DATE June 29, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Jennifer Gonnerman and ex-convict Elaine
Bartlett on Bartlett's return home after 16 years in prison for a
first-time drug offense
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Elaine Bartlett, a single mother of four, was given the sentence of
20 years to life in 1983 for selling four ounces of cocaine. It was a
first-time drug offense. She says she needed money and was talked into
transporting and selling the cocaine by a man who turned out to be a police
informant. Sixteen years later, at the age of 42, she was granted clemency by
Governor George Pataki. The new book "Life on the Outside" describes the
difficulties she's faced returning to the outside world. The book was written
by journalist Jennifer Gonnerman, who is also my guest. Gonnerman says we are
now witnessing the long-term consequences of the get-tough policies in the war
on drugs. Many of the long prison terms from the '70s and '80s have ended.
Men and women like Elaine Bartlett, scarred from the years behind bars, are
trying to re-enter society with no money, few job skills and little education.
Last week the American Bar Association published a report saying mandatory
minimum sentences for small-time drug offenders are unfair and should be
abolished. Bartlett's tough sentence was part of the Rockefeller Drug Laws
which were passed in New York in 1973. I asked Gonnerman to describe the law.
Ms. JENNIFER GONNERMAN (Journalist): New York state's drug laws, known as
the Rockefeller Drug Laws because they were created by then-Governor Nelson
Rockefeller in 1973, really helped to kick off the nation's war on drugs by
establishing a system of mandatory minimum sentences, so that anybody in New
York state who was convicted of selling at least two ounces or possessing at
least four ounces of heroin or cocaine would receive a mandatory sentence of
15 to life, minimum. In Elaine's case, the judge added five extra years, and
that's why she got 20 to life. But with the mandatory minimum drug laws, it
doesn't matter whether the defendant is a kingpin, a first-time offender, just
a drug mule. The level of involvement has nothing to do with the length of
the sentence. The only thing that determines the length of the sentence is
the weight of the drugs involved.
Ms. ELAINE BARTLETT (Ex-convict): The laws were created for the kingpins.
There was no way to prove that I was a kingpin. Nothing in my life stated
that I was a kingpin. At the time I was arrested, I was 26 years old, mother
of four on welfare. I had $5 in my pocket when I was arrested. I didn't own
anything. I didn't have anything. So when they did an investigation on me,
there was nothing to warrant that I lived the lifestyle of a kingpin, so I
couldn't understand why the judge would sentence me, a first-time offender,
with 20 to life.
GROSS: Jennifer Gonnerman, what was the philosophy behind the Rockefeller
Ms. GONNERMAN: I'm not sure whether there was a really well-thought-out
philosophy behind them. At this time, Nelson Rockefeller had been governor of
New York state for a while and had repeatedly tried to win the Republican
nomination for president without luck. And essentially, he was trying to
shore up his conservative credentials so that he could win that presidential
nomination, and I think he viewed the Rockefeller drug laws, which were going
to be the strictest in the entire country, as a way to try to get those
credentials and put himself onto the national stage. And in fact, what he did
do was launch a real shift in crime-control policy for the entire country.
Virtually every state copied New York state's drug laws and passed their own
version of mandatory minimum sentencing.
GROSS: When you went to prison, Elaine, you had four children.
Ms. BARTLETT: Yes.
GROSS: They were young. They were ages one, two, six and nine. Both their
parents were in jail. Your mother initially took care of your children when
you were imprisoned. Was she in a good position to do that?
Ms. BARTLETT: Not really. She wasn't, but it was never a question as to
whether my mother was going to take my children or not. That's just the type
of woman that she was. And once I got arrested, I had to notify her and let
her know that I was locked up, so automatically she took care of my children.
My mother raised 13 grands because I had a couple of sisters and brothers that
were strung out on drugs and not capable of taking care of their own children.
So she took on their kids, too.
GROSS: Your mother died when you were in prison. How many years had you been
in prison when she died?
Ms. BARTLETT: I had been in prison almost 14 years when my mother started
really getting sick, and she died in 1998.
GROSS: So there was still, like, a year or two left...
Ms. BARTLETT: Yeah.
GROSS: ...for you in prison before you got out. So who took over the
parenting of your children?
Ms. BARTLETT: My younger sister stepped up and took some of the younger kids
out of the household that needed taking care, and my son, Apache, gave up his
basketball scholarship and came back home and took on the responsibility of
being a parent.
GROSS: Were your children getting in trouble while you were in prison?
