As many may have been aware, I am working towards a book called Saint Iosif: Stalin and Religion. Preparation entails a careful reading of his written works, from which I have posted from time to time. To my knowledge, few actually read Stalin these days, and yet he is, for good or ill, possibly the most important communist of the twentieth century, precisely because he remains such a controversial figure. My approach deploys both critical commentary, with careful attention to his intimate connection with religious thought, and it works with and develops a translation model for understanding the subtle connections between Marxism and religion. The prime focus is Stalin’s thought. Unlike the vast majority of studies on Stalin, I do not attempt to locate the tyrant in yet another way, now in terms of religious and philosophical thought. Rather, I take seriously Stalin the thinker, seeking to understand instead of praise or condemn. Such understanding extends to the very question of that polarisation, exploring the deeper reasons why he has been and continues to be venerated and demonized.

Chapter One: Setting the Scene: ‘The Priest’ and the Church

This chapter functions as the background to understanding Stalin’s texts. It deals with two items: Stalin’s historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Second World War; and his theological study at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary.

In 1943, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church (it may be traced back to the religious freedom clause of the 1936 constitution). In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, tens of thousands of churches were re-opened and the leadership hierarchy was re-established. In its turn, the church began to speak more openly of its support for the government (Acton and Stableford 2007, 71-74, 159-65). The result was that the church grew during Stalin’s era. At that time too, rumours began circulating of Stalin’s 1941 ‘mysterious retreat’, leading to a tradition of iconography that continues to this day. Good work on the political realities has been done (Miner 2003), pointing out that these developments were not due to a need for religious nationalism or to foreign policy pressures in relation to religion. However, I am interested in the way these factors provide a background for core issues I explore later: religion and national question; the dialectics of crisis; and the polarisation of Stalin’s image.

A second background factor attests to Stalin’s uniqueness among world communist leaders: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. A brilliant student and notably devout, this deeply formative time (from the age of 15 to his 20th birthday, 1894-99) had a lasting effect. A careful analysis of the theological content of his studies reveals ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin still memorised long passages from the Bible, annotated religious works in his library, and refused to include anti-religious works. These factors provide insights into his literary style, preference for biblical citations, and materialist doctrine of evil. It is not for nothing that in revolutionary circles he was known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Sentence Production and the Bible

In light of the background material, this chapter delves deeply into Stalin’s writing. It begins by focusing on form, specifically on the style of Stalin’s sentence production. His style ranges from methodical analysis (evincing detailed preparation), through rhetorical if not homiletic subtlety, to poetic flights of imagery and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the long process of creating the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution. One factor that influenced such a style was his early poetry, which was published and widely-appreciated in Georgia (Rayfield 1985). Another factor is the cadence of biblical texts in his writings. In order to account for this influence, I analyse his habitual patterns of biblical and religious allusions.

Chapter Three: Religion and the National Question

From the form of Stalin’s writing, I move to content and theory. In this chapter, I focus on the intricate interweaving of the ‘national question’ and religion. As the preeminent theorist of the national question, Stalin initially set out to counter the position of the Bund – the General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. However, in the end he adopted a modified version of their proposal. In order to counter divisive nationalism, the Bund sought a federated system that recognised the distinctive ethnic, cultural and religious nature of each group. Over two decades (1905-24), Stalin developed a delicate dialectical argument that was based on voluntary unity through autonomous diversity. Eventually, his position became the foundation of the USSR’s constitution (1924 and 1936) and of the first ‘affirmative action empire’ (Martin 2001). This entailed fostering languages, cultures, literature, education, religion and political leadership by local people. It also meant severe penalties for racial abuse. Further, Stalin saw the crucial implications for anti-colonial struggles around the world. Thus, the national question became internationalised. Throughout these developments, the question of religion was never far away. Practically, it appeared in the policies of allowing sharia law in Muslim-majority regions, as well as heavy penalties for anti-Semitism, especially in light of the many Jews in the Soviet administration. At a deeper level, the national question embodied Stalin’s own way of working through to a position that resembled that of the Bund.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Dialectics may owe some debts to Hegel and Marx, but it also has a long pedigree in theology. Stalin deploys many variations on the dialectic: unity through diversity (and struggle); subjective and objective; form and content; legal and illegal; backwardness as the basis for leaping forward; revolution and counter-revolution; intensification of the dialectic before its resolution; and an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. More importantly, Stalin develops the dialectic of transcendence and immanence, with distinct translations from the theological shape of this opposition. This applies to the relations between theory and action, but especially to relations between the communist party, on one side, and workers and peasants on the other. The party may appear to be transcendent, but when one perseveres long enough, it becomes immanent with workers and peasants. So also with workers and peasants: their position may initially seem to be immanent, but only through them does the transcendence of the party appear.

Chapter Five: Dialectic of Crisis

The most significant and sustained form of the dialectic is one of crisis. At its heart is the idea that the closer one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. The translation with theology is both clear and important: the more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become. And the closer one becomes, the clearer becomes the division between either-or. For Stalin, this dialectic of crisis is the basis for revolution. Indeed, this argument is Stalin’s unique contribution to the theory of revolution itself.

Chapter Six: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory, profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Important features of the doctrine include external and internal dimensions. Externally, the reality was a situation of constant threat, by the sustained international blockade against the new Russia, which included support of the white armies, systematic sabotage and spying, and enfolded into the Cold War. Internally, the constant threat of a ‘fifth column’ was linked with the continuing elaboration of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the need for constant purges (Khlevniuk 2009, 169-79). In fact, the internal feature of the doctrine is its most powerful. Above all, the Red Terror, especially in the extensive purges of the late 1930s, is the practical manifestation of this doctrine: good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Seven: Veneration and Demonization

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This chapter moves from analysing Stalin’s thought to assess how he has been understood. It argues that the polarisation over Stalin constantly translates categories between religion and politics, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in WWII and the builder of socialism. In order to understand that polarisation, I analyse the ‘foi furieuse’ of the new utopian project, which includes the foreign fascination with the new socialist experiment (David-Fox 2012), and its contrast in the many disappointments and eventual disillusionment with the project. Further, I deal with the path from his adulation in Russia and near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt 1973 [1951])). I also assess the way such polarisation is manifested in critical work on Stalin, with many seeking to demonize him in new ways and others attempting to resurrect him (Volkogonov 1990, Radzinsky 1997, Viola 1996, 2007, Edele 2011, Losurdo 2008, Furr 2011, Zyuganov 2012). But my primary focus is how such polarisation illustrates the translatability of religious and political terms. Veneration and demonization operate between both languages, with neither language claiming priority. Indeed, the intersection between them creates the intensity of the polarisation.

Select References

Acton, E., and T. Stableford, eds. 2007. The Soviet Union: A Documentary History. Volume 2: 1939-1991. Exeter: U of Exeter P.

Arendt, H. 1973 [1951]. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

David-Fox, M.. 2012. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Vistors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Edele, M. 2011. Stalinist Society, 1928-1953. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Furr, G. 2011. Khrushchev Lied. Kettering: Erythros.

Khlevniuk, O. 2009. Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle. Trans. N. Seligman Favorov. New Haven: Yale U P.

Martin, T. 2001. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Thaca: Cornell UP.

Losurdo, D. 2008. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Rome: Carocci editore.

Miner, S. M.. 2003. Stalin’s Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Radzinsky, E. 1997. Stalin. New York: Anchor Books.

Viola, L. 1996. Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Viola, L. 2007. The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Volkogonov, D. 1990. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove.

Zyuganov, G. 2012. Report of the Chairman, G. A. Zyuganov, to the XIV (October) Joint Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.