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The Punishment for Having the Wrong Thoughts

This is extracted from a book review by Gary Saul Morson of the New Criterion on Inside the Stalin Archives by Jonathan Brent.

Stalinism was idealist in another, even more terrifying sense: it aimed at controlling from within the very thoughts we think. In a toast delivered on November 7, 1937, at the height of the Terror, the Great Helmsman swore to destroy every enemy:

Even if he was an old Bolshevik, we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts–yes, his thoughts–threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!

Even the worst of the tsars never thought of punishing relatives for a criminal’s acts. But what is truly remarkable about this toast is the promise to murder people and their kin for thoughts. One must live in continual fear of one’s own mind.


Brent begins his book with a memorandum written byAndrei Vishinsky, Stalin’s chief prosecutor, to Nikolai Yezhov, thesecret-police chief, about what he had seen in a tour of the Gulag.There were prisoners, Vishinsky explained, who had “deteriorated to thepoint of losing any resemblance to human beings.” An interrogatorduring the doctors’ plot wrote that, after one torture session, theelderly Dr. Vasilenko “lost his entire human aspect.” Perhaps the mostimportant lesson to come from the Stalin archives is that any ideologythat does not admit the existence of human nature winds up destroyingnot only countless lives but also the human soul.

Under Putin, Russia has turned away from a fleetingopportunity to embrace legality. A sort of mafia rules without breakingthe law–because there is no real law. And yet, by comparison with theSoviet period, Russia is free and humane. To be sure, any journalist orbusinessman who displeases the regime is likely to be imprisoned,maimed, or killed. But millions are not arrested at random.

Solzhenitsyn once asked why the bloodthirsty Macbethkilled only a few people while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions. Heanswered: Macbeth had no ideology. So far as we can tell, neither doesPutin. Today no one tries to remake human nature. For the time being,and however precariously, the human spirit survives.