In Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, who is "No. 1" supposed to be?

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No. 1 is meant to be a fictionalized version of Joseph Stalin. When Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940, Stalin was the dictator of the Soviet Union and the undisputed leader of the Communist Party. In the novel, No. 1 is the dark and nebulous but powerful force behind Rubashov's imprisonment, forced confession, and execution.

This is meant to parallel the actual events that occurred in the USSR in the years preceding the Second World War. Driven by a desire to consolidate his control and also by a large dose of paranoia, Stalin drove a massive purge of real and perceived opponents in the military and government. Rubashov and his fellow prisoners represent the people, many of whom were loyal party members, who were swept up in these purges, made to give false confessions of treason, and executed.

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Be aware, Darkness at Noon is ultimately about the betrayal of the first generation, which launched the Bolshevik Revolution, at the hands of Joseph Stalin, and while the character of Rubashov himself is fictitious, he is ultimately meant to be representative of real people and real experiences. Betrayal is a recurring theme in this book, along with the calculated ruthlessness embedded in party politics. This book is about the political purges conducted under Joseph Stalin, who took over the Soviet Union after the death of Vladimir Lenin, and would control the Soviet Union until his own death in 1953. While within the pages of Darkness at Noon Koestler always refers to the leader of the Soviet Union as No. 1, this character is Joseph Stalin himself.

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Most people don't know this about Arthur Koestler, the author of the book, but he was at one time, himself a communist.  He was in the German Communist Party, and also lived in the Soviet Union for a time in the late 1920s and early 1930s, witnessing firsthand Josef Stalin's dictatorship, the famine and millions of deaths he caused in the Ukraine, and the fate of communist party officials there who did not obey Stalin no matter what.

By the late 1930s, he was disillusioned with communism and wrote his famous novel, Darkness at Noon, criticizing communism and dictatorships in general.  His "No. 1" character in the book is an obvious reference to the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, Josef Stalin, and the books protagonist, Rubashov, is a collection of characters representing communists he had known in the Soviet Union who Stalin had arrested or executed.

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