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Sunday Read: Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives

Discovering the New RussiaStalin Steamboater“Moral sordor” is the term that perhaps best describes the outcome of the revolutionary Iosif Dzhugashvili’s transformation into history’s man of granite, Josef Stalin. It was coined by Martin Amis and deployed in his brilliant book on the 20th century’s top practitioner of “negative perfection” (another phrase of his), Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million.

Stalin is good for wintry, bracing reads – cheek-stingers that remind you that you’re alive. Now we have another one on Uncle Joe, Jonathan Brent’s Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia, which looks a real treat. BOOK SA has dug up an excerpt and a podcast with the author for your Sunday Read – but we start with an excellent review, that has something of the flavour of The Master of Petersburg about it, to whet your appetite:

As he wanders through the streets of St. Petersburg contemplating murder, the hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment notices “that special Petersburg stench” which seems to be everywhere. Somehow, that stench constitutes the atmosphere in which lethal and repulsive ideas arise.

When Jonathan Brent arrived in Moscow, he detected the same stench. It was 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Brent seized a unique opportunity that, if not for him, would doubtless have been missed. He came to negotiate a deal to publish sensitive and secret documents from the Central Party Archives. But despite the new openness, the old Russian smell, or spirit—the Russian word dukh means both—persisted. Brent noticed “the smell of Moscow—flat, unwashed, sour—an accumulation of fifty years without sunlight or cleansing breeze, as if inhering in the things themselves.” The odor differed from the stink of garbage or stale apartment-building air in New York because it had no specific source. On the contrary, it seemed to be there all on its own, not like the smell of rotting objects in the refrigerator, but, rather, the smell of the refrigerator itself.

Excerpt: Inside the Stalin Archives


I threw myself at the hangman’s feet,
You are my son, my horror.
Everything’s mixed up for me forever,
And who is a man and who a beast
Will never now be clear . . .
—Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, 1937

At the funeral of Josef Stalin on March 9, 1953, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s comrade since the revolution, bid farewell to his beloved vozhd, his leader, with the words: “The immortal name of Stalin will always live in our hearts, in the hearts of the Soviet people and of all progressive humanity.” Even though Stalin had imprisoned Molotov’s wife in 1949 and sent her into exile; even though Molotov had seen many signs that he himself was out of favor with the master and in imminent danger of being purged and possibly executed, his complete devotion to Stalin never wavered to the end of his long life in 1986.

Molotov was not alone. Two days later, on March 11, Ilya Ehrenburg, the Jewish journalist and writer who found himself on the verge of arrest many times in the 1930s, wrote in Pravda:

These words of Stalin were uttered at his grave: “We are the true servants of the people, and the people want peace and hate war. Yes, all of us are dedicated to the desire of the people not to allow the spilling of blood of millions and to safeguard the peaceful structure of a happy life.” These were the thoughts of Comrade Stalin, his care, his will…. These words touch every simple person and together with us they say: “Stalin lives.”

Podcast with Jonathan Brent

Book Details

Image courtesy the New York Times.

Remember, kids, without Lenin there would have been no Stalin.


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