Stalinism and Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s works are often quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.

Dostoevsky didn’t know much about radical Marxism, at the time just an obscure strand of a wide plethora of Socialist ideas. Instead, it was Anarchism and the accompanying concept of individual terror that captivated many minds among the urban youth. The edge of Dostoevsky’s social critique was directed against its Russian followers, who he generally associated with Liberals and other admirers of the contemporary Europe.

The novel Demons is dedicated particularly against what Dostoevsky viewed as the blight of progressivism. The piece was written by Dostoevsky some 50 years before Stalin came to power. The story is about a group of revolutionaries who plot to kill one of them, suspected of intended treason.

The novel has been profusely quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.

  • Stalinists of the imperial bend agree with Dostoyevsky’s view that progressism typically germinates in people from some kind of a deep psychological issue, a fundamental personality flaw, and reveals an ongoing moral rot in those affected
  • Nationalists hold against Stalin his allegiance to Communism, a Western idea imported by haters and detractors of the traditional Russia. Dostoyevsky didn’t spare bad words in Demons to express his repulsion at admirers of all things European.
  • Liberals love Dostoyevsky’s signature expression “the administrative bliss” (elation that bureaucrats experience when exersising their power on commoners). They use it to stress the potential of unlimited power abuse inherent to Stalin’s totalitarianism, and the vestiges of it in Putinist Russia.

Dostoevsky pioneered the Russian expression demokratícheskaya svóloch (“democratic scum”) that many Stalin admirers and Putin loyalists like to apply to our liberals and their foreign soulmates. Stalin himself never used it—but it adequately describes his opinion of the proponents of Western-style democracies.

Picture: “Demons”, Sarra Shor’s attempt to visualize Dostoevsky’s idea of Russian liberals, anarchists, and admirers of the West. Stalin didn’t like the book. The entire edition with her illustrations was destroyed in 1935.

Why didn’t the poor people of the world who could afford the trip, move to the Soviet Union?

Soviet rulers vacillated between considering immigrants from other countries a resource and a security risk.

Because the USSR didn’t want them to.

The Soviet Union wanted people to make revolt in their home country, raise the red flag and join the Soviet Union as an entire happy nation, free from exploitation classes and liberal scum.

Some people were too impatient to wait for the rest of their compatriots to free themselves. They traveled to the Soviet border and soon discovered it was guarded better than Fort Knox. Look at the DMZ between North and South Korea to get an idea: that´s us who taught the Norks how to guard borders.

This is what the Soviet border looked like:

To the left, a barbed fence. In the middle, a plowed strip of mud where anyone who crossed it would leave visible footsteps, so that the incursion could be detected and hunted down by patrols who inspected it with assured frequency.

The foreign poor people who somehow managed to find an opening in the fence and didn´t get shot by border guards, would promptly be located inside the USSR thanks to all-encompassing ID checks in every nook and corner. Again, look at the North Korea. They learned from the best.

Thereafter, the people´s court of justice would swiftly get the trespasser a prolonged sentence as a foreign spy. Who else but a cunning spy would have skills and resources to travel half the world and outfox the Soviet border guards? The Soviet Union was known to live in the iron circle of capitalist powers that dreamt of annihilating us; who could blame us for the preference to be rather safe that sorry.

Much more predictable was the legal route through Soviet embassies and consulates around the world. Sure, they had strong preference for people who were not poor, but chances for success were generally good. A German-Jewish idealist Elinor Lipper was one of the lucky applicants, and wrote a book about what happened afterwards.

The number of foreigners who wanted to move to the USSR dropped after WW2. Still, there were some exciting stories. Among them the tale of Lee Harvey Oswald. He found love in our country and got a kid, but later preferred the career of an American president assassin over the safety of life as a floor operator at an assembly plant in Minsk.

Torgsin: Stalin’s money machine

The massive Soviet industrialization needed a lot of cash to pay for Western technology and equipment. Stalin used famine for getting out gold and jewelry that people were hiding in private stashes.

