If you want to know the people around you, find out what they read.
– Stalin on reading
[I]t is nothing but an illusion, but its laws are dictated by life.
– Stalin on performance

In the 1930s, while a political exile in Kazakhstan – during what Anna Akhmatova might have called a vegetarian, rather than carnivorous, experience of suppression –Mikhail Bakhtin offered “the internally persuasive word [slovo, discourse]” as a counter to “the authoritative discourse” (read, Stalinist and Stalinism) that should have made Bakhtin’s continuing (and more rigorous) suppression an inevitability. That it did not is one of the mysteries in Bakhtin’s biography, but there is no doubt that Bakhtin’s dialogic imaginings were also a political critique of contemporary realities. “The authoritative word demands that we acknowledge it” and requires “our unconditional allegiance,” Bakhtin wrote, while “the internally persuasive word” remains “supple and dynamic” through its “semantic openness to us, its capacity for further creative life in the context of our ideological consciousness, its unfinishedness and the inexhaustibility of our further dialogic interaction with it.” Regardless of the moment of reading, “we have not yet learned from it all it might tell us.”

For Bakhtin, the dialogic imagination works against the grain of any ideological insistence, including the so-called Marxist dialectics that demanded allegiance throughout much of his lifetime. Toward the end of his life, he wrote: “take a dialogue and remove the voices (the partitioning of voices), remove the intonations (emotional and individualizing ones), carve out abstract concepts and judgments from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness – and that’s how you get dialectic.”

Taken to a crude extreme, one might say that this is also one way that you get Stalinism, its suppression of what Bakhtin calls “the problem of the second consciousness.” In this regard, Bakhtin refers to the Zosima episodes in The Brothers Karamazov, in particular to “Zosima’s ‘mysterious visitor’”: “The inexhaustibility of the second consciousness, that is, consciousness of the person who understands and responds: herein lies a potential infinity of responses, languages, codes. Infinity against infinity.” In the case of Zosima’s narrative of the mysterious visitor, this second consciousness, which “changes the entire situation,” would first of all be Zosima himself as he listens to the visitor’s confession, but it would also be Alyosha who silently records and retells what Zosima remembers, it would also be Dostoevsky’s narrator, whom Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist call “Christlike” (like Christ the silent auditor in the Grand Inquisitor episode, like Alyosha as he listens to Ivan’s poem), also the actual author. And also Dostoevsky’s implied and actual readers. Second consciousness is multiple, an aggregate, but singular as well in each instance of response. “Character,” Bakhtin says, is “the image of a language,” and “each second consciousness becomes a character in this sense.”

Given Bakhtin’s reading of Dostoevsky therefore – of the stakes involved in reading and responding (what Walter Benjamin calls, “the critical dangerous impulse that lies at the source of all reading”) – there is a particularly uncanny quality like a scene from The Brothers itself when the second consciousness in a specific instance of reading turns out to be Stalin – Stalin late at night reading the Zosima episodes in The Brothers Karamazov, the image of authoritative language confronting an internally persuasive voice. Sometime in the 1930s, this confrontation apparently occurred.

Stalin suffered from insomnia. He slept little, was often ill, and worked, then dined late into the night. He rarely ate alone. He exhausted colleagues who were expected to eat with him, to drink themselves past sleeplessness though he drank little himself (Georgian wine or water disguised as vodka). Late in the night, they would escape, and he, still wide awake, alone with his servants in the dacha to which he had moved after his wife’s 1932 suicide, would read, sometimes until morning.

According to Boris Ilizarov, who has studied Stalin’s copy of Dostoevsky’s novel, although any dating is circumstantial, based on handwriting and on the style of notation, sometime in the mid-1930s – in 1934, perhaps, or 1935 – Stalin re-read portions of his 1927 edition of The Brothers Karamazov. As was Stalin’s custom, he read with a colored pencil – two pencils actually, one red, one blue, indicative probably of two reading sessions. He seems to have been looking for something – or re-reading for passages he recalled. His interest was focused exclusively on the two narrative sequences that recount the final days of the Elder Zosima’s life and offer such accute second consciousness: Zosima’s encounters in Book Two, “An Inappropriate Gathering” with the Karamazov family and other pilgrims; Zosima’s recollections and homilies – as recorded by Alyosha Karamazov – just before the Elder’s death in Book Six, “The Russian Monk.”

By inscribing the earlier sequence in red, the later sequence in blue, Stalin appears to have staged a reading for himself of Dostoevsky’s novel – even staged a reading of himself as a Dostoevskian character – by marking certain passages in the text and leaving the marked passages for future readers to find, in particular this sentence marked in blue: “Ya znaete li vy ya cheloveka ubil [I – do you know – I killed someone].”

