Stalin’s Deadly Blue Pencil

He started out as an editor and went on to excise people–indeed, whole peoples–from history.

Stalin's talents as an editor harmonized with his genius as a mass-murdering tyrant Holly Case writes: Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily, Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili’s editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda.

Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched “for traces of those horrible things in the book.” He found none. What he saw instead was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”

Stalin had also made a surprising change in the manuscript. In the conclusion, the author closed with a warning to the Germans lest they renege on the alliance and attack Russia. Stalin cut it. When the author objected, pleading that the warning was the whole point of the book, Stalin replied, “But why are you scaring them? Let them try. …” And indeed they did, costing more than 30 million lives—most of them Soviet. But the glory was Stalin’s in the end.

The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.

Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.

So while Stalin’s voice rang in every ear, his portrait hung in every office and factory, and bobbed in every choreographed parade, the Stalin behind the blue pencil remained invisible. What’s more, he allowed very few details of his private life to become public knowledge, leading the Stalin biographer Robert Service to comment on the remarkable “austerity” of the “Stalin cult.”

But we should not confuse Stalin’s self-effacement with modesty. Though we tend to associate invisibility with the meek, there is a flip side that the graffiti artist Banksy understands better than most: “invisibility is a superpower.”

For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”). During the German siege of Stalingrad (1942-43), he encircled the city from the west with his blue pencil on a large wall map in the Kremlin, and, in the summer of 1944, he redrew the borders of Poland in blue. At a meeting with Winston Churchill a few months later, the British prime minister watched as Stalin “took his blue pencil and made a large tick” indicating his approval of the “percentages agreement” for the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence after the war.

The few who visited the Soviet leader in his Kremlin study mention the blue pencil in their memoirs. Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Soviet military during World War II, observed that “Stalin usually made notes in blue pencil and he wrote very fast, in a bold hand, and legibly.” The Yugoslav Communist Milovan Ðilas was surprised to find that Stalin was not the calm, self-assured man he knew from photographs and newsreels:

He was not quiet a moment. He toyed with his pipe … or drew circles with a blue pencil around words indicating the main subjects for discussion, which he then crossed out with slanting lines as each part of the discussion was nearing an end, and he kept turning his head this way and that while he fidgeted in his seat.

The Stanford historian Norman Naimark describes the marks left by Stalin’s pencil as “greasy” and “thick and pasty.” He notes that Stalin edited “virtually every internal document of importance,” and the scope of what he considered internal and important was very broad. Editing a biologist’s speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin used an array of colored pencils—red, green, blue—to strip the talk of references to “Soviet” science and “bourgeois” philosophy. He also crossed out an entire page on how science is “class-oriented by its very nature” and wrote in the margin “Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?”

Stalin excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence.

Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin’s editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations. “The Poles have been visiting here,” he told the former Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov in 1948. “I ask them: What do you think of Dimitrov’s statement? They say: A good thing. And I tell them that it isn’t a good thing. Then they reply that they, too, think it isn’t a good thing.”

All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “show a common bias: … what the editor would prefer is preferable.” Being an author is well and good, and Stalin wrote several books—the word “author” does after all share a root with the word “authority”—but he knew that editing was a higher power. Naimark argues that editing is as much a part of Stalinist ideology as anything he said or wrote. This insight warrants amplification. Under Stalinism, anyone could speak or write, but since Stalin was the supreme gatekeeper of the censorship hierarchy and the gulag system, the power to edit was power itself.

Published in 1938, The Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) is one of the most famous ideological works of the last century. As the historian Walter Laqueur writes in his memoirs, “Every Communist had to read it at the time; it was quoted in every article, translated into every language; the total circulation was in the tens of millions.” The story of how it came into being reveals much about the power of writers and editors, and about Stalin’s otherwise inscrutable editorial persona.

A new edition of the Short Course edited by the historians David Brandenberger and Mikhail Zelenov is forthcoming from Yale University Press under the titleStalin’s Catechism: A Critical Edition of the Short Course on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It shows many of the revisions Stalin made to the work along with a detailed production and reception history. The book promises to be a revelation, for it will make Stalin the editor starkly visible.

The Soviet Union was in existence for almost 20 years before its ruling party had an official history. While entire brigades of historians (and they were called brigades) had been at work since the 1917 revolution, Stalin did not approve of their efforts. In 1931 he dissed them in a speech as “archive rats” who had failed to pull together a compelling narrative of the party’s achievements.

That was before the purge.

