The historical facts regarding Soviet-Russian dictator and revolutionary Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler’s sadistic roommate in the twentieth-century house of horrors, fall like so many blows to the head.
As with so many Russians and many things Russian, Stalin—although technically Georgian—is a figure whose reputation precedes him. His “kill rate,” so to speak, is up for debate.
Shedding the quasi-charming moniker of “Koba” for “Stalin,” or “Man of Steel,” he deliberately murdered at least six million people, and at least three million more by famine and execrable executive decisions pinned on the tenets of communism. Throw forced labor gulags into the mix and some say the body count rises to—swallow hard—sixty million lives lost.
Precious little of this was casual cruelty, either. So ferocious was Stalin’s bloodlust that he relished Soviet secret police (NKVD) reports of detainees bludgeoned to death in the face at the end of rifle butts, or hands thrust into boiling water for hours on end. And that was just the fate of female detainees. Soviet archives describe, as did novelist Vassily Grossman, pharmacological accounts of torture in which men were injected with massive amounts of amphetamine to keep them awake for days so as to feel the full intensity of their pain after NKVD agents had broken their bones, electrocuted their genitals, or unleashed any other Grand Guignol technique transforming their once viable bodies into “living corpses.” All this, and so much more needless suffering, from a man who loved his only daughter Svetlana dearly. Stalin’s associates also said their General Secretary spoke in a soft voice.
Oddly, I heard my most memorable account of Stalin while sitting in the pews of my hometown Presbyterian church. I was near late adolescence, young enough to be bored by a church service but old enough to take intermittent interest.
The occasion was a visiting minister from Canada. His name escapes me—it was so long ago—but I remember well his sermon. In my family, Canadian ministers were the stuff of legend. Clad in an ominous coal black robe with vibrant blues radiating from his dress shirt collar and cuffs, he did not disappoint.
The sermon centered on Jesus’ best-known verses about children, but instead of focusing on the usual suspects—the millstone, “Suffer little children to come unto me,” et al—this minister delivered a short history of childhood itself. Long ignored and even abused in nineteenth-century Europe, begrudgingly respected in the early part of the twentieth century, childhood was only recently revived as perhaps the most vital part of a person’s life by at least the sixties and Dr. Spock. This sermon was part psychology, part Scripture. At its center was an account of Stalin’s childhood years.
Tightening his jaw, the visiting minister told of how “little Joseph” lived in terror of his mother, who whipped his right hand in punishment so severely and so often that it was deformed almost beyond recognition.
“It was so mangled,” the minister pronounced, “that this child could not shake hands without extreme embarrassment. Wonder not how this child became an adult commanding one of the world’s largest armies, always hiding his right hand in his coat as he watched Soviet troops march through Moscow during May Day. The little child so terribly abused grew up to terrorize his own country and even the entire world in retribution for what he suffered so unjustly. He was a prisoner to his own pride at all the power he now commanded.”
The whole description hit me with such thunderbolt force that afterward I did something usually reserved only for the old women of my congregation: I asked the church secretary for a cassette recording of the sermon. Tucked away in a Seward trunk that moved with me from apartment to apartment over the years, I would retrieve it and listen to it again and again, whenever I felt weary with the world.
This fascinating account was not one I kept to myself, either. I relayed it to friends and told it to first dates over coffee. Like a hot stone in the cold of winter, something about it kept me warm. The idea that one person’s awful, no-good family life could have such terrible repercussions was as compelling as the way it also placed me, somehow, deep inside the psyche of a murderous tyrant. The minister’s story kept me on guard to the ways even one person’s pain and humiliation could be transformed and harnessed into all-consuming evil.
The story became a personal truth that tied me, somehow, to the larger world. Years later, after reading Leo Tolstoy’s “The Forged Coupon,” a short story of how one spoilt, rich young man’s crime of forging a currency note led others to their own crimes and misery, my conviction was fortified. Whenever I had spare money for charity, it went straight to foundations combatting child abuse and neglect. Offered a choice of charities proclaimed on my car license plates, that cause was always combatting child abuse and neglect.
Imagine my disappointment when, in the age of the internet and references moving at the speed of sound, I discovered that the account of this minister was, to be charitable, only half true.
Yes, young Joseph was physically abused as a child, but not by his mother, who in fact doted on him. It was instead his perpetually intoxicated father who did the beating. Moreover, as Simon Sebag Montefiore chronicles in his 2008 book, Young Stalin, the man born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili lived a life marinated in violence almost as if by choice. At the age of sixteen, when Stalin entered an Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi to study for the priesthood, he faced a significant fork in the road of life. Needless to say, the life of an Orthodox priest was not for him. He instead apprenticed for a career in murder, torture, and intimidation when he immersed himself in the underground culture of revolutionaries, thieves, and killers.
I was humbled and also upset, and not just because it was a minister who dispensed this cooked-up account. Having swallowed it whole so long ago, I had to take responsibility. At the same time, how could my naivete be so bad if this story’s effect was mostly good?
The problem is that while we crave stories grounded in real, tangible, empirical events, the act of distilling a set of behaviors and actions to one single cause dulls our capacity for cold-eyed analysis. It blinds us to the possibility that it is instead a combination of elements and contexts that forms character, influences decisions, and produces outcomes good or bad. Tyler Cowen, an economist and professor at George Mason University, calls this trap the “story bias.”
The problem with stories is not necessarily that they are “wrong” because they lack verifiable evidence, but that when we believe them, we begin to trade multiple truths for more compelling single truths that are not quite as, well, true. (The reality of multiple causes is true in biology as well. As most oncologists will tell you, cancer usually occurs not because of either genetics or environment alone, but a combination of both.) Philosophers know this debate is an old one. Plato held rhetoric in permanent suspicion. Aristotle hedged his support more in favor of it.
There is truth in the correlation between abused children who later grow up to abuse others and even become criminals. But, as we know, Stalin could never murder so many by himself. History produced his accomplices by the tens of thousands. Various historians of Russia and its history tell us that Russia was—perhaps still is, given its invasion of Ukraine—brutal due to centuries of oppression under Mongol rule. Perhaps the people of Russia learned to tolerate oppression due to serfdom, an institution that let rulers cut the noses off of servants and send them to Siberia whenever the mood struck. Perhaps, too, Russians learned to tolerate brutality due to the Orthodox Church’s failure to educate millions of serfs once freed. By some historical accounts, the intelligence apparatus of the Tsar was as ferocious and unjust as the KGB. An abused child can, years afterward, find ways and other people who might help turn life around. It takes a village—nay, a whole nation—to carry out atrocities.
I felt a sort of shame that I would need any story to persuade me that child abuse is wrong. What sort of simpleton needs any story to persuade them that abuse, murder, or lying is wrong? Just how close did my gullible nature put me in league with the current crop of conspiracy theorists who believe the fables of QAnon, or those who file into theaters to see The Sound of Freedom, a movie marketed as “based on a true story,” when in truth the realities of sex trafficking are more complex and difficult to fight than movie-screen villains somewhere in Latin America?
We crave explanations, especially those wrapped in compelling descriptions. Above all, we crave explanations for evil and atrocities that would be too much to fathom without such explanations. We love stories for their beauty, and their power to move us. We should not love them, however, because they deliver us wholesale to truth. That there has never been one story capable of that is what keeps us striving toward the next great story, yet to be told.