April 21, 2004

Stalin Biography

...is reviewed in the NY Times, reminding us of the mystery of iniquity:
What we do learn is that Stalin had an unexpected human side to his personality. He could sentence thousands of innocent people to death with a stroke of the pen and then go to his private cinema to enjoy an American cowboy movie, yet he could also display affection and tenderness...There are numerous examples of Stalin's affection for his children and friends of his youth. And he looked after his associates, making sure they took good care of themselves. Once, when Artyom Mikoyan, designer of the MIG aircraft, ''suffered angina and was put to bed, he was aware of someone coming into his room and tenderly laying a blanket over him. He was amazed to see it was Stalin.''

How to reconcile such manifestations of humanity and intellectualism with the persistent sadism, clinical paranoia and debauchery that fill so many of the pages of this book? For life at Stalin's court was a kind of Grand Guignol, dominated by the unpredictable and irrational behavior of the leader -- with his ''swarthy pock-marked face, gray hair, broken stained teeth and yellow Oriental eyes'' -- who kept his entourage in constant dread of his outbursts. People were expelled from his presence for no apparent reason, sometimes simply demoted, sometimes arrested and tortured. In 1937 he had the Politburo formally authorize physical torture of ''enemies of the people,'' and he would add the words ''Beat, beat!'' next to a victim's name...Perhaps the explanation for the contradictions in his character is that the savage tyrant needed to calm his conscience, to assure himself that he was really a decent human being.

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