Tod Worner is a husband, father & Catholic convert. He is a practicing internal medicine physician, lectures on World War II history, and writes regularly for Aleteia and Patheos (as “A Catholic Thinker”). Follow him on Twitter (@thinkercatholic), Instagram (Catholicthinker) and Facebook (A Catholic Thinker).
The talk is a dark one.
That’s for sure.
And I have been giving it for nearly 10 years. But what does one expect when telling the black tale of Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin? A beaten son and aimless teen finds purpose in the radical writing and vitriolic rantings of Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin. In short order, under Lenin’s ideological influence, a thug, terrorist and revolutionary was born whom the Tsar’s secret police simply couldn’t keep in prison nor confine in exile. When the time for the true revolution (the October Revolution of 1917) was nigh, Stalin, Lenin and Leon Trotsky reaped the benefits. But the path forward would be nothing but bloody.
To tell the story of Stalin consolidating power as Lenin suffered one stroke after another is to describe a master Machiavellian in action. It is a story thick with bald-face lies, cynical manipulation, alliances of convenience and ruthless betrayal. Friends instrumental to Stalin’s rise find themselves confessing false crimes during heinous show trials. Stalin’s son, Yakov, is disowned by his father (and dies in a concentration camp) when Yakov is used by his German captors as a bargaining chip. Political allies enshrined in the Soviet history books yesterday are mechanically torn out page by page by each student today. Once a friend, and now, forever an enemy.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Once Stalin was in full control of the Soviet state, the draconian enforcement of collective farming, the cynical propaganda of a cult of personality, and the paranoid exacting of revenge against hundreds of thousands of anonymous people is nothing less than chilling. Gulags and show trials, purges and The Great Terror reveal the hellish reality under the rule of Stalin. Millions died under the watchful eye and the “protective hand” of their own government. Death was at once brutal and arbitrary, swift and indiscriminate. Ostensibly, a Communist paradise was the goal of Stalin’s regime. In fact, utopia was only the pretense – the fig leaf – for Stalin’s true agenda: naked and untrammeled power.
But Stalin’s regime was not unique. The 20th century boasts some of the worst leaders in the history of the world. Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tsung, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-Un. These beasts made men and women their chattel, their pack animals, their expendable means to a power-drunk end. And it goes to show you how far mankind can fall.
Stepping away from ruthless dictators, we must also grapple with the fallibility of our most well-intended government leaders as well as with ourselves. Even in our modern American democracy, we are daily faced with the reason for the structure of our government: to credibly and effectively check our appetites. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition... It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
As we read the newspapers in our most enlightened democracy, we see rampant corruption, hypocrisy, arrogance and incompetence. Mind you, people are not being sent to Gulags or tortured into false confessions for show trials, but term after term our government representatives (of either party) fail to demonstrate a modicum of ethics or enduring sense of honor.
Our kings and queens are broken. And so are we. It makes me think of Richard II’s great lament (as written by William Shakespeare) as he comes to grips with the demise of his rule which was largely the consequence of his own misdeeds and malfeasance, his own intractable fallibility.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the [jester] sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
As I, once again, finish telling the dark tale of Josef Stalin (just as when I conclude my talk on Adolf Hitler), I am relieved that these are not my kings. And as I read the paper or peruse the internet news and shake my head at the latest scandal or mistake, I am reassured that these are not my kings. And as I look in the mirror upon waking each morning or retiring each night and consider the mess I made of one thing or another, I am heartened that I, myself, am not my king. Instead, I am desperately grateful that a God-made-man who humbly suffered worse than me, yet gracefully forgave greater than me is the True King. For as St. John reminded us in Revelation,
The kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to his Anointed, and he will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)
Crown Him with many crowns.