How to Become a Tyrant (2021) s01e04 Episode Script

Control the Truth

[narrator] What is truth?
[all] I do solemnly swear--
[narrator] As children, we learn
that some facts are beyond dispute.
But if you're a tyrant
operating in a chaotic world,
the truth…
[gun blasts]
…is often inconvenient.
[woman] Truth is a problem
for an authoritarian or strongman
because truth invites debate.
Truth suggests that we can question
the stories that we're being given.
[narrator] Few tyrants fought the war
on truth as relentlessly as this man:
Joseph Stalin…
[machine gun fires]
…who used propaganda,
disinformation, and other clever tricks
to maintain total control
over the vast Soviet Union.
Stalin gave people
the foundation of their reality.
It's very simple:
if it preserves the interests
of the Revolution, it is true.
[narrator] By mastering the playbook,
Stalin didn't just control
his people's lives…
[in Russian] There's no longer
any so-called "freedom of the person."
[narrator] …he controlled their minds.
During Stalin's three-decade reign
over the Soviet Union,
he crushed all institutions that dared
challenge the power of the state.
To understand how he pulled that off,
you first need to know
key facts about the man himself.
[man] Stalin was born Ioseb Dzhugashvili
in a small Georgian town, Gori,
on the periphery of the Russian Empire.
Later in life,
he decides to take the name Stalin.
Stalin comes from the Russian word stal,
which means "steel."
[narrator] In his early 20s,
Stalin joined up with the Bolsheviks,
Marxist rebels looking to overthrow
the Russian government.
[Ronald] They engaged in violence.
Stalin himself was the leader
of a small terrorist gang.
[narrator] Stalin is arrested
multiple times and sent to Siberia,
but he escapes and rejoins the cause.
Those who survived, hardened.
They became tough.
[man] Stalin got Lenin's attention
because of his simple ability
to get things done.
[narrator] When the Bolsheviks
take power in 1917,
Lenin puts Stalin in charge of
a key government ministry.
In 1922, Stalin's named
General Secretary of the Communist Party,
which was, at the time,
a bureaucratic position.
[man] Others contemptuously dismissed
him as nothing but a paper pusher.
That was a plot
that Stalin deliberately cultivated
so that people would not find him
to be a threat.
So that's how Stalin got himself
into a position of power and influence.
But to rise to the level of tyrant,
he still had to outmaneuver his rivals
and outrun his past.
Luckily, the playbook has
the perfect tactic
for wiping the slate clean.
[jovial music plays]
Someone once said, "He who controls
the past controls the future."
Stalin was a student of history.
He recognizes that you can't just sit back
and wait for the laws of history
to work themselves out.
It has to be imposed.
[narrator]True for Stalin
and these guys as well.
In an effort
to restore national pride under his rule,
Hitler ordered the Nazi high command
to destroy World War I memorials
in occupied Europe,
erasing evidence of Germany's past defeat.
The Kim regime in North Korea insists
that South Korea fired the first shots
in the Korean War,
when in truth it began
when the North Koreans invaded Seoul,
while Mao Zedong firmly denied
that any Chinese citizens starved
as a result of his Great Leap Forward,
despite evidence
that the famine killed up to 45 million.
[machine gun fires]
By 1923,
Vladimir Lenin's health is failing.
Stalin, along with fellow officials
Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev,
are appointed to rule over the country.
Meanwhile, Stalin is
already planning his next moves.
Stalin had to demonstrate
that he was the heir of Lenin's,
that they shared visions.
[narrator] But he has one small problem.
Towards the end of his life,
Lenin was suspicious of Stalin.
[Jonathan] He says, "Stalin is too rude.
He is too intolerant."
"If he is allowed to continue,
I fear that he will divide the party."
[narrator] January 1924.
Lenin is lying on death's door.
So now, Stalin begins the process
of giving their relationship
a more productive spin.
After Lenin passes on,
Stalin immediately takes charge,
planning his funeral.
Stalin begins giving passionate lectures
on Leninist philosophy.
He authorizes the building
of a mausoleum for Lenin
in the middle of Red Square.
And to prove their tight, personal bond,
Stalin circulates
a private photo of himself and Lenin.
But first,
he has retouchers blow up his figure
so that Lenin recedes
beside his heir apparent
and push them more closely together.
As a bonus,
they smooth Stalin's complexion,
marked by a childhood bout with smallpox,
and lengthen his arm,
damaged by a childhood carriage accident.