During the collectivization of private peasants in 1928-33 in the USSR, a large part of the food produced in new collective farms was exported to cover the cost of import for Stalin’s breakneck industrialization. This was the major purpose of the collectivization.

Price fall

However, quite soon Stalin’s agroexports hit a considerable wall. The economic crisis in the West led to a sharp drop in prices on Soviet commodities. The collapse of grain farming due to the disappearance of private peasants made it impossible to increase exports in order to compensate for the price fall.

Stalin and his prime-minister at the time Molotov found a smart Communist solution to that impasse. They used the famine to vaccuum gold, jewelry, foreign currency, art and other liquidity from people’s stashes hidden around the country.

Gold for food

Collectivization resulted first in a shortage of food, and then a nationwide famine. The black market prices went exhorbitant, the state rationing paikí was limited to those employed in the party and government. For the rest, the only way to feed themselves and the family was often to bring out their valuables and sell them for food.

In order to forestall private profiteers, Stalin and Molotov grabbed the business for themselves. They opened up to 1,500 Torgsin shops around the country. Anyone could bring their valuables there and exchange them for food, no questions asked. One “Torgsin rouble” was at the time worth 35–40 regular Soviet roubles in the black market. An average worker’s salary at the time, ~125 RUB, was roughly equivalent to three “Torgsin roubles”. In 1933, at the height of the famine, three TR would buy you in Torgsin about 9 kg meat or 6 kg sugar.

Family abroad

People who didn’t have valuables, but had relatives abroad, could send them a telegram or a letter asking for a currency transfer. Calls of distress that contained the magic line “Wire the dollars to Torsin” were allowed to leave the country unimpeded. For those who had charitable relatives abroad, Torgsin even felt obliged to dispatch the priceless relief packages to their doorstep.

During 1931–1936, the Torgsin system covered between 1/3 to 1/5 of annual cost of Soviet industrial imports. Soviet estimates say that 90–95% of all liquid valuables in private possession was confiscated during this time.

The photo below shows one of the Torgsin shops in Leningrad. The sign to the left is a price list for bread, to the right says “Don’t touch the merchandize”.

Torgsin shop in Leningrad
Photo: A Torgsin shop in Leningrad.

Russia’s national motto

The national idea of Russia is power. Over time, it took different forms, including veneration of Czars and an assortment of Communist memes. The harsh era of Stalinism helped forge a motto that fuses all of them into one powerful one-liner.

Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”.

This was born in the Gulag. New arrivals were taught is as a kind of a lucky spell for survival. It encapsulated the massive wisdom unearthed by hundreds of thousands of people thrown into the meat grinder of the Communist rule. Its deep meaning seems to have been well absorbed by all our shakers and movers ever since the Bolsheviks had destroyed the Russian empire.

If President Putin lasts long enough to write a memoir, this line might be a very good epigraph to the book. If not, a tombstone?

“Don’t trust”

It’s about cutting through the ideological nonsense dispensed by the State. Even more important is a warning not to have any illusions and high expectations, as well as not to succumb to hubris, no matter how good is the hand you’re holding. A very helpful thing to do is also never to let your guards down. In the homeland of the best spies and the most professional secret police in the world, your wife, your best friend and even your kids might be informing on you. Better be fully prepared to absorb this, too.

“Don’t fear”

The massive, sky-high wall of State power is full of holes and cracks. Find them and use them. Don’t let bad luck paralyze you. Sticking up your neck is dangerous, but it also projects an internal force and dignity that many people mistake for power. Fake it until you make it—some people somehow made it to the very top.

“Don’t beg”

Begging projects weakness, which is worse than a mortal sin in Russia. In our neck of the woods, weakness attracts all kinds of vultures, demons and bad luck that otherwise are strangely indifferent to those who steal, rob and plunder. Therefore, even when you lose, always bite the dust in silence.

