Saturday, June 24, 2017

`Close to Being a Devil, at Times to Sainthood'

From Jörg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror (Yale University Press, 2016):

“Stalin was a violent criminal. His murderous excesses had to continuously increase in intensity because every misdeed performed compelled subsequent action. Once someone had been arrested and tortured, the chances of ever being released were slim. A survivor would have been a visible representation of Stalin’s cruelty, a reminder to the dictator that there were people who would never forget what had been done to them. Stalin never forgot.”

Baberowski then recounts the fate of Genrikh Yagoda, an enthusiastic murderer and director of the NKVD from 1934 to 1937. In March 1937, he was arrested and charged with such make-believe crimes as diamond smuggling and working as a German agent since 1917, and was even accused of poisoning Maxim Gorky and his son. In March 1938, in another of Stalin’s show trials, Yagoda was found guilty of treason and conspiracy, and summarily shot, as was his wife. Baberowski writes:

“In June 1937, after the fall of Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin ordered Yagoda’s entire retinue as well as all his people in the NKVD shot in the Dmitrovsk labor camp. Their corpses were to be deposited near the former NKVD leader’s dacha, as a reminder that clients rose and fell with their patrons. Genghis Khan was said to have claimed that the victor could not live in peace until he had killed the vanquished. Whether this is true or not it apparently struck a chord with Stalin, as he underlined it in a history of Eurasian conquest he had read.”

Please read Baberowski’s book. Stalin is more than a safely dead museum piece, embalmed in forgetfulness, from whom we’ve learned a lasting lesson. Nothing stops a man like him from thriving in our world. No one is immune. Happy thoughts count for nothing. Smaller-scale Stalins, dreaming their grandiose dreams, will always walk the streets. Baberowski’s portrait recalls a well-known passage in The Gulag Archipelago – Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps”:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

“Socrates taught us: `Know thyself.’

“Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.

“From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.

“And correspondingly, from evil to good.”

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