A woman who recently started to read my books has asked me if I am a Christian. Strange how hard a question this is. If I say that I am not, the entire social fabric of my upbringing, of my parents’ and grandparents’ teachings and instructions, and the world and church in which I came to manhood, would make me a liar. But if I say I am a Christian, and a practicing Catholic, it very well might elicit a preconceived notion of what that means, which in itself is giving into a convenient falsehood.
So I could say that I am a Christian but not like those other Christians, or that I am a Catholic but not like some of those other Catholics. So already, I have hedged my bets and placed a stiff tariff on my own answer in order to be polite. It would be judging others, as I was afraid this very nice young woman would judge me. It would be judging in order not to be judged, to not willingly disclose who I am. Something like Saint Peter. (That, I suppose, is where our similarities end.)
But then I should not be so frightened of her question. And I should try to answer it this way:
“Do I believe in God? Far more now than when I was 20, far more than when I was 35, and I hope not as much as when I am 70.”
“And have you done serious wrong?”
“I have done serious wrong many times — but God, I’m afraid, had nothing to do with it.”
In our own time, in the century just ended, no one denied God’s existence more than Joseph Stalin. To my mind, the Soviet dictator is far more than anyone else the key, the lesson, for people to ponder when they doubt the existence of God.
State-enforced atheism existed in the Soviet Union for years. In fact, God was the last thing Stalin ever needed, until God was the last thing he had.
After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, Stalin opened the churches, knowing his army fought not only on their stomach. The political survivor knew the only way to save Russia was through the faith of its people. That no matter the square blocks of bleak buildings that came to be known after his own name, he could not erase their faith in a Being greater than himself. So cynicism won the day.
But to be fair to Stalin, it was only a stop-gap, a little glitch in his overall testimony against Christ himself. He had many more battles to wage against Christ. Still, in 1941 it was a wise decision. And completely self-interested. That is what is so brilliant about it. Church became his own vehicle to ride out the madness, while planes of the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed his people.
The churches were opened to save Mother Russia. Who wouldn’t do that? But then again, what choice did he himself have?
Stalin did quite well at coming to terms with his own peculiar brand of nihilism early in life — cynicism propelled him past every one of his comrades — yet what is important here is that he could never elude the presence of Something else. This Something plagued him from the time he was a boy. This was to become his greatest personal struggle. In a way, he took the entire Soviet Union into his confidence about his need to create nothing out of something. And it is fascinating to witness, for in so many respects it defines who we are as well. It tells us enough about our own dialogue with Something to make us thank Stalin, in a way, for showing us what not to question. For this Something was a painful presence to him, and it led him into areas of the human conscience where no man should dare go.
If we rely upon myth for just a second, he truly was like one of the great angels who in torment questioned the power and the grace of what could flick him like a gnat, yet he continued to believe in his own indispensability. In moments he almost confided in it like an older brother. The country was bled to death because of it. And still this Something persisted.
Stalin fought these doubts about the nothing of nothing all of his life. The entire Soviet Union was a testimony to his great battle against this Something.
Without the blink of an eye, Uncle Joe signed orders to have men he had dined with executed because nothing meant nothing. But still, what was behind it all? And more to the point, why do we need Nothing? Why do we seek it? What good will it do us?
How much better off will we be if we find it?
Nothing begets nothing. “Our nada who art in nada,” as Ernest Hemingway reminds us.
Hemingway, of course, believed in humanity. But humanity, as a stable of man’s divinity, still rankled Stalin. Stalin became ruthlessly proficient at deploring humanity, and tried his best to excise it from the common bones of the proletariat. His professed love of them was godlike except for one thing — forgiveness. Every man, woman, and child was under his thumb, and it was a big thumb. And every deficiency had something to do with the soul.
People who decry the crimes of Stalin tout the idea and even deity of his arch-enemy Trotsky, who Stalin managed to kill, the assassin arriving in Mexico with a Canadian passport. But if Stalin was the brutal arm of revolution, Trotsky was its cerebral death mask. Both by 1921 were mass murderers.
What both needed to rid Russia of was never called humanity. It was called treason, or counter-revolution, the kulaks, bourgeois, or priestly hypocrisy. It had dozens of names. By the end of the reign of Beria, Stalin’s number one executioner, maybe thousands. But looking deep into the soul, what Stalin hated all had to do with gentleness and humanity. It was even a snit at the possibility that people were stupid enough to believe him. As if to say, How dare the peasants be so gullible as to think this revolution had anything to do with them? That, in fact, was why his second wife, the one he loved, Nadia, shot herself. She was the real proletariat of the household.
A friend once said to me that the Eastern theatre was where the real war took place and the Battle of Britain was a sideshow. Yet, in some way, I have come to realize it was all a sideshow. Something much greater was going on. And that the battles we engage in as humans are a constant sideshow.
There is always something else far more important at stake. The human soul, in some ways like good helium, expands to whatever environment it has. Or conversely sinks into whatever ditch it is offered. That’s where the real battles are waged — and waged continually.
Stalin’s war was fought against the very presence of God. Goebbels might have said that Hitler was too great a man to be compared to Christ, but we think of Stalin as the man who needed to obliterate him.
It was a lonely war — against God. That is what makes Stalin fascinating to us. Like Satan in Paradise Lost
, beating his wings as he flies through the great caverns toward the hopeful decimation of earth, a heroic figure. Yet at the last, faced with another pagan of equal force — an enemy at the gates so monstrous it was as if they were twins — he called on God to help his soldiers fight, granting them to call on Him
. The great patriotic war was really the great holy war. And after allowing prayer and Communion, he then tossed God away again.
To eradicate God was not to make men equal — this is what many of us always pretend or are deluded by. The wisdom of those who have come to the conclusion that there is nothing but themselves have in the end usually little generosity to spare the masses. Even in the tavern talk of certain friends of the seventies, the new world, where we were all equal, where women were as capable as men of denouncing humanity (which was considered grave intelligence), there was always the idea that some would have to be eradicated, or left on the sidelines, or at least see our point of view. The secret we failed to grasp was that the only way we seemed able to have someone equal to ourselves was to diminish anyone who disagreed with us.
The great misconception of Stalin or anyone else is that equality finally rids one of the need for faith.
The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in all its frantic bloodletting shows us that man never considered men (or women) equal, just as the war against God in the 1930s and 1940s in Russia was done in the end to make Stalin God.
I wrote in one of my novels that Stalin, Koba the Dread, would never have stopped until there was no one left on the face of the earth but himself. He could never have been happy until this happened. Happy, of course, is relative. This internecine gorge and flicking off of the human substance was hellish in its design. The idea of human character was to be smashed to atoms, and the revolution was to end with Stalin as sole proprietor of the world. He threw his entire country into chambers in hell and watched as they writhed, like men on racks, trying to behold him. Letters from those dying men and women poured forth, begging for mercy, for exile, and for one more glimpse of his face.
They had made a choice and it was deliberate. At the last moment they knew they had killed easily and humorously for the man about to kill them easily and humorously. Suddenly they knew how intricately hell worked. But even if he had managed to eradicate all those other humans he would have been left entirely on his own, with that something he still spoke to. That something he refused to call God. Because that’s what it was all about.
Stalin’s final moments have been revealed to us by his daughter Svetlana and by his doctors and confidants. Suddenly at the end (or, just perhaps, the beginning), a look of terror and rage crossed over his face. He was looking up toward the far ceiling, and he lifted himself up and shook his fist at Something. It seemed that his seventy-four years of life on this “scrap of earth,” as Tolstoy called it, had not really prepared him for what was about to come.
However, as always, none of us knows.