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Stalin and his Hangmen

The Tyrant and Those who Killed for Him

Reviewer: Roger Cooke

By Donald Rayfield. New York: Random House, 2004. xxviii + 541 pages. ISBN 0375506322. Hardcover. $19.77.

At the end of Part 1 of Goethe's Faust the antihero Faust wakes up after his Walpurgisnacht debauchery to a grey morning and the realization that his lechery has caused Gretchen to be hounded out of society and incarcerated as a criminal. Mephistopheles-for whom, one supposes, the greatest enjoyment is watching human beings suffer a lifetime of regrets in return for a few minutes of pleasure-had to leave Faust with enough humanity to repent. Faust now rages against him, saying, "Stay and torture me with your unbearable presence! . . . All the while that you were lulling me with insipid dissipation you concealed from me her growing misery." Like all creatures of emotion, while he is enjoying the passion of repentance, Faust imagines that if he had known what Gretchen was suffering because of him, he would have behaved differently. He forgets that it was he himself, not Mephistopheles, who seduced and corrupted her in the first place, while he was enjoying the passion of lust. He was happy to accept Mephistopheles' explanation of the vision he had of Gretchen beheaded while the fit was upon him.

Without the willing complicity of thousands of petty Fausts, they could not have committed their monstrous crimes.

Mephistopheles is not at all taken aback by this tirade. He has the perfect riposte: "She isn't the first!" Hearing that, Faust, in the colorful phrase of my children's generation, goes ballistic: "Turn him back into his favorite shape! Let him crawl on his belly in the sand before me, so that I can tread him underfoot. . . . The misery of this one person chills me to the very marrow of my bones, it cuts me to the quick; and you grin calmly over the doom of thousands!" Mephistopheles can at last be candid with Faust: "Now we have reached the limits of our reason, the point where your human mind fails. Why do you keep company with us if you can't go the whole distance? You want to fly, but you can't even avoid getting tricked. Did we compel you, or you us?"

Those words were written a full century before the horrendous events that were to bear witness to their psychological truth. "The doom of thousands": To Goethe this phrase must have conjured up an image of appalling cruelty and suffering, like those famous medieval and Renaissance paintings of the souls in hell, or the Thirty Years‘ War that he knew about. Could he have imagined that "thousands" was only a pale reflection of the reality that was soon to be in his country and its neighbors? For that matter, can we ourselves fully understand how it happened, even with the benefit of hindsight, looking back over a century in which hardly any decade has been without its own ruthless massacres of millions of people, either by the weapons of war or by deliberately organized starvation? To understand the psychology that makes such atrocities possible, imagine that you were invited to a reception in honor of Jeffrey Dahmer. You certainly would decline with indignation. But if you were a Western diplomat assigned to Russia in the 1930s, you would go to such a reception and shake hands cordially and make polite conversation with dozens of people, each of whose crimes, in terms of numbers and the bestial cruelty involved in them, were the equivalent of ten thousand Jeffrey Dahmers.

Anyone reading Faust nowadays will have plenty of images available for the character of Mephistopheles: Hitler and Stalin, naturally, but also Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Jong-Il, and more others than one would care to list. And in the case of the Communists, one can put the workers and peasants that they claimed to love but betrayed in the role of Gretchen. But there the parallel ends: Faust demanded to be allowed to save Gretchen. And none of the twentieth-century sociopaths had the supernatural powers of a Mephistopheles. Without the willing complicity of thousands of petty Fausts, they could not have committed their monstrous crimes. This brings us to the point of the present review. We know what motivated the fictional Faust. It was not, as it is often said to be, the desire for arcane knowledge-he already possessed that before he conjured up Mephistopheles. Once he made the contact, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, he wanted money, power, and sex. What were the motivations of the executioners who surrounded Hitler and Stalin? Were they merely caught in a web of fear?

Donald Rayfield, Professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, presents us with a blush of boys who made the Faustian bargain with Stalin. Rayfield's book shows us the whole pyramid of murderers with Stalin at the apex and his coterie of banal, mediocre yes-men in the layer just below, down to the bottommost stratum of sadists who did the actual killing. There have been many excellent studies of the crimes of the Communists: the works of Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, Arkady Vaksberg's Stalin Against the Jews, Sheila Fitzpatrick's Stalin's Peasants, Martin Amis' Koba the Dread, and others. But none of them has exactly the focus of Rayfield's book, which takes advantage of the latest available archival material to document the crimes of these men. One would like to say in mitigation of their crimes that they honestly believed the criminal rampages of their era were merely the bloody prelude to the Communist utopia that they envisioned in the near future, as the fictional Rubashov believed in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. That, however, is a psychological impossibility: no sane person can believe that you pursue a workers' and peasants' paradise by sending millions of workers and peasants to be worked to death, to die of cold and starvation, and to be shot. Their motives must have been those of the fictional Faust: power and money, certainly; and, as Rayfield makes very clear, for those in the pyramid who came home from work with literal as well as figurative blood on their hands-Yagoda, Yezhov, Beria-sex as well. Did these twentieth-century Fausts ever repent of their crimes? Yes, but not even as much as Faust did in the few lines left him in Part One. They never got to the redemptive Part Two of the drama. Many of them creaked on in comfort to die of old age in the declining days of the Soviet Union, for which they had sold their souls. The traitor Philby was unrepentant to the end and did not live to see the ruin of the empire for which he betrayed his own country. Khrushchev's famous denunciation of Stalin was much less like penitence than Faust's denunciation of Mephistopheles: Khrushchev would have had us believe that Stalin's primary victims were Communist Party members. Out of the whole rogues‘ gallery, Rayfield tells us, only Zinoviev, in the last few seconds before he was shot, prayed, "Hear, O Israel. . .".

One may ask, "What is the need for a new book on the crimes of the Communists?" From an academic point of view, the question does not require an answer-scholarship goes on forever. Historians, I have no doubt, still debate the causes and effects of the Peloponesian War. If the book were on the Nazi Holocaust one would have to stretch a point to find any contemporary application. A resurgence of Nazism is one of the least probable eventualities in the future development of Europe. But history is already being revised in regard to Communism. It is being said, for example-by people who do not wish to see the difference between a multicandidate election and a multiparty election-that Gorbachev was a liberal democrat who planned a multiparty society in Russia. (How quickly we forget: Sakharov died in December 1989, a few hours after suggesting a multiparty system in Russia and being cut off by Gorbachev. Of course, two years later, when he himself resigned, Gorbachev was happy to take credit for the multiparty system he had been unable to prevent.)

And it is important to remember the fellow-traveling Western intellectuals like Isaac Deutscher, who managed to write a biography of Stalin without mentioning any labor camps or firing squads. Or Walter Duranty of The New York Times, who somehow overlooked the deliberate starvation of several million people by the Soviet government. Or the most obnoxious of them all, the cretinous G. B. Shaw, who told the Russians in all seriousness that, "Now upon my return I can say: Yes, I have seen all the ‘terrors,' and I was terribly pleased by them." (This from a man whose life was spent concocting fictitious scenes to entertain an audience, who candidly reported the times the Russians made him enter a scene twice so that their movie cameras could get the propaganda shots they wanted, but still couldn't imagine that what he was seeing was as fictitious as the tea party in Pygmalion.) These were the people Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of in the preface to Winter in Moscow [1934], saying "I took a great dislike to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and, even more, to its imbecilic foreign admirers."

The imbeciles are still with us, and not inclined to shut up. We need a book like Rayfield's every year, just to stay even with them. ∆

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