There is a 15-year old hit of the fake lesbian duo TATU titled Ne ver ne bóysya ne prosi (“Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”). The lyrics are mostly a nonsensical expression of adolescent confusion, defiance, and the fascination of the words of criminal wisdom. You may also find interesting a book about recent adventures of a group of Western ecologists in Putin’s jail, titled Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg.

don't trust don't fear don't beg
Photo: A tattoo design suggested by Studio with the Russian national motto in Latin.

Two waves of the Soviet industrialization

Industrialization of the USSR during Stalin’s rule was one of the most astonishing chapters of the 20th century. However, it’s nature seems to be poorly understood.

Industrialization of the USSR happened at a breakneck speed, and created a world-class military-industrial complex. Thanks to the Cold War and arms race, it received a lot of hype. The scale of it made the entire world both envious and wary of the enormous potential the Communists managed to mobilize.

Yet, surprisingly few are aware of how it came about.

Official version

Soviet propaganda made it look like the history of ancient Egypt. There was a desert, and the river of Nile flowing through it—and then a lot of people came and erected the Sphinx, the pyramids, the whole Monty, and left everyone in awe and amazement. Same in the USSR: the Party mobilized workers and peasants, and together they created an industrial giant in a way that no Capitalist power was able to match. How? It was the creative energy of the entire Soviet people and an unparalleled superiority of the Communist rule.

The fact is, our industrialization came in two waves. Both of them involved a lot of imported technology.

First wave: 1929–1941

On May 8, 1929, the Soviet government contracted the “architect of Detroit” Albert Kahn to design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first tractor plant in the USSR. It was the first in a series of contracts that secured delivery and launching of some 1,500 industrial and power plants. The payments were funded through sale of grain confiscated from collectivized peasants, requisition of the church property, sale of art objects and price arbitrage on jewelry and gold Soviet citizens were handing to the government in exchange for food in the Torgsin shops.

For management of the technology import, a government body
was established in Moscow with wide authority and priority in funding. It was called Gosproektstroi. It employed Albert Kahn’s younger brother, Moritz Kahn, who trained over 4,000 Soviet architects and engineers and designed 521 plants and factories under the First Five-Year Plan.

Global assistance

In the early 1930s, several thousand American engineers, hundreds of thousands of workers in the US, and as many (at least) Gulag prisoners built some 1,500 plants and power stations that formed the backbone of the Soviet military-industrial complex that awesomely did work before, during and after WWII.

The German part of the industrialization effort was managed by Demag through their local branch ЦБТМ. Italian bit by Fiat/RIV.

If it were not for Albert Kahn Inc., Ford, Cooper Engineering Co, Siemens, Demag, Austin Inc. and other American and German companies, the victory of Allies and the entire Cold War afterwards would have not been possible.

Country-sized shop floor

When the Nazis struck in June 1941, after the first few months they were stunned by the military might of the USSR. In a broadcast on October 3, 1941, Hitler declared that the occupied Soviet territories appeared to be “a single armaments factory”. Remember, Stalin managed to relocate to the east 2,600 industrial plants and 10 million workers before the Nazis arrived. In other words, Hitler only spoke about what was left.

Second Wave: 1945–1953

After the end of WWII, the Soviet union confiscated and moved to the Soviet territory 5,500 plants from Germany and Japan-occupied part of China and Korea, as well as an unknown amount of single pieces of equipment and plants owned by Germans and Japan across the entire occupied area. The remaining British and Romanian oil equipment from the Ploiești oil fields found their way to our territory, too.

The East German authorities estimated the total value of war reparations paid to the USSR after WW2 at $16 billion, or about $170 billion in today’s currency, which was about half of the East German GDP at the end of the 1940s. The number doesn’t seem to include anything confiscated before the Potsdam conference in June 1945 where the matter of war reparations was settled. Neither the “grassroot reparations” by the Soviet troops, taking home with them the loot from private homes, as well as art objects confiscated during the first months of Soviet occupation, before a systematic itemizing of collections was put in place.