Ms. BARTLETT: My youngest son, Jamel, started getting into trouble at a very
young age. I'd say about the age of 12 he started getting into little trouble
and then it led to other things. And when I came home from prison, I had to
go to jail to see my son, who was locked up for selling drugs.
GROSS: How old was he when he was convicted?
Ms. BARTLETT: Jamel was about 16.
GROSS: Now do you blame your own imprisonment? Do you blame your absence for
his troubles and for the other problems that your children had, or do you
think that, you know, some of this might have happened anyways? I mean, I
know you were talked into it, but still you were involved in a drug sell, and
your boyfriend who became your husband had been selling drugs, so it's not
something that was unknown to the family.
Ms. BARTLETT: For me, of course, I blame myself some, but I don't blame
myself to wheres I feel helpless, because I could have been home and the same
type of things could have happened. But I feel that when they sentence us
under the Rockefeller Drug Laws for such a long period of time, you not only
sentence the person or the mother that's being convicted; you sentence the
whole family, because my children had to come see me in prison for 16 years,
so everything they know about me is what we shared in the visiting room. And
basically, what you're telling our children, that it's all right, that prison
is all right, it's a way of life, it's all right to accept that. And it's
not. And you would think that me receiving a 20-to-life sentence that none of
my children would have got involved with drugs or been in jail.
For a mother to come home after 16 years, and basically the love you have for
your family is what keeps you strong and alive and help you to survive those
16 years and not go crazy, not lose your mind and not become dependent on any
type of medication just to make it through the day while you're locked
up--that's the hardest thing for a mother to deal with.
GROSS: What effect do you think it had on your children to visit you in
prison? Some people would think, like, what a great deterrent. Who would
ever want to go to prison after seeing what life is like for their mother
behind bars? Do you think it scared them? You know, the whole Scared
Straight Program where you take young children to prison just to see how
horrible it is, the theory is that they'll be so appalled and afraid that
they'll stay away from crime. So what effect do you think it had on your kids
to visit you in prison?
Ms. BARTLETT: I think that it made them feel hopeless. My kids never
stopped loving me. Even though I was locked up for such a long period of
time, they still carried the love that they had for me. I still carried the
love that I had for them. And when you're in prison, you live in two worlds,
because when you come down to the visiting room, you basically try to make the
best of them six, seven or eight hours or whatever time you have to spend with
your family. You don't talk about what your everyday life in prison is like.
I made a mistake in my life. I'm not saying that I'm not guilty of delivering
that package. Yes, I did that and that's what I did. But me delivering a
package--did it really deserve for me to sit in prison for 16 years? Did my
family deserve to be affected psychologically, mentally and the fact that they
have no hope, no dreams?
Do you know what it is? My mother didn't want me to go to prison. It's not
that we raise our children to go out there and get involved in drugs and sell
drugs. I hear people talk about, `In our communities our kids are not on the
street selling drugs.' Of course, your kids are not on the street selling
drugs. In your communities, your kids have different options.
GROSS: When you got out of prison, your children were 16 years older than
they were when you went in.
Ms. BARTLETT: Right.
GROSS: So your children, who had been one, two, six and nine, were now 17,
18, 22 and 25. Did you feel like you knew them when you saw them after
Ms. BARTLETT: To be honest with you, in prison I felt like I really knew
them, but once I got home, no, I didn't know them. We were complete
strangers. And my youngest daughter, Nene, whose name is Elaine, like mine,
she said to me, `Who are you to come home and tell me what to do with my life
and what's not right with my life after 16 years? You abandoned me. You left
me. You shouldn't have never went to jail in the first place. So you didn't
care, so who are you to come home and tell me what to do now?' She feels that
my mother was her mother, which is right, because I birthed her but my mother
raised her. So she'll say to me, `My mother is dead. You're my biological
mother, but you're not my mother. My mother died.'
GROSS: That must not make you feel very good.
Ms. BARTLETT: It doesn't make me feel good. And when I came out of prison,
you know, I had people tell me, `Elaine, they're teen-agers now, you know.
They're not young no more. You can't change what happened. Just walk away.'
