Holly Case takes a fresh look at Joseph Stalin through the lens of his editorial work. Is the ruthless dictator best understood as an editor?
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. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin’s own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched “for traces of those horrible things in the book.” He found none. What he saw instead was “reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history.”
Stalin had also made a surprising change in the manuscript. In the conclusion, 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. …” And indeed they did, costing more than 30 million lives-most of them Soviet. But the glory was Stalin’s in the end.
The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.
Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.