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I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.
Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.
There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).
While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.
Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.
Stalin’s persona, his style and his views were indelibly stamped on both the USSR and the world that reacted to him, and not just during his lifetime. Even after death, he cast a long shadow – so long that Mikhail Suslov, one of Stalin’s appointees to office (in 1946), remained in the top echelons of Soviet government until his death in 1982. He was Mikhail Gorbachev’s mentor.
Despite Khrushchev’s brief attempt to de-Stalinize the USSR, his successors restored much of Stalin’s style and methods, especially in the cult of personality. Stalin’s prison forced labour camps – the Gulags – were not closed until 1960, seven years after his death, but even then, several camps (e.g. Perm-36) continued to operate until as late as 1987. And modern Russian forced-labour prison camps are significantly similar to Stalin’s gulags.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism under Gorbachev didn’t end Stalin’s influence on the country: it remained embedded in the national psyche, and is evident in its current leader, Vladimir Putin, who parrots Stalin’s absolutist leader-cult persona, and dictatorial style.
The inter-war period that covers the 1920s and ’30s has long held a fascination for me. It saw the development or growth of many “new” technologies, forms of communication, and practices – flight, radio, motorized vehicles, refrigeration, recorded music, movies and cinematography, military hardware, and not least of all, propaganda. How cultures and communities coped with the changes and accommodated the technologies has lessons for us today.
The rise of the dictators, too, has historical and political lessons for us. The same period saw the rise of many dictators in many nations, along with the rise of populist and authoritarian politics. I’ve read numerous biographies of Hitler, plus books about Franco and am reading one about Mussolini right now. While each story is different, there are similar elements – and lessons – in all of them.
Around the world, many nations experienced the growth of totalitarian states, run by dictators with strong cults of personality, the most successful of which used (exploited) the new technologies to their advantage. In Europe well-known dictators took over in Spain, Germany, Italy and the USSR, but they also arose in China, Japan, Cuba, Argentina, Haiti, Paraguay, Mongolia, and elsewhere. Post-war, others arose, many in Soviet-conquered countries.
Despite the separation in time and the difference in circumstances, there remain many similarities between the development of those authoritarian governments and the current rise of right-wing populism (aka authoritarian or theocratic ideologies) in North America and Europe. They all use similar language and techniques to gull the population and to fuel fear and xenophobia. The hardware may change over the years, but people don’t. We’re still moved by the same basic emotions, still prone to succumb to the same basic techniques and tactics.
If you want to understand Vladimir Putin and Russia today, to understand the modern Russian worldview and its internal politics, you need to understand the history of Communism. You need to read about how Lenin and his Communist party conquered the Russian state, how Stalin manipulated his way to the top, and took absolute authority. He established the state bureaucracy, polices, practices and structures that ruled the USSR until its collapse in the 1990s. He established the state’s international perspectives, especially how it aggressively views the West.
But it’s not just Russia. If you want to understand the right-wing populist movements of today’s modern democracies, and the rise of such figures as Donald Trump and Doug Ford, you also really need to know about how the dictatorships of the 20th century evolved and succeeded. There are similarities in both methods and ideologies. Not least among them is their evident patriarchy and misogyny. In all dictatorships, women took a subservient role. Yes, there are individual exceptions, but by-and-large, women are second-class citizens in these states with limited rights, freedoms and opportunities (look at Alabama – “Talibama” – and Missouri today for examples of how this plays out).
There are caveats in trying to read too much into the past, of course. While there may be similarities, there are also major differences, not least in the use of evolving technologies and communications. But many of the methods the dictators used to claw their way into absolute power are still being applied in modern populist movements. Predominant among them is the Lie. Not so much the Big Lie that focused on one aspect of ideology or society, hammered home continually, but rather a combination of smaller, interlocking lies meant to capture a wider audience and distract anyone from focusing on just one (for example, immigrants are bad, abortion is bad, trade tariffs are good, Democrats or liberals are evil, climate change is a hoax, this person or that is an idiot – all used at once).
