Stalin, Opinions & the Video Series

photo of stalin smoking, along with shakespearean quote, The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bonesGood my Lord, be cured
Of this diseased opinion, and betimes,
For it is most dangerous.” (1)

 

The recent video production in the series “Historical Sketches” had to do with five episodes covering the life of Stalin. The very popular blog/website thesaker.is has published the links to the various episodes. (those interested can also find them here, by following the link “Historical Sketches” in the menu – http://yourdailyshakespeare.com/historical-video-sketches).

I came across “The Saker” site (thesaker.is) by chance,  as I searched for information on the events in Ukraine. – information untainted by the bias, of which most informed readers are aware. Namely, that the orange revolution in Ukraine was ‘spontaneous’, as opposed to a CIA orchestrated operation in which, per the mouth of one of its notorious inspirers (US assistant Secretary of State, V. Nuland), the CIA had invested 5 billion $.

The Stalin video-series generated a large volume of comments (readable on the Saker site, http://thesaker.is/the-life-of-stalin-by-jimmie-moglia/). Then The Saker himself published his trelated opinion. That too gave rise to even a larger number of comments (http://thesaker.is/the-controversy-about-stalin-a-basket-of-preliminary-considerations/)

I compared my thoughts on the issue with his and, in turn, I published an extended comment, which I post here. I think it fits with the spirit of this web site, given the latter’s historical and sociological bent, with an added ‘Shakespearean’ twist. Here follows the post. As you see, it deals mostly on how we form our opinions and on how I formed mine on Stalin, the character in question.

“After reading The Saker’s article, (and the many comments), one first and obvious thought came to my mind. Namely, how much our personal experience shapes our thought, including our historical opinions.

For our own life is a history – and besides, in every written history, bubbles up the history of the historian himself.

Therefore… I first propose the idea that there are (5) stages involved in forming our historical opinion(s), including on Stalin. Then I will try to briefly say how mine came about.

Stage 1. We may not call it yet an opinion, but it is what we learn at home, at school, at church (if applicable), from television and movies. This stage lasts approximately till junior high.

Stage 2. (I speculate that the great majority stops at stage 1). We start reading for personal interest, we get involved with people who, by the force of their own thought, inspire us to meditate on ours. Perhaps we travel. Maybe we meet people from other countries, who seem original in how they behave and tell their stories and opinions. We realize that what we learned in stage-1 not only can be questioned, but is not true in the sense we thought it was.

Stage 3. Reading being addictive, we read more history. Now we engage in a silent dialog with the writer (whether of history or literature). We begin to see that a good writer (that’s why we call him/them classics), is interesting in thought and delightful in expression . Clarity of thought and the original, emotional value of expression are inseparable. Besides, words are like lizards; they change colors quite dramatically according to use. Now our opinions can be compared to a limitless expanding mosaic, in which each new acquisition is an added tile.

Stage 4. We realize that the more we read (and add our experiences and other opinions as more tiles in the mosaic), the more difficult it is to proclaim papal-style encyclicals, embodying (our) dogmatic truth.
Which is not to say that complexity prevents us from distinguishing good from evil. But the recognition of complexity prompts us to suspend our judgment, or at least to see more sides of an issue.

Stage 5. Our opinions are now similar to those magnificent Byzantine mosaics, where you see the whole as the sum of thousands little tiles of different shapes and color, blending into one comprehensive effect. And yet, unlike the static mosaic of the analogy, our opinions are never final.

Which brings me to how I formed mine about Stalin. And, if you have enough patience to read through, how I have reached, through entirely different paths, conclusions quite close to the Saker’s (as expressed in his own post) – http://thesaker.is/the-controversy-about-stalin-a-basket-of-preliminary-considerations/

I grew up in Italy, in a Catholic family, my grandfather being the exception, an agnostic and a socialist, though he never belonged to any party. I was deeply involved in the life of the parish, which was run by Franciscan friars.

The provincial friars instructed the dependent friars, the bishops the provincial friars, the archbishops the bishops and the pope the archbishops. Bottom line, communism was ‘evil’ because it was ‘Godless’ – communists were automatically excommunicated. There was a sarcastic sentence summing up the anti-communist (and by inference anti-Russian) propaganda of the time, “Communists eat children.”

In truth one Franciscan friar of the church struck a deep friendship with my agnostic grandfather. Thinking about it later, it reminded me of Balzac’s novel “The Atheist’s Mass”, but I digress.

As a very young man I travelled to Soviet Russia and I concluded immediately that the ideas acquired at stage 1, and already questioned in stage 2, were grossly mistaken.

My trips were not extensive, but long enough to conclude that people ran their own life seemingly contentedly, or at least without great unhappiness or great expectations. And with a certain quiet pride – after all, their nation put the first satellite and the first man in space. Their schools seemed excellent based on the students I spoke with etc. etc.

During stage 3 and 4, disgusted at the war in Vietnam, I read more about US history – and the distorted picture given by Hollywood (my first perception, as a youngster, of American history). I then began asking if everything else propagandized about Russia (and Stalin), could be as true as the movies about the uncivilized, expendable ‘Indians’ or the evil North Vietnamese, whom John Wayne bravely fought against in ‘Green Berets’.

In itself, nationalistic, historic propaganda is not exclusive to the US. No nation omits to record the action of their ancestors, however bloody, savage, and rapacious – though often using circuitous reasons to justify them.

