October 17, 2013

Joseph Stalin’s scary blue pencil


From Open Culture, a 1940 letter written by Stalin’s secret police chief, with Stalin’s directive “execution by shooting.”

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Holly Case has taken a close look at Joseph Stalin in one of his lesser known roles: editor and wielder of a big blue pencil. In “The Tyrant as Editor,” Case examines Stalin’s editorial process as a reflection of his worldview. Although Stalin had been an author, it seems he preferred the role of editor, and Case thinks she knows why. “The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history.” She goes on to explain that blue pencils were often used for editing, because the color could not be photographed. His trusty blue pencil made Stalin’s edits invisible.

Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter discovered a 1940 manuscript about Otto von Bismarck, marked up by Stalin himself, and although he searched for clues of the cruel man doing the editing, Gefter said that all he found was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.” Case writes,

Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily,Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili’s editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda. Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor.

It’s not surprising that Stalin took a heavy hand in editing 1938’s ideological manifesto and history of the Communist party, The Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Noting that many of the hired writers were having trouble keeping up with a shifting cast of characters (this was, after all, around the time of The Great Purge and the featured players kept dying), Case writes that even after tireless drafts, revisions, and edits, Stalin wrote to its authors after receiving their final manuscript that he would need to revise 11 of them. As Case writes, it “was a near total revision.”

Once it was published, The Short Course came in for much criticism, to Stalin’s consternation. “Where were the heroes, where was the Soviet motherland, indeed where was Stalin?” Unconvinced, Stalin’s response to the criticism was a “radical overhaul of the Soviet educational system to encourage self-study of the text rather than leaving it for underqualified instructors to discuss in classrooms and reading circles.”

Case writes that Stalin’s blue pencil was a constant companion, and he wasn’t afraid to use it in all sorts of situations.

For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials (“against whom is this thesis directed?”) and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings (“Correct!” or “Show all members of the Politburo”). During the German siege of Stalingrad (1942-43), he encircled the city from the west with his blue pencil on a large wall map in the Kremlin, and, in the summer of 1944, he redrew the borders of Poland in blue. At a meeting with Winston Churchill a few months later, the British prime minister watched as Stalin “took his blue pencil and made a large tick” indicating his approval of the “percentages agreement” for the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence after the war.

Josh Jones at Open Culture has even posted an image of Stalin’s blue writing scrawled over a list of people, with a simple “Execute everyone,” notation and another, a recommendation for “execution by shooting,” referring to approximately 20,000 prisoners. Jones adds:

In addition to heavily editing propaganda and signing mass death warrants, Stalin used his pencil to deface drawings by 19th century Russian painters, scrawling “crude and ominous captions” beneath them in red or blue. He left his mark on 19 pictures, all of them nudes, most of them male. He slashed through their torsos and other body parts with the pencil (below) and wrote on one of the drawings, “Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive.”

What better use for the blue pencil than posthumously taunting murdered enemies? The aforementioned manuscript about Otto von Bismarck offers another  example of Stalin’s chilling editorial power:

The author closed with a warning to the Germans lest they renege on the alliance and attack Russia. Stalin cut it. When the author objected, pleading that the warning was the whole point of the book, Stalin replied, “But why are you scaring them? Let them try. …”

Of course, the Germans did try, and 30 million people died. Now that is some twisted editorial power.

You can read more about how Djugashvili became Stalin in 1913: The Year Before The Storm by Florian Illies.

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.