Movie Nights with Stalin

Stalin, like all murderous totalitarian tyrants, was big on secrecy. It’s therefore probably a safe bet to assume that he would not have been best pleased had he learned that one day his personal papers would be searchable from anywhere in the world on a machine called a “computer,” and that a bearded Scotsman working out of a garden shed in Texas would seize the opportunity to take a look at his old school report cards. But he’s dead, and I did, so that’s that.

How did this peculiar state of affairs come about? Well, a decade or so back, the Russian state declassified the vast bulk of Stalin’s papers. Yale University Press then used a lot of these documents in its fascinating Annals of Communism series. One thing led to another until one day somebody suggested “Hey, why not digitize all of Stalin’s papers and make the archive searchable?”  Several years and half a million scanned documents later and lo! The Stalin Digital Archive was ready for business.

It’s a brilliant idea: now scholars anywhere in the world can use the site to research the Coryphaeus of Science without any of the attendant expenses and bureaucratic headaches involved in accessing the documents physically in Moscow.  However I had an even better idea- why not let non-scholars poke around? Specifically, a non-scholar called Daniel Kalder? And so one day in the hot, dusty garden shed where I do a lot of my writing, I logged on and started searching.

Immediately I was confronted by a problem: what should I search for? Stalin’s archive is vast and the digital nature of the archive makes it all pretty much accessible simultaneously. We’re talking seven decades’ worth of documentation related to a life that was, well, rather eventful. Meanwhile some parts of the archive have already been fairly well-excavated: I didn’t think I was likely to learn much by investigating, say, the purges. What could I discover that excellent historians such as Robert Conquest, Robert Service or Sheila Fitzpatrick have not?

“Bollocks,” I thought. “I’ll check out his school report card.”

And so I did, and with a few taps of the keyboard I found myself staring at Stalin’s grades from his last year at the seminary in Tiflis (nowadays Tbilisi.) It was an almost entirely religious curriculum and Stalin’s scores were middling, but by this time he had already developed a strong interest in revolutionary matters, so that’s not surprising. Even so, he did quite well in basic theology, and no doubt his strength here helped him as he later built quasi-religious cults around Lenin and himself, and also perhaps informed his later (quite successful) efforts at transforming Lenin’s febrile Marxist jibber-jabber into a simplified catechism suitable for mass consumption.

Read the rest of this majestic piece, here.

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