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Books: In The Name Of Evil

3 minute read
Lance Morrow

Adolf Hitler has long been established as the 20th century’s Great Satan, the base line of evil; Joseph Stalin, equally monstrous by most objective measures, comes in a distant second–maybe even third behind Pol Pot. One big difference was World War II: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and so Stalin’s enormities were courteously minimized in the wartime alliance against Hitler, when the Russian leader became pipe-smoking “Uncle Joe.” After that, the demonology never entirely caught up with him.

Historians have applied ingenious psychoanalysis to Hitler. Now, in The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Counterpoint; 261 pages; $25), the author and translator Richard Lourie has found a grimly brilliant form in which to dramatize Stalin and his horrors.

Lourie’s novel purports to be a memoir that Stalin left behind, stashed in a crawl space above the room where he died in 1953. In hard, flat, ruthless prose that is also sometimes horribly funny, Lourie’s Stalin, supposedly writing in 1938-39, directs an operation to seek out and assassinate his nemesis, Leon Trotsky, then bunkered in Mexico City, raising rabbits and plotting a comeback.

The Autobiography moves between the late ’30s (the Moscow trials, Hitler’s incursions into Austria and Sudetenland) and Stalin’s life story, which Lourie shrewdly reimagines–a biography enacted within a formula: Darwinism + Leninism = Stalinism. The tough little Georgian survivor, emerging from the Tiflis seminary as a militant atheist, took up petty crime and apprenticed himself not only to Vladimir Ilyich but also to “my hero, my model, my rival,” Ivan the Terrible: “Ivan understood the great secret: Cruelty is the cutting edge of history. The deciding factor is always the greatest degree of cruelty most intelligently applied.”

Lourie’s Stalin enjoys the occasional note of totalitarian whimsy, as when, late one night, he rides back to the Kremlin from Lubyanka in his limousine, accompanied by “Boss Two,” the near identical double who stood in for him at risky public appearances. Stalin has the limo stop alongside a drunk, rolls down the window and lets the drunk see…twin Stalins! “Drink a little less,” Uncle Joe advises, and the limo roars off. This Stalin takes in the world with a savage candor. At a meeting with his hatchetman Lavrenty Beria, “I caught a whiff of that hideous cologne that Beria favored, the cologne of an unctuous headwaiter, the cologne of a rapist.”

Stalin’s urgency to kill Trotsky revolves around a secret that Stalin fears Trotsky is near to discovering. The reader knows, of course, that the assassin’s ice ax will end up, on schedule, embedded in Trotsky’s skull. The suspense is in waiting to learn Stalin’s unpardonable sin–which turns out to be, historically, an interesting sin indeed.

After 1945, Hitler’s Germans replaced complicity with denial (“We didn’t know!”). Stalin, while in power, achieved mass complicity by betrayal. People knew exactly what was going on, and informed on others to save themselves. The poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag, said bitterly, “Stalin doesn’t have to cut heads off. They fly off by themselves, like dandelions.” Lourie has ingeniously captured the moment when the Soviet air was filled with dandelions.

–By Lance Morrow

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