Dictators come in many forms. Some are religious maniacs, and some total cynics; some are mama’s boys with a lust to dominate, and some are compelled by a higher cause or mission; some wish to be worshiped as gods, some just want to be feared, and most are probably a mixture of all these things. But they all have one quality in common: striving for absolute power consigns them to a world of lies. And one is tempted to assume that if a dictator such as, say, Mao Zedong really believed his own press—that he was the greatest genius who ever lived, the greatest statesman, general, scientist, poet, or whatnot—he would surely be a madman.
The Great Leader Kim Il Sung fashioned a kind of dictator’s heaven (or hell), where his face was virtually the only image shown in public, and politics, arts, and science were distilled into a collection of books under his name. His life story, almost entirely mythical, became the subject of a sacred cult. If he thought all this was nothing but a ghastly hoax played on his subjects, his cynicism would have been so boundless as to constitute a form of madness too. And yet to assume that these monsters are mad is usually a mistake. It is to underrate the cruel lucidity of their will to power.
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was not a madman. But his true nature remains hard to pin down. He was a cynic, yet also a believer. He would betray any promise, any ideal, any moral or political principle, or anybody, even members of his own family, to maintain his grip on power, yet he also seems to have been driven by a quasi-religious millenarian zeal. According to Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador in Washington and later Leonid Brezhnev’s foreign minister, Stalin only occasionally gave “way to positive human emotions.” Yet he could be a man of great charm, and had a sentimental streak. It was not always easy for him to sentence an old friend to death, but alas it had to be done. The cause was greater than any human feeling.
So who was this man, who consigned tens of millions—including some of his closest comrades—to horrible deaths with a mere gesture to the minions who carried out the slaughter? Many books have been written on this question, and we still don’t really know. Robert Conquest, whose classic The Great Terror is still one of the best books on the subject, describes the Vozhd (Leader) as a kind of capo di tutti capi, the boss of a huge crime syndicate. He compares Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s hanging judge, to a “gangland lawyer,”1 and likens the Soviet Communist Party to cosa nostra. He cites with approval the verdict of the Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas:
All in all, Stalin was a monster who, while adhering to abstract, absolute and fundamentally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success—and this meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination.…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.