The mystique of pure evil

Post-revolutionary Russia is a cautionary tale, a lesson for all of us. But we never learn it.

Some people, whose number is dwindling, do appreciate how much the history of Russia in the last century teaches about politics and revolutions. Few realise that it teaches as much about human nature.

That’s why, whenever I write about Russia, I’m not writing just about Russia. For I always treat it as a concave mirror into which the West can look to see its own vices and misconceptions grotesquely exaggerated and so much more visible for it.

One such misconception is produced by pure evil. Whenever Westerners encounter it, they are so baffled that they refuse to recognise it for what it is. Proud of being empiricists, they nevertheless allow their emotions and biases to throw a dense fog over the evidence before their eyes – even when they are familiar with the evidence.

Most aren’t though, and we have our education to thank for it. If in the past, teachers, especially at university level, saw their task in overriding their charges’ prejudices, today they feel duty-bound to cater to those prejudices. All are laid down together on a flat table, and all enjoy the same space.

It’s as if our moral compass was put next to an iron bar and is now going haywire. Discrimination has become a dirty word, and people have been brainwashed not to discriminate against anything: fallacies in favour of truths, ignorance in favour of learning, ugliness in favour of beauty – against anything at all.

The greatest crime committed by modernity is the fostering, and increasingly enforcement, of the presumption of equality between everyone and everything. And, alas, this egalitarianism works most of the time when it comes to judging human character.

For most people, some 90 per cent from personal observation, fall into the broad mid-range of human qualities. They are neither too good nor too bad; neither too bright nor too dim; neither too strong nor too weak. A few personal idiosyncrasies apart, they are much of a muchness. They seek equality so much, they indeed end up being equal to one another.

When such people evaluate others in the same 90 per cent bracket, they may achieve insights by projecting themselves onto them. That leads to reasonable understanding, for in most cases this epistemological method is justified.

Yet there exist two five per cent margins on either side of our mid-range. Finding themselves there are saintly and evil individuals, geniuses and imbeciles, giants and weaklings, along with close approximations of those extremes.

Those people are outside the ken of those in the mid-range, who find themselves unable and reluctant even to acknowledge that such extremes can possibly exist. They have been house-trained to believe that everyone is like them, give or take.

So they perform their trusted trick of self-projection on the outsiders only to find, to their consternation, that it doesn’t quite work. The top five per cent stubbornly refuse to be dragged down, the bottom five per cent are as resistant to being pulled up.

Those in the majority abandon their efforts. As far as they are concerned, the extremes might as well not exist. It’s best not to think about them for fear of upsetting the applecart of presumptive equality.

This gets my train of thought back on the track of Russia, specifically the man I consider history’s clearest embodiment of pure evil. Lenin, in my judgement, beats to that distinction everyone’s favourites, Hitler and Stalin.

Those two villains run Lenin close, but they don’t quite manage to catch up. For both tried to achieve something they saw as positive. Yes, they were criminal in their aims and evil in their methods, but their evil may be perceived by some as a dry martini: almost neat gin but not quite.

That’s why they both still have their champions, especially Stalin, whom many Russians still identify as their greatest compatriot. Yes, he murdered millions, but he left his country as a superpower bristling with nuclear weapons, goes the popular refrain. Above all, there was order under Stalin and, say the German loonies, ordnung under Hitler too, which is so much preferable to today’s chaos.

In Britain, outside the two lunatic fringes, those two personages, especially Hitler, are seen as the distillate of evil. Our mid-range 90 per cent have been told that in these two cases such an uncompromising judgement is justified.

Lenin, however, gets off. Most Westerners are simply too ignorant to assess him properly, which is fair enough. Not everyone has to be an expert on Russian history – there exist many more interesting subjects to study, and a plethora of more useful ones.

Yet even those who know the facts, and such people are understandably more numerous in Russia than in the West, still detect a romantic halo over Lenin’s head, gleaming so bright that the contents of his head are outshone. He was a revolutionary, and there’s always a warm spot in the mid-range heart for such heroes.

That’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. A middle-of-the-road person is generally satisfied with his life. In fact, self-satisfaction is a marker identifying that group. However, even though he himself is perfect, not everything in his life and surroundings is ideal.

