Stalin’s Library.

Amelia Gentleman (a striking surname I hadn’t run across before) reviews Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, by Geoffrey Roberts:

Stalin was a voracious reader, who set himself a daily quota of between 300 and 500 pages. When he died of a stroke in his library in 1953, the desk and tables that surrounded him were piled high with books, many of them heavily marked with his handwriting in the margins.

As he read, he made notes in red, blue and green pencils, underlining sections that interested him or numbering points that he felt were important. Sometimes he was effusive, noting: “yes-yes”, “agreed”, ‘“good”, “spot on”, “that’s right”. Sometimes he expressed disdain, scribbling: “ha ha”, “gibberish”, ‘“nonsense”, “rubbish”, “scumbag”, “scoundrels” and “piss off”. He became extremely irritated whenever he came across grammatical or spelling mistakes, and would correct errors with his red pencil.

During his life he amassed a personal library estimated at about 20,000 books, but he also read widely from the collections of friends. The Soviet poet Demyan Bedny complained that Stalin left greasy fingermarks on the books he borrowed. After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, plans to preserve the library in his dacha were abandoned and his books (which included volumes on child psychology, sport, religion, syphilis and hypnosis as well as works by Turgenev and Dostoevsky) were dispersed, so it has become challenging to make an exhaustive study of what he enjoyed reading. […]

In the abstract, Stalin admired writers, telling the Soviet writers’ congress in 1934 that while civil engineers were needed to build socialism, the country also required “engineers of the human soul, writer engineers, building the human spirit”. He insisted that his family and colleagues should be equally well read. He gave his adopted son a copy of Robinson Crusoe, inscribing it with “the wish that he grows up to be a conscious, steadfast and fearless Bolshevik”. He gave his daughter a Short Course History of the Communist Party, commanding her to read it. Svetlana said she never bothered because “It bored me so.” (She later defected to the west). Sergo Beria, the son of Stalin’s security commissar Lavrenty Beria, claimed that when Stalin visited someone from his inner circle he would go into their library and start opening the books, to check for signs that they had actually been read.

But he wrote frustratingly little about his views on literature. His huge collection of Russian and international classics – Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo, Shakespeare – was lost after his death. So his thoughts on Dostoevsky, for example, can only be surmised from casual comments to friends who remember Stalin concluding he was a bad influence on Soviet youth rather than from incisive notes made during his reading.

From the works that remain, we discover that he was very interested in history, preoccupied with the lessons of tsarist rule in Russia, ominously obsessed by the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter and Catherine the Great. Most of the surviving annotated works relate to Marxist thought. Perhaps the biggest insight his book collection offers is that he was a diligent, reverential and genuinely enthusiastic reader of works by Lenin. Failing that, he settled for books written by his rivals. When Trotsky’s conclusions annoyed him, he wrote “Fool!” in the margins.

I do find it surprising that his library was dispersed; I know everyone was eager to move on, but still, you’d think they’d have found it a useful resource. At any rate, I’ll take this opportunity to repeat the great (and likely apocryphal) anecdote about Stalin responding to a complaint about the amorality and general fecklessness of Soviet writers with “Других писателей у меня для вас нет!” [I don’t have any other writers for you!] Thanks for the link goes to Michael Trevor.

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Apparently the author Prof. Roberts is well-known and somewhat controversially so for a “come on he had plenty of good points” view of Stalin, but it still seems weird for the Guardian of all places to criticize him on that score. On the other hand, according to his wikibio the French translation of one of his Stalin-related books was banned from the library of the Sorbonne, of all places, so I guess that’s weirder. (The explanation seems to be in part that the French edition was not published by a respectable/academic French publisher but by a publishing house viewed as a Marxist-propaganda outfit, although I personally think a good research library should hold disreputable books from disreputable sources as part of its collection.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Roberts

  2. I read something about him ringing up Bulgakov to compliment him and to chat about literature. Did he grace any other writers with such calls?

    (It could not have been pleasant, however favorable and friendly he was.)

  3. Apparently the author Prof. Roberts is well-known and somewhat controversially so for a “come on he had plenty of good points” view of Stalin, but it still seems weird for the Guardian of all places to criticize him on that score.

    The Graun may be lefty, but it’s hardly Stalinoid. You want the Morning Star (né Daily Worker).

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    it still seems weird for the Guardian of all places to criticize him on that score.

    I can’t say that I’ve noticed any very pro-Stalin tendencies in the running-dog bourgeois revisionist Graun of late. More the sort of thing you might expect Bojo to go for, with his Great Men of History fetish.

    It is (incidentally) at least logically possible that Stalin’s apparently (selon Roberts) inspirational leadership of Russia was instrumental in Hitler’s defeat. The question is, in principle, separate from whether he was a ruthless mass murderer. Many people do genuinely seem to find ruthless mass murderers quite inspiring.* It’s something of a human design flaw …

    * One of the world’s most populous and powerful countries has one on its banknotes, after all.

  5. One of the world’s most populous and powerful countries has one [ruthless mass murderer] on its banknotes, after all.

    There must be more than one! Which one are you thinking of? Mao?

    (The U.S. has Andrew Jackson on the $20. He was a ruthless ethnic cleanser who didn’t care that thousands died in consequence, but not quite a mass murderer. He almost got replaced by Harriet Tubman, but then 2016 happened.)

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Shurely the line would be “oh no it’s not that we’re pro-Stalin it’s just that if we criticize someone else for being too easy on Stalin we would objectively be giving aid and comfort to the Real Class Enemy.” But maybe revisionism has triumphed and/or maybe it’s just a generational thing where the reflexive anti-anti-Stalinists have all been pensioned off or cremated and the Castro-and-Chairman-Gonzalo-apologists are approaching retirement themselves.

