Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday are leading authorities on Mao, while Simon Sebag Montefiore has published two major works on Stalin. With Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson, they discuss the two communist dictators who were responsible for up to 100 million deaths
Daniel Johnson: There have been lots of books about Hitler and Stalin, but Mao and Stalin are not so often compared. It might be a good-starting point to look at where these two larger-than-life dictators came from.
Simon Sebag Montefiore: Well, Khrushchev, who knew them both quite well, over quite a long period of time, famously said they were utterly identical.
Jung Chang: Yes, and of course Mao learnt a lot from Stalin — basically how he ran China. His methods, even down to little details — these things he learnt from Stalin. He said Stalin was his mentor, and he meant it.
SSM: As far as childhood is concerned, Stalin really was brutalised by his upbringing. He was beaten by his father out of frustration, and he was beaten by his mother out of love, to discipline him. He grew up in a town dominated by violence, and a culture that worshipped violence. He grew up with that very strange mixture of personal traits which are on the one hand overweening self-confidence and on the other hand a giant inferiority complex and hypersensitivity about his own role.
JC: Mao’s childhood was actually quite an idyllic one. He complained about his father in his later life, but in fact his father was no tyrant. I think Mao did have a certain inferiority complex in his early life. He went to Beijing and Shanghai, to those cosmopolitan cities when he was a young man; he wasn’t treated as a star, he was treated as a provincial. But the fact that he had an inferiority complex doesn’t explain his later monstrosity.
SSM: Hitler also was beaten by his father and had an unhappy childhood in that way, but millions of people have unhappy childhoods and bullying fathers and of course most of them don’t become world-historical titans. I think that in the century of Freud we’ve paid much too much attention to the childhoods of these people. Just as important to Stalin, I think, was the conspiratorial underground that he lived in for most of his formative years, from 18 years old; and also hugely important with him was the education of the Church.
JC: In 1927, when Mao was 33, he came into contact with Stalinism, and that was also the year he began to engage in violence. And I think before Stalinism sank into him, Mao’s attitude to violence had been more a traditional Chinese one. There were lots of atrocities and acts of violence committed, but people didn’t think these things were right. Stalinism gave violence an ideological justification: suddenly Mao and the other Chinese communists got instructions from Moscow: “Terror is what we want”. You know, “kill, kill, kill, burn, burn, burn” — those were the actual slogans. You can’t be communist without being brutal. So I think that was a revelation for Mao — you can be brutal, you can be violent, and you can feel fully justified.
SSM: Stalin started much younger. When I started Young Stalin I thought there would be no killing in the book. But then I found out that at a very young age — 22 or so — he was already having supposed traitors wiped out. Obviously he later moved on to millions as Mao did, but at the time it was just one person here and there. With Stalin it was a combination of personality, Georgian traditions, and also studying violence in history: studying the Terror, the Paris Commune, Robespierre.
One thing they had in common was that they both studied history voraciously from an early age. That was very important. Stalin worshipped Robespierre — he used “Robespierre” as a compliment — but he also worshipped Ivan the Terrible and Persian shahs like Nader Shah who was famously brutal.
JC: Yes, in Mao’s vast library most books are about Chinese emperors, and a lot about awful Chinese emperors. Mao’s favourite pastime was to read history. He had these huge beds, half of which would be piled a foot high with books so he could wake up, roll over, pick up a book and start reading.
SSM: Stalin, at the height of the Great Terror, compared himself to Ivan the Terrible, saying that the great thing about him was that he wiped out most of the Boyars, musing that he should have wiped out all of them. He named Ivan as his “teacher”. Walking in the Kremlin, he’d say, “Ivan walked right here”. Mao and Stalin compared themselves continually to these people, even as active communists in a system where they would have killed anybody who used any similar comparison.
JC: In the last couple of years of Mao’s life when he was identifying himself with all these imperial rulers, he never once identified himself with other communist leaders, with the exception of Stalin.
SSM: I don’t think this has been really appreciated: Mao lying in bed as paramount leader, giving very oblique guidance to people that no one could quite understand, but really spending all his time reading, on his own in these houses. Stalin from the 1920s onwards was very similar. The irony is that Trotsky always said that Stalin was this paper-pushing bureaucrat, so everyone believed he was at his desk every minute, writing papers. In fact all of this was happening, often at the seaside or at his house. People who went to his house said every surface was covered with academic journals, literary journals, historical journals, books half read. So there was a great similarity in the way they gave information and guidance to their people.
