The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Our cadres who knew the situation of 1932-1933 and who bore the blow are truly tempered like steel. I think that with them we can build a State the like of which the world has never seen.
—Grigory Ordzhonokidze to Sergei Kirov, 1934
Grigory Konstantovich Ordzhonokidze (1886-1937) is sometimes given retroactive credit because he died mysteriously during Stalin's terror campaign in the late 1930s and therefore might have been some sort of proto-liberal who, despite his curriculum vitae as an Old Bolshevik, had been secretly at odds all along with the course toward absolutism. There can be no doubt that in the year of his "suicide" he protested directly to Stalin about the free hand given to the NKVD, and it seems probable that in the mid-1930s he had more than once expressed doubts about Stalin's excesses: a sign of independence, which certainly spoke for his bravery and might well have ensured the subsequent mysterious death all on its own. But his earlier record was of a factotum thoroughly implicated in repressive measures that neither he nor other grandees of his rank thought excessive at the time. Indeed, he wasn't just implicated in those measures: In many cases he planned them.
One of the few non-Russians ever to serve in Stalin's government, he was born in Georgia, joined the Bolsheviks in 1908, and during the Civil War was instrumental in bringing the Caucasus under Soviet control, with appropriately firm methods of persuasion. Moving to the economic sphere, he led the forced march to industrialization in the 1920s and early 1930s, with an impact on the civilian populace that would have looked excessive enough if he had not been so confident about acting as one of the instruments of history. If he did indeed become a member of the "moderate bloc" that some historians would like to think made an attempt to rein Stalin in, his motives for joining it would have had to be the result of considering some of his own past actions, about which he was on record as being unrepentant, if not untroubled. From our position now, at a safe distance from the ideal state, which at one point he was proud of having helped to build, we can see that his true historical role was to provide us with a standing joke. He really did believe, and really did say, that the people who inflicted the suffering suffered most.
When Ordzhonokidze talked about the cadres who "bore the blow," we need to know that the blow they bore was the supposed necessity of inflicting injustice, not of suffering it. (They had been inflicting it since Lenin decreed that the party would have to rule by terror.) In other words, we are being asked to sympathize with the butchers, not the victims. As Primo Levi was to warn the world after the Holocaust, it will always be in the interests of the perpetrators, after a great crime is identified, to say that they, too, were helplessly caught up in it and also suffered. But Ordzhonokidze was saying more than that. He was saying that the perpetrators were the true victims.
In the period of 1932-1933, Stalin staged the first of his great massacres: the immense disaster comprising the collectivization of agriculture, the liquidation of the kulaks, and famine exploited as a social weapon. His second great massacre was still ahead: the Yezhovchina, the comprehensive terror of which the 1938 show trials were merely the small component that the world heard about. But the two-year jamboree of repression euphemistically cited in Ordzhonokidze's grotesque letter was bad enough. The upper-echelon officials, many of them the very same Old Bolsheviks who later on would be eliminated almost to a man by the bureaucrat they had foolishly allowed to inherit Lenin's keys of office, had faithfully carried out their orders to mow down the innocent. Anyone who had qualms did not allow them to affect his trigger finger. Ordzhonokidze should really be talking about the ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless citizens. But the only suffering that interests him is the supposed wear and tear on the nerves of those deputed to carry out the destruction. By implication he includes himself and Kirov among their number: a brotherhood of martyrdom.
It is not recorded that Kirov declined the honor of being addressed as one who summoned up his bravery for the challenging task of making war on the defenseless. Because Kirov was later murdered in his turn (in 1934, the year the letter was written), we tend to forget that his own record as a murderer was exemplary. But the fact might be remembered when the Kirov Ballet company next comes on tour to a theater near you. St. Petersburg is no longer called Leningrad, but the Maryinsky company, when on tour outside Russia, is still called the Kirov, presumably on the assumption that the ballet audience abroad remains clueless enough to believe that Kirov had once had some sort of background in the fine arts, like Sir Kenneth Clark or Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Kirov's background was one of unrestricted power and the extermination of blameless human beings. A measure of our slowness to face up to the real history of the Soviet Union is that the "Kirov Ballet" does not strike us as obscene though the "Madame Mao School of Calligraphy" would. The Soviet Union, an earlier and more massive event even than Communist China, has retained its legitimacy, at any rate to the extent that some of its historical figures are still granted a stature that was always ludicrously at odds with their true significance.
In both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the class of professional exterminators divided fairly neatly into homicidal perverts who couldn't get enough and routinely squeamish placemen who had to get used to it. The second category necessarily outnumbered the first by a long way: Under both regimes, there was a large reservoir of men and women who were not much more insane than we ourselves but who, in extreme circumstances, could be talked into, or could talk themselves into, extreme behavior. In that respect, the regimes were mirror images of each other. When the long reluctance of the world's intellectuals to admit this disturbing fact was at last overcome—and until the collapse of the Soviet Union the admission never looked like happening—the pendulum swung the other way. On the whole, however, we have gained from the two great streams of unreason being seen in parallel: A full body count has at least had the merit of depriving apologists for the left (necessarily the more eloquent, because nobody except a psychopath ever apologized for the right) of the opportunity to excuse Communism by saying Nazism was quantitatively worse.
But the drawback of bringing the two main ideologies closer together has been to encourage the assumption that a system of belief can explain the killing. Such an assumption springs from the familiar tendency—and in some ways it is a commendable one—to invoke a complex mental preparation for an elementary human act. The absurdity becomes manifest in the political sphere when its proponent, as he must, finds himself trying to establish similarities between the mental processes of a sophisticated intellectual like G.Y. Zinoviev and a lumbering maniac like Saddam Hussein. Really, it doesn't matter what such different men believe, or think they believe. What matters is that they behave the same way, hence allowing us to deduce that what really interests them is unchallenged power, for which the necessity to commit murder is seen as a small price. (In harsh actuality, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the great killers became political figures in the first place for no other purpose except to wipe out their fellow human beings when they got the chance. Lenin was always vicious: a fact that, for more than 70 years, was the very last to be admitted by the international left intelligentsia even though men who had known him personally, and believed in his cause, had said so from the earliest days of the regime.)
The great mystery of the socialist totalitarian regimes has been not how they grew into killing machines—in retrospect, nothing seems more logical; it is how the machines were put into reverse. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, it was remarkable enough. Khrushchev began his career as an apparatchik capable of any crime the state ordered. But when the time came and he saw the glimmer of a chance, he didn't want to live that way any longer. Nor did Brezhnev.
But the real breakthrough was further back, when the first mass killers got tired of killing. Against all the odds, it happened. When you think of the blood on their gloves, it doesn't seem much of a comfort: but if you want to live in hope, you have to deal with some very raw material. And if you want to see an end to the kind of "State the like of which the world has never seen," you have to accept that for some people there is nothing more habitual than to do their worst. The sole function that your fine opinions might perform, and always at a tangent, is to affect those people at the moment when they begin to wonder whether being ordered to torment their fellow human beings might not indeed be a blow, and scarcely to be borne any longer.