Monday, December 18, 2006

December 18

On 18 December 1878, a child was born to a peasant family in Gori, Georgia, which was at the time part of the vast terrain of the Russian Empire. Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, as the baby was named on that day, would eventually distinguish himself as one of the most ghastly human beings to soil the historical record of the 20th century. By the age of 17, little Josef had established himself as a competent seminarian and an aspiring Georgian poet, offering up pleasant and subtly anti-Tsarist reflections on the landscapes of his youth. When he became a revolutionary, he ceased writing poetry forever.

Perhaps it was the near-daily beatings he absorbed at the hands of his father, an alcoholic craftsman displaced by the march of industrialization; perhaps his mother's sexual dalliances humiliated him to the core of his being; perhaps the deaths of his only three siblings established the morbid tone for his life; or perhaps, as the Vatican's chief exorcist recently claimed, he was possessed by the Devil. Whatever the explanation, "Stalin" -- as the infant would eventually come to call himself -- eventually presided over the deaths of millions of fellow Georgians as well as Russians, Latvians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Poles, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Finns, and other ethnic and national groups suppressed on behalf of the Soviet state. The precise numbers killed, displaced, and tortured during Stalin's rule will of course never be known. It is a grotesque testimony to his inhumanity, however, that estimates of the dead range from 800,000 to nearly 60 million -- these being mere "statistics," as Stalin himself infamously noted.

Known by such absurdist, sycophantic nicknames as the "Coryphaeus of Science," the "Father of Nations," the "Brilliant Genius of Humanity," the "Gardener of Human Happiness," Joseph Stalin contorted science to fit his own ideological demands; made orphans of nations across Eastern Europe and Central Asia; wrote almost nothing that rose above the level of pedestrian Marxian theory; and cultivated near-universal despair for decades. In 1934, his verbal abuse at a dinner party drove his second wife, Nadya Allilueva, to suicide. As for Stalin himself, he expired from a massive stroke on 5 March 1953. Most of his final day was spent alone on the floor of his dacha, where he lay partly paralyzed and unable to call for assistance, or to tell anyone that he had soiled himself. If he was not in fact poisoned -- as has sometimes been alleged -- he probably should have been.