Isaac Deutscher 1947

Writing a Biography of Stalin

Source: The Listener, 25 December 1947. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The first problem I have to grapple with as a biographer of Stalin is, of course, the highly controversial character of the hero of my book. Some people would like his portrait to show a man of stainless virtue, while others expect it to show the villain. But this is, after all, not the main difficulty. The chief problem lies elsewhere, in the almost mythological aura that surrounds Stalin. Longer than any other contemporary statesman, for a quarter of a century, he has been at the helm of government. His influence has been ever present in the life of this generation. Yet his figure has been almost as remote from us as that of any mythical being. The whole course of his extraordinary career is surrounded by a haze, sometimes as thick as a fog.

Nearly all the materials for Stalin’s biography are of a polemical nature. Apologists and critics have vied with one another in producing conflicting interpretations and versions of his deeds. Moreover, they have produced different and conflicting sets of facts. The controversy has ranged over all the activities of the man; and it has extended to every detail of his youth and childhood. Stalin himself has not been helpful in clearing away the fog. In this respect he has not followed the example of Oliver Cromwell, with whom he has not a few features in common. Cromwell once told his painter: ‘Paint me as I am. If you leave out the scars and wrinkles, I will not pay you a shilling.’ Stalin’s scars and wrinkles have been painted by his opponents only, and they have often been overdrawn. Incidentally, Stalin’s embarrassing refusal to help his biographers is also characteristic of the man. As one Russian has said: ‘Stalin wears mystery as the Tsars wore purple.’

To the biographer who approaches his topic without any set polemical intention the life of Stalin appears to be an enormous palimpsest with many layers of wax and many scripts superimposed upon one another. On the very top there is the latest official Stalinist script. This must be read and then washed or scraped away. Underneath, there are a few other scripts, each written by an apologist, each written at a different time, in accordance with the complex and changeable demands of ideology and practical politics. You read and wash away all these layers of wax too. Then you come across a completely new text composed in the Trotskyist idiom; and you find various versions of that text too. The latest of those versions is Trotsky’s own biography of Stalin, a book of queer fascination, full of profound insight and blind passion. I shalt not go on describing the whole process of deciphering the palimpsest. But I shall confess that while I am at work I do sometimes feel as if I were a medieval monk, pondering over a fascinating ancient piece of parchment in a strenuous attempt to wrest an important event from age-old oblivion. This is a queer sensation in an age in which we have so many unfailing means for recording human deeds, from shorthand to broadcasting, an age in which it would seem that no deed of a contemporary statesman can possibly escape the historian or the biographer.

The man who will write a biography of Stalin in the year, say, 2000 will certainly have access to materials which are now unknown. But I wonder whether he will be in a much better position than that of his colleague who has tackled the job in 1947. How many documents have disappeared from the archives of the Kremlin? How many have been re-written so as to fit in with the official cult of Stalin? One case in point is Lenin’s so-called Testament, in which Lenin allegedly advised his party to remove Stalin from positions of power. What revelations about the purge trials of the 1930s will the future historian find in the archives, other than those we already know? I am more than a little sceptical about that; but I may, of course, be wrong.

Having told you what are the handicaps of Stalin’s biographer, I may perhaps be allowed to say that by carefully studying, analysing and comparing the conflicting scripts of the palimpsest, one can establish a surprisingly large number of facts which add up to what I believe to be a fairly distinct and coherent picture of Stalin’s personality. This is the rewarding side of my somewhat arduous job, something no biographer of Mr Churchill or Mr Roosevelt can dream of. Apart from this, I have been able to draw on important biographical materials, some of which were not available to other writers. I have in mind, in the first instance, Stalin’s Collected Works, the first edition of which is only now appearing in Russian. Six volumes, each with a detailed biographical chronicle attached to it, have appeared so far. They cover the years from 1901, when Stalin began to propagate socialism in his native Georgian tongue, up to 1924, the year when he virtually succeeded Lenin in power. This is the period which presented the greatest difficulties to other biographers, because most of Stalin’s doings and writings in those years were wrapped in obscurity.

Imprints of Serfdom: I cannot attempt to summarise my book in this brief talk. But I want to tell you about a few of the biographical features that have struck me while I have been working on my book, even though I have closely watched Stalin’s career for more than twenty years.

Stalin is the son of emancipated serfs. The emancipation of the peasants in Georgia, his native land, took place in 1865, only fourteen years before his birth. The customs and habits of the environment in which he grew up bore deep and still fresh imprints of serfdom. This is certainly one of the clues to his character. Remember that in this country serfdom had virtually withered away by the end of the fourteenth century. By British standards, Stalin ought to be regarded as a man in whom the fourteenth and the twentieth centuries have met, socially, politically and psychologically. In this respect he has, more than any other Russian leader, been representative of the social outlook of Russia, in which the two centuries did coexist side by side until recently. This was certainly one of the chief reasons why he was so successful in the struggle against so many rivals and also why his deeds so often appear to us to be so incomprehensible.

