To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . .
We must learn from Stalin
his sincere intensity
his concrete clarity . . . .
Stalin is the noon,
the maturity of man and the peoples.
Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride . . .
— Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Stalin”
Stalin was no longer “the noon” by 1970. The Swedish Academy that year awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose personal experience with Stalinism as reflected in his monumental writings was not so much an occasion of pride. But the next year Left-wing Stalinists were back in vogue, and the Academy awarded the prize to none other than Pablo Neruda, who had penned his nauseating “Ode” shortly after the tyrant’s death in 1953.
It’s worthwhile to note that the Nobel committee chair, Anders Österling, had some initial misgivings about Neruda’s Left-wing politics and his Stalin sycophancy, but was finally persuaded that the Chilean was more deserving of the prize than W.H. Auden, Patrick White, André Malraux, and Eugenio Montale — all of whom were short-listed that year as candidates.
Ezra Pound, whose poetry and legacy dwarfs that of Neruda, was never awarded the Nobel Prize because . . . Well . . . “Österling had previously spoken out against the candidacy of Ezra Pound because he ‘propagates ideas of a nature that is definitely contrary to the spirit of the Nobel prize.’”
The Soviet Union and the Communist International’s (Comintern) official line was relentlessly anti-fascist throughout the early and mid-1930s. The Popular Front of the Comintern called for collaboration by all parties on the Left to combat the threat of fascism, as represented most menacingly by Hitler. On August 23, 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, making the Soviet Union and the Third Reich — which heretofore had been ferocious ideological antagonists — comrades, so to speak. Within a week the Wehrmacht had begun punching its way through western Poland, giving the shell-shocked Poles their first taste of what German rule would feel like.
The signatures on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had also turned on the green light for Stalin to send in the Red Army from the east. After his invasion he dispatched his Gestapo-esque People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) to round up thousands of Poles on the eastern side of the country, ship them in cattle cars to the Gulags, and eventually murder 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Wood in the western parts of Belorussia and Ukraine in 1940. The Poles in 1939, having been encouraged by the Brits — who themselves had nothing with which to back up their commitment to defend the country — to play hardball with Hitler paid the price for their folly and were trapped in a crushing vise of terror, murder, and annihilation.
The Hitler-Stalin pact was, to say the least, extremely disillusioning on the highest scale and devastating to the morale of many true-believing Communists, particularly those in the West who had rallied to Stalin and the USSR because they had seemed as if they were the bulwark against fascism and Hitler. After that it was hard not to conclude that Stalin’s much vaunted anti-fascism had always been cynical posturing and a cover for his opportunism. In reality, the best definition of a “fascist” was “Stalin’s enemy du jour.”
Stalin continued to disillusion the faithful even after his death. In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev stood before his Communist colleagues at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow and denounced his former boss, mentor, and the god of the entire Communist world for his crimes. The facade of the greatest genius in history was now showing some cracks.
To be sure, Stalin’s wily successor was selective in his denunciations. He had to be, since he himself had long been a loyal Stalin lieutenant, and over the years had diligently carried out many of the General Secretary’s lethal initiatives. A survivor of many high-level Party purges, he was stained from head to toe with Ukrainian blood from the 1930s. But Stalin was three years dead by then, and in embalmed repose next to Lenin, and thus the time had come for Khrushchev to take his mentor to task for his creation of the Stalinist “Cult of Personality” and the shabby treatment of his fellow Bolsheviks, many of whom had been framed, defamed, shot, or thrown into the Gulag.
Khrushchev, however, needed to walk a fine line in all of this. To try to take Stalin down completely would have been suicidal for him, since those he was addressing either had long been complicit in Stalin’s dirty deeds, or at the least were the beneficiaries of his system of terror. In fact, Khrushchev was undertaking the very unenviable — some might say impossible — task of trying to extract and expunge Stalin’s long-erected cult of personality from the edifice of Stalinism itself. Moreover, Khrushchev himself was Stalinist to the core, not averse to applying whatever amount of coercion and deceit was sufficient to maintain power. He still believed in the Soviet system that Lenin and Stalin had put in place and the Communist promise of triumph over capitalism, and he would never doubt the Bolsheviks’ exclusive entitlement to total power, crushing those who ever attempted to challenge it.
Stalin’s successors presided over a one-party police state that was still relentlessly Stalinist in its dishonesty, ruthlessness, and jealousy of power. The Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs would all come to know this soon, to their sorrow. Khrushchev’s daring and myth-shattering exorcism was in reality a desperate attempt to square a circle, to double down and load up all the blame for the decades-long Soviet practice of political murder and slavery entirely on Stalin, who was now safely dead, and so purify and legitimize the Party.
Khrushchev’s speech was a secret one — for the ears of Party members only. The truth — or rather the fractured, self-serving version of it that Khrushchev had conjured up for this occasion — was only meant for his colleagues. It could not be shared with the vast numbers of Russians whose family members had been Stalin’s victims. It was all highly ironic, and the secret was too much to contain. This, too, sent shock waves through the Communist world. Eight months later, the Hungarians tried to throw off their Stalinist masters. In the West, disillusionment with Communism ran high, with defections of the faithful becoming widespread. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost a quarter of its membership in the two years following Khrushchev’s speech.
All in all, Khrushchev’s speech was itself an amazing gesture: an attempt at redemption, a vintage work of Bolshevik deceit. As he stood among Stalin’s accomplices, he made the Communist Party itself out to be a victim of Stalin. Perhaps in some respects he was right. No one, not even the wielders of power and the upholders of Communist authority, could live in a system that was so coercive, cynical, and corrupt and not fall in some way a victim to it.
There is a lesson in this for today. At some point, dishonesty, cynicism, and corruption in a ruling class rise to a level that makes all of its pretenses to legitimacy a sham. Are we there yet?
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 You have to search to find an unexpurgated copy of the “ Ode” that doesn’t omit the most servile lines. It’s also not included in many editions of his collected poems.
 Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, translated by Javier Guerrero (Barcelona: Ediciones B.S.A, 2009), 442.
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