Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Stalin and power: when "The Joker" became "The Boss" (1)

In my last article here, I talked about Josef Stalin's "early years": his time as a young ruffian in Tsarist Georgia, becoming a "Bolshevik" underworld kingpin/terrorist (as a pseudo-"Joker"-like character from "The Dark Knight"), and his status at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution.

I ended with how he manipulated his political situation with his rivals to gain power after Lenin's death. But the struggle for supremacy of the Bolsheviks by Stalin itself reads like a political, no-holds-barred version of "The Godfather", and began once Stalin was released from exile just as the Tsarist government fell.

During the nine months of the democratically-minded "Provisional Government" in 1917, Lenin was aiming for a Bolshevik revolution. Stalin was the real "practical" face of the Bolsheviks, however, as he was responsible for organising and carrying out much of the terror. The Bolsheviks were seen by their opponents (i.e. the rest of the civilised world) as little short of ruthless criminals and amoral terrorists hiding behind a pseudo-philosophy: and although Lenin and the other emigres were the intellectual head of the movement, Stalin was its living, beating heart, keeping all its various organs in check and moving according to plan. During 1917, it was Stalin who showed how invaluable an asset he was to Lenin: keeping him safe in a number of safe-houses that were under Stalin's control, even organising Lenin's temporary escape to Finland when the heat was getting too much from the Provisonal Government. In other words, in those nine months, while Stalin was demonstrating his reliability and loyalty to Lenin and the cause, it also showed how reliant Lenin was at the time to Stalin's charity - and this was also a subtle game of power over Lenin.

Once in power, the Bolsheviks had to fight to maintain power, and the resulting Civil War lasted mainly from the end of 1917 to the end of 1920 (the last pockets of fighting was mopped up in 1923). During those few years on fighting, which caused appalling damage to the already-traumatised Russian economy, as well as killing millions of civilians directly or indirectly, the Bolshevik army under Trotsky at first relied on the expertise of former Tsarist officers. Stalin, in his first move to undermine Trotsky (who was seen as a possible successor to Lenin), went against this order while defending Tsaritsyn (later called Stalingrad) against the anti-Bolshevik forces. He trained his own army, promoting Bolsheviks who were loyal to him, and by the end of the war had upstaged Trotsky.
 Stalin in the Civil War, continuing his ruthless and amoral approach and applying it to warfare, killed many former Tsarist officers, as well as deserters and those who he deemed unreliable. He also waged war against peasants, burning villages as punishment or to prevent other forces from utilising the countryside. Let loose on the the warring nation,  Stalin was at war with anyone and everyone, like a force of nature.

When the war was finally settled, "Koba" (his Georgian nickname, meaning wolf), turned to cunning manipulator. Having already undermined Trotsky, he sided with two other anti-Trotsky rivals and Lenin allies, Zinoviev and Kamenev, to ensure that when Lenin died in early 1924, he had their approval to become the new leader. He then turned on Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1926, discrediting them in favour of the so-called moderate "Rightists". Soon afterwards, he ditched his support for the "Rightists", and discredited their leaders in government, Bukharin and Rykov. Stalin reversed Lenin's moderate agricultural policy that had been supported by the "Rightists", instead enforcing collectivisation, and by 1928, had declared war the the entire Russian peasantry.
By the time he had reached his fiftieth birthday in December 1929, when he was declared as the unchallenged dictator of the Soviet Union by his ministers, he had destroyed any real rivals in government by discrediting both sides of his party, as well as declared war on the peasants through collectivisation. This "war" against Russian farmers (kulaks), killed millions through a combination of terror and famine (and lasted for more than three years), the Ukraine with almost Biblical scenes of suffering, affected the worst.

In late 1932, while the self-inflicted famine still ongoing, Stalin's wife committed suicide. From this point onward, Stalin began to lose much of what have been called his earlier so-called "humanity". Stalin had three children, though for much of his life he treated them abysmally.
The eldest, his son Yakov (to his first wife, who had died in 1905), went on to fight with distinction (and fatherly pride) in the Second World War, was captured by the Nazis and died by hurling himself onto an electric fence in a Nazi POW camp. The Nazis wanted to swap Yakov for Field Marshal Paulus, but Stalin refused on principle.
The son and daughter he had to his second wife, called Vasili and Svetlana, were less lucky. Vasili grew to be an insecure, Caligula-like figure in Stalin's "court": constantly drunk, lewd and with a sexual appetite to match, he was responsible though his recklessness for the deaths of many, his crass behaviour and wild parties legendary. A trained pilot, he was famous for his drunken airborne antics, including mock dive-bombing Tblisi in one particular episode. Svetlana, the apple of her father's eye, was a victim to Stalin's deep-rooted insecurities, like the daughter of a Mafia Don, suffering for years while any man she became acquainted with was in danger of being killed (many were).
Worse was the fact that during "The Terror" (see below), many of the members of Stalin's wives families were either arrested, deported or killed on Stalin's orders.

Here was the other thing worth mentioning about Stalin: he openly thought of Ivan The Terrible as his template for governance. Massacring the nobles was what Stalin respected about Ivan The Terrible, only Stalin thought he should go further. During Politburo meetings, Stalin would doodle sketches of wolves, an animal he clearly identified with, as his nickname "Koba" (wolf) suggests. When reviewing the cases of those "suspects" brought for questioning, he would often write notes in the margins to encourage further torture; his gallows sense of humour was notorious. There had been sporadic campaigns of terror from 1930 onwards, but they paled in comparison to "The Terror".

Then there was "The Terror"(1937-39). One of Stalin closest and trusted allies, Kirov, was killed in suspicious circumstances, in December 1934. Having been "inspired" by Hitler's "Night of the Long Knives", Stalin saw this as an opportunity to rid the party completely of threats to his leadership, and made Hitler's purge seem pathetically-modest by comparison. Shortly after Kirov's death, the two thirtysomethings who would be the main administrators of "The Terror", Yezhov and Beria (who also a Georgian, like Stalin), were promoted. By now, of the "old guard" that had been there since the beginning, only Stalin loyalists were left in the Politburo, with Yezhov and Beria the "bright young things" deemed the new generation, and ultra-loyal to Stalin, sharing his blood lust.

By the end of 1938, with "The Terror" almost two years old, the "Show Trials" that had followed Kirov's murder had led to a purging of the party on an industrial scale: there were monthly quotas agreed by Stalin that each province of the USSR were to meet. The monthly quota for each province was often in the tens of thousands: of those arrested by the quota, many were later killed. And some provinces regularly went over their quota just to affirm their loyalty to the cause. "The Terror" extended into the minorities; ethnic Poles and Germans the worst affected. Worst of all, the military was seen by Stalin to be especially untrustworthy, so around half of the military leadership were either arrested, deported or killed. Even the judges at some of the trials were later killed. And in the ultimate irony, Yezhov, the main administrator of "The Terror", was implicated by his understudy, Beria and killed. The madness of blood had come full circle.

Continue to Part Two here

No comments:

Post a Comment