    Obviously whether the USSR did better or worse in wartime under Stalin than it would have under whatever alternative leadership you might hypothesize is the sort of unknowable thing historians are free to speculate about. (There’s a standard account that it was not actually helpful to the military effectiveness of the Red Army for most of its senior leadership to have been purged and in many cases killed just a few years before the war, but no doubt there are revisionist counters to that standard account.) But would the hypothetical alternative leader have first allied himself with Hitler to divvy up Poland and the Baltics before the subsequent falling out among thieves?

  7. It is (incidentally) at least logically possible that Stalin’s apparently (selon Roberts) inspirational leadership of Russia was instrumental in Hitler’s defeat. The question is, in principle, separate from whether he was a ruthless mass murderer.

    Sure, the problem is that people seem to assume that only a ruthless mass murderer could have brought about Hitler’s defeat. Which is absurd, but credo quia absurdum is a popular attitude.

    Edit: Or what JWB said.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y, originally Harriet Tubman (a good gun-toting Republican lady who thus ought to have bipartisan appeal) was going to be on the $10 bill, because it was thought that Alexander Hamilton had no real constituency to push back against the change. But then Alexander Hamilton improbably became, in fictionalized form, a Broadway sensation and icon of 21st-century progressive-if-bourgeois grooviness. Which complicated matters.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    oh no it’s not that we’re pro-Stalin it’s just that if we criticize someone else for being too easy on Stalin we would objectively be giving aid and comfort to the Real Class Enemy

    Again, this is not a speculation that will survive much actual exposure to Guardian editorial content.

    (I think there is a feeling that the archetypal Guardian reader would not have prospered in Stalin’s Russia. Possibly even been regarded as a Class Enemy. As Hat says, you want the Tankie press for Class War, and even that is not what it was these days.)

    To put it mildly, I very much share your doubts (and Hat’s) regarding any uniquely Stalin-founded contribution to defeating Hitler. My sole point is that such a contribution is not ruled out a priori by the depravity of the man himself; therefore it does not follow that a historian committed to the proposition that there was in fact such a contribution is necessarily thereby minimising or excusing the depravity. (Of course, bad-faith arguments to that effect are a staple of the modern Russian neofascist politics currently in the ascendant, but that is once again a logically separate issue.)

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    My impression is that Roberts’ critics think he goes beyond “brutal-yet-effective and that’s just a combination that can happen in this fallen world” (which I certainly do not dispute!) in his comparatively positive view of the man, but perhaps that’s unfair. I certainly don’t feel inspired to read enough of Roberts’ own stuff to develop an independent view.

    I guess the Goldilocks solution would have been a Soviet leader just brutally effective enough to drive Hitler back out of the USSR’s pre-war borders (which might have sufficed to destroy his regime if the Western armies were doing well enough) but without the extra helping of brutal effectiveness necessary to go on to enslave Poland/Czechoslovakia/Hungary/Romania/Bulgaria/etc. But it’s hard for these things to be so fine-tuned.

    Of course, Stalin (and perhaps any hypothetical alternative strongman in Moscow) had the decided advantage of not fighting a two-front war when his adversary was, although since staying out of a two-front war was objectively so much to the mutual advantage of both the Soviets and the Japanese I’m not sure how the credit for not screwing that up should be parceled out between them.

  11. It occurs to me that I should have written “ci-devant Daily Worker,” not “né Daily Worker,” but I won’t abuse the edit power.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    @JWB:

    I agree on all points (including not feeling particularly inspired to read Roberts’ own stuff …)

    @Hat:

    The correct form would (of course) in any case be “née Daily Worker.”
    (It is important to remain woke at all times, so as not to disappoint the Daily Mail.)

  13. But le journal ees a masculine person, ees he not?

  14. Bathrobe says

    I very much share your doubts (and Hat’s) regarding any uniquely Stalin-founded contribution to defeating Hitler.

    Winning the war no matter how many of your own people are slaughtered somehow seems to be a hallmark of Russian leaders — judging purely from the current one, of course.

    But you do have to admit that dealing with Hitler was never going to be easy. And Stalin’s paranoia in power seems to have made the whole situation worse. But after bouts of panic and false hopes he seems to have finally seen the light: do what it takes, even if millions must die.

    (As you can tell, I am not an expert in Soviet history.)

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    But le journal ees a masculine person, ees he not?

    It’s more of a gazette, I feel …

  16. Ou bien un canard…

  17. Y, there is a widely known in narrow circles phone conversation of Stalin with Pasternak. It was primarily about Mandelstam’s fate.

  18. A Phone Call With Stalin. Kotkin is a brilliant analyst of Stalin’s character: “Paradoxically, Stalin did not like betrayers or accusers of any kind, even if they were working for him. He believed they had character defects and could not be trusted.” (Of course, he didn’t think anybody could be trusted.)

  19. Time magazine, 1944:

    Sometimes there is one other step in the process. Joseph Stalin takes an intense interest in literature. Sometimes in the small hours of the night a writer may get a telephone call. It is Stalin. He congratulates the writer on the book and sometimes gives keen and thoughtful advice. One book, The Great Mouravi, a novel about Stalin’s birthplace, Georgia, by a woman writer, Anna Antonovskaya, had been sidetracked by the publishers until Stalin called her up and told her it was brilliant and gave her some additional information on Georgia.

  20. January First-of-May says

    originally Harriet Tubman (a good gun-toting Republican lady who thus ought to have bipartisan appeal) was going to be on the $10 bill, because it was thought that Alexander Hamilton had no real constituency to push back against the change

    AFAIK the original idea was in fact to remove Jackson from the $20, because by that point approximately everyone agreed that Jackson was, for the most part, a bad guy, and didn’t really belong on popular bills. But the $20 was not supposed to be up for redesign for a while yet, so someone proposed a compromise where Hamilton was removed from the $10 instead. Then the musical happened and things got complicated.

    (There’s an unexpectedly faithful summary on xkcd, up to April 2016. As noted by Y, shortly afterwards Trump became popular and things got complicated in a different direction. I’m not sure what the situation is like now.)

  21. @Y: After Bulgakov applied for permission to leave the Soviet Union, Stalin personally called the writer to tell him the request was being denied.

