Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

The Soviet Union, Aaron Lake Smith reminds us, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors:

In other words, a nightmare. Pamphleteers, autodidactic theoreticians, critics, publishers of small journals, hot-­take artists, takedown artists, and failed poets who’d reinvented themselves as labor organizers — fractious and at constant war with one another, literary people through and through.

If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time. They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company.

When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the office from on high, he leverages this personal relationship and increases his authority within the organization. It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik hierarchy happened. We’ve all seen this person before. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over. But really, who better understands the day-­to-­day functioning of the organization, who better to be in charge?

Stalin was a consummate editor. He seemed to understand that the role was to sublimate ego in order to shape the world quietly in the background. Good editors know how to render themselves invisible. Stalin’s blue pencil, unlike that of other editors, glided across not just poetry chapbooks and literary journals but life itself. “Fool,” “bastard,” “scoundrel,” he wrote in the margins of Andrei Platonov’s 1931 novella, Profit, destroying Platonov’s career. “Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive,” he scrawled on a male nude drawing that reminded him of Karl Radek, an editor and strategist of the October Revolution whose death he had ordered years earlier. “You need to work, not masturbate,” he wrote on another. The combination of editorial influence with the power of life and death itself resulted in absurd, nearly un­believable situations — such as when Stalin’s old friend and comrade Nikolai Bukharin wrote him from the prison cell Stalin had put him in, begging his inquisitor for a preface to what would be his last book. “I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear… this is completely apart from my personal fateHave pity! Not on me, on the work!

Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent. “Stalin has a very particular attitude toward me,” the great Soviet writer Vasily Grossman told his daughter. “He does not send me to the camps, but he never awards me prizes.” Several times anticipated to win the prestigious Stalin Prize for his celebrated novels — in one instance, having planned the victory party, à la ­Hillary at the Javits Center — at the last minute Grossman found his name mysteriously removed from the list each time.

Today Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. The kaleidoscopic thousand-­page book, which follows the middle-­class Shaposhnikov family through the Second World War, is an indictment of ideological zealotry and a stark account of the horrors of Stalinism. The narrative ranges from the Great Terror to the gulag, the German camps, and Stalin’s late anti-­Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, slowly building the sense that, in their lack of humanity, the Soviet and Nazi regimes became mirror images of each other. “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?” Grossman asks at a pivotal moment. “The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.” The book was considered so dangerous that all known copies of the text were “arrested” and suppressed by the KGB in 1961, an experience that broke Grossman physically and spiritually. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” he said. After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in 1980, only appearing in Russia during the glasnost.


  1. TRX says:

    Lenin and Stalin were newspapermen. So was Mussolini. Hitler owned a newspaper. Churchill supported himself as a newspaper stringer for decades. Roosevelt was once editor of Harvard’s school paper and wrote for various newspapers later.

    In their day, it was the most effective and efficient way to reach their audience.

  2. Faze says:

    That means that the next totalitarian dictator is probably writing and editing on the internet this very moment. Probably on a blog. Who is this future monster, now simply running a website, who’s merest whim will someday rule over the lives and fates of millions? Perhaps … it will be … Isegoria … himself.

  3. Kirk says:

    Y’know… I was actually thinking along the same lines Faze is, absent it being Isegoria himself. Then, after consideration, I decided that it’s not at all the same.

    Your most likely Stalin or Mussolini isn’t the guy writing the blogs. It’s the asshole like Zuckerf**k, who’s writing the algorithms that serve the stories up. You want to know the most likely candidates for the next series of totalitarian dictators, look among the ranks of the folks running FakeBuch, or Gaagle. Not naming names because like with so many prescient magic tropes, to name them is to call them up.

    Newspapers and writing are both dead media, insofar as totalitarian takeover tools. The real worries you should have are the insidious ones who control the algorithms. It’s quite as if you should have been concerned, back in the day, about who was making the newsprint. Now, because of how they can influence things by inclusion or exclusion in search results, they can control the entire set of arguments about a given case. All they need to do is to either highlight specific things, or ignore others.

    The real deal with the media in the past hasn’t been that they were censored or controlled, per se–It was what they chose to highlight vs. what they chose to omit coverage of. That used to be the purview of the editors, but that power is now reposed in the hands of the ones running the search tools.

    We’re entering into a new era of totalitarian information control, and it’s one that you ought to be scared witless of. It’s not what books they’re burning, but the ones they’re de-accessioning and pulping. Our era is going to be remembered as the beginning of a digital dark age, and you can thank all the Zuckerdroids and Brinbots for all of it. A thousand years from now, the only voices from this era that anyone will know will be those of the sanctified SJW types, if the crooked bastards have anything to say about it.

  4. CVLR says:

    Coupl’a things:

    1) LOL.

    2) Per Kirk, in the final fleeting moments before the Fucking Algorithmic Globalist Scum complete their ascension to absolute world order, compile lists of worthy works, collect digital copies from and LibGen, OCR them, print in paper books (multiple copies), and hoard.

    Richard Stallman’s hysterics are getting less and less funny with each passing day.

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