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Stalin and Yezhov: An Extra-Paradigmatic View - by Philip E. Panaggio

Chapter 8: The Totalitarian Paradigm and Stalin's Personality

The central role played by Stalin in the totalitarian paradigm makes Stalin’s psychology, mental traits, and intelligence very important features of it. A variant of this basic model in which Stalin is seen as gifted or keenly intelligent is stronger in some ways, but weaker in others, when compared to alternate models in which he is said to be mediocre or a dim-wit, depending on what facts one has to confront these variants. A bumbler or political groper at the top of the pyramid of power, for example, can better explain chronic problems of Soviet society that were never successfully solved, or geographic regions like the one Fainsod studied in which there is no evidence of a successful penetration of the type of totalitarianism that the basic paradigm predicates. However, a "bumbler variant" model is strained in explaining Stalin’s long tenure, and the formerly great level of cohesiveness of Soviet society, both of which could easily be explained as flowing from the mind of a Stalin with special control talents and a consummate ability to utilize NKVD terror to that end.

Demanding that scholars and historians remain ever-conscious of what basic paradigm or which variant of it they are tendering, and requiring that they remain consistent in working out details in their application of it to Soviet society, would serve to keep them honest, preventing them from "having it both ways" when it suits their purposes, something characteristic of Kremlinology for over a half century. The motivation to lose objectivity and condemn Stalin morally is so overwhelming in the Western world, whose ethics are built on the Semitic Decalogue (Ten Commandments) of the Old Testament (most often with Jesus Christ’s purported "new" commandment "Love thy neighbor as thyself" added), that Western thinkers are reluctant to attribute any positive characteristics to Stalin’s personality at all - even when a paradigm-version they are using would be stronger if they did so. (Of course, since Stalin doesn’t politically fit an appropriate image of a "neighbor" [more literally: someone just like yourself...], he is reviled!)

In the waffling heretofore permitted to Kremlinologists, concessions were sometimes made to Stalin’s abilities as a statesman or master manipulator, crediting him with some, or even enormous, cleverness and resourcefulness. However, these abilities were only reluctantly invoked when a deus ex machina was needed due to a theoretical model being stressed, or beginning to break down, in the face of contradicting empirical evidence. Most Western thinkers simply find it impossible to believe that someone capable of "murder and cruelty" on such a grand scale could be very intelligent, rational, or "normal," so what has proven to be a useful tenet of the basic totalitarian paradigm is the view of Stalin as a superlatively cunning and crafty personality, with few or no other positive mental gifts, poisoned by extreme moral depravity. This character combination is an imported paradigmatic feature. It is incorporated into some versions of the totalitarian paradigm by tacitly assuming a general knowledge and consensus about some of the complex modern theories of human nature, abilities, behavior, and psychology, such as studies of the mental development of abused children. These versions sometimes underline the fact that Stalin was beaten by his father, though the exact extent and nature of these "beatings," and the circumstances in which they were administered, which would be of paramount importance for their results on Stalin’s future behaviors according to these theories, is left on the vaguest of levels.

The dilemma arises due to upholding the reigning paradigm involving Stalin’s successful, enduring, and supreme control, while insisting on Stalin’s "irrationality" or "abnormality." Biographies of sociopathic murderers’ unusual mental abilities, such as photographic memories or total recall, like that possessed by the necrophiliac, arsonist, and serial murderer Peter Kuerten (b. 1883), or the special literary gifts and high general intellect of individuals of extreme sexual depravity, such as those possessed by the writer and French revolutionary the Marquis de Sade (b. 1740), have been discussed side-by-side in accounts of Stalin (and Beria and Yezhov, too). Readers and students of the subject are ominously invited to make "their own comparisons" between Stalin’s ruthless and relentless human and "social engineering" projects and how the Marquis de Sade spent the last years of his life in a lunatic asylum persuading and forcing other inmates to perform his plays. Except, these students are cautioned to remember, Stalin did it in the real world - or so they are told. They are invited to extend the totalitarian paradigm so that it coincides almost completely with the society depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, which portrays a society held together not so much by the police terror that the standard totalitarian paradigm demands as by brainwashing. The invitation is made to apply Orwell’s extreme version of the totalitarian model because it is insinuated that this was Stalin’s goal anyway: use of home-grown Pavlovian behaviorist psychology to "train" people to think only thoughts consistent with Marxism-Leninism - even "two plus two equals five" if "dialectical materialism" or a Five Year Plan demanded it.