    @January First-of-May: That xkcd covers most of the discussion about Tubman specifically. However, there is another issue that it doesn’t bring up. Starting in 1996, the Treasury released new versions of most Federal Reserve Notes, replacing designs that largely dated to the 1920s. For the vast majority of people, the old designs were they only ones they had ever known. At the time, the Treasury said that the new bills, with better security features, were designed in the hope that the new series would last as long as the old. However, within a decade, a whole new overhaul was underway. As a result, it seemed disingenuous to many people to talk about a specific reissue schedule that had to be kept to, after the previous long-term plan had been tossed aside so quickly.

  22. “The question is, in principle, separate from whether he was a ruthless mass murderer.”

    DE, yes. But I heard the opinion “…but I am not sure if without him we would have won the war” from rather apolitical people. One complication is that the war is a trauma and 26 million people is a serious figure even for Soviet population.

    We did it. It is a heroic feat. Your adversary represents an evil of cosmic magnitude. Your loss would be a catastrophe. And you are not too willing to think that it was possible to avoid the war or win without such losses or lose without catastrophic consequences. The same is true for the allies.

    (possibly the reputation of Nuristan as a place where most staunch supporters of Taliban live has to do with this: it used to be Kafiristan).

  23. Stalin’s contribution was debated, rather combatively, a couple of years ago. (It arose out of a longer discussion of Oliver Cromwell.) I don’t want to get into that argument again, so I’m just leaving the link here and not getting into the merits.

  24. The argument that only Stalin could have beaten Hitler relies on the widely shared assumption that Hitler’s army was some sort of unbeatable machine of zealous evil supersoldiers that only a great leader could have challenged. The historical evidence however increasingly suggests that the German Army in 1941 was poorly led, poorly supplied logistically, poorly equipped and not even that motivated (particularly the Italian and Romanian allies). The German Army had no clear strategic goal, and it’s own racial ideology guaranteed desperate resistance (just to survive) from people who might have been otherwise sympathetic to the anti-Soviet cause. The numbers were always overwhelmingly in favor of the Soviets. In many ways it is hard to perceive how the Soviets could have performed worse than they did under Stalin.

    Of course the Western allies, particularly France, also have a vested interest in the myth of exceptional German military prowess.

  25. the widely shared assumption that Hitler’s army was some sort of unbeatable machine of zealous evil supersoldiers

    You’re referring to that much-parodied-but-still-memorable scene in the bunker in ‘Downfall’/’Der Untergang’ where Hitler appeals to the Eighth Army’s prowess in pushing back the Allied forces encircling Berlin?

  26. no clear strategic goal, and it’s own racial ideology guaranteed desperate …

    In a reminder that authoritarian regimes can be vicious and incompetent in small ways as well as great … (a few weeks ago we had petty confiscating of family heirlooms)

    The CCP has contrived to sink Jumbo’s restaurant of Hong Kong/Aberdeen Harbour — beloved of every ex-pat, de rigour for every tourist.

    The restaurant had suspended operations in 2020 as it suffered an accumulated loss of HK$100 million due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the social unrest in 2019 sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

    Utter Carp! Total Haddocks! The CCP is Whiting it out of history. They don’t want such a tangible reminder of happier times/I’m sure the Brits would have managed to preserve it.

    Towing a top-heavy barge designed only for flat water across open sea 1,000 meters deep? Tantamount to scuttling — cuttlefish! Blistering Barnacles!

  27. Vanya: add to that that the death camps were devised in part because German soldiers were getting a little under the weather from having to personally shoot so many people.

  28. The argument that only Stalin could have beaten Hitler relies on the widely shared assumption…
    Requires extra assumptions: (2) “Stalin can beat an unbeatable war machine”, (3) “only Stalin can beat an unbeatable war machine”.
    —-
    Assumptions “Germans were better prepared” “a better army can only be beaten by a larger army at the cost of much greater losses” might not be true, but they do not look as implausible as (2) and (3).

    I don’t know. There is indeed a perception that Germans were better prepared in many ways and also there were those uniforms and everything. It can be utterly false, but I never saw the situation (or heard anyone discussing the situation) in terms of superhuman abilities.

  29. There is indeed a perception that Germans were better prepared in many ways

    I agree the Germans were better prepared than the Soviets in 1941, but doesn’t that also reflect negatively on Stalin?

    Supersoldiers is probably overstating it, but, especially in the West, a lot of people like to believe that the Germans were just better soldiers individually and at the sqad level than the Allies. Some of that has always seemed self-serving to me – as a way to excuse poor strategic leadership on the Allied side.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course, having dead presidents or other celebrity historical figures on the money is, in an American context, a vulgar 20th-century innovation* with an unfortunate pseudo-monarchical vibe, representing a lamentable backsliding from the pre-FDR days** when real money was gold or silver coinage and the “monarch” on the coins was one or another allegorical personification of Liberty.

    *There were dead presidents on paper money back into the 19th century, but paper money wasn’t real money as long as it was freely-exchangeable for gold.

    **The camel’s nose in the tent was putting George Washington’s likeness on the then-still-silver quarter-dollar coin in 1932 (200th anniversary of his birth), which was admittedly still eve-of-FDR.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    There is indeed a perception that Germans were better prepared in many ways

    The issue is analogous to the point rozele just made

    https://languagehat.com/esthetics-of-the-future/#comment-4448481

    Because the Bolsheviks were, in the event, successful, it is natural to suppose that their success was inevitable (and by implication, due to their awesome powers of organisation and ruthlessness), a myth, of course, assiduously promoted by themselves after the event. In fact they were poorly organised but utterly unprincipled and (from their point of view) extremely lucky.