In 1934 a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated. His death, likely orchestrated by Stalin himself, was used to initiate a mass persecution that would result in over a million imprisoned and hundreds of thousands killed. Among the targets were members of the party’s bureaucratic elite. They were interrogated, tortured, and forced to give public confessions before being shot in the back of the head.

It’s difficult to write a compelling history without a stable cast of characters. No author could keep up with all the deletions. (“The editor’s secret weapon,” writes the author and book editor Harriet Rubin, “is the delete button.”) In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Stalin was assured by Kirov’s replacement in the party hierarchy that “a whole collective farm” of historians was at work on an official history. Two men—Yemelyan Yaroslavsky and Pyotr Pospelov—led the team. Together they produced an 800-page typescript, which they presented to Stalin late in 1937. His initial response will be familiar to anyone who has worked with an editor: “Make it twice as short.” They did: with great difficulty, in record time, and without complaint.

When Stalin received the pared-down manuscript, he still was not pleased: “No ‘collective farm’ will ever be able to get this right,” he fumed, and began to rewrite it himself. All this took place during the Third Moscow Trial, in which Nikolai Bukharin, a high-ranking Bolshevik and Stalin’s former supporter, was accused of participating in a broad conspiracy to take down the Soviet regime. The trial ended with Bukharin’s “final plea”—the confession that inspired Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon—and execution. In extensive marginal notes on the draft Short Course, Stalin instructed the authors to ratchet up the aura of conspiracy threatening both party and state from inside and out. The purge was history in the making.

Revise, resubmit.

But Stalin was still not satisfied. In the next round of substantial edits, he used his blue pencil to mute the conspiracy he had previously pushed the authors to amplify (italics indicate an insertion):

The Soviet people unanimously approved the court’s verdict—the verdict of the people annihilation of the Bukharin-Trotsky gang and passed on to next business. The Soviet land was thus purged of a dangerous gang of heinous and insidious enemies of the people, whose monstrous villainies surpassed all of the darkest crimes and most vile treason of all times and all peoples.

The reversal makes sense in light of Stalin’s other changes in the manuscript, mostly deletions. (Yaroslavsky: “Never in my life have I seen such editing.”) He cut the cast of characters by half, diminishing the significance of both heroes and villains: “What do exemplary individuals really give us?” he wondered. “It’s ideas that really matter, not individuals.” As if to offer the ultimate confirmation of this claim, he cut most references to himself.

These colossal achievements were attained … thanks to the bold, revolutionary and wise policy of Comrade Stalin the Party and the Government.

Yaroslavsky protested Stalin’s self-excisions. “This is of course an illustration of your great modesty,” he wrote to the general secretary, “which is a wonderful trait for any Bolshevik to have. But you belong to history and your participation in the party’s construction must be fully depicted.” Stalin didn’t budge.

Stalin’s blue pencil was an instrument he used to transform himself into an idea and, ultimately, an ideology. Of Marx had come Marxism, out of Lenin Leninism; such was the mise-en-scène within which Stalin—through his tireless revisions—was becoming Stalinism. Writing about Soviet memoirs of the Stalinist period and after, Irina Paperno, a Slavicist at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that the editor “is not a real person or persons, but a function, or persona.” In his biography of Stalin from 1936, Henri Barbusse wrote: “Stalin is the Lenin of today.” He meant that Stalin had effectively become a persona, an idea that transcended the person. It was a compliment. And others felt its force. Before meeting him in 1943, Ðilas imagined the Soviet leader as a “pure idea, … something infallible and sinless.”

Stalin’s victims in the Great Purge were called “revisionists.” No one may edit the editor.

Of the 12 chapters of the Short Course, Stalin wrote to its authors after receiving the manuscript, “it turned out to be necessary to fundamentally revise 11 of them.” His was a near total revision. Marxism-Leninism—and therefore also Stalinism as presented by the Short Course—was born of what Hannah Arendt called “the refusal to view or accept anything ‘as it is’ and … the consistent interpretation of everything as being only a stage of some further development.” It represented a shift toward seeing the world with the eye of an editor. Literally. As Jonathan Sperber notes in his recent book, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Marx’s career as an editor was “always one of his chief forms of political activism.”

There were those—most notably his supreme antagonist, Leon Trotsky—who claimed that Stalin was an ideological bumbler, “absolutely incapable of theoretical, that is, of abstract thought.” Stalinism was nothing but a self-serving revision of both past and future, Trotsky wrote in 1930, crafted “to justify zigzags after the event, to conceal yesterday’s mistakes and consequently to prepare tomorrow’s.” While Trotsky was right that Stalin’s ideas were largely corrections, edits of an existing model, he was wrong to assume that theory is something inherently pure, a new birth as yet untainted by revision. Stalin’s obsessive editing of the socialist project was his ideology, a manifestation of the idea that the final draft of history could be just one edit away.