By the end of Stalin’s life, the libraries in his Kremlin apartment and dachas contained approximately 20,000 volumes. Only a few hundred of these have survived the ravages – or indifference – of his heirs, his 1927 edition of The Brothers Karamazov among them. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, the survivors from ”Stalin’s huge library, [together] with marginal notes in his red crayon,” are now shelved in Vladimir Putin’s office: when Putin “is bored, it is said, he takes down a book and discusses the notes with his visitors.” While not among the remnants, another volume that probably would have once been found in the library was Bakhtin’s 1929 monograph, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art. Would Stalin have read Bakhtin’s monograph as well? Here all evidence is circumstantial: Stalin was a voracious reader (he averaged about 500 pages a day); all books published in the Soviet Union were regularly made available for his review at the time of publication and before wider distribution; he had a lifelong interest in Dostoevsky whom his daughter says he regarded as a political reactionary but “a great psychologist” ; the Bakhtin monograph had been positively reviewed by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commisar for Enlightenment whom Stalin sacked as an anachronism in 1929; at the time of publication and of Lunacharsky’s review, Bakhtin had already been arrested and exiled as a confessed member of a subversive underground religious organization.

In the Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, Bakhtin identifies the Zosima episodes with “hagiographic discourse” (zhitiynogo slova)” that is “calmly adequate to itself and its referential object,” a “monologically firm and self-confident voice,” only possible in Dostoevsky’s fiction “when a hero… comes close to the truth about himself.” As such, the language image – the being Zosima brings to language – can be associated with Dostoevsky himself – not as an authoritative authorial voice but with his often silent, nuanced form of listening, a mode best characterized by what Zosima calls “active love” (a phrase Stalin marked in red) and that Christ enacts as god-turned-human, a silent human interlocutor, in “The Grand Inquisitor.” The result is the kind of Shakespearean consciousness that Harold Bloom suggests Shakespeare found articulated in Montaigne (“Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said”). As Dostoevsky’s readers we overhear what the author overhears his characters say or think (in its own way Dostoevsky’s own thought); as a reader, Stalin marks what he overhears in dialogues the author has overheard (in its own way Stalin’s own thought). Given the authoritative voice that Stalin adopted in his own pronouncements (both those he authored in his own voice and those that spoke through others – ideally everyone alive in the Soviet Union at the time or in the future – all overwhelmingly monological and enforced by terror), Stalin’s engagement with Dostoevsky’s way of overhearing can seem overdetermined – including the way the text “listens” to the passages Stalin marks, the way that as a reader of the novel he reads, Stalin listens with the text, with his pencils, also overhearing himself, also leaving himself to be overheard or overlooked, the most authoritative of readers engaged in a surreptitious dialogue. “Let us but listen,” Montaigne wrote.

“To be means to communicate dialogically,” Bakhtin writes in the 1929 book on Dostoevsky. “[I]n dialogue a person not only shows himself outwardly, but he becomes for the first time that which he is… not only for others but for himself as well… Two characters are always introduced by Dostoevsky in such a way that each of them is intimately linked with the internal voice of the other… [T]he rejoinders of one touch and even partially coincide with the rejoinders of the other’s internal dialogue. A deep essential bond or partial coincidence between the borrowed words of one hero and the internal and secret discourse of another hero – this is the indispensible element in all Dostoevsky’s crucial dialogues.” Thus, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, when Alyosha tells Ivan, “still almost in a whisper, ‘it wasn’t you who killed father,’” according to Bakhtin, “Alyosha says openly that he is answering a question that Ivan has asked himself in an internal dialogue”: they are “Ivan’s own secret words on someone else’s lips.” Thus “the open rejoinders of one answer the hidden rejoinders of the other” because it is the hidden rejoinders in Ivan’s internal dialogue that Alyosha overhears. At the same time, for the implied reader who joins in the dialogue of Brothers, the open rejoinders may also answer this reader’s hidden rejoinders or the reverse. What does this reader mark with a pencil?