    No only do bad people often prevail in this sad sublunar sphere, so too do even incompetent bad people. Indeed, in some ways, this is the whole problem: virtues tend (like abilities) to cluster, and competence is, in itself, a kind of virtue. It is not accidental that morally bad rulers are rarely competent rulers.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    W/o disagreeing with David and rozele’s analysis of the Bolsheviks’ highly undeserved dumb luck in 1917, it does seem like once the situation stabilized a bit Lenin et seq. did prove to be objectively highly competent at holding on to power, which is perhaps a meaningfully different skill set than that required to come into power in the first place? Nor is resort to brutality and mass-murder sufficient to retain power in the medium-to-long-term, as shown by e.g. the comparatively brief (although they certainly packed a lot of horrors into just a few years) reign of the Khmer Rouge.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    Re strategy, the NS economy was geared towards and predicated on military conquest and control of resources (after USSR stopped supplying Germany). I think perhaps the Allies took the view that WW1 was “the war to end war” and for a long time viewed NS actions as populist propaganda exercises, because the NS leadership could not be serious about marching their citizens into a mass grave.

  34. Her father, David Gentleman, is quite well-known over here. Lovely drawings of London and other places. He is 92 apparently.

  35. Stalin’s contribution was debated, rather combatively, a couple of years ago. (It arose out of a longer discussion of Oliver Cromwell.) I don’t want to get into that argument again, so I’m just leaving the link here and not getting into the merits.

    Thanks, I enjoyed revisiting that thread. There wasn’t actually that much about Stalin (and I wouldn’t call it “combative” — people disagreed, of course, but not in a hostile fashion); what fascinated me was the argument about patriotism, in which I found myself alone on an island while everyone lobbed grenades in my direction. (Non-lethal, grenades, of course!) I stand by what I said there, and am still puzzled that nobody can even see the point of my arguments, let alone agree with them:

    It’s amazing to me, the contortions people go through to justify the self-evidently absurd idea of “loving one’s country.” It’s pure ideology, like the late unlamented divine right of kings.

    There is indeed a perception that Germans were better prepared in many ways

    See this lengthy essay for some very interesting discussion of that:

    Why, van Creveld asked, had the German army not only fought better but held together in the face of overwhelming odds, why did it not “run”, why did it not “disintegrate” and why did it not “frag its officers.” Creveld’s answer was simple. The Germans fought well because they were members of a “well integrated well led team whose structure administration and functioning were perceived to be …. Equitable and just.” Their leaders were first rate and despite the totalitarian regime they served were empowered to employ their freedom and initiative wherever possible. By contrast, the social segregation in America’s army was extreme. “American democracy” Creveld opined “fought world war II primarily at the expense of the tired, the poor the huddled masses” “between America’s second rate junior officers “ and their German opposite numbers there simply is no comparison possible.” On the battlefield Nazi Volksgemeinschaft trumped Western class society. If despite these devastating deficiencies, the allies had nevertheless prevailed, the reason was not military but economic.

    Her father, David Gentleman, is quite well-known over here. Lovely drawings of London and other places. He is 92 apparently.

    Good for him, and thanks for sharing that!

  36. Thanks for that! I was hoping the biography page would say something about the surname, but no.

  37. superhuman abilities.

    none, aside from impressively wide military use of methamphetamines – which certainly do give you a certain edge.

  38. Regarding the family name Gentleman, most of the British cemeteries mentioned here are in Scotland, which suggests but does not prove that the name arose there rather than elsewhere in the British Isles:

    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/search?firstname=&middlename=&lastname=Gentleman&birthyear=&birthyearfilter=&deathyear=&deathyearfilter=&location=&locationId=&memorialid=&mcid=&linkedToName=&datefilter=&orderby=r&plot=&page=6#sr-33983411

  39. Various genealogical websites indicate that the surname Gentleman means exactly what it says — presumably bestowed in years past on people of manners and refinement, in contrast to all the people who were named Lout, Cur, Rascal, Dirtydog and the like.

  40. Winning the war no matter how many of your own people are slaughtered somehow seems to be a hallmark of Russian leaders — judging purely from the current one, of course.

    I do not know what what was the point of this war so I can’t say if it “makes sense” to continue it.

    But I am not sure I like this line of criticism.

  41. J.W. Brewer says

    Question for the Russophones: how easy is it to reverse-engineer the catalog of Stalin’s various marginal annotations? Are there actually specific Russian words/phrases that almost everyone would agree are best rendered into English as “spot on” or “piss off”? Or are there 3 or 4 different Russian lexical items that might yield either of those as a translation, with in turn 3 or 4 different English idioms that might be plausible translations for each Russian one?

  42. Are there actually specific Russian words/phrases that almost everyone would agree are best rendered into English as “spot on” or “piss off”?

    No, those particular phrases are peculiar to a certain geographical/cultural locus of English — I personally wouldn’t use either one to translate anything Stalin wrote. I don’t know what he wrote in Russian, but obviously it was short positive/negative comments that somebody felt it would be cute to render in those ways.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    “Ranker” is also a rare-but-attested surname in (among other places) the U.K., creating the possibility of the double-barreled surname “Gentleman-Ranker.”

  44. @Vanya, I just meant that I have no reason to think that having a Stalin affects your defensive capacity positively. It sounds as a random claim…

    @DE, if the victory of Bolsheviks was inevitable, then why only Russia? Why the rest of the world is still suffering? Also the Civil war was a mess.

  45. There are many explanations for the superiority of German infantry over American in WWII that don’t require a sociological analysis of comparative equality, e.g. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1985/05/05/their-wehrmacht-was-better-than-our-army/0b2cfe73-68f4-4bc3-a62d-7626f6382dbd/

    But to me the explanation is simple: By the time Americans faced Germans in Europe, the Germans were fighting to save their homes from destruction, their families from destitution, their country from occupation, and themselves from humiliation. What were the Americans fighting for?

  46. @DE, if the victory of Bolsheviks was inevitable, then why only Russia?

    But he didn’t say it was inevitable — quite the reverse. Here’s the relevant paragraph, with added bolding to indicate the important bits:

    Because the Bolsheviks were, in the event, successful, it is natural to suppose that their success was inevitable (and by implication, due to their awesome powers of organisation and ruthlessness), a myth, of course, assiduously promoted by themselves after the event. In fact they were poorly organised but utterly unprincipled and (from their point of view) extremely lucky.

