Stalin and Absolute Power

On a cold morning in December 1878, in the Georgian village of Gori, Ekaterine Geladze gave birth to her third son— a child whose fragility would bring back all the pain she had suffered with her other two children, who died shortly after birth. But Joseph did not die in the following months. Not even when his father, Besarion Jughashvili, a shoemaker by trade and a terrible alcoholic, began to beat them, both mother and son. According to his childhood friends, those beatings led him to despise any and all authority figures and obsess over being the authority himself.

Besarion had not always been a violent drunk: He started hitting the bottle after the death of his first son. And those drunken episodes, which never subsided, not only prevented him from enjoying the son who survived: they led him to mistreat the boy, to bury his pain in violence. Joseph, on the other hand, grew up sad, with a cold heart like his father's. The seed of psychopathy was planted…

And he never grew particularly fond of his mother, who always hoped he would become a priest. Joseph, who always resented that wish, did not even attend her funeral years later. It had all the makings of a real cinematic drama, but such was the childhood of Lenin's successor; the childhood of someone who committed one of the largest genocides of all time, but also one of the greatest experts in the use of power. He managed to defeat Hitler and unite his people to fight against the greatest war machine of the 20th century.

Joseph Stalin would become the most powerful man in Russia on April 3, 1922, when he was appointed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The parallel power to the government that is still seen with dictatorships such as Iran's. Lenin had turned that position into a bastion of absolute power, without realizing, perhaps, that one day someone other than himself would occupy it. It was too late by the time he realized the mistake he had made, but in the 12th Congress of the Bolshevik Party he tried to remedy it by writing these provisions to be read to the plenary:

"Stalin is too crude, and this defect which is entirely acceptable in our milieu and in relationships among us as communists, becomes unacceptable in the position of General Secretary. I therefore propose to comrades that they should devise a means of removing him from this job and should appoint to this job someone else who is distinguished from comrade Stalin in all other respects only by the single superior aspect that he should be more tolerant, more polite and more attentive towards comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split and from the standpoint of what I wrote above about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky it is not a [minor] detail, but it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.[1]"

Lenin, January 4, 1923

 But the one in charge of preparing the documentation for the congress was none other than Stalin, who hid the letter from an agonizing Lenin who would not attend the assembly in person. Following Lenin's death, all of Stalin's moves reflected a clairvoyance in the use of power without comparison, devoid of any semblance of loyalty or honesty: he tricked Trotsky into missing Lenin's funeral, and presented himself as the successor to the great communist leader, eventually forcing his main rival into exile. The exploits of a psychopath without scruples.

He certainly had no qualms about betraying his collaborators. On the outside he was a paradigm of apparent kindness, with the coldest detachment from any affection on the inside. This is what allowed him to sacrifice friends and even relatives: his son would die in a German prison camp when Stalin refused to exchange him for a German field marshal named Paulus. The way he saw it, a marshal was worth more than a lieutenant—even if the lieutenant was his own son.

The two troikas or triumvirates he formed also showcase his skillfulness: First he formed an alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky. Then, when Trotsky went into exile, Stalin formed another troika, with Rykov and Bukharin, which ended up expelling his two ex-conspirators from the party; they had joined forces with Lenin's widow in a failed attempt to overthrow Stalin.

Thus, Stalin continued resorting to triumvirates and backstabbing (or hammering, in the case of Trotsky), until the famine in Ukraine sparked the first voices of protest. The five-year plans for industrialization that Stalin had instituted to replace the open-market policies promoted by Lenin, despite fulfilling their objective, set off a humanitarian catastrophe in the Ukrainian communal fields. To buy machinery, Stalin sold all the agricultural grain as exports, allowing those who it had fed up until then to starve to death. An estimated five million people died in the 1930s because of the catastrophic effects of his plans for the country.

The death toll would climb even higher with the Great Purge of the 1930s, which chopped down all government agencies. Millions of adversaries or alleged anti-Stalinist conspirators would be executed, tortured or deported to Siberia, in order to ensure the absolute power of Stalin. The revolution that was to bring paradise to the proletariat had become a living hell, and he did not even try to conceal that reality.

But in the midst of this bloodbath, the most dramatic event of the already terrifying 20th century would make Stalin a hero: the outbreak of World War II. It was not merely good luck—it was another great example of how he exercised power. Stalin used Hitler as a puppet to start a war that would serve his interests all too well. Thanks to Operation Barbarossa, his people no longer looked toward the Kremlin for someone to blame: now they had a common enemy to fight against. And Stalin, who knew how to get the country to rally around him, would become the leader who defeated Hitler and conquered Berlin.

Centuries after Machiavelli carved out the mold of the absolute monarch, the unloved son of a Georgian shoemaker embodied him as few had up to that point. And he did so, quite paradoxically, in the name of the proletariat. He stayed in power for the remainder of his days, despite the Cold War and the purges he continued to perpetrate... or perhaps precisely because of them. The biggest surprise is that the first person to do justice by posthumously condemning him was his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated the de-Stalinization of Russia. Stalin's reign of terror would not survive his death, which came on March 5, 1953. But the immeasurable damage to the Russian people was already done.

The lessons we can draw from Stalin's life read as a handbook on political cynicism and sociopathy:

  • A tormented past and an unhappy, miserable childhood can lay the foundation for a cynical attitude toward the world and life itself.
  • Anyone who has not perceived their true value will easily learn to identify it with a golden calf; in the case of Stalin, it was power.
  • Never knowing affection can lead people to build a wall of cynicism and utilitarianism around them: this is effective for rising to power, but devastating for those around the sociopath.
  • The evil that can be unleashed by an unscrupulous tyrant is boundless.

[1] Letter to the Party Congress, January 1923.