Sixty Years after Stalin

Sixty years ago one of the greatest monsters in history, a mass-murderer of tens of millions many times over, the yellow-eyed, “Kremlin mountaineer”  breathed his last.

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,

Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,

The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs

And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer

And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –

fawning half-men for him to play with.

They whinny, purr or whine

As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forging his laws, to be flung

Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat

For the broad-chested Ossete.

– Osip Mandelstam

So great was the terror he had inflicted that many of his victims, dazed and bloodied by decades of fear, savage oppression and war, openly wept. The greatest fear of the late dictator’s closest henchmen and accomplices, who had more than likely escaped the conveyor belt of torture, gulag and execution only by their master’s death, was that the people would think that they had murdered their dear vozhd and would storm the Kremlin and tear them to pieces.

The former Georgian seminarian and bank robber Joseph Djugashvilli Stalin did more to shape Russia than any man in history except Peter the Great and Genghis Khan. Ivan the Terrible, the tsar whom Stalin much admired and imitated in killing off his own “boyars”, could not hold a candle to his Bolshevik successor in either cruelty or statesmanship. Stalin entered power as Lenin’s chief clerk in a failed state wracked by civil war and ended it as master of the Communist world, possessor of the atomic bomb and the implacable victor of Berlin.

Stalin sent thirty million of his countrymen to their deaths at the hands of buffoons, sexual sadists and deranged dwarfs, yet was a sensitive and gifted poet of no mean talent who could discuss Clausewitz, the intricacies of Marxist theory or the classics when he chose. Stalin was an avid writer of marginalia in books, making comments one scholar termed “insightful” as well brutal.

An artist of the vendetta, Stalin personally lingered over lengthy death lists, making annotations, sparing one here and drawing out the torment of others there. Some estimates are that he signed some thirty thousand such death lists of prominent Soviet and pre-Revolutionary figures, often consigning their families to arrest, torture and exile. Endless ordinary Soviets accused of “wrecking” or “trotskyite counter-revolutionary activity” or “espionage” went to the Gulag or the grave by quota. Not merely in the terrible year of 1937, but throughout Stalin’s long, grim reign; and after the war, it was the turn of the Eastern Europeans, especially suspected “cosmopolitan” Communists, like Ana Pauker and Rudolf Slansky and the usual litany of “class enemies” and “fascists”.

Stalin’s archenemy in both fact and fevered imagination, Leon Trotsky, received an icepick in his brain from Stalin’s messenger, Ramon Mercader. Then for good measure, Stalin killed Trotsky’s son.

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