Many typical examples of the confusion that has prevailed in regards to Stalin’s character and mental abilities can be found in photojournalist David King’s new book The Commissar Vanishes, the Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalinist Russia. This rather beautifully designed album with a wealth of individually captioned photos has a separate, accompanying text that is pretentious, biased, and - in the light of new archival evidence - already obsolete. In the section of text dealing with Stalin’s incarceration in a Siberian prison camp in the summer of 1915 prior to the Revolution of 1917, King mentions that deputy revolutionaries held conferences in the gulag. King contrasts Stalin’s participation in these meetings with that of an Armenian revolutionary Suren Spandarian, whose speeches King characterizes as eloquent, spirited, and combative. With only guesses by King - the all too familiar fill-in-the-blank technique using the shared paradigm -, including the assumption that Spandarian’s wife’s memoirs exaggerate Stalin’s importance to the revolution while exiled in Siberia, King contrasts Spandarian’s scintillating rhetorical brilliance with Stalin’s "gruff monosyllables" which, King says, "contributed little" to these conferences. This account, demeaning as it is intended to be of Stalin’s intelligence and idealism, should be contrasted with to an eye-witness evaluation of Stalin’s performances at the high level meetings of the "Big Three" during WWII: the meetings of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt. Anthony Eton, then British foreign secretary, acclaimed Stalin’s formidable and superior skill as a negotiator, saying Stalin completely outwitted the other two illustrious senior statesmen. If one uses the doctrine of "evidence against interest," i.e., the rule that to decide between conflicting claims (here Stalin’s intelligence and vivacity vs. his mediocrity and dullness) when one has no other way to do so, ones opts for the claim from the source who gives evidence against his own interests, then one has to choose Eton’s assessment and reject King’s disparaging caricature. The point of King’s entire photo album is to show that Stalin had to rely mainly on bogus photo montages, which were in widespread use in the Soviet Union then, to generate esteem, not his real abilities or achievements.

However, one need not use the "evidence against interest" method to decide any more. Now new archival evidence is available to support a paradigm or model variant in which Stalin is keenly intelligent. The historian Nikolai Krementsov recently found, for example, in a newly opened party archive, a stenographic record by Mark Mitin of a visit Stalin made to the Soviet Union’s Institute of Red Professors in Philosophy and Natural Sciences in the 1930’s. One of the participants at the meeting asked Stalin, "What are our theoretical tasks in the field of natural sciences?" Stalin answered: "I am not a specialist in natural sciences. I did, however, many times read Lamarck and Weismann when I was young. ...Weismann contains a lot of mysticism." (Stalinist Science, Nikolai Krementsov, p. 167.) This is an answer far above the level of "gruff monosyllables." It shows, instead, an ability for careful reading, a very strong memory, a penetrating mind, and deep sensibility. It is difficult to imagine Churchill, F. D. Roosevelt, Khrushchev, Al Gore, or even the "intellectual" Woodrow Wilson giving an answer this informed, sophisticated, and intelligent. Try to imagine Rhodes Scholar cum U.S. President Bill Clinton off-handedly referring to Eldredge and Gould (authors of the Punctuated Equilibrium theory of evolution) in answering any similar question put to him at the United States’ Academy of Sciences today. Clinton was involved in a situation like this (televised on C-SPAN) when he met Professor Stephen Hawking, an internationally famous physicist and cosmologist. Hawking is the author of A Brief History of Time, which he said he wrote in an attempt to produce "a popular book about space and time" which would address questions such as "Where did the universe come from? How and why did it begin? Will it come to an end, and if so, how?" (Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, New York, 1990, p. vi.) Clinton admitted that in his conversation with Hawking he did not understand what Hawking was talking about, implying also that Hawking’s book - which he claimed to have read - was also obscure to him. While David Joravsky, Valery Soyfer, and other writers on Stalin’s role in the Soviet science establishment believe they have cause to deride Stalin for his known attraction to the discredited evolutionary theory of Lamarck and to the "Creative Darwinism" of Lysenko (which was different from Lamarckism), Stalin’s characterization of Weismann as writing "mysticism" is agreed on today by every knowledgeable authority in biology and genetics, such as Geoffrey H. Beale, formerly a Royal Society Professor of Genetics, University of Edinburgh, author of The Genetics of Paramecium Aurelia. In the entry article on Weismann in the Macropaedia of the 1975 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Beale wrote that Weismann "filled in the details of his theory with wide-ranging speculation that became at times somewhat mystical" (vol. 19, p. 736).

It is interesting to note in regards to Stalin’s intelligence that he "made his debut in the sciences," as one historian half-cynically put it, with a paper on linguistics. Linguistics is a technical and scientific field in which talented amateurs have frequently out-performed professionals. It was the amateur Champollion who first deciphered the defiant Rosetta Stone, enabling the world to read hieroglyphics for the first time. This linguistic tour-de-force opened up for view rich hitherto locked millennia of Egyptian civilization. In 1952, another amateur, the architect Michael Ventris, succeeded where professionals had repeatedly failed by deciphering the mysterious Mycenaean Linear B script. Nothing as stellar can be claimed for Stalin’s linguistics paper, which one Western linguist described as "trite but competent." The same evaluation could be made of most books and papers on linguistics, as well as of most of the literary output and teaching performances of most university professors most of the time.

Continue to Chapter 9

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Copyright by Philip E. Panaggio P. O. Box 85, Lehigh Acres, FL 33970-0085, USA