Khrushchev’s luck

Stalin didn’t get the entire credit for this, as most of its effect came to force first after his death in 1953, during the reign of Khrushchev. The second wave of industrialization carried the USSR until the discovery of oil in West Siberia, which kept the Soviet project floating until the mid-1980s.

The effect of both waves of Industrialization are clearly visible on the graph below. The red one shows the official Soviet statistics, gray one is stats revised by the Higher School of Economics.

Growth in industrial output in Russian Empire and the USSR in 1913-1953
Graph: Growth in industrial output in Russian Empire and the USSR in 1913-1953.

Narcissism is a risky luxury in Russia

Russia provides a rather hostile environment for people too full of themselves.

In Russia’s millennium-long winner-takes-it-all history, the country has produced surprisingly few famous narcissists. Those who caught the public limelight, were brought down rather swiftly: Emperor Pavel I, Alexander Kerensky, Lev Trotsky, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Berezovsky.

It looks like the hammer and anvil of Russian self-doubt and imperial despotism kept weeding out the kindreds of Trump, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi in our neck of the woods. If you insist on putting your head high above the parapet, sooner or later the wrath of Russian gods takes you down. That’s the wisdom most Russian babies absorb with their mothers’ milk.

Stalin, for decades living in the sweetest spot of unrestrained glorification, never seemed to be relishing the moment. He just used it as a torchlight for spotting hidden enemies—those who either admired him too much, or too little.

The same is true for Putin. Watch Putin’s facial expression when someone tries to dissolve themselves in humility and awe before the Russian President: “Was that Judas’ kiss?”.

The brilliant Germa philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It seems, in Russia, you don’t need to stare into the abyss to get noticed. All it takes is to be full of yourself. If you bask in your own impossible awesomeness long enough, at the end of the day the abyss will find you.

In a recent Russian TV series about Trotsky, his alleged narcissism is shown as one of the major reasons he lost the power game against Stalin. The creators of the series also hold his narcissism agaisnt him as something that revealed his uncompatibility with Russia’s culture and hate of our country.

Three reasons to read (and not to read) “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski

The book “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski contains an exhaustive description of the tool set of violence used by the most successful practitioner of Communism, Iosif Stalin.

German historian Jörg Baberowski was a Communist in his youth. He learned Russian, specialized in Russian imperial history, and is now recognized as one of the leading experts on Stalinism. His approach to the issue of politically motivated violence earned him a hate on the part of German leftist groups who call him a “right-wing extremist“.

In his book Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Jörg Baberowski analyzes the preconditions and driving forces for the reign of terror installed by the Bolsheviks during the first decades of the Soviet rule.

Three reasons to READ the book

  1. The book is a true fountainhead of quotes about Communism, Russia and Soviet Union coming from a dizzying array of personalities–from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky to obscure Soviet functionaries. Many of the quotes are quite controversial. If you want to stir an epic discussion in an online forum with a lot of Russians and/or Communists, you find here much potent fuel to pour into the ideological flames.
  2. The book provides an exhaustive, albeit sometimes too verbose, description of the tool set of totalitarian violence every aspiring dictator needs in order to stay on the top of the game.
  3. Many years of anti-Stalinist research in the midst of the left-leaning European academia has taught the author to pick the words and arguments that have a lot of punch. For such a heavy subject, the book is an easy read.

Three reasons to SKIP the book

  1. Either it’s the author’s Catholic roots, or the remorse of his Communist past–either way, the text seems way too judgmental to my taste. “Stalin was a murderer who took pleasure in destruction and harm,” Baberowski writes. This moral indignation may compromise his approach if you want to look at the issue of violence from a revolutionary’s point of view.
  2. As a meticulous researcher, Baberowski find few details too small to add to his narrative.
  3. Violence in a land of a triumphant Communist revolution is a gory affair–especially in Eastern Europe. The wealth of horrendous details from the basements of Stalin’s secret service and his killing fields in the book is simply too tiring.

