“So spake the Fiend, and with necessity,
The tyrant’s plea, excus’d his devilish deeds.”
—Milton, Paradise Lost
The locus classicus of all informed discussion on the subject of the political essence of totalitarianism is the following passage from Plato’s Republic:
If you are caught committing any of these crimes on a small scale, you are punished and disgraced; they call it sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, theft and brigandage. But if, besides taking their property, you turn all your countrymen into slaves, you will hear no more of those ugly names; your countrymen themselves will call you the happiest of men and bless your name.
Anyone who has studied the history of the 20th century will accept the truth of this observation as axiomatic. The confusion comes from those who—despite having accepted the axiom as a matter of political truth—go on to pile up volumes of tenuous and unconvincing conjecture about the psychology of the unfortunate nations in question.
Roll some archival footage of a Nuremberg rally, and you will surely hear them talk of mass hysteria. Zoom in on a giant poster of Mussolini, and their commentary will reverberate with words like “hypnosis.” Move on to Red Square in November, and as sure as there are tanks on parade, they will prattle about the cult of personality. They accept the political axiom because they must, because it is incontrovertible; yet, equally, they must find an out, a back door, a loophole at any logical cost, because if all men are cowards and they are men, then they are cowards; and they wish to be brave. If all men are fools, they too are fools; and they cannot be fools, because they are screenwriters for the BBC, professors at Oxford, and fellows of the Hoover Institution. If all men would fall over themselves to salute a tyrant, then they themselves are pathetic, dishonorable clowns; and, to make a long story short, this is simply not how they see themselves.
They find the loophole, and with it personal absolution, by stressing—nay, inventing, with hardly a shred of historical evidence—an irrational component of that happy compact, foreshadowed in the Republic, between the absolute oppressor and the absolutely oppressed. The oppressor is therefore a “maniac,” a “psychopath,” and a “monster.” The oppressed are “hypnotized,” “mesmerized,” “robotic.” This way, they tie down to a particular people, time, and place what would otherwise hang overhead as a universally menacing truth. “It cannot happen again,” runs the panicky undercurrent of their defensive psychologizing. “It will not happen here. It would not happen to us.”
Arithmetic is anything but irrational, and I commend to you the following exercise, whose outcome is a dead certainty: On the left side of a blank page, write out the names of the people in your life whom you wish well—your friends, relatives, colleagues, writers or artists whose work you follow with interest, politicians you admire and want to succeed. On the right side of the page, write the names of everyone you even mildly despise—your former friends who have long betrayed you, colleagues who have hindered your success, unscrupulous and corrupt politicians . . . Then, of course, there are the people who are simply ridiculous, the people who are too big for their boots, and the vast number of people who, if push came to shove, would not lift a finger. Finally, do not forget the neighbor who always borrows your gardening tools.
My question is simply this: What is irrational about cheering on an omnipotence that, while turning all of one’s countrymen into slaves, is likely to mete out its superior, inscrutable, and deadly justice to an incomparably greater number of those one loathes than of those one contentedly tolerates? The colleague who pipped you to the post? Off with his head. The politician who put the animal shelter in front of your house? Into the slammer. The neighbor who used to borrow your gardening tools? Fertilizing a frozen plain. Truly this is a paradise on earth, where all your innermost prayers have been suddenly answered, and all at the extremely reasonable price of a couple of people at work who were kind of nice but got themselves arrested anyway, plus an old family friend who turned out to be a spy for some foreign power and obliged by jumping out the window when the police rang the doorbell.
But our own lives are boring and poorly documented. For the Russian intelligentsia inhabiting Stalin’s paradise, the delicious moment of reckoning, which I am trying to conjure up here, had arrived in the spring of 1932, and thanks to the archival scrupulousness of the secret police, there is no shortage of documentation describing the deeply rational behavior of those concerned.
Imagine. It is early April in Moscow. You are a budding writer, like Mikhail Bulgakov. Or a recognized poet of genius, like Boris Pasternak. Or an internationally famous theater director, like Vsevolod Meyerhold. For the 15 years following the cataclysm of 1917—when, as the poet said, “our land was all smudged by the glare”—you have been at the mercy of your natural enemies, Bolsheviks who gloatingly called themselves social engineers and artistic innovators while boasting that they had set the beloved world of your youth on its ear. They have mocked your native culture, threatening to abolish everything from marriage to museums, and merely mentioning Tolstoy or Pushkin in their ruling circle is like flying the Confederate Battle Flag in Greenwich Village. Their publishing houses have been printing pretentious, puerile, politically suitable avant garde rubbish, penned by every loudmouth you knew at university. Their theaters shut their doors in your face. Even if you managed to make some of your work public, their critics, writing in their newspapers, slandered you, and you could not answer back. You are destitute, without hope, without love, and often without butter to put on your daily bread.
In all, you are the collective Hamlet of your epoch, and all those courtiers with direct access to the Kremlin are your collective oppressor:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time.
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contiimely.
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay.
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes. . .
Who will avenge us? For the generation of Pasternak, a generation that bore the world no less beauty than its Elizabethan predecessor, that was the question.
And then He came. You all think Lev Tolstoy was a count, and hence unsuitable reading for a good Bolshevik? Oh, worms! Comrade Poskrebyshev, take a memo: “. . . that the complete works of Lev Tolstoy are to be published in the Academy Edition of ninety-eight quarto volumes. . .” You all think the White Movement should be a taboo subject? Oh, deviationists! Comrade Poskrebyshev, put me through to the Moscow Arts Theater: “. . . Hello? This is Stalin. May I speak to the director? . . . Yes, I want to authorize the production of The White Guard. Hello? You say he died? A heart attack? What, just now? . . .” You all think Boris Pasternak is too obscure, and should write more like Mayakovsky? Oh, innocence without a strategy! Oh, formulaic mediocrity! Comrade Poskrebyshev, put me through to, Lubyanka: “. . . that Mayakovsky’s passport for foreign travel be withdrawn for an indefinite period . . .”
Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord. The telephone of the Russian intelligentsia was ringing off the hook. Feverishly, Bulgakov started a play about Molière, in which the playwright wins an audience with Louis XIV: “You are persecuted?” asks the king. Then, to the courtiers:
Are there devotees of the author de Molière among you? (Confusion.) I am one. (Noise.) Then hear this: My author is oppressed. He is frightened. I will show kindness to anyone who forewarns me of whatever danger imperils him. (To Molière.) Weak as we are, we’ll find a way to rout them, you and I. (Aloud.) The ban is lifted. You may stage Tartuffe.
“To find the time to telephone a writer while preparing for a Party Congress!” an antiquarian book collector recorded in his diary in 1930: “Just shows that he is a big man who can take on all the little people.” “I shall return to Russia,” wrote Evgeny Zamyatin to Stalin in 1931, “when it becomes possible to serve big literature without having to serve little people.” With suitable fanfare, Zamyatin’s passport for foreign travel was validated and the lucky favorite went abroad. That same year, Gorky returned from Sorrento, followed by Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Marina Tsvetaeva, and millions of newly optimistic White emitters. Pasternak ditched his Jewish first wife, married an Orthodox Christian, and published a collection of poems entitled Second Birth.
“I love you. King!” exulted Bulgakov’s alter ego, who was actually just his plain old ego, the same ego that exulted in Pasternak, and in Meyerhold, and in Gorky . . . They were being avenged! When Stalin’s cultural manifesto of April 1932, Resolution on the Restructuring of Literary and Arts Organizations, was finally unveiled in all its glory, just before Easter, intellectuals hugged and wept in the street, greeting one another with “Christ is risen!” Meyerhold hung a framed copy of the manifesto in his bedroom, the way a Catholic would a crucifix. “With one stroke of the pen,” comments the distinguished literary historian Lazar Fleishman, Stalin’s perestroika “drove from the literary arena those who only yesterday had seemed the omnipotent arbiters of writers’ destinies. The dimension of the euphoria that seized Soviet writers in the summer and autumn of 1932 had no precedent.”
Those who suppose that it was easy to seduce the Russian intelligentsia, for the simple reason that the intelligentsia is always easily seduced, should bear in mind that our Lord, Sun King, and Great White Avenger—publicly known, more modestly, as our leader, teacher, and friend—was striking simultaneously at almost all other social groups, from politicians to engineers to scientists, and enjoyed a similar success in every instance. Of course, by now, blood had begun to flow—first drops, then rivulets, then rivers. By 1937, oceans. But is it not significant that, as late as 1938, Bulgakov was still writing a play entitled The Shepherd, in which young Stalin is transparently identified with Christ?
If Bulgakov had only hung in there for another five years, it is possible that his telephone would have rung again, September 1943 being a moment in Russian history in some ways as pivotal as April 1932. It was then that Stalin finally cast his weary eye in the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church, mindful that he would need Christianity for his next restructuring, a final solution that would sweep away the last vestiges of Judeo-Masonic Bolshevism. Between 1943 and 1953, Stalin opened over 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand) churches and several religious academies that would keep the country in priests. But then he died, and as a squabbling oligarchy returned to the Kremlin, his master plan for a totalitarian Byzantium fell into disrepair. The first thing Khrushchev did was to shut down all those damn churches.
It was Khrushchev, of course, who launched the phrase “Cult of Personality” on an unsuspecting West, and, for nearly a half-century since his not-at-all-secret Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, that winged phrase has been a great boon to Western political scientists generally and Sovietologists in particular. Though not a genius of power maximization like Stalin, Khrushchev was no fool. His contribution to what cannot but emerge one day as the totalitarian Byzantium of Stalin’s dreams—”a common European home from the Atlantic to the Urals” is the modern way of expressing it—remains misunderstood, largely thanks to the intellectual efforts of those same Sovietologists whom he had tricked like small children with his “de-Stalinization” canard.
Khrushchev peddled the myth of the Cult of Personality because it suited Khrushchev’s political aims. The West bought the myth of the Cult of Personality, manufactured in the same factory of cliches that produced the mustachioed Hitler familiar to us all—foaming at the mouth in a psychotic rage—because the West was shopping for a palliative. Here was the out, the back door, the loophole it had sought to buy, at the price of all truth and logic, to deliver its cockamamie historiography from the steel vice of Plato’s political axiom. Because if Stalin, and for that matter Hitler, were not unhinged maniacs but master manipulators of their people’s rational desires, and ultimately beloved avengers of their people’s bruised egos, where does that leave the world of today—a world just as full of bruised egos?
Do not tell me that a writer rejected by Talk would not vote for a political leader who would see to it that he got a personal letter of apology from Tina Brown. Do not tell me that a fellow of the Hoover Institution would not like to receive a telephone call from Vladimir Putin, asking him about the weather in California. Do not tell me that an Oxford don would not sell his dignity for a bottle of mediocre claret. Well, then, remember the story of the Russian intelligentsia, and bear in mind that the day will come when there are little notes, and telephone calls, and even bottles of wine for each and every one of you out there from your leader, teacher, and friend, so that you may call him the happiest of men and bless his name.
Do not tell me about the Cult of Personality. The only cult there has ever been is the cult of ourselves.