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January 24, 2018

That Random Person on Twitter Isn’t Stalin

I honestly don’t think about Stalin very often. I read Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva last month and it was actually revelatory to be reminded that Stalin actually happened, that the story wasn’t inevitable, and to glimpse the awfulness of living within that terrible present which would unfold into the brutal and murderous history. When Svetlana moved to America, the idea that she’d enrol her daughter in public school was reprehensible to her, and she had no truck with American socialists, the fellow travellers. Her response to living under Stalin and his successors was not exactly nuanced, or considered, I mean, but then I think that’s probably a lot of ask of anybody.

Still, I don’t think about Stalin very often, but last week I started to think maybe I was alone in this. This was the week that Margaret Atwood published an op-ed defending her feminist credentials, and reiterated that a lack of dude process regarding sexual assault cases was analogous to Stalinist purges, and then someone else on Facebook got upset because a small press declared a poet’s books out of print (after his public announcement that he’d only got them published because he knew the right people to have drinks with) because this was apparently Stalinist-era censorship, and just yesterday a couple of men on Twitter were comparing poets on Twitter to the East German secret police, which wasn’t referencing Stalin exactly, but it’s all in the spirit of the thing.

It turns out that a lot of people are thinking about Stalin all the time. And they see him everywhere they look, on Twitter threads, and Facebook conversations, in the back of the closet, and under the bed, but never, oddly enough, in the mirror. And while one might say that my lack of engaged consideration about Stalin on a regular basis may be to my detriment, because those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, I’m not convinced. Because while I don’t think about Stalin very often, I think about him enough to realize that random person on Twitter yelling at Margaret Atwood is not him. And neither are women circulating a shitty men list, or calling out sexual predators by name, or Indigenous people who have thoughts and ideas to express about cultural appropriation. Even if those people are angry. That woman who runs a small press? Not Stalin. That person who is attacking the thing you said, or the story you wrote, or the tweet you tweeted? Not Stalin. In particular if that person is trans, or disabled, or a person of colour (and yes, I know Stalin was also a minority, being Georgian, but that’s not the same thing), because what Stalin had was power to oppress people with, and the people you’re accusing of being Stalin? They don’t have much power at all.

That annoying woman on Twitter whose feed is full of weird politically correct jargon that is very irritating to read is not Stalin. That strange person with blue hair whose preferred pronoun is an unpronounceable word you’ve never heard of is not Stalin. That very earnest person who’s currently going around Twitter calling out anyone with the nerve to be reading Margaret Atwood right now is not Stalin. She’s kind of an idiot, but that’s not the same as being Stalin, and I think a lot of people are having a lot of trouble telling the two things apart. Even the person who’s going to be upset for me for making fun of people with blue hair and weird pronouns two sentences back is not Stalin…unless that person happens to have the power to throw me into prison for an indefinite period of time.

It’s not that I’m trying to minimize the crimes and atrocities of Stalin and his tyranny, in fact I’m doing quite the opposite. It’s because I know that Stalin is possible—and that power can make a person so dangerous—that making distinctions between the man himself and annoying people on Twitter is really important. Making the distinction is also important, because it seems like Stalin-hysteria is a reflexive response to moments in which people who’ve been oppressed are seeking to redress a power imbalance, when one might be feeling as vulnerable as a Romanov in 1917. Except that it’s 2018, and you’re talking about somebody on Twitter with 278 followers, and you’ve decided that your possibly legitimate fear of the USSR happening all over again means that, as a matter of principle even, you don’t have to listen to what other people have to say.

This morning I was delighted with Erika Thorkelson’s essay, “Margaret Atwood’s Books Taught Me To Listen to Women,” and not just because—most refreshingly—she doesn’t mention Stalin or the Gulag even once. It’s a beautiful piece about the importance of listening, which, Thorkelson writes, “requires full body presence. It requires you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.”

What’s happening might not be about you at all. What a thing! It might not even be about Stalin…

Thorkelson continues, “The greatest block to really listening is not the noise of the world, but that voice inside that protects us, centers us, rattles with outrage or disbelief.” The voices that tells us that Stalin is hiding under the bed, and that you alone are the last bastion against evil and tyranny, when, in your refusal to listen, it might be tyranny (and/or the shoddy status quo) that you are, in fact, upholding.

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