I have been organizing a human rights film series for the past year, and leading discussions with the audience after the showing. For one of these discussions, I had with me (through Skype) the distinguished writer Stephen Heighton, and we talked about his novel Every Lost Country, set in Tibet and Nepal. Heighton is a poet, novelist and short story writer, equally adept at all these genres. We advanced possible parallels between the many brave left wing volunteers, who joined the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, and the many subsequent victims of the brutal retribution the dictator meted out to citizens who had supported the Republic, with the situation of dissidents described in Heighton’s novel.
After our discussion, I sought out another of the author’s books, Stalin’s Carnival.It contains a long poetic sequence – Ashes on the Earth: Selected Works of Josef Stalin.” These 14 poems take as their starting point the rather shocking fact that Josef Stalin, one of history’s most ruthless dictators and a pathological mass murderer, starting out in his early years as a budding poet. Certain biographers claim that Stalin’s poetry was fairly banal. Heighton, who should know, takes the view that this fierce revolutionary was, in fact, once a promising poet. One poem is freely translated by the author, who also bases other poems on Stalin’s letters and diary entries. It may be that a closer look at the poems can tell us something about the man’s unique personality. This Georgian revolutionary was once human! The young Stalin spent his first two decades in Georgia. The very first poem forcefully brings home to us the unimaginable disparity between the young romantic poet, who allows his readers to feel “the harsh grandeur of the Caucasus, /Georgian slopes and orchards” and years later, the new Man of Steel, who “strangled his wife / and slew twenty million others.” (“Stalin” – steel, was an assumed name, Jugashvlili being his actual name).
Stalin can certainly be likened to a magician who successfully deceives large numbers of left wing supporters in Western nations. The poems need to be read together to appreciate their cumulative effect. I find Elegy in Winter particularly moving. It recounts the experience of the loss of his second wife Nadezha, on the now “great man” and links it to the never-ending fields of snow – “your flesh has proven snow, and like the rest of them? You melt: white cells and singular crystals trampled, muddied by the stiff boots of soldiers in Red Square.” In this poem Heighton imaginatively transposes the thoughts the now ruthless and vicious tyrant might have into the language of the poet he might have been. One other poem I feel compelled to comment on is Testament, which brilliantly offers up a version of the last testament Stalin might have written. This is a recounting of the life of a tough, decisive political and military strong man who wrenched his backward country forward, with its heavy industry and Five Year Plans. He felt not the slightest compunction about trampling on the liberty and the very lives of all citizens who could possibly stand in the way. The third section of the poem imagines an encounter he once had with a young poet. Stalin slapped the man and barked at him to get out of his way – “poetry is for dreamers.”
The title of the collection, Stalin’s Carnival, contains the paradoxical idea that Stalin, of all men, could have organized a carnival. Perhaps his reign was indeed a carnival, a grotesque travesty of one, with punishments and violence and laughter on command being its hallmarks. I thought it worth elaborating on that concept with respect to the tragic developments that occurred back in Spain and Moscow in 1936 and ’37. In Spain, revolutionaries who were deemed to be no longer loyal supporters of the Communists in the war against Franco were summarily executed after secret trials. In Moscow, a series of show trials took place, which were open to the public. Stalin was able to orchestrate all of these massively unfair trials from behind the scenes while large numbers of progressive thinkers and activists failed to recognize or appreciate what had actually occurred. They accepted on faith that the trials were fair or at least necessary to carry out so that the glorious The title of the collection, Stalin’s Carnival, contains the paradoxical idea that Stalin, of all men, could have organized a carnival. Russian Revolution. Stalin can certainly be likened to a magician who successfully deceives large numbers of left wing supporters in Western nations. George Orwell was one of the only writers from Britain, for example, who, having actually engaged in military service as part of the international support for the Republic, was able to write a truthful account of the duplicity of Stalin and his henchmen. His Homage to Catalonia is a brave and now classic account of the betrayal of the Spanish Republic.
Arthur Koestler is another writer who encapsulates for me the ironies and duplicities associated with the advance of Communism in the 1930s and ‘40s and the conjuring abilities of the Soviet leader. His great short novel Darkness At Noon is a brilliant account of the interrogations of one of the Old Bolsheviks who were put on trial in Moscow in the late 1930s. Rubashov has been arrested for disloyalty and for secretly plotting to over throw the existing regime. In reality, his idealism and his statements advocating moderate reforms and deviations from the autocratic policies of Stalin mean that he must made an example and eliminated. Koestler fictionalized a major conundrum of the Moscow Show Trials – why did long-time, dedicated Communist Party members openly confess in court to a whole series of remarkable crimes against the state? The reader of this tense, thrilling novel quickly understands that Rubashov, like his real-life counterparts, could not possibly be guilty.
These 14 poems take as their starting point the rather shocking fact that Josef Stalin, one of history’s most ruthless dictators, and a pathological mass murderer, starting out in his early years as a budding poet. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the accused were tortured or threatened with torture, or told that their families would face severe punishment. Or, these servants of Stalin pled guilty out of weakness, and persuasive efforts by their jailers to convince them that they were somehow responsible for unacceptable deviations from the Party line. Perhaps they came to accept that it was their duty to confess, out of loyalty to the revolutionary goals that impelled them to act in the first place, and the long-term needs of Stalinism. Indeed, we read chapter after chapter depicting the stressful re-evaluation Rubashov undergoes. His jailers do not need to torture him. They succeed in moving him step-by-step towards an acceptance of “intellectual guilt” by playing on the long-time relationship between ends and means that has always been a part of the Soviet enterprise. Rubashov accepts with pain and considerable doubt, that only a guilty plea will meet the insatiable needs of the Revolution. Gletkin, the old revolutionary’s jailer, mercilessly pounces again and again, utilizing the brutal logic of revolutionary justice against the oppressed prisoner. Gletkin sternly tells Rubashov: “Your task… is to make the opposition contemptible, to make the masses understand that opposition is a crime and that the leaders of the opposition are criminals.” The poor, mentally beaten functionary is not a leader of any opposition, but he is forced to accept that, on some level, he must renounce his own views and accept that his only duty is to play the role it has assigned him. The novel ends on that bleak note, with his full confession and later execution carried out with no regard for fairness or due process.
Let us return finally to the poems in Stalin’s Carnival. They are poignant renderings of the way in which Stalin moved from a deep romantic attachment to Georgia to a merciless commitment to radical transformation of his native region and the rest of Russia and the Soviet Union, without regard to civility or any humane values. As Heighton writes: “A dictator is a poet of supreme accomplishments: his words are always heard and he can make them mean whatever he desires.” A diabolical magician by any reckoning.
As an update, it has just been announced that Steven Heighton is this year’s winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his work The Waking Comes Late.