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5 September 2016

Julie Burchill: why I was wrong to admire Stalin

I was pretending to be a punk, a lesbian and a Jew, but at least I could be true to myself in this way. “I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say.

By Julie Burchill

When we’re keen on a man, we females are advised from an early age to take an interest in his hobbies. (It doesn’t work the other way around, thank goodness, or we would find the entire male population screaming on about shoes and shopping.) These days, young ladies find it politic to pretend that they’re keen on looking at telecommunicated photographs of disembodied body parts in order to achieve the all-important goal of Getting a Boy to Like You. I know we’re meant to disapprove, but personally I’m just a little bit jealous, as I was as kinky as a mink at the age of 12 and would have absolutely revelled and thrived in the sexual hothouse that is the modern adolescent experience.

My calf country was a more innocent place, though ironically I ended up pledging my allegiance to one of the most prolific and unapologetic mass murderers who ever lived, in order to impress the man I was keen on. Sexting seems positively wholesome in comparison.

As a pre-teen daddy’s girl, eager to elicit some emotion from my loving but reserved father, I tried taking an interest in football and trades unions, I really did. But I knew from the get-go that the way to my adored dad’s heart was via Joseph Stalin. Stalin! Man of Steel. Till the end of my days, I’ll never be sure why my gentle giant of a father, who literally wouldn’t have hurt a fly, spent so much of his leisure time acting as the chief cheerleader of a man who was responsible for the deaths of about 20 million people.

I think that the answer might have had something to do with his background and prospects. An extremely clever man from an illiterate, poverty-racked home, he refused the promotions offered to him at the distillery where he worked, in the interests of not being bought by the bourgeoisie. ­After the factory closed, and before he died of the mesothelioma that he had contracted as a teenage builder, his last job was as a ­car-park attendant. He died seeing it as his particular triumph that he had not made any advancement up the class ladder.

Stalin was the peasant who outlived communism’s well-bred, well-read intellectuals and turned his country into a superpower to match the United States – the son of a drunken cobbler and a washerwoman who became the most powerful man on Earth – with gulags, famines and purges. It is possible that he was mad; he was certainly extremely hardened and calloused by the torture he underwent at the hands of the tsarist police. Early mugshots show him as ravishingly beautiful, which never goes amiss when you’re a teenage girl. And he was reported to have said matter-of-factly – with an undertone of something almost like satisfaction – “Now my heart is dead” after the death of his beloved first wife. It’s not exaggerating to say that I saw Stalin as a romantic hero.

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Fame and fortune phoned and off I went to London. I was pretending to be a punk, a lesbian and a Jew, but at least I could be true to myself in this way. “I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say. “But you’ve just had sex with me!” “Yes, it would have been bourgeois not to.”

And: “I don’t smoke dope – I’m a Stalinist.” “But you’ve just snorted half a gram of speed!” “Yes, I’m a Stakhanovite, too, and it makes me work harder.” I had answers for everything, all of them mad.

Still, Stalinism was a good way of chucking cold water on the unbearably twee twitterings about anarchy on the part of my punk compadres – twitterings that seem to me, looking back, to have been an early precursor of identity politics: one big scream of ME, ME, ME from people whose dark secret was/is that they really weren’t/aren’t very interesting.

There’s a funny bit in Peter York’s book Style Wars in which he recalls being out one evening “with this clutch of Modern girls”, and one of them overhears me saying, “People aren’t really that interesting, there’s not much to be said for individuals.” York writes: “You could see it worried the girls . . . What she was on about was bourgeois individualism and this was a real political note, a tough bit of vocabulary I hadn’t heard in years.” I was just 17, and Uncle Joe was helping me serve it to my elders and betters a treat.

Admirers were always giving me trinkets – communist badges, lovely red ribbons, real Soviet caps. I shudder with nausea when I remember the way I used to admire myself in them, pouting into the mirrors that I snorted speed off of. “I’m a sexy teenage communist!” I would gloat. But I spat blood whenever I saw a fellow punk sporting a swastika. Why? What was the difference? My side had killed 20 million.

As simple as it seems, I think that I was drawn to Soviet communism, even under Stalin, because in the beginning it had meant well – that and the graphics. The really weird thing is that my crush lasted so long (well into my thirties), which can only be a sign of my terminal emotional immaturity.

I would like to say that there was a big, blinding moment of revelation, repentance and redemption but I am a chillingly pragmatic person, I fear, and in the end Stalin simply outlived his usefulness. My dad died and, by the time he did, I was confident enough of his love no longer to need to suck up to him. And the Zionism that I had been interested in since I was a teenager came to be the main political presence in my life.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t backslide. Last month, I woke up in bed with a small, silver bust of Lenin on the pillow next to me, purchased on a drunken romp the day before. I hated myself for a bit, but it could have been worse. Gagged and blindfolded with Zionist wristbands, he looks lovely on the mantelpiece. And at least he’s not Stalin – though, to be honest, the shop where I bought him didn’t have a Stalin bust. If it had, could I have resisted? I hope I’ll never find out.

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