March 15, 2004

Stalin and Saddam

Posted by Ed

In the current History Today, Simon Sebag Montefiore discusses some of the issues that he considered while writing a book on Stalin's inner circle. I was really struck by one particular series of anecdotes:

When I was researching Stalin, I learned that most of the great decisions of his rule took place not in the Kremlin but in his dachas, particularly those in the south. Few historians had visited all these so I set off to find them in the bandit republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, which can only be reached by UN Peacekeeping helicopter. When I was at one of them, I asked the old caretaker if anyone else had visited them all, fearing that she would answer that Robert Service or Richard Overy had just left. 'No,' she answered, 'but in the 1970s there was an Arab gentleman who visited every one.' 'Who was that?' 'Saddam Hussein.'

Saddam was obsessed with Stalin, and Ba'athism was an Arabist pastiche of Bolshevism. When a Kurdish leader was invited into Saddam's personal apartments to negotiate, he was amazed to find, in addition to bottles of Johnny Walker whisky, virtually everything written about Stalin translated into Arabic. The comparisons were legion--and not lost on Saddam: Tikrit and Gori are just a few hundred miles apart. Both men were brought up by strong mothers, rejected by weak fathers, protected and inspired by stepfather figures. Both rose through terrorist exploits. Saddam, born in 1937 the year of the Soviet Great Terror, seemed to directly ape Stalin's Central Committee Plenums of that year when he took power and held his famous meeting when his leadership rivals were arrested. But Saddam, despite his attempts at fiction writing, lacked Stalin's subtlety, statesmanship, vision, his mastery of men, the power of his fanatical Marxism--and his intellectualism. 'I'm seventy and I never stop studying,' said Stalin.

What should we make of anecdotes like this? On a personal level, they're undeniably fascinating--and they tell us something about the personalityand megalomania of dictators. It's important to resist the temptation to leap from an anecdote linking Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein to an argument equating Soviet Communism and Iraqi Ba'athism, however. Is it really accurate to say that Ba'athism is a "pastiche of Bolshevism"? I don't think so. And I'd argue that the Soviet and Iraqi political systems functioned very differently and experienced very different relationships with the rest of society. Sebag Montefiore doesn't try to equate the two systems--not in this essay, anyway--but readers could easily finish his article with the wrong lessons in mind.

These issues highlight one of the main questions of Sebag Montefiore's essay: the relationship between history and biography. It can be easy for the biographer of a dictator to equate his subject with the political system he ruled--a pitfall that has been dodged by social historians like Ian Kershaw (who wrote an excellent two-volume life of Hitler.) Nevertheless, certain biographical details can be startling or thought-provoking. I'm not especially struck by the proximity of Tikrit to Gori (except to the extent that it strengthened Saddam Hussein's feelings of affinity with Stalin), but other seemingly random geographical facts can be more enlightening. As Alfred Rieber recently pointed out in a recent AHR article on Stalin's background, three of the great conquerors of recent history--Stalin, Hitler, and Napoleon--grew up in peripheral regions of the empires they later ruled. (Stalin was from Georgia, Hitler from Austria, and Napoleon from Corsica.) This may be a coincidence, and it would be a mistake to over-emphasize facts like this; nevertheless, it seems likely that, on some level, the peripheral origins of these three men shaped their attitudes toward nation, empire, and political power. Biographies, I would argue, can sometimes add another key facet to our understanding of the past, leading us to insights that would escape us if we focused exclusively on other concerns.

Posted by Ed at March 15, 2004 04:05 PM

(plausible enough--scientists go for Bach)

Posted by: cameroon diaz at April 29, 2005 01:30 PM
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