What does the novel Darkness at Noon tell us about totalitarianism and life under Stalin?

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What is most fascinating about the depiction of totalitarianism in Darkness at Noon, as opposed to in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, is that the protagonist is a former supporter of the regime. Rubashov is himself a revolutionary. He was faithful to the cause but has been...

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What is most fascinating about the depiction of totalitarianism in Darkness at Noon, as opposed to in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, is that the protagonist is a former supporter of the regime. Rubashov is himself a revolutionary. He was faithful to the cause but has been wrongly accused of treason because older revolutionaries such as himself are seen as a threat to those now in charge. This was based on true occurrences within Soviet Russia, where those who had been close to Lenin and Trotsky during the early days of the revolution were viewed as threats by Stalin, who sought to have them all eliminated to solidify his power.

Rubashov is resigned to his death and remains dedicated to the communist cause even as he dies, but he is baffled that he is being punished even though he did nothing wrong. He comes to examine his conduct as a faithful party member as he awaits his execution. He realizes the younger revolutionaries are not acting much differently from himself. He too was willing to kill others for the cause and view their murder as a means to an end. He even betrayed comrades and abandoned his lover when the state deemed them dangerous.

Ultimately, Darkness at Noon tells the reader that life within a totalitarian regime warps those most dedicated to the cause, convincing them to twist their morals in order to survive and prove themselves loyal. But the worst truth of all for such loyalists is that their service and dedication will not protect them should they be the next ones marked as dangerous. They themselves might not be so impartial when they are the ones who need to be cleared out for the sake of the revolutionary cause, as Rubashov realizes in his last days.

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Darkness at Noon is a fictionalized treatment of the purge trials that took place In the Soviet Union in the late 1930's. Stalin's aim was basically to eliminate the Bolshevik old guard, people like Trotsky and Bukharin who had been instrumental in making the 1917 coup a success but whom Stalin no longer trusted. Huge numbers of these men were thrown in jail, forced to sign false confessions that they had betrayed the Revolution, and shot. (Trotsky himself escaped the Soviet Union but was assassinated in Mexico by a probable agent of Stalin.) Koestler presents the fictitious character Rubashov as a kind of composite of the old Bolsheviks. He is arrested in the night and thrown in prison. Though this is obviously taking place in the Soviet Union, Koestler never actually names the country, and the leader, Stalin himself, is referred to simply as "Number One."

From the moment he's placed in isolation in his cell, Rubashov knows he is going to be shot. He expects to be beaten and tortured first, but this does not happen. Instead he's interrogated and worn down psychologically. His memory and perception of his past actions become distorted, and, though he never did betray Number One and the Communist cause, he reaches a point where he does not really know what he did or what his motives were. He confesses his "crimes," and at the novel's close is his execution in the prison cellars with a bullet to the back of the head.

Koestler's account tells us that Stalinism and its brand of totalitarian control were essentially no different from a Fascist regime. This may not come as anything startling to us, but Koestler himself had been a Communist Party member, and at the time he wrote the book, left-wing people in general were either in denial about the cruelty of Stalin's regime, or simply did not know about what was taking place internally in the Soviet Union. In Stalinist Russia, any remnant of the rule of law that might have remained after the 1917 Revolution had disappeared, replaced by the paranoid authoritarianism of Stalin himself. Rubashov's fate demonstrates the most far-reaching feature of the totalitarian state: mind control. It is not simply that citizens are forbidden to question the regime: the effect of a total dictatorship is to destroy the concept of objective reality. Truth becomes not what is objectively observed or remembered, but instead, whatever "Number One," the leader, declares it to be. Rubashov is manipulated into stating, and even believing, not what he knew as truth, but what the regime tells him is true. It is a mental, as well as physical, enslavement of the civilian. George Orwell, who was heavily influenced by Koestler, depicts a dystopia in 1984 that is a projection of this Stalinist mind control into a nightmare future.

Rubashov's story is complicated by the early realization, before he is interrogated, that his actual behavior in the service of the Party, while it may have been loyal, has been ruthless and cruel. He recalls in detail episodes in which he acted against his own principles in getting other Party members arrested and killed for their own supposed transgressions. His case, in his being imprisoned and finally executed, illustrates the adage that whatever goes around, comes around. It also shows that in a totalitarian regime like Stalin's, even well-intentioned men, as Rubashov originally was, end up betraying their own values in the service of the despotic government.

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An interesting sidenote:  In the dramatic version of this book, Rubashov says, " Dearth is no mystery to us -- it's the natural conclusion to political divergencies."

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The author of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, actually was a communist who sympathized with the Soviet revolution and went to live and work there for years, saw firsthand the brutality of Stalin's regime during the Great Terror of the 1930s, where millions of Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians and others were starved to death or shot.  Millions more were arrested.

Koestler's story lets us into the raging paranoia that was Stalin's regime.  Rubashov, the main character, is himself a part of the revolution, but under Stalin the revolution is turning on its own.  Rubashov follows the path of millions of others killed by Stalin's government: public denunciation, arrest, lengthy interrogation, and execution. 

The novel comes across just like Koestler intended, as a blistering condemnation of Soviet totalitarianism.  After his time in the USSR, Koestler resigned from the communist party and published Darkness at Noon.

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