Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder, Oneworld, 400pp, £16.99
Daniel Kalder is a very funny writer who specialises in Russian history and literature and has an eye for dark humour, the latter probably a necessity for the former. His latest book is a work of literary criticism with an unusual twist: studying the output of Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao, as well as some of the lesser tyrants of the 20th century. All were awful people; most were also awful writers, and as Kalder puts it: “A deep study of dictators’ work might enable me to map devastating wastelands of the spirit while also exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge.”
Russian communists from the start had a great reverence for the written word, and among the most influential early works was Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? It advocated revolution but the tsarist censors let it through because they thought “the story’s wooden characters and tedious didacticism” were no threat.
It was a huge mistake, and among the impressionable young men who loved the book was one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who read it five times over one summer and kept a picture of the author in his wallet.
Lenin is even less sympathetic than most of the monsters showcased here. He was certainly the most dreary of writers, yet “there was a strategy behind Lenin’s aggressively tedious prose. The tsarist censors had form when it came to underestimating the impact of very long, boring works on economics.” Lenin’s work teems with hatred and bitterness but, most of all, motivated stupidity: “the capacity of highly intelligent people to deceive themselves about the most fundamental things”.
The next leader of the Soviet Union was a better writer, if nothing else: “Throughout The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin’s modest but real strengths as a writer are on display. He is clear and succinct, and good at summarising complex ideas for a middlebrow audience, the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags.”
Indeed, the Georgian had a curious and sometimes warm relationship with novelists, and some sought out even him for literary advice. “The prominent playwright Alexander Afinogenov regarded Stalin as his literary mentor and in 1930 started submitting his plays directly to him for critique. In spite of his busy schedule running a vast multi-ethnic totalitarian state, Stalin found time to read them and respond.”
And there were plenty of writers willing to do his bidding. On October 26, 1932, Stalin met 40 “Soviet literary megastars” at Maxim Gorky’s Moscow mansion. Among them were Feodor Gladkov, “whose most famous novel was the thrillingly titled Cement, and Valentin Kataev, whose most famous novel, Time, Forward!, was about pouring cement”.
Stalin gave them the task of “engineering human souls” and the result was a new style of writing, Socialist Realism. “It required that writers generally avoid reality and focus instead on chaste, clean, uplifting stories about Soviet construction, heroic acts of labour and noble exemplars of Soviet citizenry.” Many authors did well out of this, although others were less fortunate – of Stalin’s original circle of 40, 11 died in the purges. I said the relationship was sometimes warm.)
Mussolini was a better writer. A former journalist, he was a radical and obsessive anti-theist – what one would call a troll today, a “proto-Richard Dawkins throwing rhetorical firecrackers at a series of straw men’’. In contrast to Marxism’s reverence for the word, fascism was mostly thuggish theatre with little in the way of texts, and of Mussolini’s Fascism: its Theory and Philosophy, Kalder argues that the best thing that can be said about it “is that it can be read very quickly”.
Otherwise, “it sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension”. As for Hitler, he barely took an interest in writing, his one solitary book being the appallingly bad Mein Kampf.
As communism spread globally from 1945, various “franchise holders” of the Stalin personality cult emerged, but none was as devoted as Albania’s Enver Hoxha, who wrote 68 books “including the lyrically named Eurocommunism is Anticommunism”.
Today there are few dictator-authors left, perhaps the last being Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, who wrote a sequel to the Koran. The eccentric leader banned gold teeth and lip-synching, renamed the month of January after himself and bread after his mother, and decreed that anyone who read his book three times would be guaranteed entrance to paradise (more prosaically, it was also required reading for the country’s driving test).
Kalder’s book is an informative, lively and often hilarious account of some of the worst authors who ever lived, doubling as a history of the terrible ideologies that marred the last century. Some execrable books have come out of communism and fascism, but Dictator Literature is certainly not one of them.