But for a mother to come out here and see that your family has became stuck,
that your family has basically just given up on life, how can you just walk
away from a situation like that? I'm not saying that I created the whole
situation, but I did play a major part in the situation, so how do you walk
GROSS: Jennifer Gonnerman, your new book is about Elaine Bartlett and her
life in and outside prison. What are some of the parts of her story about her
return from prison back to her home, back to her family, parts of that story
that you think are kind of typical of other people's stories when they get out
Ms. GONNERMAN: There's many ways in which Elaine's homecoming is very
typical; other ways in which it's atypical. The tensions and resentment that
she was talking a bit about with her daughters, the attitude of, you know,
`Why should we be listening to you? Where have you been for 16 years, you
know? We got along fine without you,' not really making a place for her
anymore. I think that's very, very typical of people coming home from prison,
this sense of role loss. I mean, Elaine tried very hard to reclaim her role
as head of the family. When she first came home, the house was a disaster
area. The family was in shambles. So I think regaining that respect, that
authority, reclaiming the role of head of household is something that's pretty
common with men and women coming out of prison, and it creates, obviously, a
great deal of tension and, I think, is part of the reason why many people end
up back in prison.
I mean, when we talk about the recidivism rates, which is incredibly high, you
know, you often hear about people relapsing, using drugs again or committing
other crimes, and that's all obviously true, but there are a great deal of
parole violations which stem out of family dysfunction or family tensions
also. You have one family member telling another family member, you know, `If
you don't do this or that, I'm going to call your parole officer on you.' And
parole becomes a kind of second invisible punishment, a way for, you know, one
family member to have power or control over another family member.
GROSS: President Bush has proposed a $300 million prison re-entry initiative
to expand job training and placement services and provide transitional
counseling. Jennifer, what are your thoughts on that proposal?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Well, he announced that proposal, you know, in January at his
State of the Union address, and I thought it was fantastic that he was
addressing what I think is a very, very crucial, major national political
issue. But I don't think $300 million even begins to tackle the issue. You
know, we now spend about $55 billion a year on our prison system. Virtually
all of that money, of course, is used to lock people up, and virtually none of
it is used to turn people back from prisoners back into civilians. So I'm
glad that he's starting to think about ways in which to ease these
transitions. The federal government is putting more and more money into that,
but I think we have a long way to go until we make that happen. I mean, I
think preparing people to re-enter society needs to start from the moment that
they enter the prison system.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us. Elaine
Bartlett, Jennifer Gonnerman, thank you very much.
Ms. GONNERMAN: Thank you.
Ms. BARTLETT: Thank you.
GROSS: Elaine Bartlett is the subject of the new book "Life on the Outside."
Jennifer Gonnerman is the author of the book.
Coming up, Paul Clyne, the DA in New York's Albany County. He supports tough
drug laws. His father was the judge who sentenced Bartlett.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Paul Clyne discusses New York state's Rockefeller Drug
Laws and the case of Elaine Bartlett
TERRY GROSS, host:
We just heard from Elaine Bartlett, who was given a sentence she considers
extremely harsh as a result of New York state's Rockefeller Drug Laws, which
impose long, mandatory minimum sentences. Bartlett served 16 years of a 20
years-to-life sentence for a felony drug conviction. My guest Paul Clyne is
the DA in New York's Albany County. Clyne supports the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
His father, Albany County Judge John Clyne, presided over Elaine Bartlett's
trial and handed her the 20 years-to-life sentence.
Since we were just talking with Elaine Bartlett, let's look at her case as an
example. This was a first-time drug offense. She was convinced to
participate in this drug sale by a police informant. And it was four ounces
of cocaine that she carried for him. She did 16 years in prison. If this
case were coming to you now, what would you want to see her prison sentence
be? What would you want to see the case be?
Mr. PAUL CLYNE (Albany County District Attorney): Well, I think it would be
handled exactly the same way as it was. Bear in mind, she met with a bunch of
police officers who were purportedly buying drugs. She negotiated the price.
Her boyfriend at the time had a previous arrest for an A1 felony drug sale.
She was actively involved in the negotiation of the sale of the drugs, and in
return for her participation in the offense, she fully expected to be paid
$2,500. Now it was not a smart choice which she made to get involved in the
sale of the drugs, and when she was charged with that offense, she was offered
a plea bargain of a plea to an A2 felony, which was the lowest allowable plea
under the Rockefeller Drug Laws with an expected sentence of five
years-to-life. And she rejected that plea bargain and took her case to trial
under the theory that she was not guilty of an offense. The jury disagreed
with her, and then she found herself in the unenviable position of standing
convicted of a Class A1 drug felony.
GROSS: I think it was unimaginable to her. I think she saw this as
entrapment, and I think at the time it was unimaginable to her that she'd
actually spent five years because she saw it as entrapment.
Mr. CLYNE: Well, hindsight is indeed 20/20.
GROSS: Do you think that any of the Rockefeller Drug Laws were based on false
assumptions about what the long prison stays would accomplish and about what
it would be like on the other end when people got out?