Except that, with US history, blood, savagery and rapaciousness are not justified, simply because they are officially (and/or artfully), hidden to most but those who, by chance or election, decide to dig a bit deeper. Instructive, I think for example, is the unsuccessful War of 1812 (covered by (3) historical sketches), launched by the US to annex Canada and export thither, – then as now – ‘freedom and democracy’ (video sketch episodes #16, #17, #18).

Furthermore, history is easily re-written by masters and managers of the thought-unique. Distance, either of time or place, is sufficient to reconcile pliable minds to soothing notions and satisfying explanations.

Expressed differently, what is distant is in itself obscure and when we have no wish to see it, easily escapes our notice, or takes such a form as desire, hearsay or imagination bestow upon it.

Based on all of the above, it seemed, to me that,

a) There is a continuum between the cultural developments in the Russia of the XIX century and the events that led to the 1917 revolution.

b) As it can be (perhaps) expected only from Russia, where even the villains are original, the 1917 revolution was the first successful experiment at turning our way of life completely upside-down. And in line, at least in intent, with messages expressed in the Russian classics (I specifically think of Tolstoy, but there are others).

In other words, what Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, etc. were to the French revolution, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin etc. were to the Russian Revolution.

Let’s not forget that the beginning of the French revolution had remarkable similarities (at least conceptually), with the Russian revolution. But in the French instance – the funding coming from the newly rich bourgeoisie – Robespierre became quickly dispensable; he was the Saddam Hussein of his time, a total misrepresentation in both cases. Good-bye revolution.

So much so that Frenchmen found everything wrong with king and nobles, but nothing wrong with an emperor.

As for Stalin, the Western narrative portrayed him as a shrewd, cruel and ignorant peasant –clearly not true. That the revolution could survive a civil war and the intervention of the western armies is, historically, a miracle.

In assembling what I had read, or learned from holders of qualified opinions, I concluded,

  1. That in Russia there was a deep-seated fear of foreign meddling, in the midst of a (revolutionary) process never tried before in history on this scale. Namely, to radically change certain entrenched modes of thought acquired in infancy, including the patriarchal scheme, eventually traceable to the equation of sex with sin, etc. etc.
  1. That in this respect, even Lenin had been somewhat too optimistic (easy to say after the fact, of course). And that in the face of these difficulties, Stalin had to deal with problems so big that even a minor tilt of the scale may have brought a total collapse.
  1. That the dangers increased even more during the 1930s when the West, due to the restlessness of the working class, had as an absolute priority the destruction of the Soviet Union for fear of a revolutionary contagion. Hence the repression of real (or perceived), so-called right-wing deviationism in Russia, was assumed as an indispensable necessity.
  1. That even after the patriotic war, the danger did not end. After all, the USA had nonchalantly dropped the A-bombs on actual people – why could they not drop them on Russia? The danger was real for at least 5 years.

For these reasons I see in Stalin a symbol of the survival of the Soviet Union. For what is worth, I do not think (without any other evidence than me saying so), that Stalin was killed.

He lived a (materially) good life but he had subjected himself to great stress, dangers and hardships in his youth. He had even been run over by a horse chariot, which left him partially disabled. He smoke heavily and when he stopped smoking, not long before he died, he put on weight. All conditions that, from what we know, can cause a stroke, or brain hemorrhage or similar.

But there is a personal, though indirect reason why I, and many millions of Europeans, should spare some good thoughts for Stalin. After WWII, there was actual fear of him and of a 1917-like revolution, even in countries like England. We owe in good part to the fear of Russia, the social reforms bringing health-care to all, plus labor protection, free instruction and important others.

The contributions by the USSR to the various Communist Parties in the West were notoriously meager, but, when we think of Russia’s sacrifices in the patriotic war, those contributions deserve as great, if not greater gratitude than if they had been 10 times as big.

As I mentioned at the end of the series (episode 5), the intent of the cycle on “The Life of Stalin” was to provide a connective thread among the many events of a remarkable life, and a starting point for those who wish to know more.

Especially considering that to judge rightly of the present, we must oppose it to the past; for all judgment is comparative, and about the future we can only speculate.

The truth is that no mind is only employed upon the present; recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments. Our passions are joy and grief, love and hatred, hope and fear. Of joy and fear the past is the object, of hope and fear the object is the future. Even love and hatred are bound to the past, for the cause must have been before the effect.

And in the end, if we act only for ourselves, neglecting the study of history maybe irrelevant – though historical ignorance leaves man without defence against the armies of malignity. But in those who are entrusted with the care of others neglect is unjust. Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may be properly charged with evil who refuses to learn how he might prevent it.

I am personally pleased that the series of videos on the life of Stalin and The Saker’s article have triggered such a variety of comments, many of which illuminating, both on the subject and on the person who made them.

For I see The Saker’s site as a XXIst century version of the XVIIIth century Parisian cafes, where the French philosophes discussed how man should live and how society should evolve. Which implies, then and now, a measure of hope for the future.

Unless we resign ourselves to think like Hamlet, who was so pissed-off with mankind, as to say to his chums, “What is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, nor woman either, though by your smiling, you may seem to say so.”(2)

As for Stalin, there is considerable renewed interest at large in the character. Those who only see the evil may consider that,

“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.” (3)

and that, notwithstanding the clash of opinions, Stalin seems to have acquired,

“…A forted residence ‘gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion” (4)

  1. Winter’s Tale
  2. Hamlet
  3. Winter’s Tale
  4. Measure for Measure

In the play (initial quote): Camillo tells Leontes that his jealousy is totally unjustified and dangerous.

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