    Note that “it is natural to suppose” is a rhetorical device meaning “one might well think this, but I’m going to show you why it’s wrong.”

  47. There’s a big difference between the German army as of June 1941 and June 1944. Battle experience matters a lot. By D-Day, the Russian and German armies had been fighting a large-scale ground war in Eastern Europe for three years. Also, from November on, the Germans were fighting a defensive war on their own soil trying to save their country from complete destruction.

  48. @LH, yes. I mean I’m not so sure that it is natural to think this.
    My comment originally contained an introductory line that made it clear… This is why “still suffering”. Of course I do not think that everyone here is exactly suffering:-)

    Perhaps from where DE lives our revolution appears somewhat more natural (both to communists and others).

  49. I mean I’m not so sure that it is natural to think this.

    His only point (I think) is that when something has happened, it is natural to think it was inevitable. He was not (I think) saying anything about the specifics of this situation. I doubt he thinks the Bolshevik coup was “natural” — I certainly don’t.

  50. Russian revolution of 1917, just like English civil war of 17c. and French revolution of 1789 went through rapid radicalization which brought the craziest faction to power. It’s like falling down the stairs. You might end up somewhere in the middle, but there is a chance to get all the way to the bottom.

    A quick search shows that Yale maintains Stalin’s digital archive, but you need a subscription to view anything.

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    His only point (I think) is that when something has happened, it is natural to think it was inevitable

    Yup.

    With regard to the specifics: even from an orthodox Marxist standpoint, the October Revolution was anomalous, extremely premature, and shouldn’t have worked.* The Bolsheviks subsequently retconned in the inevitability.

    * And of course, in the long run, it didn’t. Trouble is, as Keynes said …

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    @D.O., but in 1640’s England and 1790’s France, the extreme faction that at some point came to power due to the chaotic dynamics of the situation did not stay in power all that long. Easy come, easy go. Whereas the extreme faction that made a dumb-luck-successful grab for power in Petrograd in Oct./Nov. 1917 managed to hold on to it for more than seven decades. That’s what’s distinctive.

  53. @LH, I understand. I did not mean that DE thinks that. But we are discussing perceptions and DE mentioned “a myth, of course, assiduously promoted by themselves after the event.“. “Вчера было рано, завтра будет поздно” does not sound so…

    I do not know who shares this perception of inevitablity. Maybe DE does (and disagrees with it), maybe some people around him, or some books. Or maybe it is a theoretical construct. If DE met someone who feels so, then he did, I can’t object to it.

    I am just informing him that I am not familiar with what he disproves. The victory of Bolsheviks may appear less random (or more random) than it was, but it does not appear ineviatable.

  54. I mean, he says “this butterfly looks like a leaf, but in reality it is a butterfly” – and I am telling that I see a butterfly and I don’t see a “leaf” in the first place.

    I am not telling that DE’s butterfly succeeded in fooling him. I am only telling that mine is the peacock butterfly. it is red with two pairs of eyes on her wings…

  55. Communists were supposed to win in numerous western countries. They lost everywhere. On the contrary they won in a number of agrarian countries. Perhaps it makes their victory in agrarian Russia “inevetable” but back then we were “the only country where they won”.

    And that fact about ourselves is revealed not by reasoning (reasoning suggests comparison to other countries where communism won) but by a glance at the map, combined with a perception that we are “Europe”, combined with bla-bla-bla about working class. We are an anomaly. It could be different.

  56. “Вчера было рано, завтра будет поздно” – “yesterday was too early, tomorrow will be too late”, attributed to Lenin. Some book in google books says that it is not Lenin but “British romantic John Reed”, but I do not see it in the 10 days…

    Instead I find it in Nâzım Hikmet, but maybe it is actually Lenin…

  57. If you’ve never seen any writers on the Revolution claiming it was inevitable, I can only think you haven’t read much history. It is a favorite trope of a certain kind of historian to claim that the past could not have been other than it was. DE did not invent this.

  58. @LH, I said: “If DE met someone who feels so, then he did, I can’t object to it.” I am not arguing, I am not telling that someone is wrong.

    DE (a person, 1 item) said that a certain perception is “natural” and wrong.
    I (a person, 1 item) said that it is not so for me.

    Yes, I do not read books about the revolution often. Instead tales like “Lenin i deti” were among my first fairy tales and then in the first grade I was wearing a little star with baby Lenin inside.

    We were talking about perceptions. It happens that we take some things for granted (scientific progress, dominance of Europe) and it takes a certain effort to realize that the history could be different.

    The victory of Bolsheviks is not in this list for me. Intuitively (did “natural” mean anythign else than what I call “intuitively”?) everything could be different. We’re anomalous in Europe. Imagining an alternative history is easy. Pieces of Soviet stories about Lenin also suggest that everything could be different (and was different, because soon the country was taken over by Stalin).

    I am speaking about myself and about perception.

    DE did not invent this.” Of course!!!!

  59. Maybe it’s a Western Marxism thing. I also do not remember communists in the USSR promoting “inevitability”. I distinctly remember that Lenin thought the revolution would win first in Germany and then Russia would catch up. He was a Marxist too. Everything should go through the stages. Political superstructure follows from the economic basis. Russia was in a catch-up mode and would continue to socialism behind the more developed countries. I honestly didn’t read a single thing on the subject except soviet communist propaganda.

    J.W. Brewer, I don’t think you can interrogate history like that. Certain things rhyme, but there is no science to it. There is any number of ad hoc reasons I can conjecture (and I am sure, more were put forward). Lenin and co. trained they whole life for the revolution, they studied previous tries very carefully, practice made perfect; bolsheviks were wise to implement land reform right off the bat; they were flexible enough to switch to NEP when the first push didn’t work; mass communication era allowed for coordination across large spaces. OK that’s the limit of my phantasy (sic!) for now.