JC: Yes, Mao, I think, learnt this way of administration from Stalin.
SSM: And often people like Lin Piao and Molotov left not really sure what they’d heard. They tried to get it right.
DJ: Is it true that Mao was critical of Stalin for adopting the European and Russian classics, for not just doing away with them completely? He thought Stalin, in other words, had been not ruthless and radical enough?
JC: Mao was much more extreme in destroying Chinese culture than Stalin was. When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he basically wiped out culture from people’s homes. The treasures in the Forbidden City were preserved, but in people’s houses you were not allowed to have anything. I have one thing which miraculously survived, that dish from my grandmother’s collection. But most things were destroyed.
Jon Halliday: Mao is as much different from Stalin as like him in this way. The idea that old was dangerous and should be destroyed was much stronger with Mao. When the Chinese Communists got into Peking, they actually had a meeting of the Politburo to decide whether they should knock down the Forbidden City, and they drew up lists of monuments to be destroyed, and most of the destruction of things like the old city walls, the buildings and so on, was carried out in the 1950s.
SSM: Obviously in the 1920s in Russia there were those ideas about destroying culture, killing priests, blowing up churches, but that really ended in the early 1930s. By then Stalin was becoming increasingly conservative, and his idea of culture was very conservative; so that is a big difference.
JC: Mao was more cynical even than Stalin. Mao actually loved Chinese classics, but the problem was he wouldn’t allow a billion Chinese to read. In his later years his eyesight was failing so he had two factories built to print books with large characters so that he could read them, and the print run of each book was five copies, all for Mao. I don’t think Stalin was doing things of that kind.
SSM: No, but there was a similar system because all the leaders received books forbidden to everybody else. So if you go to Kirov’s flat, [Sergey Kirov, a Soviet leader and Stalin ally] for example, he had everything there — all the classics, all the Western things. And Stalin said something very similar, I think it was to Djilas, when they were talking about Dostoevsky. Some of Dostoevsky was published and some of it wasn’t, and Djilas asked, “Why do you ban so much of Dostoevsky?” and Stalin said, “Of course, he’s a psychological genius, and that’s why we ban him.”
JC: Stalin would limit his banning list to things he perceived as a threat, whereas Mao just banned them summarily. I think Mao really wanted to brutalise the Chinese, dehumanise the Chinese, by depriving them of any intellectual input, and by depriving them of any representation of human feelings.
DJ: Didn’t he toy with the idea of depriving them even of names — just give them numbers, like inmates in a concentration camp?
JC: Yes, he did. In our book there is a photograph of peasants working in a field, carrying a huge number sewn on to the back of their clothes. In 1958 Mao toyed with the idea of getting rid of people’s names, and he mentioned this at Politburo meetings. It wasn’t carried out, partly because it was impractical — there were just too many Chinese!
Another thing that struck me was that under Stalin, at one point there were some 40 composers who submitted entries for the national anthem. Under Mao you can count composers on the fingers of one hand. Mao himself loved Chinese operas, and he had a collection of over a thousand cassettes. He was something of a connoisseur of Chinese operas. Chinese operas are not like Western operas; they are for the masses. Mao knew a lot of regional operas by heart and could talk to opera stars knowledgeably about arias, but again the problem was he wouldn’t allow a billion Chinese to enjoy these operas.
SSM: I think an important part of this was that Mao was the Lenin of the Chinese revolution. Stalin was the second leader. By the time he came to power, there was a return to traditional Russian values. But also Stalin had to do that because, unlike Mao, who was, though Hunanese, truly Chinese, Stalin wasn’t even Russian. Also it was such a multinational empire that it became ever more necessary to Russianise it, and that meant promoting Russian culture, Russian history, to hold the whole thing together. And Stalin thought very hard about this, about creating this new idea of a nationality.
Another point is that the Cultural Revolution was unthinkable for Stalin. The wild disorder of it showed Mao’s immense confidence in his grip on power.