Mr. CLYNE: Well, I think that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were a reaction to a
failed drug policy that preceded it. The Drug Control Commission was an
exercise in futility. It was a failure. And the Legislature in a reaction to
the complete and total failure of drug policy in New York state took a, you
know, get-tough approach to the drug laws. Now there are many individuals who
feel that that get-tough approach to the drug problem was an overreaction, and
I think that's a legitimate criticism. But to say that everyone who's
involved in drugs needs treatment or that sole discretion in sentencing for
someone who has two or three prior felony convictions and is caught again
selling drugs should rest with the judge, you know, that's not really helping
the debate. I think that what really needs to happen is that all the
stakeholders in the system, whether it's the criminal justice system, the drug
treatment system, should all try to get together and try to fashion a policy
which reflects what people feel is the appropriate sanction for an individual
who sells dangerous drugs. And if it's a life sentence for a kingpin, well,
so be it.
But that's not what's on the table right now, and that's really what's
unfortunate. And at some level, people such as Elaine Bartlett, who have a
very compelling story to tell--they are clearly not representative of who goes
to jail in New York state for drugs. And it's unfortunate that she's being
used in the debate because it's not an accurate reflection of really what's
going on in New York and who's going to jail for drugs. The people who are
going to jail for drugs are drug sellers who don't use drugs and who sell
drugs simply to make money.
GROSS: You've pointed out that Elaine Bartlett is atypical of the people
convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but isn't part of the point of
reform to make sure that people like Elaine Bartlett--the people who are the
exceptions, who aren't typical--aren't a victim of the law.
Mr. CLYNE: Well, again, as I indicated early on, most state DAs agree that
there should be something done to ameliorate the potentially harsh sentences
involving a case like Elaine Bartlett. But that's not what the reform
movement is content with at this point. The reason there has been no, quote,
"reform" in New York state is because that's not what's on the table. The
individuals that are pushing reform want to go well beyond the Elaine Bartlett
GROSS: Paul Clyne is the district attorney for New York's Albany County. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, a river of blood. We talk with Simon Sebag Montefiore
about his new book, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar." And book critic
Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Simon Sebag Montefiore discusses his book "Stalin: The
Court of the Red Tsar"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The atrocities in the Soviet Union under the regime of Josef Stalin have been
well-documented. During the Great Terror, one and a half million people were
arrested and 700,000 were shot. A new book focuses on the tyranny within
Stalin's inner circle. My guest Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of
"Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar." Historian Richard Pipes describes it as
the first intimate portrait of Stalin. The book is based on recently opened
Russian archives containing Stalin's letters as well as those of the members
of his inner circle and their families. Montefiore also interviewed the
children and grandchildren of the members of the inner circle. I asked him to
describe what he found in the Russian archive.
Mr. SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE (Author, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar"):
When I arrived to start researching in about 2000, I arrived at the party
archive, the Communist Party Archive, and they said, `You're in luck.
We're opening half of Stalin's own papers now.' So these papers that I've
based the book on are, in fact, the first inner view of how the Kremlin
worked, how Stalin's private life worked. So it contains things not only such
as the memorandum in which Stalin and Molotov and the others ordered their
subordinates to kill about a million people by quota, not even by name, for
example. That's one side of it, which is the serious documents that show how
they actually were responsible for these vast crimes.
But the other side of it is intimate papers, Stalin's love letters to his
wife, his wife's love letters to him, Molotov's love letters to his wife and
vice versa, Stalin's jokes and drawings, Stalin's notes to his comrades. And
one of the things that this book shows is how intimate this little group was.
GROSS: I'm interested in the memo to kill by quota. How did that memo read?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: It reads something like this: `We order to you to kill
enemies of the people, and we order you to kill them by quota. So you in
Minneapolis kill 20,000; you in Philadelphia kill 40,000; Los Angeles and
Seattle each, you kill 25,000 each.' That's it. And it goes through every
city and every region of the whole vast Soviet empire. And of course, the
Bolsheviks--the interesting thing about it was that the Bolsheviks were very
at home with this idea of killing by quota. But this one that I'm talking
about in 1937 was really aimed at wiping out a strata of the ruling Bolshevik
class whom Stalin felt had got soft, insubordinate and insufficiently
committed to the cause.
