Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.4 (2002) 699-714
[Access article in PDF]
Stalin as Writer and Thinker
Erik van Ree
Mikhail Vaiskopf, Pisatel' Stalin. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2002. 380 pp. ISBN 5-86793-167-6.
Valerii Aleksandrovich Torchinov and Aleksei Mikhailovich Leontiuk, Vokrug Stalina: Istoriko-biograficheskii spravochnik. St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul'tet Sankt-Peterburgskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 2000. 606 pp. ISBN 5-8465-0005-6.
Konstantin Aleksandrovich Zalesskii, Imperiia Stalina: Biograficheskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar'. Moscow: Veche, 2000. 605 pp. ISBN 5-7838-0716-8.
Mikhail Vaiskopf's Pisatel' Stalin is a pathbreaking study, though no easy nut to crack. The Israeli Slavicist, author of books on Gogol' and Maiakovskii, treats Stalin's style of writing and the structure of his thought. The baroque style of the book does not contribute to its readability. Vaiskopf should have presented his arguments in a less esoteric and more systematic way, avoiding the twists and turns which at times make the book hard to follow. As it now stands, it is to be feared that even in an English translation its audience will remain limited.
This said, the book is extraordinarily rich and sets Stalin's thinking in a new light. For his sources, Vaiskopf relies almost exclusively on the Sochineniia. Other material is discussed only sporadically. In itself this is unfortunate. But the author argues that for his purposes the Sochineniia will do, which seems true enough. An enormous number of new "Stalin works" (speeches, letters, transcripts of discussions, etc.) have been published during the past decade, but important though they are, they will not make much difference when it comes to the topic treated by Vaiskopf.1
The author takes issue with Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov, who characterizes the leader's intellectual style as one-dimensional. Its secret lay, on the contrary, precisely in an "ambivalent shifting of the finest nuances" (80).This is not to deny that the Soviet leader was a demagogue; but there was, as it were, depth and method in his crazy sophisms. Pisatel' Stalin further makes a fresh analysis of the Orthodox influence on Stalinism. Finally, it treats the system of metaphors [End Page 699] used by the dictator, in which epic-mythological and biological-organic themes predominate. Vaiskopf identifies ancient Georgian and North Caucasian epics as the source of these themes.
Vaiskopf's originality lies, first of all, in taking Stalin's sophistry seriously and laying it out before us. The leader's system rests on absolutes, which are unconditionally correct or incorrect. He refers to them with terms like the "source," the "basis" (osnova), the "root," or the "ground" (pochva). Leninism is, for example, an unquestionable source of truth, and lack of faith in the proletariat is an equally unconditional source of error. On this basis Stalin erects tautological constructions, in which he proves something by taking it for granted. "Is this definition correct? I think it is correct ... because it correctly points to ..." Or: "That in life which is being born and grows from day to day is insurmountable.... Why? Because it grows."
As a counterpoint to these closed schemes, Stalin's own concepts were "super-elastic" (80f.). He kept them deliberately vague so as to preserve a maximum freedom of maneuver. His definitions were so encompassing as to include the way a thing behaves. It could therefore be proved that something has acted in a certain way simply by spelling out its definition. Conversely, if a thing did not behave as it should, it was no longer that thing. If a communist party - Josip Broz Tito's, for example - was taken over by enemies, it ceased to be a communist party. Stalin denied that Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great had been industrializers: "Not every kind of industrial development is industrialization." The wrong kind is no industrialization. Stalin was in the odd habit of putting words such as "work" and "theory" in quotation marks if they referred to the activities of opponents.
Vaiskopf lists the main argumentative constructions used by Stalin. His typical approach was "cumulative" (57, 98f., 310f.) through "hyperbolic criminalization" (94...