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The greatest criminal in history


Joseph Stalin

EVEN by the standards of the 20th Century, Milovan Djilas led an unusually interesting life. He spent his first 18 years in Montenegro, a hilly land where dwelt peasants whose fierce sense of loyalty to family and clan also implied a readiness to engage in blood feuds. Djilas was raised a Christian, but exchanged this religion for another, Communism, when he went to Belgrade University. Through the 1930s he was in and out of jail. By the time the Second World War broke out, he was a member of the Politburo of the Yugloslav Communist Party. When the Germans invaded his country, he became an active member of the Resistance. After the war and the coming to power of the Communists, he became a key member of the Yugoslav Government.

Djilas was particularly close to the leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party, Josep Broz Tito. He was sent on several important missions to Moscow, and stood by his boss when the latter broke with Stalin and the Russian Communists in 1948. His work was rewarded by the high office of Vice-President. However, by the early 1950s, Djilas became disenchanted with Communism. As he saw it, in its Yugoslav as much as its Soviet variant, the dream of a classless society has resulted instead in a stifling hierarchy in which the party commanded and the people obeyed. His criticisms were answered with criminal proceedings, and later, with incarceration. Eventually, this former inmate of a monarchist prison was to spend more time in jails run by Communists. Jawaharlal Nehru, to his credit, chastised Tito for imprisoning his former comrade. Although he could not get him released, the Indian Prime Minister's intercession did result in Djilas being removed from solitary confinement.

A publisher's blurb once described Milovan Djilas as having been "at different times a revolutionary, a solider, a political leader-and always a writer". At least three of his books were translated into English. These are The New Class, a devastating expose of the working of Communist oligarchies; Land Without Justice, a wry evocation of his Montenegrin boyhood; and Conversations with Stalin, a fascinating account of Joseph Stalin as seen through the eyes of a follower-turned-rebel. All three books read well, and all have endured. The one I choose to highlight here is the last, since this year, 2003, has seen the 50th anniversary of the Soviet dictator's death.

Conversations with Stalin is divided into three parts, respectively entitled "Raptures", "Doubts" and "Disappointments". To the loyal young Communist, Stalin was akin to a "little old grandfather who, all his life, and still now, looked after the success and happiness of the whole Communist race." When Djilas first met him, in 1944, Stalin and the Russians were just emerging, victorious, from a ferocious military struggle against the Nazis. But the Russian leader was "something more than a leader in battle. He was the incarnation of an idea, transformed in Communist minds into pure idea, and thereby into something infallible and sinless. Stalin was the victorious battle of today and the brotherhood of man of tomorrow."

Between 1944 and 1948 Djilas met Stalin several times. On each visit to Moscow he was asked to dinner, each meal providing a long introduction to the leader's mind and personality. The Yugoslav provides a vivid account of Russian gluttony. "The variety of food and drink was enormous — with meats and hard liquor predominating ... Everyone ate what he pleased and as much as he wanted; only there was rather too much urging and daring us to drink and there were too many toasts ... Stalin ate food in quantities that would have been enormous even for a much larger man. He usually chose meat, which was a sign of his mountain origins ... He drank moderately, usually mixing red wine and vodka in little glasses. I never noticed any signs of drunkenness in him, whereas I could not say the same for Molotov, let alone for Beria, who was practically a drunkard. As all to a man over-ate at these dinners, the Soviet leaders ate very little and irregularly during the day, and many of them dieted on fruit and juices one day in each week, for the sake of razgruzhenie (unloading)".

Over the years, the scales fell from the follower's eyes, and the disenchantment grew. Djilas came to see the integral link between Stalin's domestic and foreign policies. Having in his own country "subjected all activities to his views and to his personality", Stalin "could not act in foreign affairs other than as a dictator". Thus, outside Russia, he "helped revolutions only up to certain point — as long as he could control them — but he was always ready to leave them in the lurch whenever they slipped out of his grasp". At crucial moments, Stalin refrained from supporting the Spanish, Chinese and Yugoslav struggles, fearing that success would lead to "the creation of revolutionary centres outside Moscow (which) could endanger its supremacy in world Communism".

Djilas first began to have reservations about Stalin because of his own Yugoslav nationalism. He would not abide his country being dominated by another in the name of "communist internationalism". Later, to national pride was added the cause of democracy. Djilas began to see that however powerful and monstrous was Stalin's personality, his interests were congruent with those of the Party. For the ruling political bureaucracy "needed just such a man — one who was reckless in his determination and extremely practical in his fanaticism", to exercise its control over society as a whole. By the 1950s, the rule of the Party had exacted a horrific human cost in Russia. Millions had died in state-led drives against peasants, ethnic minorities, and political dissidents. Russians who were not killed or jailed were denied basic freedoms; unable to say what they thought, go where they wished or meet whom they wanted to. Meanwhile, the rigidities of centralised planning had destroyed Russian agriculture and put back all-round economic progress by several decades.

After Stalin's death, his "exercises" were criticised by his successors. But the basic structure of the one-party state remained. As Djilas put it in 1961, "despite the curses against his name, Stalin still lives in the social and spiritual foundations of Soviet society". De-Stalinisation could come only with the end of Communism, with the end of the "ideological and political monopoly" of a single party.

Milovan Djilas's final verdict on his former leader and hero was unambiguous. "Every crime was possible for Stalin", he writes, "and there was not one he had not committed. Whatever standards we use to take his measure, he has the glory of being the greatest criminal in history and, let us hope, for all time to come. For in him was joined the criminal senselessness of a Caligula with the refinement of a Borgia and the brutality of a Tsar Ivan the Terrible ... If we take the point of view of humanity and as cynical as Stalin was. He was methodical, all-embracing, and total as a criminal. He was one of those rare and terrible dogmatists capable of destroying nine-tenths of the human race to "make happy" the remaining tenth".

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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