In zoology, you’re not supposed to anthropomorphosize animal behavior. For example, a dog doesn’t “laugh”, it “vocalises”. The idea is that you keep a bit of daylight between human emotions and animal emotions, because they’re not the same thing.

But people are fine with anthropormophisizing other things. We talk about nations, states, churches, backyard mud wrestling federations, etc as if they’re people. Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire”. Can an empire be evil? Any more than an empire can have a favourite basketball team?

(All adjectives are behavioral. “Evil empire” = “an empire that does evil things”)

Ayn Rand once said “don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought were caused by her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings. There isn’t some “Ayn Rand” homunculus issuing orders from on high. It seems to me more likely that Rand’s feeling of free will emerged from lots of little incidents, both inside her mind and in the world outside, and they composited to form her personality. And if they created her personality, maybe they deserve the credit or blame for her actions.

Like Rand, The Soviet Union was a very large emergent froth coming from many subunits, which themselves were made up of many subunits, etc. What level of the apparatus bears the mark of Cain? Which level is “evil”? When talking about, say, a massive artificial famine like Holodomor, who do you blame?

The USSR itself? No, it only acted the way it did because of the smaller gears ticking inside. The NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat of Land Cultivation? No, same problem.

What about the minions who enacted the policies? Were they to blame? They would have claimed they were following orders.

So we can blame Stalin. He was the irreducible evil. Hopefully he won’t claim that he acted ideologically, otherwise blame for the Ukrainian famine gets passed back to Vladimir Lenin, then to Karl Marx, then to Adam Smith, then to John Ball, then to Jesus (and then to…). But hey, at least we’ve found the ultimate source of the Holodomor…

…No, we we haven’t. We’re still horsefucked. A nation is very complicated and elaborate, and if we’re withholding judgement on the USSR for this reason, we need to realise that  Joseph Stalin’s mind was even more  complicated and elaborate. There were 100 billion neurons in his brain. Each hemisphere had 400 to 500 distinct brain areas. His genome encompassed 20,000 genes, 84% of which were expressed in the brain. He was an incredibly sophisticated thinking machine.

Even if we understood a normal person’s brain, I don’t think we could have understood Stalin’s. Everyone who knew him or his works commented on how unusual he seemed, how cold and cruel. No more a human being than HAL9000. Adolf Hitler, although he owned a dog, strikes me as a stereotypical “cat person” – anxious, neurotic, sensitive, and artistically-minded. Benito Mussolini is more like a stereotypical “dog person” – a gregarious backslapping Il Duce, prone to self-aggrandisement and egotism. Stalin strikes me as a person who would have brooked no pets at all. Although maybe he considered Lavrentiy Beria a kind of pet.

So what in this confusing mare’s nest can we “blame”? Stalin’s neurons? They have to fire together in elaborate Hebbian patterns, and no one neuron is responsible for anything. His genes? All behavioural traits are heavily polygenic, there wasn’t any one “evil gene” in Stalin’s mind. And these genes were gifts from his parents, so we’re almost back to blaming cavemen again. “What caused the Holodomor?” It seems the answer might be…everything.

Homer Simpson’s method for getting out of trouble is to say “It was like that when I got here”, and so is mine.

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