It's one of history's first Photoshops.
Stalin's many efforts to reframe
his relationship with Lenin pay off.
Over the next five years,
Stalin fortifies his position
atop the Soviet government,
sidelining all competition
on his path to absolute power.
He became
the sole leader of the Soviet Union.
And from then on, Stalin produced
his own history of the Communist Party,
and everyone was taught
that view of history.
[narrator] But doctoring the past
will only get you so far
if your people have access to other,
more current sources of information.
If you're really going to win
the war on truth,
you're just getting started.
[machinery whirring]
One of the most powerful tools
that any leader has
is who controls information.
[woman] When you can actually shut down
channels for information,
then you can press one preferred narrative
and make that the reality
that your citizens live in.
[narrator] Stalin didn't have to
do this all by himself.
He had a head start.
Stalin had inherited
a totalitarian dictatorship.
They already had
complete control of the mass media.
And of course,
there'd been censorship under Czarism,
but it was chicken feed
compared to under Stalin.
And when it came to off-limits subjects,
Stalin thought of everything.
Individual incomes: out of bounds.
Price increases,
anything involving food shortages,
or generalized hunger: unspeakable.
Statistics on crime, unemployment,
or homelessness: scandalous.
Reports of natural or man-made disasters,
such as earthquakes or airplane crashes,
news of prison conditions,
ads for foreign goods.
Oh, wait, there's more.
The names of officials and their spouses,
the availability of medicine,
and anything
about the architecture of the Kremlin
or repairs to the Bolshoi Theater,
Under Stalin,
libraries either destroyed…
[high-pitched beeping]
…or restricted
texts that the state deemed offensive,
which kept impressionable Soviet minds
safely protected
from characters like Sherlock Holmes.
Why Sherlock Holmes?
Well, Sherlock Holmes,
very much his own man.
Maybe a little too individualistic
for the collectivized mind of Stalinism.
[narrator] And Robinson Crusoe.
Robinson Crusoe's
a kind of capitalist hero.
He's entrepreneurial.
He makes do and somehow survives.
[narrator] If you think
censoring books is extreme,
wait until you see what happens
when a real crisis arrives.
In the late 1920s, to raise revenue
for the transformation of the economy,
Stalin started this major process
of reforming the Soviet agriculture,
of trying to put people
into collective farms.
[Ronald] They decided to make the peasants
the producers for the cities,
the army, and export.
And the result was famine.
[machine gun fires]
Millions of people in Ukraine alone
were starving to death.
People turned to cannibalism.
None of that was reported in the press,
and people had no idea it was occurring.
[Arturas] Instead of admitting
that the strategy was a mistake,
he decided actually to sacrifice
these millions of lives
for what he saw was a more important goal,
which is to preserve
the existing socialist system.
So Stalin creates his own reality.
It's totally under control.
It's going to be
taken care of very shortly.
At the same time, Stalin closes off
the Ukraine from world view.
[narrator] But at the end of the day,
the vultures in the international press
are going to find their way in.
Follow the playbook
and you won't have to
deal with this problem alone.
-[lighthearted music plays]
-[machine gun fires]
In the 1930s, many people in the West,
liberals and leftists most importantly,
thought the Soviet Union was providing
an alternative
to the capitalist Depression,
so they didn't wanna believe bad things
about the Soviet Union.
[narrator] Stalin's predecessor Lenin
reportedly had a term
for these sorts of unexpected allies:
useful idiots.
You basically exploit
a vulnerability that they have:
their ego, through money,
to get on board with your narrative,
which then lends credibility
and legitimacy to your regime.
[narrator] Stalin wasn't the only tyrant
who knew this.
Hitler had prominent early advocates
in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
and Charles Lindbergh,
who helped elevate his image
as a statesman.
As much of the world turned against
Fidel Castro's tyranny in Cuba,
Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez
remained a close friend
and defender of his regime.
And North Korea's Kim Jong-Un
found an unlikely wingman
in former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman.
[game buzzer sounds]
[crowd cheering]
Stalin takes the tactic even further.
He invites a series
of leftist writers and thinkers,
from George Bernard Shaw
to H. G. Wells to Jean-Paul Sartre,
to see the socialist utopia
of their dreams firsthand.
But to truly sell
his version of the truth to the world,
Stalin would need to enlist
a trusted voice of authority…
like Walter Duranty.
[machine gun fires]
Duranty had been the New York Times'
man in Moscow since 1922,
but among his fellow journalists,
Duranty was more known for his womanizing
and wooden leg than for his principles.
