Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.
This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.
Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.
Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)
Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.
Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.
* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)