Was Stalin Crazy?

April 25, 2011 Topic: Muckety Mucks Region: Russia Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Was Stalin Crazy?

A new discovery raises questions about Stalin's mental state. Was he crazy like a fox—or just plain nuts?

When it comes to pathological dictators, there doesn't really seem to be much dispute about whether they're nuts or not. It sort of comes with the territory, doesn't  it? Plus the pressures in this particular line of work are bound to have insalubrious consequences. There are constant plots to worry about, attack from abroad, even criticisms from your own family, as Stalin discovered when his first wife lashed into him. The British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore dates Stalin's real crackup from the time his wife committed suicide in 1932.

So how much stock should we put in the discovery of a diary by Alexander Myasnikov, who was one of the Generalissimo's doctors. According to the doctor,

The major atherosclerosis in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness—which had clearly been developing over a number of years—affected Stalin's health, his character and his actions," Dr. Myasnikov wrote in his diaries, excerpts of which were published for the first time in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday. "Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid," the doctor wrote.

Well, I suppose. But wasn't Stalin on the road to craziness from the outset? His record as a Bolshevik revolutionary amounted to a prolonged tenure as a bank robber. He showed no compunction about offing his enemies from the outset. Still, there was something especially sinister about the man. He clearly was headed for a new, massive purge toward the end of his life, as the Doctor's plot indicated. Perhaps Koba, as he was known to his chums, might even have embarked upon a war against western Europe, though the evidence there is iffier.

The amazing thing is that several of Stalin's associates appear to have kept diaries, always a dangerous thing to do in a totalitarian regime. This week purported entries from secret service head Lavrenti Beria are appearing, where he waxes rhapsodic about wanting to go fishing. Ivan Maisky's diaries, which are excerpted in the New York Review of Books, are being published. None of this will surpass Nikita Khruschev's memoir, but they do add new details and flashes of insight into Stalin's regime. (So does the novelist Vasily Grossman's work--for a spectacularly insightful discussion see my friend Leon Aron's new review.)

Still, to try and chalk up Stalin's actions to sheer nuttiness is probably a mistake. To run the Bolshevik system required someone like Stalin. Terror is its essence. Absent someone like Stalin, who predicted to his associates that they would end up allowing the empire to collapse, communism can't really function. An older book, one of the greatest ever written about Stalin, Boris Souvarine's biography, got it right in emphasizing his Georgian heritage—essentially, Stalin could be viewed as a ferocious bandit who took over Russia and imposed his values on it. Russia continues to struggle to rid itself of them.

Image from the German Federal Archives