1IQ #4: Stalin’s Choreography

“When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances”

Nikita Khrushchev

Reading history is made worth it by the all too human happenings of its great movers.

Think Trump was the first world leader to indulge in an immature insult? Winston Churchill was accused of being ‘disgustingly drunk’ by a female MP, to which he drunkenly retorted, “My dear, I may be drunk, but you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.'”

When King Francis I of France was received by a young King Henry VIII in the The Field of the Cloth of Gold, a royal summit-slash-carnival of games, hunting, banqueting and sports, the two sovereigns competed against one another in good humour. Then, having doubtlessly quaffed a great quantity of wine throughout the day, King Henry — broad-shouldered but not yet big-bellied — challenged the French king to a wrestling match. King Francis modestly declined, but Henry VIII pressed the issue, and they agreed to wrestle. The reluctant wrestler King Francis felled the bigger King Henry for both royal courts to see.

Stalin, though, is truly in a league of his own when his mad machinations and perverse personality cult are considered at length. To say Stalin sat at the apex of Soviet government is not quite true. After consolidating power, he became the apex of Soviet government: he made himself irreplaceable, manoeuvred himself into unrivalled control of the Soviet empire.

Fascinating on the historical level, all the more intriguing on the human, all too human level. Stalin liked to exercise power over and through his cadres around the dinner table, at the banquets he held regularly into the small hours. They ate the finest food until bursting, whilst many millions starved due to their mismanagement, a few million deliberately.

The veneer of social normality and respectability was paper thin and seen through by all. Before his total consolidation of power, Stalin invited his brother-in-law and opera singer wife to dinner. They arrived two hours late. Both were shot.

Needless to say, his invitees were then quite punctual.

Stalin liked to humiliate them by way of vodka. Drinking to the interminable toasts — to the party, to the revolution, to Stalin — was ruthlessly enforced. All would drink, including Stalin; all were drunk, except for Stalin, who remained suspiciously sober. Like a judge, he remained sober and suspicious; unbeknownst to the table, he often drank water instead of vodka, presiding over the raucous proceedings.

One of the particularly drunk and fat pigs at the trough of this Animal Farm was Nikita Khrushchev. Obliged and prepared to humiliate himself wilfully in compliance with Stalin’s every raised glass and whim, he was once ordered by Stalin to dance the gopak at an after-dinner party in front of other party officials.

Imagine you were a witnessing cadre. In that climate of complete fear, for you and your family’s lives, your unquestionable world-historical leader orders an inebriated, obese underling to perform a dance, requiring he squat down to his heels and kick each leg out in turn. Is that funny? You would have to laugh either way, for Stalin’s sake.

On the geopolitical level, Stalin was facing off with an estranged American dance partner from back in WWII, in a confrontation we now know as the Cold War. On the political level, Stalin was a choreographer, manipulating some of history’s most malevolent characters for his own purposes. On the all too human level, Stalin was a spectacular bully, making grown men dance for his own perverse amusement.

Of course, Khrushchev danced, his gopak described as “a cow dancing on ice.”

Khrushchev later recalled telling another party cadre, in an artfully terse epigram, “when Stalin says dance, a wise man dances.”

1IQ (1 Idea/Quote) is a series of pieces focussing on a single idea or quote.

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