Rumors of Duranty's ambition
and shaky ethics
make their way to the Kremlin,
where Stalin sees
the reporter's potential…
[phone ringing]
…to help him draw attention
away from the ongoing famine.
Stalin offers Duranty
an exclusive interview at the Kremlin…
where he holds court
on the wonders of Communism
and his plan for Soviet prosperity.
Duranty is grateful for the access.
He writes glowing articles
about the Soviet leader.
Duranty is invited to visit the Ukraine,
which has been off-limits
to most foreign reporters.
They took him to Ukraine
and they selectively showed places
where there was no famine.
[birds chirping]
[narrator] But as he ventures deeper
into the countryside…
[woman crying]
…the reality becomes undeniable.
Does Duranty report the truth?
He continues filing articles that claim
rumors of the famine are overblown.
Amazingly, Duranty's fake news reports
earned him a Pulitzer Prize,
as they shape Stalin's reputation
around the world.
Now that you've got
your censorship regime in place
and key allies
putting out PR fires abroad,
it's time to take your war on truth
to the next level.
And to do that, it requires you take aim
at the most sacred institution of all.
[gun fires]
[choir vocalizing]
[rock music plays]
Religion usually answers the questions
that can't be answered.
Things like, "What's the meaning of life?"
"Why are we here?"
[narrator] But as a tyrant,
there's only room
for one source of spiritual truth…
[gun fires]
…and God knows that's you.
Stalin wanted to see religion destroyed.
Not only because of religious doctrine
that was the opiate of the masses.
They were against the Church
because it had gold, gems,
valuable works of art.
Wealth that Stalin needed
for building the Soviet state.
But to turn people away from faith,
you need to do more than repress religion.
You need to replace it.
In the place of religion,
the Soviet Union provided their own dogma.
That is what they called Marxism-Leninism.
Instead of Christmas and Easter…
The Soviets created their own holidays.
May Day, Labor Day,
and November 7th, the anniversary
of when the Bolsheviks came to power.
And in place of Jesus and the saints,
Stalin's regime elevated
new Communist martyrs
for people to emulate and revere,
like this kid.
According to the story,
thirteen-year-old Pavlik Morozov was
a model student and ardent young communist
living in a small village
deep in the Ural Mountains.
But one day, during the Great Famine,
his loyalty to the state is tested.
When he discovers his father has been
hoarding grain and selling it for profit…
[coin clatters]
…young Pavlik makes the patriotic choice.
He informs on his father,
alerting the local secret police
to his crimes.
But his uncle, grandparents,
and cousin are not impressed.
They surprise young Pavlik
in the nearby forest and murder him.
As the Soviet newspapers spread word
of the horrendous crime,
Pavlik becomes a folk hero…
[bell tolling]
…and his relatives are executed.
Stalin makes sure Pavlik's story lives on.
His exploits are retold in songs,
plays, books, and a full-length opera.
But this heroic tale has a twist.
The story is probably false.
Since the end of the Soviet Union,
we've learned Pavlik Morozov is
an invented Soviet myth
as part of their propaganda efforts.
[narrator] But if you think that matters,
you haven't been paying attention.
When you replace religion with the state,
your truth becomes divine.
And yet, some of your people will still
stubbornly cling to another set of truths:
so-called scientific facts.
Don't worry.
You can take care of those too.
[woman] The whole culture
of science and research,
where you have objective facts
and conclusions that draw
not on ideology but factual accuracy,
is anathema to tyrants.
[narrator] Well, of course it is,
because scientists think
their truth is superior.
But that can't possibly be the case.
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco
dissolved the nation's
scientific research board
and rejected theories like evolution
that he and his party saw as incompatible
with their Christian beliefs.
Hitler and the Third Reich
strictly controlled
which areas of science could be pursued,
at one point rejecting relativity
and quantum mechanics
in favor of fields like Aryan physics.
President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia
reportedly forced
thousands of people with HIV
to refuse traditional treatments
in favor of his own personal remedy
that he claimed could eradicate the virus
within three days.
Needless to say, it did not.
Stalin's view of scientific disciplines
was in many ways dictated
by his ideological dogma.
If certain facts didn't fit that paradigm,
they could be ignored,
and scientists were incentivized
to ignore those facts.
[narrator] One guy who truly got this was
revolutionary biologist Trofim Lysenko.