Isaac Deutscher’s 1949 biography of Stalin (a biography Stalin would have known at least in summary) compares the Soviet leader to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who “’correct[ed] the deed’ of the October Revolution.” Stalin’s copy of The Brothers Karamzov includes no indication of any interest in Ivan’s poem, but the Zosima episodes, as Dostoevsky himself indicated, began as his response to Ivan and Ivan’s poem. In the second book of The Brothers, “An Inappropriate Gathering,” Zosima has already offered a reading of each member of the Karamazov family. To Ivan he has said, “For the time being you, too, are toying, out of despair.” Stalin did not mark this passage, although he did mark the discussion of Ivan’s article on church courts, but it is Dostoevsky’s response to “The Grand Inquisitor” (Zosima’s response as recorded and preserved by Alyosha) that Stalin read and marked with care, and there the torment Zosima finds in Ivan’s toying is specifically engaged by Zosima’s recollection of his friend, “the mysterious visitor.” If the soul is not immortal, Ivan had argued – an argument that is recounted for Zosima and the other Karamazovs – then everything is permitted and “evildoing” can be “the noblest result”: “There is no virtue if there is no morality,” Ivan repeats to Zosima, that “was my contention” – a contention that Smerdyakov will later repeat to Ivan when he confesses to murdering their father and openly answers the question Ivan has been asking himself secretly for two months (“I did have such a dream, sir, and even more so as ‘everything is permitted.’ It was true what you taught me, sir, because you told me a lot about that then: because if there’s no infinite God, then there’s no virtue either, and no need of it at all. It was true. That’s how I reasoned… With your guidance, sir”). Ivan’s madness – or brain fever – will be a conclusive response to his earlier argument, the devil will speak as a negative version of the soul Ivan would have liked to deny, but this response is already anticipated by the agony of Zosima’s mysterious visitor who “murdered someone.”

The Karamazov-Zosima dialogue that Stalin did carefully mark in Book Two of The Brothers was the exchange between the Elder and the brothers’ father, who refers to himself as a buffoon. “Above all do not be ashamed of yourself,” Zosima tells the father, “for that is the cause of everything.” And: “Above all, above everything else – do not lie… Above all, do not lie to yourself,” an open rejoinder to an internal dialogue which Zosima will repeat somewhat later to Madame Khokhakov, the “lady of little faith”: “Above all, avoid lies, all lies, especially the lie to yourself. And avoid contempt, both of others and of yourself: what seems bad to you in yourself is purified by the very fact that you have noticed it in yourself.” Stalin marked all these passages in red and underscored the words “brezglivosmi ubeggaite [avoid contempt].”

He also marked the father’s, Fyodor Karamazov’s response to the Elder: “[W]hen I walk into a room,” it seems “to me that I’m lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so ‘Why not, indeed, play the buffoon, I’m not afraid of your opinions, because you’re all, to a man, lower than me!’” And Stalin marked Zosima’s alternative to the falsehood in liars: “active love”; “selflessness in the love of your neighbours”; “active love” which is “a harsh and fearful thing,” which is “labour and perseverance.” Without which – as Stalin also marked, now in blue, in Book Six, “The Russian Monk,” – the possibility of Paradise turns into the experience of Hell. “Paradise,” the mysterious visitor tells Zosima (and Stalin underscores), “is hidden in each of us, it is concealed within me, too, right now, and if I wish, it will come for me in reality, tomorrow even” (“Surely he wants to reveal something to me,” Zosima recalls thinking at the time). To find Paradise, we must “turn into a different path psychically” (“self-improvement,” Stalin notes in the margin), we must escape “complete isolation” (“a million singles,” Stalin comments and underlines “they fall into complete isolation”), “a man must suddenly set an example, and draw the soul from its isolation for an act of brotherly communion, though it be with the rank of holy fool” (Stalin underscores this).

Hell, on the other hand, Zosima says in his later homilies, is “the sufferings of a being no longer able to love” (“i.e. disappointment, disbelief” is Stalin’s marginal note), a “spiritual torment… within” people, which, for that very reason (i.e. because it is internal) “were it possible to take from them… would only increase their suffering” (inasmuch as it entails who they have chosen to be). This is the last passage in Brothers that Stalin marked, and it is in the context of the mysterious visitor’s remarks – and Stalin’s annotations – about paradise and isolation, about the exemplary choice of active love that can lead from isolation to brotherly communion, that the visitor confesses to a murder and that Stalin marks the confession: “Ya znaete li vy ya cheloveka ubil (I – do you know – I killed someone).”

Subsequent passages are also marked:

Then, with infernal and criminal calculation, he arranged things so that the blame would fall upon the servants.

Then he threw himself into great official activity, took upon himself a troublesome and difficult assignment, which occupied him for about two years, and, being of strong character, almost forgot what happened; and when he did, he tried not to give it any thought. (Stalin underlined, “and, being of strong character, almost forgot what had happened.”)

[And, the visitor’s explanation for confessing:] “My resolution has been generating for three years,” he replied, “and your incident [the duel Zosima refused to fight] only gave it a push.”

[And, the visitor’s reluctance to confess:] “But is there any need?” he exclaimed, “is there any necessity? (Stalin underlines, “is there any necessity?)”

