06 June, 2005

Trial and death of Stalin, pt. 1 (of 1, maybe 2 or 3)

Perhaps... we are an untouchable or privileged caste? ...You pretend to apply our morality to others, while to yourselves you would like to apply instead the obscurantist principle: "It is illicit to murder your brother!" Why is it illicit? Who says so? God says it: are you aware of this, or not? Do you, of all people, want to return to God's yoke, you? modern, free men?
In the West, the common explanation that such an immense number of people were executed, starved, or sentenced to murderous work (literally murderous) in the gulags during Stalin's leadership of the Soviet Union, is that he was insane. Western Communists themselves bend over backwards to say that Stalin was an aberration, a man who abused the noble ideas of communism.

Eugenio Corti is having none of this. Nosiree! As Corti sees it, not only was Stalin sane; he was one of the the few true believers in Communism. The true problem, Corti argues, was not Stalin's ego; the true problem is with one of the fundamental assumptions of Communism itself: the notion that man can be scientifically remade, just as water can be frozen into ice. To support this notion, Corti cites Marx and Lenin themselves.

Stalin, you see, was a true believer. Stalin was simply following the logical chain.

This is the theme of Corti's 1962 play, Trial and Death of Stalin: that Stalin, unlike many other Communists, genuinely believed that the earthly paradise could be brought about. The reason it had not yet appeared in the Soviet Union was that its citizens had not been sufficiently purified. Inspired by Lenin's belief that the birth pangs of the earthly paradise would increase as its realization drew nearer, Stalin sought simply to protect the workers from their enemies... preemptively:
But in the same way that the revolutionaries produced a second revolution at Kronstad, why could they not produce a third, if I let them? And perhaps a fourth, and a fifth? And according to you, I should have waited for this, before I repressed it?
The book's historical conceit is that the leaders of the Communist party effected a coup on the last day of Stalin's life: Beria, Bulganin, Krushchev, Mikoyan, Molotov, Malenkov, Voroshilov. Aware that Stalin was about to begin another great purge, and that they were likely to be among the victims, they turned the tables and arrested him as an enemy of communism. The drama of the play takes place in Stalin's dacha, on the last day of his life.

The reader must remember that Corti is not writing this discussion as a representation of a historical event; rather, he writes it as a dialogue between idealistic communism (Stalin) and dissembling communism (his accusers). While Corti does present the Politburo as the dissemblers, he means instead to indict the "soft" Communism of the West, whose adherents spent 20 years denying the rumors of repression and massacres like the famine of the early 1930s, then changing their tune during Krushchev's de-Stalinization program. Corti is declaring, insisting, and repeating, that Communism itself is un-scientific, un-realistic, and anti-human:
In practice, to eliminate evil from their society, they found themselves constrained to eliminate man himself.
A devout Catholic, Corti claims moreover that the only logical conclusion of Stalin's regime is that Catholicism is correct: man, infected by original sin, cannot bring about paradise on earth, and certainly cannot bring about any paradise without God.

The difference between Stalin and the rest, Corti argues, is that Stalin genuinely believed that he, the lone true remaining believer, could effect this change in human nature. The others, having seen the abyss from its brink, wish to flee it. — All of them, that is, except Krushchev, whom Stalin calls the only true believer left among the conspirators: he alone still believes in Communism, and believes that Stalin has taken things too far.

Returning to the play's indictment: most Western Communists, especially in Corti's native Italy, dismissed Stalin's purges (after his death, remember) as a result of Stalin's "cult of personality." Not so, argues Corti: besides the fact that Stalin's own kin either suffered execution or committed suicide,
[The notion that these massacres can be attributed to Stalin's "cult of personality"] is a contradiction: what advantage could ever come to his "cult" from a similar extermination of men faithful to him, who supported him, exalted him, and who, as continues to be repeated, "never thought of betraying him"?
It is here, I think, where Corti is both weakest and strongest. First, the evidence of Stalin's encouraging "cult of personality" is rather overwhelming: there was no need otherwise for so many giant images of Stalin, for so many cities to be renamed after him, or even for his name to be inserted into the national hymn.

On the other hand, Corti's assault on "soft" Communism is convincing: by placing their words in the mouths of the Politburo, Corti shows how Western Communists were neither offended nor outraged that Stalin ordered the deaths of millions of human beings; rather, they are offended that Stalin ordered the deaths of millions of "faithful Communists". I have never seen this astonishing double standard laid out so clearly as Corti does in his play, repeatedly (with copious footnotes documenting the writing of Western Communists). This double standard brings us full circle, to the quote with which I began this entry, placed in Stalin's mouth, an accusation he turns against his accusers: Perhaps... we are an untouchable or privileged caste?

The current edition of the book published in Italy contains three parts. The first part is the play proper. The second and third parts are two series of essays, titled, The Communist Experiment's Cost to Humanity, and Western Culture's Responsibility in the Great Massacres of Our Century. If I think it worthwhile, I will write briefly on these other two parts, but they seem mostly to be scholarship supporting the argument of the play.

I have yet to find an English-language edition of this text.

A few final notes of trivia.

You may have heard Eugenio Corti's name before, especially if you receive catalogs from Ignatius Press. Corti is well-known for his works Most will not return and The Red Horse. The one is a memoir of the Italian army's disastrous retreat from Russia. Originally published in 1947, it continues to be published in Italy. The second is a semi-autobiographical, historical novel of Italy's changing culture from 1940 through the late 1970s. I wrote an essay after reading it, back in my pre-blogging days.

I have also read Corti's follow-up to Most Will Not Return: The Last Soldiers of the King.

For reasons I will not explain (for matters of personal pride), I consider Corti's writing to be as powerful as Dostoevsky's. Corti has named Dostoevsky as one of his great influences, but he is by no means a copycat.

I wrote above that the dramatic setting of a Politburo conspiracy against Stalin is a "conceit" of Corti's drama. Astonishingly, this "conceit" that Corti postulated in 1962 may have a historical basis, based on documents released more than a decade later.

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