JC: Mao spoke of half the Chinese people being wiped out. He said this had happened several times in Chinese history — and for all his projects to take off, half of China might well have to die. He really meant it, and he said, “if not half of China, let’s say 50 million”. And he wasn’t just talking some sort of ghastly philosophy; he meant it because that’s the basis on which his policies were founded.
SSM: It was the same with Stalin. When he said to Churchill, “We destroyed the Kulaks, 10 million of them died”, that was his own figure. He was quite happy for those people to be wiped out. But this also came from Lenin. They both hated the peasantry and they were always genuinely thrilled whenever the peasantry was starving.
DJ: Where does this terrifying genocidal urge come from? Is it the complete absence of moral constraints, of any kind of higher law?
JC: In the Chinese tradition, for the ruler to be indifferent to his people’s lives was not glorified; it was regarded as bad. The first emperor was regarded as a bad emperor. The traditional Chinese measurement of a good emperor was how much he cared about his people, so in that sense Mao also made a total break from traditional Chinese values.
JH: He rejected all moral values, in fact. Most of Mao’s killing really falls into two groups. One is exterminating so-called class enemies, which is inherent in communism. And then the single largest number were just simply expendable.
JC: It wasn’t mindless. Even though the victims were not real enemies, Mao still wanted the killings because they generated terror, and that is inherent in Bolshevism.
SSM: Absolutely. It was always about blood-letting; even before they were in power, they talked continually about the terror. So I think Jon’s absolutely right, that it was inherent in the whole project, from the beginning, in the ideology. So if you accepted Bolshevism, Marxism, Leninism, whatever you want to call it, you knew you were going to have to wipe out vast numbers of people at random because of their supposed class. And they would never decide what class anyone was in. The person at the top had to give rough guidelines and down it went to the villages, and there they just killed these people. Someone had to decide using whatever criteria they’d thought of that day.
JC: Yes, to generate fear, that’s how they perpetuated their regimes.
SSM: You estimate Mao killed 70 million?
JC: Yes. At least 70 million.
SSM: I think Stalin killed 20 to 25 million. Of course when one talks about these numbers, one’s almost entering into the same world that they existed in, because we’re not quite sure whether it’s to the nearest 10 million or the nearest 5 million: we, in trying to estimate their crimes, are in a world where you lose a million here, you lose 5 million there.
DJ: Yes it is, and it brings one face-to-face with sheer evil. Because in both cases there was no real sense of remorse, or “we have to sacrifice these people for the greater good”. They both seem to have been completely unrepentant, to the day they died, and in fact to have treated their own immediate friends and family and entourage just as badly as they treated total strangers.
SSM: Well, they both regarded themselves as history personified, and history as a colossal and cruel machine, which they were both riding; which they felt almost represented themselves and their personalities. I don’t know if Stalin really said the famous words about one death being a tragedy and a million being a statistic, but it is very typical of his sort of gallows humour.
JC: I think Mao had really cleared his conscience even when he was as young as 24, when he wrote these notes on a little-known German philosopher called Paulsen. Mao said that whatever satisfies me is automatically moral. He explicitly rejected conscience, and he said conscience is always there “to help you fulfil your desires”. He didn’t regard conscience as something that restrains you. So he was completely untroubled by all these murders and this bloodshed. In his later years he was always crying, but he was always crying for himself because his dreams weren’t fulfilled. He never shed a tear for the 70 million people who had perished under his rule.
Maybe there is a psychological punishment for this kind of total absence of pity and remorse. Mao suffered from intense fear — even at the height of his power. On the eve of conquering China, he developed a severe tremble. He was tall, almost six foot, and he trembled like a leaf when he saw a stranger. Throughout his 27-year rule he lived in his own country as though it were a war-zone; he was constantly afraid of assassination.
SSM: By the post-war period Stalin really was paranoid, but his paranoia wasn’t completely absurd; people were being shot — Lenin in 1918, various ambassadors and Kirov in 1934 — and the more people you killed, the more people there were that hated you. So he had every reason.
Stalin was exactly the same as Mao in his belief that whatever he wanted, whatever he did, was in itself moral, it was for the right, and for the good of the country and the people and the revolution and so on, and he had very little doubt about that, even though he constantly performed huge somersaults of policy and changes of personnel and so on.