He spent his formative years, from fifteen to twenty, at the theological seminary of Tiflis, as a student of divinity. Long after he had become a confirmed atheist, the theological influence on his mind was still overwhelming. It still is. It was that influence that in a sense predestined him to introduce the dogmatic, quasi-theological element into socialism. While he was studying divinity he became a revolutionary. I have been lucky to come across a complete dossier of the Tsarist political police, describing the political atmosphere in that seminary over a good many years. The dossier was published by the Transcaucasian Communist University in 1930; but it has remained almost unknown. It contains a full confidential report on a political revolt of the students of the seminary which took place just before Stalin’s entry. The students staged a strike, demanding that they be taught Georgian literature – this was a Georgian challenge to the Russian authorities – and that several unpopular tutors be removed from the seminary. Teaching was suspended, police occupied the students’ living quarters and the lecture halls. Eighty-seven undergraduates were expelled from the seminary altogether. Among the organisers of the demonstration was a certain Mikhail Tskhakaya who later became a friend of Lenin and a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The seminary was famous for the rebellious mood of its pupils, which at first expressed itself in Georgian patriotism, directed against the Russians, and then simply in socialism. I found in the reports of General Yankovsky, the head of the police at Tiflis, a most valuable glimpse of a spiritual ferment which could not but affect the young Stalin.

Stalin’s own writings, dating from the first years of this century, reveal an astonishingly mature personality in the youth of twenty-two and twenty-three. What I mean is maturity in a relative sense. Stalin’s subsequent political evolution and his rise to dizzy heights have not been accompanied by any comparable spiritual and intellectual evolution. In his forties and fifties he is still intellectually what he was in his twenties. Or put it if you like in another way: in his twenties he already is intellectually almost the same man that he would be in his forties or fifties. In his first essays written for the clandestine Georgian paper Brdzola (Brdzola means struggle) one finds already almost the same range of ideas, the same method of exposition, the same style that would be characteristic for Stalin even thirty years later. From his earliest youth he really did move within the orbit of Lenin’s political influence, though some of the sophisticated profounder aspects of Leninism eluded him. The suggestion of some biographers that Stalin was at first a Menshevik, an opponent of Bolshevism, is in my view not borne out by the facts. It is also interesting to note how early his violent emotional antagonism to Trotsky developed. Already in 1907 he described his future rival as ‘beautifully useless’. In 1912 he labelled him ‘the champion with faked muscles’. What illuminating pointers to the future feud!

The crucial question in Stalin’s biography is his rise to power. Roughly speaking, two explanations of it have so far been advanced. One portrays Stalin as Lenin’s second-in-command throughout the revolution and makes his rise appear as a natural consequence of his position under Lenin. In the other version Stalin is seen as an obscure personality, devoid of influence, until Lenin’s death and then ‘usurping’ absolute power. Both versions appear to me to be equally unsatisfactory. It is a fact that Trotsky, not Stalin, was in a sense Lenin’s second-in-command in the early years of the revolution. On the other hand, after Lenin’s death Stalin did not spring to the top like a deus ex machina. He was an eminence grise under Lenin, already wielding enormous power, but still almost unknown to the world. The contradiction between the power he wielded and his relative obscurity produced in him an emotional strain, a craving for popular adoration which was stilled only many years after Lenin’s death, when he himself became the object of a cult rarely accorded to any human being.

Dual Character: I cannot discuss here the later stages of Stalin’s career, when the imprint of his personality already lay on every aspect of Russian life: his role in the Five-Year Plans, in the purge trials, in the whole remaking of Russia according to his ideas, in the late war or in the making of the peace. In these chapters his biography is almost as broad in scope as the recent history of Russia, with all its glories and miseries.

Some of you may perhaps ask for the political moral of my book. I could hardly sum it up better than in Macaulay’s words on the Cromwellian revolution. In one of his essays, Macaulay recalls the:

... pretty story of a fairy, who by some mysterious law of her nature, was condemned to appear at certain seasons in the form of a foul and poisonous snake. Those who injured her during the period of her disguise were for ever excluded from participation in the blessings which she bestowed. But to those, who, in spite of her loathsome aspect, pitied and protected her, she afterwards revealed herself in the beautiful form which was natural to her... Such a spirit is Liberty. At times she takes the form of a hateful reptile. She growls, she hisses, she stings. But woe to those who in disgust shall venture to crush her! And happy are those who, having dared to receive her in her degraded and frightful shape, shall at length be rewarded by her in the time of her beauty and her glory!

Nobody has personified the spirit of the Russian revolution in this its dual character more fully than Stalin.