Another significant difference, too, is the way the modern populist movements interweave and exploit extreme religious beliefs. In the 1930s, Mussolini declared himself anti-clerical, and both Hitler and Stalin were atheists. While Stalin abolished the church and all religious teaching, Hitler and Mussolini co-opted their national churches into compliance, but never used them as front line proselytes for their views. Compare that with leaders like Trump and Ford, who actively engage with and pander to the most extreme religious groups (despite, in Trump’s case, even bothering to make the slightest show of actually attending a church).
Hitler had his brown shirts, Mussolini had his fascist militia, Stalin his cheka – Trump has his the hate-filled, pseudo-Christian “evangelicals” and white supremacists. The difference is that the brown shirts and that ilk were a state organization, requiring state oversight, money and organization, and a bureaucracy to manage that demanded state resources and time. The evangelicals and neo-Nazis the populists cater to are grass roots mobs that can be unleashed like a virus into the population. They cost the state nothing. If they succeed, the state (leader) takes credit. If they fail, the state can disavow them. But the populist state never suppresses them.*
And even when a state may be nominally secular, it often uses religious or quasi-religious symbols and rituals to instill the same sort of cult-like cooperation and belief into its followers that extreme religious groups have (e.g. Trump rallies, MAGA hats). Mob psychology rules the populist movements: they’re not about thinking or questioning; they’re about obedience and conformity.
In the West, the populist state can exploit the fringe religions through engagement and empowerment. There’s no need for subtleties or subterfuge: the evangelicals’ practices and hatred are useful tools for pushing the state’s agenda and suppressing dissent or even dialogue. These pseudo-Christians justify their repressions, violence, paranoia, racism, misinformation and hatred by referring to an alleged biblical authority, understanding that most of their followers have neither the wit nor the literacy to read and interpret their scriptures for themselves.**
That’s good, as long as the evangelicals hew to the state’s line. The authoritarian state brooks no dissent or questions, even from its most ardent followers. Education in the authoritarian state is designed to further the state’s ideas and ideas, not create thinkers or philosophers. As Stalin himself said:
Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.
However, readers must be cautious not to try to draw direct parallels between, say, Stalin and Trump, despite the similarities. Times have changed, and there are other factors at play. Neither Ontario’s nor America’s governments are the one-party system of Stalin, nor is Ontario’s. There are still checks and balances and the due process of law, despite efforts to thwart them.
Still, as philosopher George Santayana noted,
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
The road to power may have different roads, but in the end, authoritarian states all travel similar paths: repression of rights, suppression of minorities and women, collective xenophobia and paranoia, cultural isolation, and the cult of personality based around an infallible leader. And it’s not simply Putin or Russia where it is happening – those parallels are at work here in the West, right now. We are entering a very dark age for politics and society.***
So it is imperative to understand the past if we are to understand the present and the future it portends. And the only way to do that is to continue to read books about the authoritarians and their political cults, like Kotkin’s trilogy.
* Modern populists also cater to the elite, the rich, the industrialists and the 1% – just as the dictators did, in order to cement their hold on power and garner financial backing. In exchange for their support and money, the elites get tax breaks, anti-labour laws, deregulation, undoing of environmental or social protections, reductions in education, for-profit health care, and increased opportunity to exploit the masses. The Koch brothers are the modern equivalents of the Krupp family in the 1930s. The rich get richer and the poor get higher taxes and lower wages.
** Historically, this is why the pre-Reformation church fought against having the Bible translated into the vernacular: once people began to read it themselves, they could question both the interpretation and the authority claimed from that interpretation. Today, populists like Trump and Fords also work it from another angle: to cut funds for public education and literacy, thus rendering the population unable to read or understand anything that could allow them to question authority.
*** If you think Sharia Law is repressive, just look to America. What is happening in the pseudo-Christian states like Missouri and Alabama, as well as in the White House and among the evangelical politicians in Washington, is equally frightening, and not at all different from Sharia. Little wonder the evangelicals are referred to as the “American Taliban.”
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