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History, Traditions

Stalin’s Biblical Rhetoric

The copy of Joseph Stalin’s personal Bible shows evidence of much use. He seems to have read it seriously throughout his life, learning quotations and making extensive notes. The fact that he had such a Bible and even that he read and studied it should come as no surprise. In his youth, he had studied the Bible, first at school and then every year at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary when he was training for the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church. Significantly, he did not put his Bible away when he became a socialist revolutionary and then the most important, if controversial, political leader of the twentieth century.

But does the Bible influence Stalin’s written work, which is gathered in sixteen volumes? A careful reading of these writings reveals the presence of the Bible in his style, in the cadence of his sentences, and in the continual allusions. These go beyond what one might expect in a culture where biblical phrases had become part of everyday language. In what follows, I offer a creative pastiche of some of those references and allusions. It takes the form of two speeches, which addresses different audiences and topics. The first begins with Stalin’s opponents outside the party, moving to focus on the party itself and then the revolution. The second speech takes place after the October Revolution.

Before October

Let me say a few words to our opponents, the bourgeoisie. You seek to establish institutions in your ‘own image and likeness’ and for your own benefit. Even more, you want to reconcile the revolution with the counter-revolution, to make the ‘lion and the lamb to lie down together’ and thereby suppress the revolution itself. You imagine that by means of this absurd ‘patching of old clothes’ you could make new garments for suffering mankind! Yet, you are full of ‘honeyed words, of ‘empty phrases thrown to the wind’. You are doing nothing less than ‘building on sand’.

You may cry, ‘Crucify the Bolsheviks, crucify them, they are to blame for everything!’ It may seem as though ‘strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round’, slandering and informing, threatening and imploring, begging and demanding. But despite yourself, you cannot prevent the truth, which is uttered ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’. Even the ‘dumb stones are crying it’.

Let me turn to the party. I know we have had some problems. At times the ‘party’s Holy of Holies’ has been desecrated by windbags who think the party is a school of philosophy or a religious sect. It became so bad that members began to depart, ‘each to his own national tent’, with the cry of letting ‘every man count only upon himself’.  So we have needed to ‘separate the sheep from the goats’, to dissociate ourselves from alien elements. Yet, I feel that a better method lies in finding a common language with ‘our brothers who have gone astray’. We should help extricate them from the ‘wilderness’ and make it easier for them to re-join us.

After all, we are a party that ‘listens closely to the murmuring of the working class’. That voice is not one ‘crying in the wilderness’. We may have to build under fire, like a ‘mason laying bricks with one hand and defending what he is building with the other’. The purpose is to be ready for all complications, for ‘ye know neither the day nor the hour’ wherein ‘the bridegroom cometh’ to open the road for a new revolutionary upsurge.

‘“We do not worship the golden calf!” We do not want the kingdom of the bourgeoisie and the oppressors! Damnation and death to capitalism and its horrors of poverty and bloodshed! Long live the kingdom of labour, long live socialism! And confident of victory, calm and strong, they are marching proudly along the road to the promised land, towards glorious socialism, step by step carrying out Karl Marx’s great call: “Workers of all countries, unite!”’

The path to revolution may be ‘full of wanderings and sufferings’. But some day, after long wanderings, the movement will come into its own. The ‘entry into the promised land’ is less likely to be in the near future, for it will take a long period of time, following not the easy but the ‘difficult road’. But we ‘shall not become despondent, we shall not cry out for help, we shall not abandon our work and we shall not be daunted by difficulties. Whoever is weary, whoever is scared by difficulties, whoever is losing his head, let him make way for those who have retained their courage and staunchness’.

Above all, the party must ‘worthily lead’ to the “promised land,” to socialism’. In doing so, the hated throne of the hated tsar will be ‘swept from the face of the earth’. On its ruins will be set up the government of the revolution, which will disarm the dark forces; the rule of the tsar will give way to the rule of the people.

‘Let the victorious banners wave tomorrow, to the dismay of the enemies of liberty and socialism! Let your call, the call of the champions of the revolution, resound through the world, to the joy of all the oppressed and enslaved!’

After October

Comrades, I should like first of all to ‘bring you the glad tidings’ of the victories of the Russian revolution, of the disorganization of its enemies. The ‘bondage of landlordism’ has been broken, the ‘power of the generals has been broken’. The name of the leader of the October Revolution, Comrade Lenin, is now the most ‘beloved name pronounced by the downtrodden, oppressed peasants and revolutionary intelligentsia of the colonial and unequal countries. In the past, the oppressed and downtrodden slaves of the vast Roman Empire regarded Christianity as a rock of salvation. We are now reaching the point where socialism may serve (and is already beginning to serve!) as the banner of liberation for the millions who inhabit the vast colonial states of imperialism’. The greatness of Lenin lies above all in this, that by creating the Republic of Soviets he gave a practical demonstration to the oppressed masses of the whole world that ‘hope of deliverance’ is not lost, that the rule of the landlords and capitalists is short-lived, that the ‘kingdom of labour can be created by the efforts of the labouring people themselves, and that the kingdom of labour must be created not in heaven, but on earth’.

We are not without our problems. We in Russia believe that ‘he who does not work, neither shall he eat’. But we know that mistakes are made, that workers have to learn new skills. Yet, it will not matter if they make mistakes at first; they will stumble once or twice, and then learn to walk independently like ‘Christ walking on the water’.

Even so, we should never forget that, as in Exodus and Isaiah, the socialist revolution in Russia is a pillar of hope of deliverance from exploitation and oppression. The Land of the Soviets is a light to the nations, a living beacon illuminating the road to the ‘promised land’ called the socialist world, a ‘torch lighting the path to liberation from the yoke of the oppressors’ for all the peoples of the world! As the star led the Magi to the Christ child, so is the socialist revolution a ‘Light from the East’.

(In sequence, the biblical references and allusions are from: Stalin, Works 2: 98; 1: 254; 1: 16; 1: 33; 2: 117; 1: 38; 3: 247; 3: 410; 2: 292; 3: 309; 1: 66; 2: 380; 4: 319; 8: 117-18; 1: 103; 3: 303; 4: 403; 7: 68; 1: 226-27; 1: 99; 1: 97; 7: 378-79; 1: 287; 1: 140; 3: 103; 4:1; 5: 354; 6: 49; 4: 419-20; 2: 157; 4: 62; 4: 186; 1:80; 4: 408; 5: 402; 4: 181-86).

3 thoughts on “Stalin’s Biblical Rhetoric

  1. I suppose it demonstrates that Stalin had the respect for the Bible as a body of texts that is conspicuously lacking in the anti-theistic mainstream of dialectical materialism. If your work goes some way to correcting that prejudice, it is well. If he was identifying himself and his government as the salvation of mankind and the redemption of the world that might explain some of his indifference to human costs and his paranoiac persecution of perceived enemies and traitors. The degree of double-think implied in the attention to scripture as a guide for the authority and glory of the revolution whilst at the same time suppressing Judaism and Christianity and the dissemination of that same scripture, not to mention the wholesale rejection of the Biblical messages of mercy, forgiveness, non-violence and love of neighbour, appears mountainous.

  2. I am less interested in the extreme polarisation over Stalin, between veneration and demonisation, than in the dynamic itself, which is arises from the structures of his own theologically nuanced thought.

  3. Wow. I had never thought of Stalin as a person like myself, struggling to understand my place with God. He does need our prayers! (He was one who was ruined by success, I am thinking now.)

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