  60. John Cowan says

    I don’t think anyone invents historical determinism: it’s the naive position. “Of course everything is as it had to be, otherwise it would have been different!” It’s indeterminism that takes real intellectual work.

  61. Exactly.

  62. That is,
    1. the list of entities taken ofr granted universally encompasses everything.
    2. the list of entities that “could be different” is universally empty.
    3. if someone feels differently and both lists are not empty for her, she just have not read enough books or red them improperly or does not count anyway.

    All right, maybe it does require intellectual work, but this work is as natural as “why she’s allowed to X and I am not?” (even without quotes from Lenin like “yesterday was too early, tomorrow will be too late!”).

    And why this logic works with Russian army in 1941 (and the German machine) but not the Russian victory? Why does it need a Stalin? Despite our frosts and miles and ебеня?

    Back to the original topic.

    Dozens million people were killed in WWII in Europe alone (26m just in USSR) and almost all Jews in the occupied territories. Why the space of “other imaginable histories” is full of histories of “how everything could be worse” but not “how everything could be better [than this unprecedented fantastic horrible catastrophe]”? It is half a space.

  63. (ебеня: https://vk.com/yebenya)

  64. Oh. The community is glamorous:( 10 years ago when i noticed it, it was much more yebenoid and lovely. It was intended for pictures like 1 and 2, but also included objects like 3. Now it is just a collection of oversaturated images…

  65. PlasticPaddy says

    @drasvi
    Here is the statement : after Kornilov coup attempt, Bolshevik or extreme left victory was inevitable.
    https://www.rbth.com/history/326164-kornilov-affair-how-militarys-last
    Yegorov seems to be more of a political commentator than a historian, and does not quote a historian for the view.

  66. I like the tone.

    “A hundred years ago Russia was a complete mess.

    The new government forbade capital punishment or beating in the army so officers were not able to maintain discipline. Russia was losing one battle after another.

    Agitators were talking soldiers out of shooting workers and citizens – and officers couldn’t do anything to stop this propaganda. ”

    (the second excerpt is not a comment on the first, I’m of coruse, misrepresenting it:))

  67. John Cowan says

    Why the space of “other imaginable histories” is full of histories of “how everything could be worse” but not “how everything could be better [than this unprecedented fantastic horrible catastrophe]”?

    I think the explanation of that is straightforward: when people hear vaguely about a book asking “What if the Holocaust never happened?”, they may think it is yet another work of Holocaust denial. Consequently, it takes considerable Zivilcourage (and chutzpah) for a professional historian to write and publish such a book, or even for an author of fiction to do so.

    Poking around on the interwebs, I found Jeffrey S. Gurock’s book The Holocaust Averted (amazon.us page, Times of Israel article). One result is a lot more Jews, especially in Europe; another is a lot more Antisemitism, especially in the U.S. and the UK. The first review on the Amazon page is a spoiler for the book. The new price is $117, which is what you expect for an academic work, but there are some used copies at $4; I just snarfed one.

  68. J.W. Brewer says

    @PlasticPaddy, and of course the piece doesn’t quite say that it was inevitable that Kornilov would fail … There’s a big difference between “once Y happens, Z is inevitable or at least overwhelmingly likely” and “once A happens, B through Z in that specified sequence are inevitable or at least overwhelmingly likely.” Treat the abdication of the Czar as A and the reasonably consolidated position of power Lenin’s gang was in at the end of the Civil War in 1922 as Z …

  69. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, w/o getting back too much into the issue of how, if not pro-Stalinist, at least anti-anti-Stalinist the Grauniad’s present editorial line is, I am struck going back and noticing the headline (presumably the work of a sub-editor not the actual book reviewer, unless UK newspaper practice is radically different from US practice?): “Stalin’s Library by Geoffrey Roberts review – the marks of a leader.” Leaving aside the wordplay in “marks,” I would say that referring to a brutal psychopathic dictator as a “leader” is typically a rhetorical tic of someone who is, shall we say, at pains to avoid seeming too negative toward that “leader.” Put the other way, Western politicians during the Cold War who were rhetorically disciplined were sometimes self-consciously careful to refer to our side’s “leaders” as contrasted with their side’s “rulers” or some such less positive term.

    Of course, I suppose you can take the implicit moral positive judgment out of “leader” by just saying you’re a leader if people do in practice follow you, and whether they follow you voluntarily because of your sterling moral character and/or rhetorical persuasiveness or grudgingly out of fear of what will happen to them if they don’t is neither here nor there.

  70. John Cowan says

    I certainly take the latter point of view, so that the Dear Leader is in fact a leader.

  71. When I hear “leader” I always remind myself about “führer”. BTW, there is a memorial sign on a house in Zurich, which brings a smile to many a Russian tourist’s face.

  72. J.W. Brewer says

    @D.O. I didn’t know about that Zurich sign, but now I love it. There’s also the Romanian “Conducător,” where it’s hard (at least for me) to separate the authoritarian-or-worse “leader” meaning from the orchestral and/or railroad connotations of “conductor” in English.

  73. @JWB, in Russian вождь means
    1. object of personality cult in a totalitarian communist country
    2. a chief of a tribe.

    There is also вождизм “communistic personality cults, propensity to have one”.

    The stage when the word is applied to current leaders without irony or disapproval was completed at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
    Just like with feminism: we again are ahead of the West!!! Hurrah, comrades!

  74. David Eddyshaw says

    In the Kusaal Bible, the book of Judges is called Tuongatib “Leaders”, which seems a reasonable enough translation (especially as the only viable alternative, Na’anam “chiefs” is already taken for “Kings.”)

    The Mooré version has Bʋ-kaoodba, which means “judges” in the court sense (literally “trial-ponderers”), which seems to miss the point. The Biblical judges don’t seem to have done a lot of trial-pondering.

    [The Kusaal cognate of Mooré bʋʋdo “judgment, trial, lawsuit” is bʋʋd, which actually means “innocence, purity, being in the right.” An optimistic people, the Kusaasi.]