“We still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism,” writes Slavoj Žižek. Perhaps such a theory, when it comes, should take Stalin’s editorial mania seriously, not merely as a personal tic, but as a way of seeing the world and understanding history.

Following publication of the Short Course, which gave the author as “A commission of the ACP(b) Central Committee,” Stalin explained: “We were presented with … a draft text and we fundamentally revised it.” The Soviet leader’s deployment of the “royal we” suggests that he suffered from what Koestler called the “shamefacedness about the first person singular which the Party had inculcated in its disciples.” (Once a young department head—and Stalin’s future son-in-law—dared to speak for the party “in his own name.” “Ha-ha-ha!” pronounced the greasy pencil. “Nonsense!” and “Get out!”)

His primary addition to the Short Course was a long section on the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which Marx (and Engels), Lenin, and Stalin all saw as the principle underlying reality. Stalin cited Lenin: “In its proper meaning … dialectics is the study of the contradiction within the very essence of things.” One such contradiction lies at the heart of Marxism­-Leninism’s editorial drive, for despite its “refusal to view or accept anything ‘as it is,'” Marxism-Leninism—and above all Stalinism—forever chases the objectively perfect edit, the one that bears no further revision; history’s final draft. As Stalin wrote in the Short Course, “Hence Socialism is converted from a dream of a better future for humanity into a science.” The desire to put an end to the otherwise interminable editorial process is perhaps why Stalin’s victims in the Great Purge—the presumed worst enemies of Marxism-Leninism—were called “revisionists.” No one may edit the editor.

But the revision continues, exposing a fatal flaw in the editorial spirit of the modern age that renders the almighty editor impotent in the end. Friedrich Nietzsche described it this way in his Untimely Meditations (1876):

They clap their extinguishers over the wittiest text, they smear their thick brushstrokes over the most charming drawing, all of these interventions are meant to be viewed as ‘corrections.’ … But their critical pens never cease flowing, for they have lost the power over them and are being led by them rather than leading them. It is precisely in this excessiveness of their critical outpourings, in the lack of control over themselves, in what the Romans called impotentia, that the weakness of the modern personality betrays itself.

The afterlife of the Short Course confirms Nietzsche’s critique, for the editorial mania unleashed by Stalin consumed his own legacy.

Once it was published, some party cadres complained that the Short Course was too obtuse. Where were the heroes, where was the Soviet motherland, indeed where was Stalin? Stalin reacted to such criticisms with irritation and launched a radical overhaul of the Soviet educational system to encourage self-study of the text rather than leaving it for underqualified instructors to discuss in classrooms and reading circles. Readers should approach the Short Course the way Luther meant the laity to approach the Bible: absent the middleman.

But it didn’t work. Within little over a year, the old networks of study circles and ad hoc courses re-emerged, “complemented,” Brandenberger and Zelenov write in their forthcoming edition, “by dozens of improvised auxiliary texts and readers published in the provinces,” all for the purpose of illuminating the Short Course.This grass-roots revision of Stalin’s plan meant the return of heroes to the story of the party’s evolution, and a tenacious clinging to the Stalin personality cult.

The second, still more brazen revision came after Stalin’s death. At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in February of 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, submitted his own radical edit of Stalin’s legacy. In his “Secret Speech”—perhaps the most famous, if not the only example of a head of state reflecting explicitly on editorial practice—he condemned Stalin’s hubris and cruelty, taking aim at Stalin the editor: “Comrades … it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior,” Khrushchev began. “Who did this? Stalin himself, not in his role as a strategist, but in the role of an author-editor.”

There followed a bitter condemnation of the Short Course, during which Khrushchev pulled a Stalin, backing the dead leader into a position at odds with the facts:

Does this book correctly depict the party’s efforts in the socialist transformation of our country? … No—the book speaks principally about Stalin, about his speeches and about his reports. Everything is tied to his name without the smallest exception. And when Stalin himself claimed that he wrote The Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), this arouses nothing less than indignation. Can a Marxist­-Leninist really write about himself in such a way, praising himself to the skies?

He who lives by the blue pencil must know that history is subject to revision.

Holly Case is an associate professor of history at Cornell University.

The Chronicle of Higher Education via Arts & Letters Daily


2 Comments on “Stalin’s Deadly Blue Pencil”

  1. […] The Butcher Holly Case writes: Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across […]

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