In advance of his appearance on BBC Radio4 this evening, Daniel Kalder takes us for a trip around a dictator’s digital archive. make sure you tune in this evening to find out more…
Stalin, like all murderous totalitarian tyrants, was big on secrecy. It’s therefore probably a safe bet to assume that he would not have been best pleased had he learned that one day his personal papers would be searchable from anywhere in the world on a machine called a “computer,” and that a bearded Scotsman working out of a garden shed in Texas would seize the opportunity to take a look at his old school report cards. But he’s dead, and I did, so that’s that.
How did this peculiar state of affairs come about? Well, a decade or so back, the Russian state declassified the vast bulk of Stalin’s papers. Yale University Press then used a lot of these documents in its fascinating Annals of Communism series. One thing led to another until one day somebody suggested “Hey, why not digitize all of Stalin’s papers and make the archive searchable?” Several years and half a million scanned documents later and lo! The Stalin Digital Archive was ready for business.
It’s a brilliant idea: now scholars anywhere in the world can use the site to research the Coryphaeus of Science without any of the attendant expenses and bureaucratic headaches involved in accessing the documents physically in Moscow. However I had an even better idea- why not let non-scholars poke around? Specifically, a non-scholar called Daniel Kalder? And so one day in the hot, dusty garden shed where I do a lot of my writing, I logged on and started searching.
Immediately I was confronted by a problem: what should I search for? Stalin’s archive is vast and the digital nature of the archive makes it all pretty much accessible simultaneously. We’re talking seven decades’ worth of documentation related to a life that was, well, rather eventful. Meanwhile some parts of the archive have already been fairly well-excavated: I didn’t think I was likely to learn much by investigating, say, the purges. What could I discover that excellent historians such as Robert Conquest, Robert Service or Sheila Fitzpatrick have not?
“Bollocks,” I thought. “I’ll check out his school report card.”
And so I did, and with a few taps of the keyboard I found myself staring at Stalin’s grades from his last year at the seminary in Tiflis (nowadays Tbilisi.) It was an almost entirely religious curriculum and Stalin’s scores were middling, but by this time he had already developed a strong interest in revolutionary matters, so that’s not surprising. Even so, he did quite well in basic theology, and no doubt his strength here helped him as he later built quasi-religious cults around Lenin and himself, and also perhaps informed his later (quite successful) efforts at transforming Lenin’s febrile Marxist jibber-jabber into a simplified catechism suitable for mass consumption.
The real shock however came from staring at the actual document: even though it was only a digital copy, there was nevertheless something very tactile and intimate about my encounter with the Father of Nations’ school report card. I kept thinking of all the terrible things that I knew that nobody could have imagined were even possible at the time it was filled out; it was like receiving an accidental transmission from the past straight to my laptop. I wanted to reply, to send an urgent message back to Stalin’s teacher explaining that this middling student was actually a diabolical genius and everybody had to beware…
But of course, I couldn’t. So instead I decided to have a look for correspondence between Stalin and Hitler. A quick search later and I was staring at the modest thank-you letter that Stalin had sent Hitler regarding that non-aggression pact thing you might have heard about, you know, that had something to do with World War II, the deaths of millions and the world we live in today.
And yet for such an epochal document, it was a pretty unexceptional little note, quite courteous and formal, in a tone similar to something you might knock off after closing a medium sized business deal related to the import of vacuum cleaners, say. Three paragraphs, starting “Thank you for your letter” before wandering off into some boilerplate about developing peaceful relations between the two nations, before Stalin closes by saying that he is looking forward to the visit of that Ribbentrop fellow on 28th August. Stalin then signs the letter; a copy goes off to Hitler; another copy went off to his personal archive. Cue apocalypse. History happens on flimsy pieces of paper.
Of course, people spend their entire careers tackling vast subjects such as Soviet-Nazi relations. Personally, I am more attracted to working in the margins of history. And fortunately for me, the digital archive enables its users to study the literal margins of history, as it contains scans of every book and document in Stalin’s personal library, so long as he scrawled a comment on the side of a page somewhere. Immediately I looked for something by Stalin’s nemesis Trotsky. There, scribbled in the margin, next to some of Trotsky’s Marxist waffle, was this cutting comment:
Elsewhere, in the margins of a text by Karl Kautsky, another of his political enemies, Stalin had written:
On other occasions however Stalin engaged with his foes’ theoretical writings, inscribing his own commentary on their ideas in the margins. I wondered if he had ever returned to these comments after writing them down, and if so, what he had thought about them. I often write comments on books that seem pertinent at the time but embarrassingly banal when I look back at them later. Did Stalin, like me, wonder why he had bothered?
The marginal notes brought me closer to Stalin, but my most intimate encounter with his ghost undoubtedly occurred when I stumbled upon a transcript of one of his notorious movie nights.
At this 1934 session, Stalin and sundry other high ranking killers were gathered to watch various films including an early cut of what would become one of Stalin’s favorite films, the musical, “The Jolly Fellows.” The night got off to a shaky start for Boris Shumiatsky who was at this point responsible for the Soviet film industry (Voroshilov, also quoted below, was the People’s Commissar for Defence):
Stalin: “Don’t produce any more crap like Accordion.”
Shumiatsky: “I can’t promise that all the movies produced are going to be good. There could be one or two among them that are rejects. But I don’t consider Accordion crap. It’s just an average film by a young, promising producer.”
Voroshilov: “Don’t beat around the bush. It’s a lousy movie where the accordion is transformed into nearly the main lever of class struggle.”
Fortunately for Shumiatsky, the films he showed that night were received well (although Stalin would still have him killed a few years later). And as I read the transcript I noticed that Stalin became particularly excited when he learned that one of them, “Dumpling” was an adaptation of Guy De Maupassant’s short story Boule de Suif:
Stalin: “Not from Maupassant, surely? [referring to “Boule de Suif”]
Stalin: “If it’s well produced, then that’s very interesting. ‘Dumpling’ is a good work by Maupassant, vividly castigating the petty bourgeoisie and sanctimoniousness.”
Stalin then proceeded to talk through the movie, discussing the original story, providing dialogue (it was silent), and even making on the spot suggestions for intertitles. And thus, thanks to the digital archive, I learned that in addition to being a paranoid despot and mass murderer, Stalin was also a pretty unbearable guy to watch a film with.
Daniel Kalder’s documentary Digitising Stalin is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm Monday
NB: Alas, access to the archive is currently only available through institutions with a subscription.