Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | Context


Anti-Totalitarian Fiction

Novels that reveal the harsh, inhumane conditions under totalitarian or dictatorial government may be classified as anti-totalitarian fiction. Anti-totalitarian fiction may describe what happened in a fictional past, may rewrite historical events by critiquing a totalitarian government and its effects on citizens, or may describe a fictional totalitarian government and society of the future. Darkness at Noon is an anti-totalitarian novel that re-imagines actual events in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. The novel's characters and events are based on the Moscow show trials of 1936–38, which occurred during the Stalin dictatorship. However, the text never directly mentions the Soviet Union or communism.

There are generally several motifs that characterize the anti-totalitarian novel. These include total government control of information available to citizens, the denial of the individual and loss of identity, and the government's rewriting of history to make itself seem inevitable and necessary.

Perhaps one of the most famous anti-totalitarian novels is British author George Orwell's (1903–50) novel 1984, published in 1949, which addresses all of the genre's motifs:

  • government control of language and thought
  • government surveillance of the individual
  • truth replaced with propaganda and contradiction
  • threat to individuality and independent thought
  • punishment of anti-government thoughts or actions

Darkness at Noon powerfully illustrates the totalitarian contempt for truth and the abusive disregard of individuals living under dictatorship. The novel is an accurate, albeit fictional, account of totalitarian conditions for those living in Stalinist USSR.

The Russian Revolution

The Russian people have long suffered under totalitarian rule. The monarchical government of Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918) was corrupt and indifferent to the suffering of the impoverished and oppressed Russian people. Yet most historians agree that the inept leadership of the armed forces and its botched prosecution of World War I (1914–18) was the cause of a significant popular uprising. The ineffectual military operations resulted in defeat after defeat, with more than nine million casualties. Postwar corruption and inefficiency brought on the widespread food shortages that impelled Russians to rise up against the government in early 1917. The revolt forced the tsar to abdicate his rule and cleared the way for communist organizations to assume control of government.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917

After the tsar was overthrown, the suffering of the Russian people did not end. Russia was roiled in conflict over which party would take over the government. There were two main parties vying for power. The Mensheviks were socialists who shunned the use of terror in creating and sustaining a socialist state in Russia. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924), engaged in terror and assassination to achieve their Communist revolution. After a period of intense confrontation Lenin and his Bolsheviks took power in the Bolshevik coup of October 1917, which overthrew the provisional government that had been established after the tsar's abdication. The Bolsheviks instituted their own form of totalitarianism, which eventually gave rise to the Stalin dictatorship described in Darkness at Noon. The Bolshevik government was a communist dictatorship where all power rested in the central government, or the Party. The government established the Cheka, an organization of secret police who abducted and killed its real or suspected opponents. In 1918 the Party was renamed the Russian Communist Party, and its Central Committee, led by Lenin, ruled the country.

Civil War

Some Russians opposed the communist dictatorship that the Bolsheviks wanted to install. Mensheviks and other Russians who opposed a communist dictatorship fought against the Bolsheviks in a civil war that lasted from 1918 to 1920. The war resulted in widespread famine and epidemics and massive combat casualties. It's estimated that between 10 and 30 million Russians died during this period. One by-product of the civil war was the incorporation of bordering nations, such as Ukraine and Georgia, into what would become the Soviet Union. Even at its birth, the communist government instituted repressive policies that would evolve into those described in Darkness at Noon. Like most dictatorships, the Soviet government controlled nearly all sectors of society, enforcing strict censorship of information and the arts and prohibiting the practice of religion. To ensure absolute government power Lenin used the Cheka, Soviet secret police, to crush anti-communist discontent and all oppositional political parties. One goal of the Party under Lenin was the export throughout the world of its communist ideology. In Darkness at Noon Rubashov works in Europe to help turn its democracies into communist nations.


