Friday, June 29, 2012

Stalin and "The Joker"

As a film buff, I was one of many people who loved "The Dark Knight", the second of the new Batman films.

Like many people, one of the things that most stood out from the film, apart from the excellent action and story, was the character "The Joker", and his distinctive portrayal by the late Heath Ledger.

I must admit that I found the characterisation of "The Joker" extremely fascinating, from a psychological and ethical point of view. This character was clearly very intelligent, witty and oddly charming; and at the same time utterly devoid of morality, killing, maiming and terrorising people whenever deemed necessary for his wider purpose.
His "purpose", the story shows us, was clear and methodical: to begin with, he fleeces the Mafia of their own money by robbing one of their banks, then offers his services to them to conversely make them subservient to them. Then, while ostensibly being on the side of the Mafia, he declares war on other rivals, the police, justice system and even the mayor, through a spate of assassinations and chaotic terror tactics (such as blowing up a hospital). Then, when the Mafia's money is recovered, he makes a point of destroying it.
The real "purpose" of "The Joker", seems to be to destroy the moral and economic fabric of society: to cause chaos and turn the moral universe on its head. "The Joker" is shown to have no social pretensions whatsoever: he makes a point of wearing unremarkable clothing, wears his distinctive "war paint" simply to make a point.

What makes the character of "The Joker" so intellectually riveting is that he so completely embodies moral collapse and an clear intent of upending of all human norms.
Which brings me to Stalin.

I recently read "Young Stalin", a brilliant biography and psychological portrait of Stalin's life from birth till the Bolshevik revolution. In an odd kind of way, Stalin's life is also perversely fascinating: who developed into an almost real-life "Joker" like in "The Dark Knight", part Mafia-don, part-revolutionary.

Stalin was born in Georgia, in 1879, in dirt-poor poverty, to an alcoholic father and devoted mother. His adolescence was spent in petty crime and casual violence, till he eventually went to a seminary to train to be a priest. It was there, around the age of eighteen or so, that he learned about Communism.

He became a devoted Communist; but what was more important was that he had the necessary skills that a Tsarist-era Communist revolutionary needed to prosper: cunning, ruthlessness, being in the right place at the right time, and the right connections within the "party" circles. He worked his way up by carrying out work for "the party" - inciting revolt, eliminating or discrediting rivals, robberies, smuggling and so on.

By 1905, when civil order broke down across the Russian empire, Josef Djugashvili ("Stalin" was a name he didn't give himself until some years later) was starting to become a major nuisance for the authorities, that year behind the greatest robbery ever carried out in the world at the time (which also kept the Bolsheviks well-financed for quite some time). For the next seven years, Stalin, on behalf of the Bolsheviks, caused chaos across the Caucasus, becoming their most important "weapon of mass destruction" in the region. Living in Baku, Azerbaijan for some time with his wife (though she died not long after they moved there), he flitted in and out Baku for several years, around Georgia and later up to St Petersburg and Moscow.

During that time, he was acting like some kind of shadowy underworld kingpin for the Bolshevik cause: evading detection and arrest by the Tsarist authorities, Macavity-like in being elsewhere when his dastardly deeds were carried out on the party's behalf. He would be moving from one safe-house to another, seeming to enjoy the thrill of the game with the authorities, putting on his exotic Georgian charm to captivate and bed yet another young woman.
Eventually, his and other Bolshevik's luck ran out, and he was exiled to Siberia for five years in 1912, but even here his time was not wasted: when not captivating a teenage daughter in this remote, sub-zero Siberian village (bearing in mind he was now well into his thirties), he was mastering the art of hunting alone, seeming to enjoy this raw aspect of life.

This time in exile in Siberia demonstrates another psychological aspect of Stalin that should not be under-estimated: like "The Joker", Stalin was someone who disdained social snobbery; he wore plain clothes his entire life, preferred simple living, often sleeping on a couch rather than a bed, and took pleasure from the harsher aspects of life. Although he could be charming, intellectual and witty when the mood suited him, he despised social graces. In that sense, his embrace of Bolshevism was as much a personal war he was declaring against a world he somehow hated: the world of luxury and empty morals.
This goes some way to explaining how a man who displayed so many characteristics of a psychopath, with his violent and crime-laden adolescence, went from being a trainee priest, to a committed Bolshevik, then used his ideology as an excuse for a shadowy reign of terror that he declared on the Tsarist authorities.

Released from exile just as the Tsar's government was collapsing in spring 1917, by now "Stalin" was a major figure in the Bolshevik Party. Apart from his years of service to the Bolsheviks as their Caucasian underworld kingpin, his humble and rough-necked background contrasted to the majority of the other senior party members, who were usually either from the diaspora, or aristocratic or middle-class backgrounds, many of them Jewish. In other words, by the time Lenin came to power in the Bolshevik revolution later that year, Stalin was the Bolshevik's "man on the street", a man who knew how to get things done.

Although the Bolsheviks were ruled by a clique of well-to-do rebels, they also knew that to maintain power, they had be ruthless in their operation. Lenin knew this very well; and thus Stalin became the man he most trusted in the Civil War that followed. Then, through deftly manipulating his allegiances from one clique of ministers to another, then back again upon Lenin's death, he was able to discredit his rivals and put himself in a position to succeed Lenin as ruler of the Bolshevik state.

The Soviet Union, ruled by a party that came to power through years of amoral criminality, assassination and terror, was now ruled by the man who made much of that criminality, assassination and terror possible: Josef Stalin: the "man of steel".
The question is: what happens when a modern twentieth-century state, the largest in the world, in fact, is ruled by a psychopath?
You may also ask yourself this: what would have happened to Gotham City if "The Joker" had won?

The answer can be found in my following article, here

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