GROSS: What was going on in Stalin's private life when he wrote this memo?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: His wife had committed suicide, and I begin the book with
the suicide. Then after that, he'd had an affair with his sister-in-law; in
other words, his wife's brother's wife, if you can follow that. And one of
the amazing things I found in the archive was actually a photograph which had
never been published before, which is in the book, of Stalin beaming,
surrounded by all his favorite women. And at his feet, sitting between his
legs, is this woman, Zhenya, grinning up at the camera like the cat that's got
the cream. But by 1937, that relationship was also over, and that was a great
secret relationship. And in 1937, he began to settle down into secret
intimacy with Valechka(ph), who is his housekeeper and maid, and that was a
much less equal relationship than any that had gone before. But Stalin
believed that his private life was that; he couldn't afford to have anyone
really know what was happening in his life, and therefore he'd retired, as it
were, to that sort of relationship.
GROSS: And as you mentioned, you started the book with the suicide of his
wife, and this was in 1932. She shot herself at the end of a dinner party...
Mr. MONTEFIORE: That's right.
GROSS: ...that the Stalins were giving in their home. How do you think his
life was changed by his wife's suicide in 1932?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: I don't think the Terror was caused by her suicide. And
you've got to realize that Stalin was already, you know, a mass murderer by
then, but so were all the people around him. And certainly it's true to say
that the Terror was partly formed by Stalin's character and, therefore,
Stalin's character was certainly partly formed by the suicide of his wife. So
it was a contributing factor, and especially towards his attitude to the wives
and women of other leaders. And later he would execute and terrorize many of
the wives, and that was partly from jealousy that they were happily married
and he was now alone, and partly from suspicion that wives could no longer be
GROSS: How many wives in his court do you think he had executed?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Well, I mean, he certainly had two wives of people very
close to him, his secretary and one of his top marshals, and they were
executed and in the most disgusting manner. I mean, one of them was actually
kidnapped on the same day that her husband was promoted to marshal of the
Soviet Union. The newly appointed marshal of the Soviet Union then went to
see the head of the secret police, Beria, and said to him, `Where's my wife?
Do you know?' And she was a very beautiful woman, incidentally. And Beria
said, `No, of course not. Why don't we ring up Stalin, see if he knows?' So
they rang Stalin, and he said, `I've got Marshal Kulik here with me in the
office, and he wants to know where his wife is. Do you know?' And then he put
the phone down and he said, `Comrade Stalin doesn't know, either.'
And of course, all the time both Stalin and Beria knew that the wife was
several floors below them in her cell, waiting to be shot in the back of her
head for nothing, for nothing. She was shot just in the back of her head,
casually. And she was tried and convicted on nothing. And she was 28 years
old and utterly beautiful. And this is the sort of--this is the way that the
man around him had to live. This is the way the Bolsheviks had to live.
GROSS: How do you know for sure that Stalin knew that this woman was a few
floors below in a cell, about to be executed?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Well, we know that from paperwork, secret police paperwork,
and from the memories of people when they were arrested after Stalin's death,
that he'd ordered it and that Beria and him had arranged it.
GROSS: How many members of Stalin's court would you say were executed?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Well, I mean, if you think of sort of the top hundred--I
mean, the Bolsheviks were a tiny group. You know, when they seized power,
there were about 5,000 Bolsheviks, which gives you an idea of the tininess of
this little almost fanatical religious sect. The actual ruling section of the
party was about a hundred people and, by Stalin's time, it was, say, 50
people. And that was called the Central Committee. And he shot the majority
of the central committee. So, you know, I mean, of his inner circle, people
he knew very well, you know, he killed over half.
And when I mention that they killed a million people by quota, they also
killed 40,000 people by name. And in this case, Stalin would be sent albums,
as they were called in Russia, which was a little biography of the person, a
photo of them--hence the name `albums'--and, you know, sentenced to death.
And Stalin could either put a dash next to it--and that meant preserve them,
don't shoot them, keep them in prison--or he could put a note or an insulting
comment next to them, like `Just beat them' or, you know, `Kill them.' And
he'd often pass it around the Politburo, and they'd all write things on.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what the culture was like in Stalin's inner
circle, where people knew that they might be executed by their boss?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: I thought most of the people believed that they would be all
right because surely somehow there was some sort of reason behind it. But
those that really knew understood that these people were really being killed
for lack of faith, so there was a huge random nature to this. Some people
just survived 'cause they were lucky. Some people, just on a whim Stalin
ticked their name. And many people, you know, Stalin said, `Is that guy still
alive? I can't remember if we signed his death warrant or not?' and was
rather disappointed when he found out they had been shot. So, yes, these
people knew that they could be killed at any minute, and they believed that
that was right; they believed that the party was always right.
