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Over the more than four centuries from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day.  The state came to fill a vast pocket bounded by two oceans and three seas: the Pacific and the Arctic; the Baltic, the Blakc, and the Caspian.  Russia would come to have a greater length of coastline than any other state….


The Russian state was top heavy and spread thin.  The empire was left to be governed by local society, whose scope of governance, however, was restricted by imperial laws and whose degree of organization varied widely.


Modernity, in other words, was not a sociological process - moving from “traditional” to “modern” society - but a geopolitical process: a matter of acquiring what it took to join the great powers, or fall victim to them.


And once Russia had forcibly acquired a region, its official invariable insisted they had to acquire the next one over, too, in order to be able to defend their original gains.  A sense of destiny and insecurity combined in a heady mix.


If anyone alive had been informed during the Romanov tercentenary celebrations of 1913 that soon a facscist right-wing dictatorship and a socialist left-wing dictatorship would assume power in different countries, would he or she have guessed that the hopelessly schismatic Russian Social Democrats dispersed across Siberia and Europe would be the ones to seize and hold power, and not the German Social Democrats, who in the 1912 elections had become the largest political party in the German parliament?  Conversely, would anyone have predicted that Germany would eventually develop a successful anti-Semitic fascism rather than imperial Russia, the home of the world’s largest population of Jews and of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion?


The most notorious of all [colonialists] was tiny Belgium’s empire - 80 times its size - which, in the pursuit of rubber and glory, enslaved, mutilated, and slaughtered perhaps half of Congo’s population, as many as 10 million people, in the decades before 1914.  But this was the thing about the Great War: even in countries that practice rule of law, politicians and generals used their own citizens no better, and often worse, than they had their colonial subjects.  The British commander at the Somme, General Sir Douglas Haig, demonstrated no concern for human life, neither the enemy’s nor that of his own men.  “Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause,” Haig wrote in his diary.  When British casualties were too low, the general saw a sign of loss of will.  Of the 3.6 million men under arms in 1914 in democratic France - the only republic among the great powers - fewer than 1 million remained by 1917.  Some 2.7 million had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or gone missing.  Civilians died en masse, too.  No large European city was laid waste - mostly the Great War was fought in villages and fields - but state “security” now mean the destruction of the enemy culturally, as the Germans had demonstrated from the outset in Belgium: libraries, cathedrals, and the civilians who embodied the enemy nation were made targets of bombing and deliberate starvation.  “This is not war,” a wounded Indian soldier wrote home from the carnage of France in 1915, “it is the ending of the world.”


“The type of governmental structure that will serve the best interests of the Muslim peoples of Russia shall be a united (federal) republic based on territorial autonomy; for Muslim peoples with no territorial claims, a people’s republic based on national cultural autonomy shall be secured.” Although more than 200 delegates signed a petition of protest over the vote for women’s equal right to inheritance and against polygamy, it passed - making Russia the first country with a large Muslim population to do so.

Certainly the freedom was intoxicating.  


On April 27, 1920, without a fight, the Bolshevik Red Army captured Baku, capital of the Musavat or nationalist Azerbaijan government, whose flag combined blue for Turkic civilization, green for Islam, and red for European socialism.  The Georgian Bolshevik[s] had found an opportune moment to attack when the Azerbaijanis decided to send 20,000 units of their 30,000-troop army to respond to communal clashes between Armenians and Azeris in a disputed mountain region known as Karabakh.


As Lenin’s health further deteriorated, he spent more and more time at the estate: all told, about two-and-a-half of the next five years after his initial visit.  Gorki acquired a staff, including the worker-cool Speridon Putin (grandfather of Vladimir Putin), a large library, and a direct telephone line to Moscow.


Beyond intimidation, the regime co-opted workers into administration, offering regular salaries, housing, special shops, and other prerequisites, but also tasking them with conducting the harangues of workers riled by perceptions of Communist privilege and corruption.  The Communist regime’s social base was itself.  That mean the expanding regime was itself a society, and this society’s center was Stalin.


No small degree of the apparatus’s power flowed from its mystique.  Ryndzyunskaya, the sculptress, wrote of the rarely glimpsed interiors of Old Square that “the first thing that amazed me in this facility was the striking cleanliness and some kind of taciturn reticence, if one can speak that way. Reticence of words, reticence of movement, nothing superfluous.”  The next time she met Slatin, in her studio, she told him of being unnerved by the scary (zhutko) feeling at Central Committee HQ.  “I am very, very pleased,” Stalin is said to have replied, smiling, “that’s the way it should be.”


But of all the apparatus’s secrets, the biggest one was that runaway decree-ism, obsessive demands for written reports, and endless traveling commissions exacerbated the roiling administrative chaos across the party-state and buried Old Square, too, in paper.  Dictatorship unwittingly imposes limits on itself.


[T]he tendency of dictatorships is to incur, or even promote, multiple jurisdictions and other deliberate inefficiencies as a way to ensure political control.


The conspiracy to seize power behaved like a conspiracy in power.  The apparatus in theory was supposed to be transparent to the wider party; Lenin had insisted that a sign-in sheet hang inside the party complex with Stalin’s name on it, in alphabetical order, for his office hours.  That said, Lenin’s own written orders were often distributed only under the proviso that they be returned to him or immediately destroyed after reading.  He constantly urged, as he wrote in 1919 referring to Bolshevik subversion of Turkestan, that things had to be carried out “in an extremely conspiratorial manner (as we knew how to work under the tsar).  The origins and perpetuation of conspiracy, in other words, had little to do with Stalin’s personality, even if, by nature, Stalin was an archconspirator, and now the principal beneficiary.


Such were the paradoxes of Stalin’s vertiginous ascent: he had “boundless power” early, from spring 1922, when appointed general secretary of the party and the next month Lenin suffered his first major stroke, but only one year later, in spring 1921, out popped a sheet of paper calling for Stalin’s removal.  This supremacy-insecurity dyad defined his inner regime, and shaped his character.  It also paralleled the Bolshevik dictatorship’s own fraught relationship to the outside world: the supposed global inevitability of the revolutionary cause amid perilous capitalist encirclement.  Of course, such a combination of aggressive ambition and siege mentality was well known from the long sweep of Russia’s history, a great power whose aspirations always seemed to exceed its capabilities in that complicated Eurasian space.  But this predicament also derived from Lenin’s handiwork - a monopoly party’s seizure of power and a cynical approach to international relations.  Both the revolution as a whole, and Stalin’s personal dictatorship within it, found themselves locked in a kind of in-built, structural paranoia, triumphant yet enveloped by ill-wishers and enemies.  The revolution’s predicament and Stalin’s personality began to reinforce each other, and form into a kind of Mobius strip under the pressure exerted by the Lenin dictation.Stalin


On May 15, 1923, Lenin was transported at a snail’s pace from the Kremlin to Gorki with a team of doctors.  On top of paralysis, he suffered insomnia, lost appetite, stomach troubles, fevers, and memory loss.  He was desperately trying to regain the power of speech, mostly by reciting the alphabet and signing the “Internationale.”  But his speech was limited to a handful of words - “congress,” “peasant,” “worker” - and when he repeated the words Krupskaya said to him, it was not even clear he understood their meaning.

Stalin: Work
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