October 7, 2013
RED STAR, BLUE PENCIL:
The Tyrant as Editor (Holly Case, 10/07/13, The Chronicle Review)
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2013 5:46 PMThe editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.So while Stalin's voice rang in every ear, his portrait hung in every office and factory, and bobbed in every choreographed parade, the Stalin behind the blue pencil remained invisible. What's more, he allowed very few details of his private life to become public knowledge, leading the Stalin biographer Robert Service to comment on the remarkable "austerity" of the "Stalin cult."But we should not confuse Stalin's self-effacement with modesty. Though we tend to associate invisibility with the meek, there is a flip side that the graffiti artist Banksy understands better than most: "invisibility is a superpower."For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials ("against whom is this thesis directed?") and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings ("Correct!" or "Show all members of the Politburo"). During the German siege of Stalingrad (1942-43), he encircled the city from the west with his blue pencil on a large wall map in the Kremlin, and, in the summer of 1944, he redrew the borders of Poland in blue. At a meeting with Winston Churchill a few months later, the British prime minister watched as Stalin "took his blue pencil and made a large tick" indicating his approval of the "percentages agreement" for the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence after the war.The few who visited the Soviet leader in his Kremlin study mention the blue pencil in their memoirs. Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Soviet military during World War II, observed that "Stalin usually made notes in blue pencil and he wrote very fast, in a bold hand, and legibly." The Yugoslav Communist Milovan Ðilas was surprised to find that Stalin was not the calm, self-assured man he knew from photographs and newsreels:He was not quiet a moment. He toyed with his pipe ... or drew circles with a blue pencil around words indicating the main subjects for discussion, which he then crossed out with slanting lines as each part of the discussion was nearing an end, and he kept turning his head this way and that while he fidgeted in his seat.The Stanford historian Norman Naimark describes the marks left by Stalin's pencil as "greasy" and "thick and pasty." He notes that Stalin edited "virtually every internal document of importance," and the scope of what he considered internal and important was very broad. Editing a biologist's speech for an international conference in 1948, Stalin used an array of colored pencils--red, green, blue--to strip the talk of references to "Soviet" science and "bourgeois" philosophy. He also crossed out an entire page on how science is "class-oriented by its very nature" and wrote in the margin "Ha-ha-ha!!! And what about mathematics? And what about Darwinism?"Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin's editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people--indeed whole peoples--out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations. "The Poles have been visiting here," he told the former Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov in 1948. "I ask them: What do you think of Dimitrov's statement? They say: A good thing. And I tell them that it isn't a good thing. Then they reply that they, too, think it isn't a good thing."All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, "show a common bias: ... what the editor would prefer is preferable." Being an author is well and good, and Stalin wrote several books--the word "author" does after all share a root with the word "authority"--but he knew that editing was a higher power. Naimark argues that editing is as much a part of Stalinist ideology as anything he said or wrote. This insight warrants amplification. Under Stalinism, anyone could speak or write, but since Stalin was the supreme gatekeeper of the censorship hierarchy and the gulag system, the power to edit was power itself.