Quotes from the book:

People who know nothing but dictatorship develop different standards of valuation than people who were once free and then lose their freedom. After the reign of terror there were no longer any competing interpretative elites, no church as a moral institution, no emigration with a voice, no reminders of the time before communism, no Western television, no “brothers and sisters” abroad, and no occupiers to blame for the misery and oppression. There was nothing but the dictatorship, either in the present or in the past.

“Stalin is not dead. The ax outlives its master.

Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg Baberowski
Scorched Earth Stalin's Reign of Terror Jorg Baberowski
Cover of the German original of “Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror”, by Jörg Baberowski

The most and least populous cities in Russia

The most and least populous city in Russia are to find at the same place, atop each other. Moscow is a sprawling giant where everyone wants to move one day. Beneath is a secret city when no one lives: this is where many are going to move from the surface in the case of war.

Our most populated city is, predictably, Moscow. “Everyone” in the country dreams of moving here one day. It became the most populous city of Europe in the 20th century, and there’s no way it’s going to lose this position any time soon.

Underreported figures

Moscow is now home to somewhere between 13-15 million people. In addition to all officially registered as Moscow residents, there’s one to two million who for different reasons live here below the radar. The system for official registration inherited from the Soviet era is too restrictive and cumbersome.

Turks claim that they have more people in Istanbul. But a lot of these live on the Asian side of the Straits. If they are going to insist on challenging Moscow’s top position, we have millions of Russians ready to immediately move to Moscow to make sure it stays in the lead.

Least populated city

The least populated city in Russia is the underground city beneath Moscow. This one is vast in its sprawl, is fully functional, but likely has zero permanent population.

Its construction was ordered by Stalin in the 1920s, and continued under the following Soviet rulers. The famous Moscow subway “Metro” came about as a side project to this.

City under the city

Stalin needed a safe communication route for himself and his staff in case of a coup. Later, with the onset of strategic air forces, it all was upgraded as bombproof facilities. After WWII, Stalin was rumored to expand it on an epic scale after he learned of all the details of the siege of Berlin in 1945 and how Hitler was trapped and isolated in his bunker.

Its modern purpose is to ensure not only the survival of the Russian leadership. Also, it shall facilitate the full functioning of the government for months and possibly years after a direct nuclear attack on the Kremlin. It’s kind of a Russian version of the US Air Force One arrangement.

Long-term arrangement

The underground city shall provide the entire infrastructure for thousands of people who are needed for the daily management of a country at war—complete with several bomb-proof exits for cars, trucks, lorries, helicopters and railway trains. For obvious reasons, its plans are the utmost secret, entrances are sealed and very few people ever walk in there. If some evil force suddenly puts you there, chances are your friends and family will never see you again.

Below, a huge territory south of the Moscow University campus, covered with garages. This is one of the few visible markings of the secret underground city. Ever since the Stalinist era, some huge classified facility has been hidden here from prying eyes. This prevented building anything on the surface that required heavy foundations. The mercantile spirit of the Putinist era could not stomach such a big morsel of valuable property to be lying idle. Now, it seems that the object is partly or fully decommissioned—and several heavyweights close to the Kremlin are locking horns around development rights.

Moscow-2 secret underground complex south of Moscow State University
Garages atop a secret underground complex from the 1950s in the south-western part of Moscow.

The construction of the “Stalin’s skyscrapers” (on the map below) around the city was believed to camouflage the digging of deep underground objects for the secret city. The building of these high structures provided a “civil” cover for the large-scale ground works beneath, or around the spiky buildings. Moscow University is the one in the south-western corner (no 1). The no 6 east of the Kremlin and the Palace of Soviets with a giant statue of Lenin (no 5) have never been built. No 5 is where the Cathedral of Christ the Savior stands rebuilt now.

