Josef Stalin is remembered for many things – establishing a brutal dictatorship over the Soviet Union, his determination to create a buffer zone in Eastern Europe and thus close the iron curtain, the capriciousness and cruelty of the security system he set up and brutalising terror of the gulag system. It is, therefore, not surprising that Stalin’s wit and raw intelligence are rarely focused on. But a selection of quotes and anecdotes reveal the wit of the monster.
The Soviet Union had suffered like no other country before, during or since the Second World War. Millions of its people had been butchered, liquidated or enslaved, its armed forces had faced almost total collapse as the German Wehrmacht advanced with unseemly haste to Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, villages and towns were burnt to the ground and a systematic looting and pillaging of the occupied areas ensured little was left for the liberators.
No one understood better than Stalin how close the Soviet Union had come to collapse in 1941. The leader had himself collapsed after being told of the commencement of Operation Barbarossa and the ripping up of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. He retreated to his Moscow dacha, communicating with no one and probably suffering a breakdown of sorts. He only snapped back into action when members of the Politburo arrived. His initial question was to ask if they had come to arrest him.
So what glory, what historic destiny for the Red Army to roll back the tide of the Nazi invaders and ultimate take Hitler’s capital. Surely Stalin would take satisfaction from his army’s great achievements? Possibly, but on being asked whether he felt satisfaction that the Red Army had reached Berlin, the ‘lair of the fascist beast’, Stalin’s response was a wry shrug and the comment “Tsar Alexander got to Paris” (a reference to the defeat of Napoleon in 1814).
Did Stalin’s ambitions stretch as far as conquering western Europe? Churchill certainly had his fears, and ordered his chief of staffs to prepare an audacious attack on their wartime ally under the aptly named Operation Unthinkable (see my previous article on this astonishing plan). Churchill’s uneasiness would not have been assuaged by Stalin’s joking probe of Winston’s assertion of divine backing:
“God is on your side? Is He a Conservative? The Devil’s on my side, he’s a good Communist.”
This earthy, dry and unsettling humour was well demonstrated when Stalin questioned the political power of the Catholic Church by asking the French Prime Minister Pierre Laval in 1935: “How many divisions has the pope?”
Or on elections, when he observed that: “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how”. His cheery telephone conversation with the conqueror of Berlin, Georgy Zhukov, showed him at his hubristic best: “So the bastard’s dead? Too bad we didn’t capture him alive!”
This side contrasts with his more base humour, often exposed at the Kremlin’s legendary drinking sessions. At these banquets Stalin would:
“occasionally throw food at guests or leave tomatoes on the chairs of self-important Party bigwigs. He often forced close colleagues to dance for his amusement. His pet ‘Ukrainian bear’ Khrushchev (assigned the role of ‘jester’ – skomorokh) had to dance on the table, and the corpulent Malenkov (re-christened Malania – ‘Melanie’ – owing to the fact that the fatter he got the more looked like a woman) had to dance with men.”
Perhaps Stalin’s best jokes were the ones that contrasted so horrifically with reality. Only a leader like Stalin could preside over his system of terror and then state that: “gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union.”