[machine gun fires]
Lysenko was sure that the solution
to the Soviet Union's
ongoing food shortages
was to apply Marxist principles to plants.
[Arturas] He did silly things.
For example, he would take grain,
and he would expose grain to cold,
thinking that future generations
of that grain will be cold-resistant.
And of course, it's completely absurd,
but he framed this idea
as being closer to the Marxist principles.
And Stalin actually really liked it.
[narrator] Stalin invites Lysenko
to speak at the Kremlin,
where Lysenko assails modern genetics,
questions the loyalty
of the nation's scientists,
and promises
that his revolutionary theories
will end hunger in the USSR forever.
[scattered cheering]
Stalin likes what he hears.
Within just a few years,
all other theories of genetics are banned,
professors removed from their positions,
and labs are shut down.
[bomb detonates]
Anybody who protests gets rooted out.
[gun blasts]
[Jonathan] There was a war that
got started within Soviet science,
Soviet biology in particular,
uh, as a consequence of this.
[narrator] In propaganda,
Stalin portrays Lysenko
as a scientific genius and revolutionary.
But in practice,
Lysenko's theories fail completely,
leading to even more death
and hardship among the Soviet people.
So naturally,
Lysenko remains in his post until 1964.
Stalin saw Lysenko's ability
to mend facts in a particular discipline
as an important expression of loyalty.
And for Stalin, this expression of loyalty
was more important
than the scientific fact itself.
[narrator] Let's check in.
After discrediting science,
destroying religion, rewriting history,
and replacing troublesome facts
with propaganda,
your war on truth should be bearing fruit.
But there's one more obstacle
in your path to absolute control
of your people's minds and lives:
their faith in each other.
[Asha] Connections among citizens.
This is a threat
in an authoritarian system.
There can be no principles or values
that are higher than loyalty
and obedience to the person in charge.
[narrator] Crushing this threat is going
to take a strong stomach. So buckle up.
[Stalin speaking Russian]
The phenomenon of distrust is
an exceptionally powerful tool.
If you no longer trust anyone,
you willingly give yourself
to the power of the state,
because everything else is suspect.
[narrator]You'd think after all
of Stalin's hard work fighting truth,
he'd have this in the bag,
but a tyrant's job is never done.
In 1934, the truth of the matter is
that there were still problems
for Stalin's grip on power.
All of the enemies
had not been vanquished.
[Arturas] The beginning of the process
were the show trials in Moscow
where leading figures
of the Communist Party apparatus
were put on public trial
on charges of being members
of an anti-Soviet conspiracy.
[narrator] But when it came to turning
his people against each other,
the government purges
were just the appetizer.
[Jonathan] If these heroes
of the Revolution can be traitors,
who else can be a traitor?
The conclusion is obvious: anybody.
It was the general line that said,
"Look, we have mass conspiracy
against our new state."
"Now your job is to go out
and find those conspirators."
[narrator] What's a loyal citizen to do?
Neighbors started denouncing neighbors.
Some children started
denouncing their parents.
[Ronald] It all swirled into
a kind of snowball of bloodletting.
[gun fires]
The Great Terror.
[narrator] During the Great Terror,
over 750,000 people were killed.
And for Stalin,
it was all part of his master plan.
He wrote a memo.
If you kill 100 people,
and five of them
were enemies of the people,
that's not a bad ratio.
That was Stalin's model.
Doesn't matter you kill too many…
it matters if you kill too few.
[narrator] As for anyone
who might think of saying
no, the accusations
against their fellow citizens aren't true,
there's a simple answer.
True? The party decides what is true.
There is a higher truth
in these dictatorships,
and that is the truth of power.
[narrator] By redefining truth
for millions of his citizens,
Stalin maintained
a stranglehold over the Soviet Union
for another 15 years.
You'd assume after all that,
he would be remembered as a villain,
but the truth is more… complicated.
[Russian choral music plays]
[Arturas] A lot of people
do revere Stalin as a great leader.
But the massive, massive human cost
was able to transform the Soviet society
from agricultural to industrial.
If you define success
as achieving the goals,
he was very successful.
[narrator] So now you know
the secret to Stalin's epic reign.
But tyranny isn't
just about controlling minds.
It's about the power
to rebuild society in your own image.
Take it from this man, Muammar Gaddafi,
who used his singular vision
and billions in oil wealth
to turn the desert nation of Libya
into his own personal shrine.
All my people, they love me all!
[narrator] What could possibly go wrong?
[theme music plays]
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