But one thing that was perhaps a bit different was that he did have moments of weird, distant regret, not guilt, about people he himself had killed. After the war he used to sit at night on his veranda and talk to people, saying he regretted that various people had been killed by yes-men or forgetfully he’d ask Beria if some individual was alive or not, as if the killings were nothing to do with him and he hadn’t organised the whole thing. And people who were talking to him found that very chilling, and also they were slightly bemused; they couldn’t quite understand it. Also, after the Great Patriotic War, he talked of how every family had suffered tragedy and loss, but whether this was in any way real to him is doubtful. As with Mao, it was always about him. Both his wives died, one in 1907 and one in 1932 — the second was a suicide — and in both cases he collapsed. But really it was about himself, about his own melodrama that he was weeping, and not at all about the person that he’d lost.
JC: Yes. Mao really seems to have had a heart of stone. I was astonished interviewing people close to Mao at the total indifference he had towards his family. There is this story which we have in our book of when his son died. His eldest and only mentally normal son died in the Korean war and Mao didn’t show any sign of sadness. Then for two and a half years this news was not broken to the son’s young widow, who spent all her weekends and her vacations with Mao. She didn’t ask why she didn’t get any letters because she was used to communist secrecy, but also because Mao showed no sign that indicated to her that something had happened to her husband. For two and a half years Mao talked about his son from time to time, and even joked about him, as though he was talking about somebody who was alive; so she had no clue that her husband was dead.
I was puzzled about this at first until I realised that Mao probably didn’t tell her because he found her company relaxing. Mao didn’t want somebody who was miserable for company, so he didn’t tell her.
SSM: One thing that was really unforgivable in Stalin’s court was when people were alone with him and they were suddenly tempted to mention that one of their people had been arrested and appeal for their release — that was just absolute death, because he was relaxing and it was absolutely unacceptable for anyone to show any bitterness, no matter what had happened. In fact there was one great scene where Stalin visited Kavtaradze’s family, and the wife had been tortured, almost to death, and the husband had been sentenced to death and then let off, and he came in and asked, “did they torture you” and she said, “yes”, and he said, “well, there are a lot of yes-men in our country”. And then he said, “but how do you feel about that?”, and that was a great cue because if she’d said she was bitter about any part of it, I’m sure she would have been arrested again within days. But she was clever and said, “Let’s strike out the eye of anyone who holds any grudges at all about this.” She outlived Stalin.
Stalin is always regarded as this kind of impassive, grey person with no expression, no personality — that was his image, the man of steel. But actually when you look at him — and I think this is the same with Mao, in the sense that they were both great melodramatists — he had a great sense of theatre and his own performance, and I think when tragedies happened, he loved to play the role. In his old age Stalin loved Westerns. He loved John Wayne and I think that’s really how he saw himself. He really loved these movies because he saw himself as a man with no name riding into a town with nothing but a rifle to dispense justice with, a man with no family and no one who loved him.
SSM: Lonesome self-pity, but a man of justice who gave justice brutally and then rode out of town. That was really how he saw himself in history and that was his romanticisation of his own heartlessness.
JC: Mao also, in his different way. He wasn’t particularly fond of Westerns; he didn’t watch many films.
SSM: But the self-image was the same.
JC: Yes, he wallowed in this feeling, reading Chinese poetry. He, of course, wrote poetry.
JH: My understanding is that actually Mao’s early poems are quite good, and the later stuff, once he got into power, is not so good. I think Moravia in Italy did an edition of Mao’s poems. In fact, his poetry was something that led people to think highly of him.
JC: Yes, lots of people say, “Oh, Mao was a good poet”, as if this was incompatible with him being a mass-murderer. But it is entirely compatible. He can be a good poet and also have murdered tens of millions of people.
SSM: Well, with Stalin my understanding is that the poems are exquisite but they are in Georgian which I can’t read. And a lot of people helped Stalin because of them. His big bank robbery in Tiflis in 1907, which sort of made him, his first great act that made headlines across the world — the inside-man in the robbery helped him because he so admired Stalin as a poet, which is sort of unbelievable.
DJ: How were these men seen in the West?