He has to wait three months for a doctor’s appointment, money is tight for him while the fat cats are rolling in it, the bloody taxes are going up, politicians are useless, the missus is doing the dirty with her boss – whatever.

Out of despondency arises hope, just a glimmer of it. One day, a secular saviour will pop up like a genie out of the bottle, and suddenly all the chap’s troubles will melt away. Doctors will be queuing up to see him, his bank account will be bursting at the seams, his taxes will go down, the missus will recognise the error of her ways.

Yes, he knows that most, perhaps all, past attempts to wave such a magic wand have failed. Still, those who wielded that stick deserve to be marked up for trying. And who knows, perhaps one day another genie will succeed in granting the poor chap his every wish.

Such people refuse to admit that most revolutionaries in history have been driven by mostly evil, destructive impulses – and Lenin exclusively by those. I shan’t repeat myself by presenting the prima facie evidence of this. Those who are interested may want to look up my earlier piece on this subject (  

What’s interesting here is watching the presumption of equality kicking in. Everyone knows that his overall goodness is offset by some bad traits. The balance differs from one person to the next, but there is always a balance.

Yet in Lenin there was none. From his barely postpubescent days he was driven by pure evil, the desire to destroy so strong that there was no room left in his heart for wishing to create something as well. When it came to positive desiderata, Lenin spoke in generalities that appealed to the masses without being able to withstand 10 seconds of rational scrutiny.

It’s only when Lenin lay down his evil designs that he spoke in concrete terms: “I don’t care if 90 per cent of all Russians perish, as long as the remaining 10 per cent live under socialism”. His much-vaunted modesty prevented him from acknowledging that he’d accept even a higher proportion of jetsam, leaving only himself and his accomplices to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Given a few more years, Lenin could have reached the allowable limit. As it was, only some 10 million Russians were dispatched by various methods on his watch. That was a higher murderous efficiency than Stalin’s, considering that Lenin was in power for barely five years.

And, unlike Stalin, he couldn’t have had even a tenuous claim to leaving Russia stronger than he had found it. The country was thoroughly devastated, its industry, agriculture, social and cultural life lay in ruins. Millions of desperate, hungry, disease-ridden skeletons roamed about, stumbling on the smoking fragments of the world they used to know.

I mentioned that even some people who know all the facts still have to issue Lenin a more or less free pass. One such is Edvard Radzinsky, popular as both playwright and historian whose works in both genres have been translated into English.

A Russian friend of mine has directed me towards Radzinsky’s YouTube channel, where his talking head shares his thoughts and recollections. My friend said Radzinsky was an excellent raconteur, and sure enough he is. Now in his eighties, he has seen and written about most Russians of interest, and he talks about them in a lucid and entertaining, if slightly histrionic, manner.

In fact, Radzinsky has inspired this piece because Lenin is his recurrent subject. He treats him mainly as the precursor of Stalin, and here Radzinsky promulgates the usual misconceptions that are more prevalent in the West than in Russia.

Speaking with his usual bonhomie oozing humour and the milk of human kindness, he describes Lenin with unmerited gentleness. The diabolical ghoul emerges as an idealist who genuinely wanted to create paradise on earth, but unwittingly laid the groundwork for Stalin to create hell on earth.

Radzinsky movingly talks about Lenin’s heart-rending misery at watching his beloved revolution turning into something he had never envisaged: the rule of bureaucracy. The nice man refuses to acknowledge that Lenin had envisaged nothing other than extermination and destruction.

Those were the only things for which his evil loins ached. Everything else was just window-dressing for mass consumption.

Radzinsky’s talent and erudition ought to be sufficient for pulling him out of the morass of middle-of-the-road mediocrity. Yet his inability, or perhaps reluctance, to recognise pure evil drags him back in. Such a stumbling block evidently can’t be bypassed by intellect and erudition alone – pure evil is shrouded in mystique, impenetrable to secular knowledge.

2 thoughts on “The mystique of pure evil”

  1. Do you think that some of us are destined never to be part of the 90%? Had, say, Augustine never become a saint, he would have become a psychopath? Todays piece reminds me of the protagonist in Herman Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’:

    “For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity.”

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