[Finally, Zosima’s silent response – he shows his visitor the passage from the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus is explaining his death and resurrection to his disciples, the same passage that serves as the epigraph for Dostoevsky’s novel:] Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

The passages Stalin marks might be regarded as his silent rejoinders to the text or they might be regarded as its open rejoinders to him – “the communion with another” which Bakhtin believed was the only possible way “to portray the inner man, as Dostoevsky understood.” It is tempting – perhaps too tempting – to find in the passages Stalin marked Zosima’s communion with Stalin as grand inquisitor, but to the extent that such a reading can be entertained, it of course leads to the corollary that Stalin is also portraying himself to himself. And this too would be in keeping with Bakhtin’s reading since in Dostoevsky, Bakhtin suggests, what the open rejoinder always underscores is the internal dialogue that interlocutors have been keeping to themselves. “A word completely alien to any internal struggle is almost never found in Dostoevsky’s heroes.” Bakhtin writes. “Everywhere there is an intersection, consonance, or interruption of rejoinders in the open dialogue by rejoinders in the heroes’ internal dialogue” (Bakhtin’s italics). And if these rejoinders – open and internal – are also resonant for a reader, for an implied reader – Stalin, for example – isn’t it because while “prepared for by the plot,” they are not restricted to the plot, they “rise above the plot in the abstract sphere of pure relationship, one person to another” – Stalin to Zosima, perhaps, or Stalin to Dostoevsky, or even Stalin to Bakhtin – the arrested religious subversive whose book Caryl Emerson speculates may have saved him from death in the Gulag (this death incidentally which found almost everyone else in Bakhtin’s circle who was not shot or who did not die too soon to be imprisoned or executed)? Caryl Emerson repeats rumors that attribute Bakhtin’s survival (his exile in Kazakstan) to the salutary effects of Lunacharsky’s review, but given Lunacharsky’s precarious eminence (he died in 1933 before he could join Old Bolshevik comrades who were shot later in the decade), this is unlikely to be a full explanation. As with Pasternak, Bulgakov or Shostakovich, someone of higher authority must have intervened in Bakhtin’s case and allowed him to work safely under scrutiny, largely isolated but preserved, during the remainder of the Stalin years. To what or to whom should we attribute Bakhtin’s relatively long and very productive life?

We cannot prove that Stalin knew of Bakhtin’s case or that he read Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky. We can only suppose. All we know for sure are the markings in Stalin’s edition of Brothers. Nor can we conclude to what the markings might refer – assuming that they do refer. Any specific reference – if there is such a reference – will be more or less likely given a specific dating. If Boris Ilizarov is correct and the likely date is somewhere in the mid-30s, a reference might be to Stalin’s wife, apparently a victim of suicide on 7 November 1932. We are not insisting that Stalin shot his wife – though that rumor has also circulated ever since – only that he had reason to feel implicated ( the immediate cause of her suicide – if it was a suicide – was a quarrel between them). Other references are also possible, however. Depending on dating, the reference might also be to Kirov’s murder in 1934. Or, given the number of murders for which Stalin was directly or indirectly responsible… the list is very long. What seems very likely to us is that the markings at least are self-dramatizing, both for Stalin himself and for the benefit of future readers like ourselves (who could possibly know Stalin’s career and not look for a reference? But Stalin would have known this).

Was Stalin confessing? Perhaps he was joking. Toward the end of his life, Bakhtin said that “violence does not know laughter,” but doesn’t the authoritarian word also have its own sense of humor? During Stalin’s lifetime, acquaintances had access to his library. Imagine the reader who found the marginalia in Stalin’s copy of The Brothers Karamazov, who finds the marked confession to a murder. Is such a reader likely to say anything? As for readers after Stalin’s death, everything can be imagined and nothing can be proven. The humor might be of a piece with a remark Stalin made to Charles de Gaulle: “People call me a monster, but you see I make a joke of it. Maybe I’m not so horrible after all.” But as Ivan insists to the Elder Zosima, “Maybe you’re right,” and “I wasn’t quite joking either.” Is this also the case for the Stalin annotations?

To the extent that Stalin offers a confession in his annotations, he also challenges his reader. Is it with this in mind that he marks Zosima’s homily on judgment? Who is speaking to whom ? “Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him” (Stalin adds in the margin, “One for all?”). And consider one more passage Stalin marked and the over-determined reading it offers. Among the peasant women who visit Zosima early in the novel, there is one who has murdered an abusive husband. “Do not be afraid,” Zosima tells her. “There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. …How can there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?… [T]here is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men… Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm that he did you; be reconciled with him truly. If you are repentant, it means that you love.” Stalin marked this passage as a whole and underlined the text from scripture: “And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.” Where does this leave Stalin’s reader? Here surely is a sinner who tests the limits of forgiveness. Do we imagine him testing the limits of boundless love (will Zosima’s, Dostoevsky’s, Bakhtin’s God forgive even Stalin if he repents? But he does not repent. Or does he, although perhaps only for the moment)? Do we imagine that Stalin is testing his reader? “Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you; be reconciled with him truly.” But this is also a joke. Or “maybe you’re right,” but “still I wasn’t quite joking.”

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