The only way to understand them--and, you know, I've read all their letters
and I've begun to understand this--is that they were religion fanatics who
believed it was right to die for the cause, that family and friends were
nothing compared to the cause. And the cause was, they called, history. So
it sounded very scientific, but in actual fact, it was really a religious
fanaticism, and that's the only way to understand it.
GROSS: It's interesting that you describe it as a religious fanaticism,
because you aren't allowed to practice religion, as we know it, in the Soviet
Union then. But you're saying that the ideology of Stalinism was almost a
substitute for extreme religion.
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Oh, yes, and almost openly, and they talked about it in that
way, too. I mean, the way they talked about themselves was constantly as
knights in shining armor who would die for the cause of justice and so on. I
mean, you know, they believed that you had to kill a certain number of people
now in order to create a deferred paradise later. That was their basic
belief. But they saw themselves as a sort of religious military order.
GROSS: My guest is Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of "Stalin: The Court
of the Red Tsar." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Simon Sebag
Montefiore. He's the author of the new book "Stalin: The Court of the Red
Now Stalin apparently loved the arts, which I suppose goes to show that the
arts aren't necessarily ennobling. You say Stalin micromanaged the theater as
he dominated cinema, literature and politics. In what sense did he
micromanage the theater?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Well, I mean, just an example from the cinema, if I may, just
as part of that answer to that question.
Mr. MONTEFIORE: I mean, one of the things I found was fascinating was that,
you know, not only had he named most of the films and viewed most of the films
and worked on their scripts, but I found that he was also writing the songs,
the lyrics for some of the songs. So he sort of fancied himself as a sort of
Rodgers and Hammerstein of Soviet musicals.
GROSS: You quote a song lyric that Stalin wrote for one of the movies, and
it's a cheerful little lyric. This is the English translation of it that you
give in your book: `A joyful song is easy for the heart. It doesn't bore you
ever. And all the villages small and big adore the song. Big towns love the
tune.' A song lyric by Josef Stalin. Now you say that Stalin told the
writers in the Soviet Union to become engineers of human souls. What did that
mean to Stalin?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: It meant that it doesn't matter how bad a writer you were;
you were expected--or how good, for that matter--politics was absolutely
supreme. And in this case, these writers were expected to show how life
should be, not how life was. And Stalin--`engineers of the human soul' is a
typical Stalin phrase I think he coined himself. He was a great...
GROSS: And now famous phrase.
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Yeah, now a very famous phrase. And you know, he actually
had them to this kind of dinner, and he told them that this is what they were
to do. But, you know, he understood genius all right. In one sense, he
understood very well. For example, he famously called Boris Pasternak to
discuss the famous poet--also had Mandelstam, two of the great poets of his
time. And he understood that both of them were geniuses; in fact, he said so.
But he regarded them as apolitical geniuses. When Mandelstam made a poem
against Stalin, in which he mocked Stalin, then he crossed the line and was
moved, as it were, off the precipice in which he became a nothing in that
world. But about Dostoyevsky, he famously said, `You know, Dostoyevsky's a
genius. No one understands human psychology like Dostoyevsky,' said Stalin.
`And that's why we've banned him completely in the Soviet Union.' And that
tells you a lot about his attitude.
But he read all the time. I mean, I've been through his library. One of the
things in this amazing archive is his library. And he annotates everything.
Sometimes he writes rather gruesomely, `Ha, ha, ha,' beside things he thought
quite funny. Other times he wrote things like `Green steam, exclamation
mark!' But he read everything. If he was doing politics or statesmanship, he
would read up about the person. So when he was negotiating with him, he would
read about Bismarck. When he was negotiating with Churchill, he read about
Churchill's ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, the great Duke of Marlborough.
And he was obsessed with reading and, in fact, he loved novels. He'd read his
Balzac and his Zola. He loved Zola. And of course, the most surprising ones;
he'd read "The Forsyte Saga," which all the Politburo read and liked. And of
course, they loved "Last of the Mohicans." And Stalin, in fact, he used to
often put on what he called a sort of an American Native Indian voice and say,
`Hello, paleface. Me big red chief'...
Mr. MONTEFIORE: ...which, of course, is just extraordinary.
GROSS: What were his favorite movies?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: He loved John Wayne movies. He loved cowboy films. He
particularly liked the films directed by John Ford, which I think he
associated with cowboy films especially because he regarded himself as a
special person, a messiah, someone different from other people, someone who
always traveled alone. He regarded himself almost as without family, without
attachments, a man who just could fulfill his historical role. And I think he
rather felt himself rather like the cowboy that rides alone into town, the man
with no name, almost, who rides into a town and settles its--he gives justice
to its people ruthlessly. That's how he saw himself.
