Joseph Stalin, a Lifelong Editor, Wielded a Big, Blue, Dangerous Pencil


It seems only nat­ur­al that Joseph Stal­in, who presided over per­haps the most stag­ger­ing­ly vast era­sure of human beings, their prop­er­ty, their doc­u­ments and his­to­ries, should have also been a metic­u­lous edi­tor. Whether we know it or not, the invis­i­ble hand of an edi­tor intrudes between us and near­ly every­thing we read (even if it’s the writer as edi­tor), mak­ing eso­teric deci­sions, cre­at­ing alter­nate out­comes and delet­ing the past. In Stalin’s day, and still in many edi­to­r­i­al depart­ments today, the edi­tor wield­ed a col­ored pen­cil instead of a key­board, and hov­ered over man­u­scripts, not­ing adden­da, cor­rect­ing minu­tia, slash­ing through sen­tences, and scrib­bling inde­ci­pher­able com­ments in the mar­gins. Stalin’s pen­cil was blue, a col­or that was not vis­i­ble when pho­tographed.

This col­or becomes a metaphor for Stalin’s invis­i­bil­i­ty in a fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle on Stal­in as edi­tor by Hol­ly Case, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. Before Stal­in was Stal­in, he was Joseph Dju­gashvili, rev­o­lu­tion­ary bol­she­vik and sem­i­nary dropout, “a ruth­less per­son, and a seri­ous edi­tor.” Stal­in reject­ed 47 of Lenin’s arti­cles to Prav­da (and sup­pressed Lenin’s warn­ings about his pro­tégée after the for­mer’s death). And once he assumed pow­er as head of the Sovi­et state in the mid-twen­ties, Stal­in con­tin­ued in this capac­i­ty, heav­i­ly rewrit­ing doc­u­ments and man­u­scripts, and scrawl­ing notes and revi­sions over  hun­dreds of offi­cial par­ty doc­u­ments. “For Stal­in,” Case writes, “edit­ing was a pas­sion that extend­ed well beyond the realm of pub­lished texts.” She com­ments on the para­dox of the dictator’s inescapable pub­lic pres­ence and his intru­sive, yet invis­i­ble, edi­to­r­i­al ten­den­cies:

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.”

We should not mis­take Stalin’s “self-efface­ment,” Case writes, for mod­esty. She quotes the enig­mat­ic street artist Banksy to make the point: “invis­i­bil­i­ty is a super­pow­er.” Stal­in applied the pow­er of his pen­cil to thou­sands of offi­cial doc­u­ments and pieces of pro­pa­gan­da, even com­plete­ly rewrit­ing the 1938 Sovi­et bible, The Short Course on the His­to­ry of the All-Union Com­mu­nist Par­ty (Bol­she­viks). Com­mis­sioned for a team of authors in 12 chap­ters, Stal­in found it nec­es­sary to “fun­da­men­tal­ly revise 11 of them” (see the first edi­tion title page above).


Stalin’s blue pen­cil also inter­vened in more direct, and chill­ing ways. The doc­u­ment at left shows a list of peo­ple held by the NKVD, fore­run­ners to the KGB. The blue hand­writ­ing scrawled over the list is Stalin’s. It reads “Exe­cute every­one.”

We have anoth­er exe­cu­tion order below, this time in the form of a 1940 let­ter writ­ten by Stalin’s secret police chief Beria and rec­om­mend­ing “exe­cu­tion by shoot­ing” for around 20,000 pris­on­ers, most of them Pol­ish offi­cers, at a camp in Katyn, a mas­sacre the Sovi­ets blamed on the Nazis. Beria’s let­ter (below) bears the sig­na­tures, in blue pen­cil, of Stal­in and sev­er­al Polit­buro mem­bers.


In addi­tion to heav­i­ly edit­ing pro­pa­gan­da and sign­ing mass death war­rants, Stal­in used his pen­cil to deface draw­ings by 19th cen­tu­ry Russ­ian painters, scrawl­ing “crude and omi­nous cap­tions” beneath them in red or blue. He left his mark on 19 pic­tures, all of them nudes, most of them male. He slashed through their tor­sos and oth­er body parts with the pen­cil (below) and wrote on one of the draw­ings, “Radek, you gin­ger bas­tard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive.” Karl Radeck was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary activist in the 20s that his­to­ri­ans believe Stal­in had killed in 1939. His­to­ri­an Niki­ta Petrov—who believes Stal­in defaced the draw­ings between 1939 and 1946—says of them: “These cap­tions show Stal­in was­n’t just mali­cious and prim­i­tive, but that he was also very dan­ger­ous.” It is indeed deeply unset­tling for an edi­tor to see Stalin’s ruth­less hand move freely from the vio­lence of his slash-and-burn tex­tu­al changes to that of his mass exe­cu­tion orders and crude, “loutish” debase­ment of human forms.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

His­to­ry Declas­si­fied: New Archive Reveals Once-Secret Doc­u­ments from World Gov­ern­ments

Leon Trot­sky: Love, Death and Exile in Mex­i­co

Learn Russ­ian from our List of Free Lan­guage Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.