  75. “… the marks of a leader.”

    @JWB far more salient than whatever you’re imputing about the Graun’s politics, is that its sub-eds go to extraordinary lengths to produce puns. That’s all the explanation needed.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    its sub-eds go to extraordinary lengths to produce puns

    Now that you’ve pointed it out, that is without any doubt whatsoever the correct explanation. (I’m sorry to say that I missed it …)

    (The Economist is even more given to this, in article headings and in picture captions too.)

  77. J.W. Brewer says

    @AntC and David E.: such wordplay is vulgar and debauched and it is only the so-called “colonial cringe” that makes self-doubting Americans think of such Brit publications as somehow classy. (I had a subscription to The Economist in my wayward younger years. I eventually let it lapse when I put away childish things.)

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    You Americans are so uptight …

  79. Stu Clayton says

    What pun is involved with “marks” in “marks of a leader” ? Is it that one British sense of “marks” is that of American “[school] grades” ? How would that make for a pun ?

    Or is the sense “a victim or prospective victim of a swindle” to be invoked ? Where’s the delicious wordplay ?

    Der Murks eines Führers would be mildly amusing, but that is another country.

    I too once had a subscription to the [sic] Economist, my reaction was the same as that of JWB. My non-uptightness credentials are of the finest.

  80. I was never particularly fond of The Economist as a news source (even as a specifically economic news source). However, when working at The Tech at MIT, I naturally had access to the vast majority of major news periodicals published in English, and, I had to admit that The Economist‘s fans were right about one of its merits, at least. It had clearly the best cover graphics of any of the publications.

  81. What pun is involved with “marks” in “marks of a leader” ?

    Karl Marks.

  82. David Eddyshaw says

    There is a larger cultural issue involved here …

    Brits (and Australians, and New Zealanders, and the Irish even more so) regard it as perfectly normal to make jokes at work, and in serious contexts in general. Germans and Americans, not: humour is fine, but needs to be deployed in appropriate environments.

    It is this cultural mismatch that has given rise to the completely untrue but widely held Brit idea that Germans have no sense of humour. We do not have this misconception about Americans (unless we’ve actually worked with them), because Americans keep telling us how funny they are.

    Organisations with international staff (I used to work for one) actually warn British and Irish employees about this. (Really.)

  83. widely held Brit idea that Germans have no sense of humour.

    Exhibit: Dinner For One is played on German TV every Christmas (I’ve checked this with an actual German).

    Brits find this funny maybe for up to 3 minutes. After that, it’s tedious repetition of an already-threadbare bit of slapstick and ‘business’. Germans (I’ve checked this with an actual German) guffaw through the whole 10 minutes; and are ready to guffaw again next Christmas.

    So it’s not Brits’ belief that Germans have no sense of humour: it’s that their sense of humour is unsophisticated.

    Some Americans have a sophisticated sense of humour: Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart — is Brits’ belief. But (for example) American TV dumbed-down the already-dubious humour in The Office to tired clichés. (I note there’s several late-night comedy hosts imported to American TV: Trevor Noah, John Oliver, James Corden. That may be unrepresentative: I’m aware of them because they’re funnier than Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, …)

    Norm MacDonald, George Carlin, (and too many others in that vein)’s so-called comedy I find just cruel repetition of tired put-downs.

    The Marx Brothers were and remain today sophisticatedly funny. Difficult to explain, given their German background. (Perhaps there _was_ German humour in C19th.) Must be the mixed European and Yiddish Weltschmerz.

  84. P.S. Mae West’s comedy timing was just impeccable. And she wrote her own scripts. Respect!

    P.P.S. What’s that weird thing going on with Jimmy Kimmel and the drugstore Mexican? Depicted as fat, lazy and vaguely stupid. (I impute that to the act, not the actor.) Racial stereotyping or what?

  85. You Americans are so uptight …

    That’s true, to a point. It’s just … puns are such a cheap form of humor and when there are too many of them it looks too forced to be humorous. But obviously, no American politician, even Trump, can allow themselves to make comments about Miss Piggy and Peppa Pig. When they joke, it is about buying Greenland.

    P.S. “marks of a leader” is subtle enough to be good, imho.

  86. German humor was discussed here here.

    The trope about humorless Germans goes back at least to Jerome K. Jerome.

  87. Lars Mathiesen says

    @AntC, Dinner for One is mandatory on New Year’s Eve here in Denmark (and Norway [on Christmas Eve], Sweden, Finland, Estonia). I don’t know if it’s funny funny, after 50 years, but it’s enjoyable just the same. (No guffawing, at most a chuckle).

    It’s New Year’s Eve in Germany as well, not Christmas, and I think Austria and the Swiss have the habit too. It’s usually titled as The 90th Birthday Party in the various languages (but Grevinnan och Betjänten [“The Countess and the Butler”] in Sweden).

    One of the imaginary dinner guests (Mr. Pommeroy) toasts the birthday lady with “Happy New Year, Miss Sophie/Sophie me-gal/Sophieducks” on each iteration, that may have established the connection with New Year’s Eve but in context it’s probably just a mannerism that the butler exaggerates. Or the connection is just because that’s when some TV station needed a filler.

    I read once that at the time, the two actors made a living from touring in Germany, so the skit will have been performed year round. (And that’s supposed to be why there are recordings from the various regional TV stations, originally intended as filler in case of technical problems before it became “tradition” to play it on New Year’s Eve).

    I couldn’t quickly find a version that wasn’t cut before the credits, but luckily the male actor’s name had stuck so I could find the WP link above. And pertinently to the question of British vs German humour, the skit was never a great hit in Britain. More at NDR, giving the original recording date for their version as March 8, 1963.

  88. German humor was discussed here here.

    Thanks for sending me to that thread; I laughed all over again at both Apuleius’s joke and Auerbach’s uncomprehending response.

