‘The end of the big lie’

Stalin through the journalism of his time: H.R. Knickerbocker’s interview with Ekaterina Geladze; Gareth Jones’s exposé of the Holodomor; W.E.B. Du Bois’s homage to a freedom fighter; and Raymond Aron’s optimism in 1956.

Internazionale Storia 5 (2023)

On the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s death, a special issue of Internazionale looks at the life and significance of the Soviet dictator through the eyes of the international press of his time. This is no mere exercise in historical memory, writes editor Andrea Pipino: Stalin’s legacy ‘has survived. And it is still very much present today in that hybrid of Soviet and tsarist nostalgia, orthodox messianism and imperial ambitions that is Putin’s Russia.’

The scale of Stalin’s personality cult contrasted starkly with the infrequency of his public appearances. ‘Power, when it comes from a mysterious source, tends to terrorize’, wrote H.R. Knickerbocker in the New York Evening Post:‘And the mystery surrounding the person of Stalin is one of the reasons why his name, in Russia, is synonymous with unlimited power.’

Knickerbocker attempted to lift the veil of secrecy by interviewing Stalin’s mother in 1930. Visiting her in one of the two simple rooms she occupied in the former viceroy’s palace of Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Ekaterina Geladze spoke little Russian but was eager to talk about her son, ‘Soso’, and her dream of him becoming a priest. Health reasons, and not covert Marxist activities, had led to his removal from the seminary, she said.

But Geladze knew little about her son the political leader, whom she visited only once in Moscow: ‘Even to his own mother, Stalin, in a way, remains a mystery,’ Knickerbocker concluded.

The Welsh journalist Gareth Jones was the first journalist in the West to uncover the Soviet famine of 1932–33. While industrialization proceeded rapidly in the cities, in the countryside ‘there was one cry which resounded everywhere I went, and that was “There is no bread”’, he wrote in The London Evening Standard.

Although Muscovites seemed to have no inkling of what was going on in the rest of the USSR, Jones understood that the famine was much worse than the previous one in 1921. Facing food shortages, the peasants had to sacrifice their livestock, he wrote: ‘Without a horse how can one plough? And if one cannot plough, how can one sow for the next harvest? And if one cannot sow for the next harvest, then death is the only prospect in the future.’

‘Today the famine is everywhere, in the formerly rich Ukraine, in West Russia, in Central Asia, in North Caucasia – everywhere … The Five Year Plan has built many fine factories. But it is bread that makes factory wheels go round, and the Five Year Plan has destroyed the bread-supplier of Russia.’…