The glamor of evil
Simon Montefiore performs the invaluable service of reminding us that a love for learning, charm, great erudition, a prodigious memory, a fine singing voice, a talent for oratory and a steady nerve are not incompatible with homicidal mania. The man with all these qualities held forth with artists like Babel, Akhmatova, Eisenstein, and Shostakovich; was the patron of Maxim Gorky and was a fan of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. He had tremendous people skills; he knew when to flatter, compromise or wait. The man remembered as Josef Stalin, for whom "the solution to every human problem was death", knew how to wait.
The great monsters of the 20th Century were not, as some might imagine, always deeply hated men. That came later, when they lost or lost power. They were at the height of their careers celebrities, creatures of the crowd, idols of the youth. And if boasting of a connection to celebrity is the true measure of his brilliance, Stalin's star has little dimmed. Vladimir Putin's grandfather was chef to Josef Stalin, the man who killed more human beings than Adolf Hitler.
In a world where fame and celebrity attend those we are supposed to admire, the ultimate loser is the man who can't dance. George Bush, we are reliably informed by the media, has the IQ of a moron, though how he matriculated from Yale and Harvard or flew an F-106 will remain an unexplained mystery. Doubtless his father bribed the airplane to fly itself.
But if literateness and culture were indicators of good, then Josef Stalin had a fair claim to excellence. The NYT, reviewing Montefiore's book, is positively thunderstruck by Stalin's range of humanistic interests:
He could sentence thousands of innocent people to death with a stroke of the pen and then go to his private cinema to enjoy an American cowboy movie, yet he could also display affection and tenderness. ... Once, when Artyom Mikoyan, designer of the MIG aircraft, "suffered angina and was put to bed, he was aware of someone coming into his room and tenderly laying a blanket over him. He was amazed to see it was Stalin."
These manifestations of humanity are supplemented with evidence that Stalin had intellectual aspirations. He displayed a passionate interest in history; at the height of World War II he spent his spare time reading about ancient Greece. After the war, as he was about to leave on vacation, he ordered a library of books that included volumes of Shakespeare, Herzen, Goethe's letters, ''Poetry of the French Revolution'' and a history of the Seven Years' War.
Then the NYT incredulously asks, "how to reconcile such manifestations of humanity and intellectualism with the persistent sadism, clinical paranoia and debauchery that fill so many of the pages of this book?" It is the surprise itself that is revealing. Why should intellectualism and evil be inherently incompatible? The NYT never tells us why evil should not assume fair shape. If anyone is to blame for this assumption it is probably Hollywood, which has persuaded us that bad guys always look the part. Shane had to look like Alan Ladd and the gunslinger Wilson like Jack Palance. We can hardly imagine the roles reversed. The disconnect about Ted Bundy was that he didn't look like Charles Manson.
But the spotlight attracts more things than song. Glamor was always part of the attraction to power. It's interesting to note that after Stalin defeated Hitler, one of his regime's first artistic concerns was to re-shoot the Triumph of the Will in a Soviet context with himself in the starring role. Even if he had to have a studio actor do it. In such productions the first hint of the presence of evil is the limited cast. Despite the cast of thousands there are only two characters on a dictator's stage: the Man and the Masses; and the Masses hardly more than a collection of ants, stripped of their last vestige of individuality, helpless, lost and awaiting only the touch of greatness to save them from their insignificance.
The first solitary hero descends from the clouds.
Below second hero descends from the clouds, this time in color, over the ruins of the first.
Bad guys don't always look like Jack Palance. Hucksters usually have good production values. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O son of the morning!"
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