GROSS: Did he think that the movies and books that he loved gave the kind of
message that he insisted that the writers and the filmmakers in his world
Mr. MONTEFIORE: That he loved himself? Oh, no. I mean, he understood--he
was an immensely subtle person. He understood perfectly well that he could
love many books, and he read everything, but the people shouldn't be allowed
to read anything that wasn't politically useful. That applied to everything,
by the way: films and cinema and so on. I mean, he would decide. He
believed that history had given him the right to decide these things, and
that--he loved many books that in the end he banned, you know.
GROSS: Stalin and Hitler were two of the great monsters of their time, two of
the great monsters of the century. Were there interesting things in Stalin's
papers about what he thought of Hitler?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Yeah, that's a really good question. It was interesting. I
mean, Hitler he did get wrong. It wasn't that he didn't think Hitler would
attack him. I mean, he believed that there'd be war by about 1943, but he
thought he could put it off by then. And he thought he understood Hitler, and
he was wrong. What he thought of Hitler was--I mentioned that he used to read
continually about the subjects that were important to him at that time, so he
was reading about Bismarck. And Bismarck always said, `Germany will never go
to war or should never go to war on two fronts.' And you know, he believed
that Hitler was a great power politician, a Realpolitician like himself who
wouldn't do anything so foolish. And in fact, he used to say quite often,
`Gosh, you know, does Hitler really think of Russia as a country like, you
know, England or France or Poland, that you can just take like that?' He said,
`You know, doesn't he realize we're five times bigger than that and we have
such resources?' He couldn't believe Hitler would be so stupid as to attack
And the most revealing thing--I found this out in Georgia, and I went down to
Georgia a lot and found many other new materials apart from the archives. But
one of the things I found--there was this fascinating just nugget of history
where Stalin, for the only time in his career, talked about a mistake he'd
made in Hitler. And he said, `You know, my mistake was to believe that he was
someone like myself.' And what he mean was that he thought that Hitler was a
normal politician. In fact, Hitler himself described himself as a
sleepwalker, a gambler. Stalin wasn't like that in international affairs. He
was actually very cautious. And so that's what he got wrong.
GROSS: Do you think Stalin saw any similarities between himself and Hitler as
people who were mass murderers and who had this ideology that ruled everything
in their life?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Yes and no. He had contempt for Nazism because Nazism
actually was much more really the worship of power, the glamour of power, so
he regarded that as very crass, while Marxism and Leninism was this
international ideal to improve humanity. So he regarded that as much
superior. But he did regard Hitler as someone who, like himself, was a
ruthless and brilliant statesman and a man who could get things done. And we
know, for example, that when Hitler killed all his opponents in 1934 in the
Night of the Long Knives, Stalin said to his rather surprised companions--he
said, `That's a clever man, that Hitler. He knows how to get things done and
get rid of his people and--his enemies.' And of course, that was a lesson that
Stalin took to heart.
GROSS: I doubt Stalin would have objected to Hitler's fear and hatred of the
Jews and his attempts to exterminate all of them.
Mr. MONTEFIORE: I don't know. I don't think Stalin necessarily wanted to
exterminate the Jews. He always was very suspicious of the Jews
because--well, various reasons. One was, you know, he wanted everyone to
belong and he was actually sort of nationalist in many ways, Russian
nationalist. Jews didn't belong, didn't have loyalty to any one source of
authority. So that was one reason. Another reason was that Stalin's
opponents were overwhelmingly Jewish intellectuals, like Trotsky, the best
example. But one often forgets that until--well, right up until Stalin's
death, some of his closest colleagues were Jews. His whole secretariat
virtually was Jewish. But after the war, then Stalin became a real
anti-Semite, a real frenzied anti-Semite, and the reason for this was that
Israel was founded. He began to see that many of the people around him, the
wives, for example--Molotov's wife had a dual fidelity, partly to Marxism,
Leninism and Soviet Russia, but partly to Israel, too, and he became very
suspicious of this. And when Israel turned out to be an American ally, he
began to see this as a useful political tool, and that the Jews were all
around him and he could wipe out people near him, like Molotov, by using it.
He could also rally the Soviet Union again by using this internal enemy, and
he did become a frenzied anti-Semite then.
GROSS: Did Stalin ever write in his letters or in other papers that you have
read how he hoped history would remember him?
