Saturday, September 8, 2018

A shallow analysis

"Joseph Stalin: Red Terror" is a documentary about the Soviet dictator first aired in 1996. It features interviews with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, future U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, author Robert Conquest, Stalin's interpreter Valentin Berezhkov and Stalin's grandson (!) Yevgeny Dzugashvili.

Despite all these luminaries, I admit that I didn't like the documentary.

Of course, it's difficult to make an "objective" assessment of a mass murderer like Joseph Stalin, but I nevertheless regard the analysis in this production as extremely shallow. For the umpteenth time, Stalin is portrayed as a paranoid power-hungry megalomaniac with a very long memory, as if this could explain his actions all by itself. Both the Great Purges, the elimination of the top military brass and the attempted purge of the "Jewish doctors" are given purely psychological explanations. Yet, the narrator is forced to concede that Stalin could learn from his mistakes, as when he delegated direct power of military operations during World War II to his generals, rather than directing the troops himself (which had been an unmitigated disaster). This shows that Stalin, of course, *wasn't* barking mad on a purely personal level. The Great Purges and other depredations may or may not have interacted with Stalin's personal demons, but at bottom, they were products of the logic of the system itself and can be given material explanations.

The analysis of Stalin's rise to power during the 1920's is also shallow: Stalin's opponents fought among themselves and didn't understand that Uncle Joe was plucking them one by one. In reality, the factions in the Communist Party had strikingly different policies on a long range of issues. The conflicts between Bukharin, Trotsky and Stalin weren't simply personality clashes. Once again, real material interests were involved. Stalin most directly represented the interests of the bureaucratic apparatus. When the kulaks attempted to undermine Soviet power by withholding grain, the only way for the bureaucratic apparatus to survive was to exterminate the kulaks and forcibly collectivize all of the countryside. When Bukharin and his faction temporized, Stalin and his faction *had* to break with them. This also explains the seemingly curious fact that both Bukharin and most of the Trotskyist leaders surrendered to Stalin once the collectivization and industrialization was underway. They all belonged to the same bureaucratic apparatus, after all. However, in the documentary the whole thing is portrayed as a purely personal failure of Stalin's opponents: "They fought among themselves", "They didn't know he was going to kill them", etc. Ever the cynical pragmatist, I'm pretty sure Stalin himself didn't know in 1928 that he was going to kill his old comrades in 1936-38!

On one point, "Joseph Stalin: Red Terror" distorts the truth. Unsurprisingly, the issue in question is the Hitler-Stalin pact, portrayed as "the better bet" than an alliance with the Western democracies, and partly as the result of Stalin's personal admiration of the Führer. In reality, Stalin's strategy was to ally with the West *against* Hitler. It was the Western policy of pro-Nazi appeasement that eventually forced Stalin to sign the greatest Machiavellian alliance of all times. Thus, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the result of the West having rebuffed Stalin, presumably hoping that Hitler would only attack the Soviet Union. By signing the agreement, Stalin temporarily directed the brown tide in the other direction... The narrator says that Stalin "wisely teamed up with the Allies" after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, as if this hadn't been his original plan. A better description would be that FDR and Churchill "wisely teamed up with Stalin"...

It seems Chamberlain and Daladier have been consigned to an Orwellian "memory hole" by certain people. How ironic.

On one point, I unfortunately think that the producers are right. They imply at several points that Stalinism or Communism had a kind of popular support, and that there is a strong nostalgia for Stalin in modern Russia (as already mentioned, the documentary is dated 1996). "Popular support" is always a relative term, certainly in nations without free elections, but the remarkably large support for the Communist Party in Russia even after the fall of Communism, shows that this analysis wasn't far off the mark. In the Soviet Union, Communism was probably identified (at least since the mid-1930's) with Greater Russian nationalism, endearing it to many Russians (non-Russians had somewhat different ideas about it). In the documentary, the role of Stalin's best defender goes to his very own grandson Yevgeny, who believes that his grandfather made Russia strong, prosperous and respected.

That being said, I will only give "Joseph Stalin: Red Terror" two stars.

Let the attacks begin...

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