Stalin skyscrapers atop secret underground structures around Moscow
Stalin’s skyscrapers atop secret underground structures around Moscow, built in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

What are all the historical incidents that the victors didn’t want the world to know?

What are all the historical incidents that the victors didn’t want the world to know?

The role of Stalin in the start of WW2.

The decisive contribution of the USSR in the victory over Nazism, and the strategic need to keep Germany down in the post-war Europe on the part of the Western allies, dictated the version of 1939–1941 that most people are used to know: Hitler caused it all, helped along with major blunders from France and Great Britain, as well as the attempts of Stalin to recover the pre-WWI territories of Russian empire and direct Hitler’s aggression to the west.

The Nuremberg trial, and the global recognition of Holocaust crimes cemented this narrative. No one saw any reason to dig up anything that could diminish the undivided responsibility of Germany for the catastrophe.

What is overlooked/ignored/sanitized, is the strategic course of Stalin on provoking a major continental war in Europe, starting from the Soviet interference in the Spanish civil war. Such a war was conceived as one where the USSR would remain neutral, until “the Imperialist vultures” would exhaust themselves enough for the Soviet to launch a new wave of revolutionary wars. Basically, a replay of WWI with Russia staying out of the fray and picking the spoils at a “Versailles 2.0” settlement.


  • Build-up of the military-industrial complex in the USSR with an army that dwarfed anything else in the world.
  • Adoption of a military strategy that mirrored the offensive blitzkrieg thinking of Germany.
  • Adoption in peace time of the German model of war economy from WWI by Walther Rathenau and Erich Ludendorff, with mass mobilization for war preparation, the ideology of mass sacrifice, and commodities rationed at fixed prices.

I’m not implying that Stalin, when he went for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, intended to start a new continental, or worldwide war. The French and English ultimatums and mobilizations in September 1939 were just an added bonus for him. What Stalin wanted, was a German “go-ahead” for the second wave of revolutionary wars around the Baltic Sea, and along the western border.

However, the scale of it turned out a nasty surprise for Hitler, which ultimately led to the Barbarossa plan and the attack of 1941).

The logic of Stalin’s actions in 1939–1941 also points toward practical preparations for a pre-emptive attack on Germany, along the lines of “thwarting the Finnish provocation” at Mainila, even though no unequivocal proof of this in Soviet archives so far has been uncovered. Much remains closed to researchers, while the open sections may have been profoundly sanitized during the Soviet time.

As to the Western powers who may have got access to German documents or to some witness accounts from high-ranking Nazis proving it, they saw no reason for corroborating it. It would complicate their strategy for permanent dismantling of German ability to become a major power again.

One most essential book about the Soviet Union

The best, most solid primer on the Soviet history for me was The Abridged History of the Communist Party (Boshevisks), along with its later, de-Bolshevized, Soviet companion The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

All my knowledge of the Soviet history originates from here. It discusses all the major points of our modern history in a very concise form. It is also much more riveting than any other history book about the period. The correct way of using it is pretty straightforward:

  • Dismiss all theorizing, build a timeline with factual events placed on it
  • Assume that everything mentioned in the book really happened
  • Assume that everything written about every particular event is a lie
  • Build a hypothesis of what exactly is misrepresented and formulate an assumption for why Communists lied about the event and the people involved in it.
  • Test your assumption, reading any other contemporary book of your choice.

The Bolshevik authors that compiled the book were very smart, knowledgable and thorough people. They worked under very tight supervision by Stalin, who had a very clear strategic vision, and thought in terms of a thousand-year-old Russian history, reconstructed with the Marxist toolbox, and adapted to the needs of the XX century mass politics. All the events we need to know about Soviet history, are carefully selected and compressed there. Nothing unnecessary, nothing extraneous.

The Abridged History of the Communist Party Bolsheviks
The cover of the first edition of the main book of Soviet history, “The Abridged History of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks)”. Most of it contents survived its creator Stalin, and shaped how the Soviet history was presented by the Kremlin in the post-Stalin era