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Not specifically, but it's clear how he saw himself. I mean,
he wanted people to remember him as a pitiless, brutal but enormously
successful man who created Marxism, Leninism in the Soviet empire from Berlin
to Mongolia, who used his military talents as a warlord to win the war against
Hitler, a man who had created a new form of arts, a new form of cinema. That
was how he wanted to be remembered. And as a tsar, the most powerful tsar the
Russian people ever had. So he was always these two things: on one hand,
Marxism, Leninism, this idealism; on the other hand, great power politics and
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MONTEFIORE: Well, thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of "Stalin: The Court of the Red
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Americanization of
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Gordon S. Wood's new biography "The Americanization of
TERRY GROSS, host:
He was a statesman on the world stage, an intellectual and admittedly a
philanderer, and he is the subject of a new book. No, we're not talking about
Bill Clinton, but Benjamin Franklin. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a
review of a new book on Franklin by the renowned American historian Gordon S.
Wood. It's called "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
You'd think by now enough is enough with Ben Franklin. Walter Isaacson's
biography of Ben Franklin was the non-fiction sensation of last year. It's
only about the gazillionth biography of Franklin to be written since his death
in 1790 at age 84. Franklin's own autobiography is quite likely still the
most widely read American autobiography, and even during his lifetime,
Franklin's face was ubiquitous, emblazoned on medallions, snuff boxes,
handkerchiefs and chamber pots.
Now along comes yet another excavation into Franklin's life, this one called
"The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin," written by one of our foremost
scholars of the American Revolution, Gordon S. Wood. Against the odds, Wood's
new study of Franklin is a revelatory book, not only because it upends so many
received notions about our craftiest Founding Father, but also because it
demonstrates how thrilling the scholarly pursuit of elusive truth can be.
First a disclaimer, since I've used that attention annihilating word scholarly:
Although Wood is, of course, scrupulous in grounding his arguments in primary
and secondary sources, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" is a lively
book, democratically written for every reader. The upshot of Wood's book is
not to denigrate Franklin, as so many of his critics have done over the past
few centuries, but to help readers understand and ultimately marvel at him all
Wood points out in his introduction that Franklin seems the most accessible,
the most democratic, the most folksy of the founders. But one of the key
corrections to popular ideas about Franklin's character that Wood makes here
is that during his lifetime, Franklin, with his own hearty consent, was
celebrated as an inventor, diplomat and cultivated man of the world. Franklin
certainly didn't hide his origins as a lowly printer, but his enduring image
as a self-made man, Wood says, only began to emerge in America in the early
19th century and signaled a radical shift in attitudes toward social mobility
and the dignity of manual labor.
It was the French, Wood says, who first began to manufacture the image of
Franklin as a kind of rustic savant during the years he spent as a delegate to
France seeking that country's vital support for the American Revolution.
Since Franklin was from Pennsylvania, the French assumed he was a Quaker, and
Franklin played the part to perfection, wearing plain white and brown linen
and unpowdered hair. Thus he became for the French a symbol of republican
simplicity. One of the funniest sections of Wood's book, by the way, is his
discussion of how the infatuated French revered Franklin's "Poor Richard's
Almanac," treating that hodgepodge collection of truisms as sublime moral
The major revelation in Wood's book is just how un-American Franklin was
throughout most of his long life. Up until the eve of the revolution, he was
a royalist. He adored England and lived there throughout his 50s and 60s for
a total of 15 years. As Wood suspensefully describes it, the process by which
Franklin became one of the most passionate patriots was lightning quick, but
still too complex to do justice to here. Let's just say it had to do with
politics as well as personal humiliation.
Once he became a revolutionary around the age of 70, Franklin was fierce, even
cutting off his formerly loving relations with his only son, William, who was
the royal governor of New Jersey. After the peace treaty with Britain was
signed in 1783, William requested a reconciliation with his father, but
Franklin, in a letter, offered little hope. `Nothing,' he wrote, `has ever
hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensations as to find myself
deserted in my old age by my only son, and not only deserted, but to find him
taking up arms against me in a cause where in my good fame, fortune and life
were all at stake.'
That's arguably the most remarkable aspect of Franklin's life story that Wood
highlights here. Franklin was the oldest of the founders, as well as the most
famous American in the world, and yet in his old age, he risked everything on
a revolution of colonists against the world's most powerful empire. As
Franklin himself might have observed in his almanac, maybe it is possible for
an old dog to learn new tricks after all.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" by Gordon S. Wood.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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