composed an incriminating pamphlet to ensure that Joiashvili and not the real assassin was hanged (Stalin admitted this with pride in the 1920s). Likewise, he tried to have fellow party members executed on false accusations of treachery. The best evidence for any semblance of humanity in the young Stalin is not in Kotkin's narrative but in the pictures. The photograph of a dishevelled Stalin standing with his mother and his in-laws by the open coffin in which his first wife lies is the sole picture of Stalin showing anything like remorse, sorrow and embarrassment. Kotkin might also have cited some of the postcards Stalin sent back to Georgia from London, in which he appears as just a laddish adventurer out to have a good time, hoping not to shock his new bride.

Stalin's childhood injuries and illnesses are well catalogued by Kotkin, but he does not pursue them as a possible source of Stalin's sadism (as some have done, on the Dostoevskian principle that the primary desire of a man suffering from toothache is that everyone should share his agony). Medical historians conclude that Stalin was in more or less acute muscular, neurological and dental pain all his adult life. His pain threshold was high - as is testified by his endurance of extensive root canal treatment from the bravest man in his circle, the dentist Yakov Shapiro. But Stalin's brutality towards the medical profession, hitherto sacred to all Russian authorities, hints at the frustrations of a man in unremitting pain. (Kotkin does not mention the first murder of a doctor attributed to Stalin: the death in 1927 of Dr Bekhterev, two days after he remarked that he had just examined 'a paranoiac with a withered arm'.)
 Hmmm.  It looks like my idea for history changing time travelling doctors (see previous posts referring to Hitler needing a fecal infusion to make him a nicer person) has to include a couple of good dentists to deal with Stalin.   

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