JC: One reason for Mao’s influence in the West is that he was a very good self-publicist. The benign image of him in the West started with Edgar Snow, whom Mao took trouble to select. It wasn’t by accident at all that Edgar Snow went to where Mao was and interviewed him. And Mao insisted on the careful editing of what Edgar Snow was going to say. When Snow’s book caused some sort of sensation in the West, Mao had it translated back into Chinese, and gave it the rather neutral title Journey to the West rather than Red Star Over China which sounded in Chinese too … well … Red. So Mao had it published in China in the late 1930s, and these books influenced one or two generations of radical Chinese youth, including my parents. Another big wave of self-promotion was in 1960, at the height of the famine. In that year alone more than 20 million people died of starvation. In that year Mao started to spend a lot of money overseas, giving it to Left-wing organisations to try to influence people. That, actually, is a huge area that needs careful study.
He started to promote himself that year, 1960, because he decided to break from Khrushchev. He had to do this because otherwise he couldn’t start his own camp. That was the year when he systematically began to promote his own personality-cult in the world.
DJ: And he already had the bomb by then, or nearly.
JC: He was too optimistic, which partly explained why his nuclear industry didn’t go as well as he wanted. He had been told he’d got all the necessary things for the bomb. He didn’t know that his scientists were too optimistic about the missiles. He didn’t have the necessary missile technology.
When he split with Khrushchev, he wanted two incompatible things. One was to trash Khrushchev and establish his own camp in the world, and the other was to continue getting technology and equipment out of Khrushchev. He couldn’t have both. In the end when Khrushchev was deposed he sent Zhou Enlai to Russia to try to get the technology from Brezhnev. It was then that Malinovsky, the defence minister of Russia, said to Zhou Enlai and the acting defence minister of China, Ho Long: “Why don’t you get rid of Mao like we got rid of Khrushchev?” That was such an important moment in Chinese history because it played a big role in triggering the whole Cultural Revolution. Mao then, of course, refused to have anything to do with Russia, even though he badly wanted the missiles.
DJ: Why can’t China and Russia shake themselves free of these two great monsters?
JC: In China today Mao’s portrait is still in Tiananmen Square, on the Tiananmen Gate; his mummified corpse is still in the centre of the Chinese capital for people to worship, and he has been written into the Chinese constitution as the guiding force of China. Although the Chinese today feel much more free to criticise their current leaders, they are still inhibited in criticising Mao. Most people have a profound fear of Mao deeply embedded in their psyche. So the position of Mao is quite different from that of Stalin. The key thing is that Mao is still being propped up by a state. Of course the current regime has rejected most of Mao’s legacies but they have also kept some crucial ones. One is the control of the media, the freedom of expression, which in China is worse now than a hundred years ago.
SSM: Russia is very different because, of course, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and he was thrown out of the Mausoleum in 1961.But something very strange has happened because Stalin regarded himself both as a sort of Red Tsar and as the supreme pontiff of Marxism, but the Marxism bit has fallen away. Communism was chucked out and the present regime is not by any means Communist. But it’s very imperial, it’s very obsessed with state power in a way that Stalin would still have understood. Stalin was utterly denounced in the early 1990s, all his crimes revealed, all archives opened, which show things in absolutely naked terms — lists of people killed, by the hundreds of thousands and millions, at random. Everyone has forgotten that now, and in the early 21st century we see the great irony: this Georgian-born internationalist is gradually becoming the symbol of Russian power, Russian imperial success.
If you talk to people, not just old people but young people, of Putin’s generation, for example, and younger, they see Stalin as the most successful Russian leader. This is a quote from a Putin-endorsed textbook which says “Stalin was the most successful Russian leader of the 20th century” — which of course is undeniably true if you measure power in the same way that you’d measure Genghis Khan as a great success in the old-fashioned way that people used before the 20th century, before we introduced moral measurements for such matters. And the textbook also says that Stalin had to use terror just to make sure that the bureaucracy and the elite obeyed orders. The empire he left, stretching from Berlin to Mongolia, was larger than any tsar’s. And so I think Stalin, this Georgian who wasn’t even Russian, will end up being “Stalin the Great” in Russian textbooks. I thought it would take 50 years but it’s happening now.
JC: Yes; in China our book has been published in pirated editions, and people have also scanned it on to websites for people to download, and so there are a lot of comments on the book. And while many say how awful Mao was, there are also people saying basically what you said Russians say about Stalin: “But Mao gave us the atom bomb” as though the deaths of tens of millions were worth it because we had the atom bomb.