The only people who cared about literature were the KGB

Cornell historian Holly Case has a fascinating piece in The Chronicle Review on Stalin as editor. Reminds me of that George Steiner line that the only people in the 20th century who cared about literature were the KGB.

Here are some excerpts. But read the whole thing.

Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily, Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili’s editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda.

Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched “for traces of those horrible things in the book.” He found none. What he saw instead was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”

Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.

For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”).

The Stanford historian Norman Naimark describes the marks left by Stalin’s pencil as “greasy” and “thick and pasty.” He notes that Stalin edited “virtually every internal document of importance,” and the scope of what he considered internal and important was very broad. Editing a biologist’s speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin used an array of colored pencils—red, green, blue—to strip the talk of references to “Soviet” science and “bourgeois” philosophy. He also crossed out an entire page on how science is “class-oriented by its very nature” and wrote in the margin “Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?”

But Stalin was still not satisfied. In the next round of substantial edits, he used his blue pencil to mute the conspiracy he had previously pushed the authors to amplify (italics indicate an insertion):

The Soviet people unanimously approved the court’s verdict—the verdict of the people annihilation of the Bukharin-Trotsky gang and passed on to next business. The Soviet land was thus purged of a dangerous gang of heinous and insidious enemies of the people, whose monstrous villainies surpassed all of the darkest crimes and most vile treason of all times and all peoples.



  1. Yastreblyansky (@Yastreblyansky) October 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm | #

    Entranced by the idea of Stalin as editor alongside Hitler as filmmaker (as in the famous Syberberg Hitler movie) as a way of explaining what he was trying to accomplish.

  2. Roquentin October 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm | #

    I read this biography of Stalin by a man named Radzinsky:–depth-Biography-Explosive-ebook/dp/B003F3PMNO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381166322&sr=8-1&keywords=radzinsky

    It’s written at times to almost be like tabloid account of his life, cataloging the salacious rumors about him and comparing them to what he found in the Soviet archives. I couldn’t put it down. I started it on the way home from the store and didn’t stop until I had finished a couple weeks later.

    What it captured, if memory serves me correctly, was just how adept Stalin was at playing both sides of a issue whenever it suited him politically. There are references to chess and lots of stories which make him seem ruthlessly Machiavellian in his actions. It’s also worth noting that most (especially older, Great Patriotic War generation) Russians have a considerably different perception of Stalin than we have in the West. During the brief time I was there I noticed most parks were either dedicated to beating Napoleon or driving out the fascists. The two events are considered in much the same light there. It’s also easy to forget in 2013 just how little the West cared about Operation Barbarossa, just long they waited to do anything about it. It’s a complex issue and I don’t want to oversimplify it, but these things make him more palatable to people living there past and present.

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