How Revolutions End

140 years ago Joseph Stalin was born. In our column PeterLicht is reflecting on one of the 20th century’s most powerful people and his death.

Every revolution marks the end of something that had existed before the revolution. Often, it must be said, a revolution is an ending in more ways than one. And often, it’s people who come to an end. You could even say that these people are now dead. During the Russian Revolution, they included Tsar Nicholas II and eight million others (still just an estimate). These people were now dead. That’s awful. What we can learn from this is that eventually, all revolutions also come to an end. Often, they meet their ends alongside those who led them. You could then argue that these people are also now dead. Revolutions are just one big disappearing act. It’s not easy to determine exactly when the Russian Revolution pulled its own disappearance – so what should we say? How about this: at some point, Lenin met his end. Then Stalin took over. You could perhaps argue that that’s when things really got started. But then when Stalin disappeared – that was definitely an end.

It’s interesting how these people come to an end, the people whose revolutions also come to an end along with them. That is, how they meet their ends, how they lead the revolutions, and how they cause others to meet their own ends. These people: like Stalin, for example.

Stalin had a heart attack. And survived. He lay there in his big bed in the dictatorial bedchamber of his splendorous dacha, just outside the gates of his capital (Moscow). Nobody dared enter the room. Because they knew that anyone who happened to do THE WRONG THING was done for. Stalin had had many people killed because they’d done THE WRONG THING. No one was ever certain, however, exactly what THE WRONG THING was, and thus nobody wanted to enter the room of the beloved dying labour leader. Even if you were to ask what THE WRONG THING was, no one would have been able to give you an answer. The only thing that was clear: even the act of asking might constitute THE WRONG THING. So better to just let things be and remain outside the door. Because one more thing was clear: if you didn’t know what the WRONG THING was when the dictator was healthy, how could you even begin to imagine what the WRONG THING was in the eyes of this terminally ill, heart-attacked, sick dictator? (Like, maybe the dictator, displeased with his infarction, would feel that his heart was doing the wrong thing and thus sense a certain ‘wrongness’ about anyone or anything that passed through the door – that someone being yourself, if, of course, you were to actually venture into the dictatorial bedchamber in the first place.) Perhaps ANYONE who entered would be deemed a WRONGDOER and have to be made RIGHT again. That is, made dead. And that’s why everyone was better off just waiting outside the door to the bedroom, the bedroom with the big bed with the big dictator with his busted-up broken heart.

And so everyone waited outside at the door. Nothing had been heard from inside for quite a while. Not a peep. No groaning. No moaning. Time passed. Everyone was huddled together: personal bodyguards, personal doctors, servants, handmaidens, some officials and military – all the dictatorial posse. And then – surprise – right in the middle of them was me. What the hell? I had no idea why. But there I was. However it had happened, I was standing there among the dictator’s minions, waiting outside the door through which we could have come face-to-face with an increasingly quiet dictator and mass murderer. That is, if any one of us were actually to go in.

I don’t remember exactly who came up with the idea, but at some point, one person or another suggested that somebody go in there and find out just what was going on. The situation was becoming increasingly unbearable.

Okay, okay everyone … uh, who wants to go in there and check on Stalin? Anybody?


Instead, all those gathered before the door just stared blankly into the wallpaper and candelabra. To be honest, I don’t remember whether someone actually voiced this question out loud or whether it was just a collective idea hovering among us. In all likelihood, I don’t think anyone actually asked. It must have just been in the ethers.

Okay, so who? Who’s going in? Listen up, people, Stalin’s flat on his back in there and has suffered a heart attack – what if the guy needs something!?

It had been so quiet in the heart-attack room for such a while now that you could even say it was dead silent. And yet no one wanted to be the one who went in. More time passed. And then finally, at some point, it was decided: may the bravest one among us go in. But this, too, was never really articulated – it’s just what happened.

Okay, fine, so here’s how it went: when it became clear that all movement in the Stalinian bedchamber had ceased, the ‘bravest one’ among us was sent forth. I don’t know why anymore, but that turned out to be ME. (I really don’t know why.) Gingerly, the ‘bravest one’ cracked open the door and stepped inside. And there, the ‘bravest one’ – that is, me – stood by himself, drenched in sweat, heart pounding, before a moustachioed corpse. For Pete’s sake, don’t do the wrong thing! I thought to myself. I reached for a dictatorial hand.

Oh thank God – he’s a goner. Talk about good luck! The dictator’s end has come.

Yeah, so that’s the end of the story of the great dictator and the great revolution – the rest is history. Next in line to be called history was Khrushchev and Brezhnev, then some time later Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Now it’s Putin’s turn. Or Trump’s or Saddam’s or Assad’s or Kim Jong-un’s or whoever it happens to be. No one dares enter their rooms. Only long after all stirring has ceased from within is someone – the bravest one – chosen to go forth, and that person gently turns the handle and tiptoes in.


In his work, the musician, author, playwright and columnist PeterLicht orbits between the poles of utopia, pop, drama, social sculpture, capitalism and the bargain basement, “the result of all of which, he hopes, is maybe something beautiful”.
PeterLicht’s columns for the Süddeutsche Zeitung appear under the headline “Lob der Realität” (In Praise of Reality). His most recent play for Theater Basel was invited to the 2017 Venice Biennale. In 2018, he was awarded the Liliencron Poetics Lectureship. His new album he released in 2018. More at