  89. To toot my own horn, I’m very fond of the link I posted there, to a commercial for Beck’s beer.

  90. That’s a good one; here’s a direct link to your comment.

  91. (I note there’s several late-night comedy hosts imported to American TV: Trevor Noah, John Oliver, James Corden.

    James Corden is exhibit 1 for those who hold that the British actually aren’t that funny, it‘s just that for years the PBS filter showed Americans the good stuff (Monty Python, Black Adder, Father Ted, etc) while leaving us unaware of how much bad comedy the UK also produces – such as James Corden.

  92. David Eddyshaw says

    Sad but undeniable. Terrible Brit comedy is practically a genre in its own right. It positively radiates smug mediocrity.

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    I have actually known a highly cultured and intelligent American who clearly couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad Brit comedy (specifically, between Fawlty Towers and Keeping up Appearances.) He seemed to think it was all equally wonderful, which was nice. I think that was just him, though, rather than some fundamental defect in America in general.

  94. I don’t know much about bad Brit comedy, but I remember my dad despised Norman Wisdom.

  95. So it’s not Brits’ belief that Germans have no sense of humour: it’s that their sense of humour is unsophisticated.
    It has got better in the last 40 years. When I grew up in the 70s, if you wanted sophisticated comedy, there was only Loriot (mentioned in the other thread, he was really, really good) and some political cabaret; most German comedy made Benny Hill look deep and intellectual in comparison. Also, comedy was rare and even the number of widely known unfunny and flat comedians was limited. Nowadays, there is much more choice; there’s a lot of trash, but there also is much more good comedy then there used to be.
    The Marx Brothers were and remain today sophisticatedly funny. Difficult to explain, given their German background. (Perhaps there _was_ German humour in C19th.)
    A lot of sophisticated, urban humour in Germany before 1933 was Jewish; we all know what happened then. What survived the Nazis mostly was the flat, Teutonic humour that dominated from the 50s to the 70s.

  96. Stu Clayton says

    I strongly dislike the professional comedy business. I feel that a good joke is like good sex – best when it happens rarely and unexpectedly. Monty Python, for example, I find to be as tiresome as Laurel and Hardy.

    Yesterday I picked up a novel by Barbara Pym from the unwanted book heap a few houses down my street. I thought I had read everything by her decades ago, but not this one: Less Than Angels. I finished it today. What a sly and amusing style she has ! That I like.

    I’ve said before that I love the bits of humor that pop up occasionally in Bernhard, Kafka and Luhmann. Beckett’s novels of course are a larf a minute if you read them in the right frame of mind – profundity caught with its trousers down. You can giggle while being edified.

    Now back to work.

  97. David Eddyshaw says
  98. Germans and Americans, not: humour is fine, but needs to be deployed in appropriate environments.
    Very true wrt to most Germans. My maternal grandparents were good examples of that attitude – humour was something for periods of recreation, best announced ahead (“I’m going to tell a joke now”), so everyone knew that they were not supposed to take what was said serious and that laughter was an expected response; another situation where humour was appropriate was after a few beers. My grandfather liked puns and coming up with funny stories, but only in appropriate settings.
    On the other hand, the relatives from my father’s side are from the Rhine/Ruhr area, one of the few areas in Germany where humour isn’t seen as a character flaw and being witty or funny in everyday life is actually appreciated. That different approach to humour was a constant cause of misunderstandings and offense in the relationship between my father and my maternal grandparents (Example: after having a three-course meal at my grandparents my father would lean back and ask “So, when will we get some food here?”; the relatives on his side would have laughed or given some witty rejoinder, but my grandma would take it as a slight demeaning her efforts as a hostess.)

  99. Stu Clayton says

    Here he is singing Big in Albania. A local maximum of meh.

  100. John Cowan says

    I have actually known a highly cultured and intelligent American who clearly couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad Brit comedy (specifically, between Fawlty Towers and Keeping up Appearances.)

    For a moment I thought you meant me, but surely not. I don’t really know what “bad Brit comedy” is, but I think that Mrs. Bucket is exactly what Americans expect a disgustingly pretentious Brit snob to be, except taken up a notch (several notches, really), which is what makes her Teh Funny. Indeed, to this American eye she looks like a satire on Mrs. Thatcher.

    Gale, however, simply wants to “shake her till her cultured pearls rattle” (and shake everyone else on the show too). She agrees with you that KUA is bad comedy in general, but says that’s exactly where the humor is. She also thinks that Mrs. B should move in with her brother-in-law Onslow: that would be funny (although extremely black humor).

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    For a moment I thought you meant me

    No, I meant a different highly cultured and intelligent American …

    exactly what Americans expect a disgustingly pretentious Brit snob to be

    I think this may be the key: Americans appreciate things like KUA because they think it’s sharply satirical, whereas Brits see it* as lazy painting-by-numbers recycling of tropes about class that were never either accurate or interesting to begin with. I imagine the international success of stuff like Downton Abbey is explicable along similar lines.** The tourist-trap version of culture: All the Stereotypes are True! (Still, I suppose it provides employment for Brits, all the more important now that our service industries are going the way of our manufacturing industries.)

    * Well, ought to see it. I despair of my fellow-countrymen at times. I mean, look at the place …
    ** I may err: I have never actually watched it. Actually watching it seems superfluous, somehow …

  102. David Eddyshaw says

    The Romans were obviously of the same mind as the Germans regarding humour:

    Verum pone moras et studium lucri,
    nigrorumque memor, dum licet, ignium
    misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
    dulce est desipere in loco.

    (How like them …)
    The Greeks, maybe, not so much …

    It occurs to me in this connexion that one of many reasons Leavis was talking through his arse about Eng Lit was his absolutely characterstic failure to see that the real Great Tradition in anglophone novels is comic: something by no means incompatible with deep seriousness. (It’s why George Eliot, though a great novelist, and even more so DH Lawrence, are sidetracks to the real tradition.)

  103. jack morava says

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

  104. Tristram Shandy isn’t comedy, it’s lunacy.

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