The communist ideology that ostensibly underpinned the totalitarian government of Stalin, as described in Darkness at Noon, was formulated by Karl Marx (1818–83), a 19th-century German philosopher, economist, and revolutionary who is considered the father of communism. Together with fellow German philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–95), Marx wrote the book The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx envisioned a political-economic system in which the people—workers and farmers—owned their nation's resources and all means of production. The fruits of production were to be shared equally among all citizens. Perhaps the most famous characterization of Marx's beliefs his statement "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Marx believed the oppression and exploitation of workers would lead to a spontaneous, worldwide uprising of the masses against their capitalist overlords. This uprising would occur throughout the industrialized world. In real-world communist countries, such as that depicted in this novel, it was not the people but the government that controlled and owned the means of production and was responsible for the distribution of goods.

Communism as applied by Lenin in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) vested all power and ownership in the state. It was Lenin's belief that the Russian people were not ready to govern themselves because they were too ignorant and backward. The Communist Party had to guide them with its draconian policies. Lenin created what he called a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (the workers), a phrase that was intentionally misleading: the communist government was actually a dictatorship over the proletariat. Lenin imposed a system of government ownership of all industry and control over the newly formed cooperative farms. Few of his policies yielded the economic progress Lenin envisioned.

Stalinism and the Terror

After Lenin's death in 1924 Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) managed to maneuver his way to the leadership of the party. By 1929 Stalin had consolidated his power and become the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union, and he remained the USSR's brutal leader until his death in 1953. In this novel Stalin is referred to as No. 1. His dictatorship is known for its "cult of personality," with all power and all policies emanating from the supremely wise and infallible dictator. Stalin used terror to maintain his absolute power. His secret police abducted and executed any and all citizens who dared to question his pronouncements, opinions, or rules.

Stalin ended Lenin's policy of exporting communism to other countries. He felt that the USSR should become an industrial powerhouse before it attempted political export. However, after World War II (1939–45), Stalin imposed his hand-picked communist leaders to govern what became Soviet satellite states such as Ukraine and Georgia. Economically, Stalin forcibly collectivized farms, which led to the death from starvation of millions of people, especially in Ukraine, and he began a policy of rapid industrialization, which was successful in elevating the Soviet Union into the ranks of highly industrialized nations.

Stalin's Purges and the Moscow Trials

Darkness at Noon is based on Stalin's purges of so-called oppositionist elements in the Soviet Union. On the surface Stalin initiated the purges—the wholesale liquidation of millions of Russians—to consolidate his dictatorial power or as a way to unite the country. Yet many historians suggest Stalin's purges arose solely out of his paranoid obsessions in which he saw plots against his rule or his person everywhere.

The public trials of former Party elites are known as the Moscow show trials. The first public trial, in 1936, targeted high-ranking Party members who had supported Stalin's rise to power, including Lev Kamenev (1883–1936) and Grigory Zinovyev (1883–1936). The second public trial (1937) condemned well-known political figures such as Georgy Pyatakov (1890–1937) and Karl Radek (1885–c. 1939) for alleged terrorist activities against the Soviet Union. The third public trial (1938) condemned Nikolay Bukharin (1888–1938) and Aleksey Rykov (1881–1938). In Darkness at Noon, the main character, Rubashov, is a composite of the Party members who were tried, condemned, and executed during the Moscow show trials. The arrest and execution of General Mikhayl Tukhachevsky (1893–1937) and other high-ranking military officers in 1937 left the Soviet military ill-prepared to fight the Nazis in World War II. Yet these loyal officers were erroneously charged with treason and executed. Among his other victims were Party leaders, industrialists, academics, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, and other elites. Stalin encouraged the practice of personal denunciation, which condemned ordinary—almost certainly innocent—people to death. Victims were coerced to confess, and this led to mass executions or long sentences and almost-certain death in Siberian labor camps (gulags). Denunciations ensnared peasants, artists, writers, ethnic minorities, Christians and other religious groups (communism espoused only atheism), and ordinary citizens. Some historians estimate that a minimum of 10 million people died in Stalin's purges.

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