In vain do the liberal gentlemen try to save the Tsar's collapsing throne! In vain they stretch their hands out to assist him! They're trying to wheedle some alms out of him and get him to look favorably on their "constitutional project," so that, the way paved with petty reforms, they might turn the Tsar into their weapon, replacing his autocracy with the autocracy of the bourgeoisie, and then systematically smother the proletariat and the peasantry. But in vain! It is too late, you liberal gentlemen! Look around at what the Tsar's government has given you, look through his "ukaze from on high": a tiny "liberty" of "zemstvo and city institutions," a tiny "guarantee" against "infringements on the rights of private individuals," a tiny "liberty" of the "printed word," and a big injunction about the "preservation at all costs of the unshakeability of the fundamental laws of the empire," about "the taking of active measures, the preservation of the full force of the law, the throne's most vital support in an autocratic state"! And what then? There was not even time to digest the laughable "order" of the laughable Tsar before "warnings" to newspapers began raining down like hail, gendarme and police raids began, even peaceful banquets were forbidden. The Tsar's government itself tried to prove that in its puny promises it would not go beyond pitiful words.First, a little bit of sloppy and inconclusive historical detective work. The proverb "you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" is frequently associated with Lenin and cited as evidence of his callousness--his willingness to sacrifice innocent lives for revolutionary ends. Of course, Lenin never said this, because Russian does not have such a proverb and never did. What Lenin would most likely have said was "Лес рубят, щепки летят," i.e., "When you chop down a tree, the wood-chips go flying." But Russians typically attribute the use of the phrase in this context to Stalin. (Khruschev writes, "In those days we thought like lumberjacks--when you chop down a tree, the wood-chips go flying.")
On the other hand, the angry masses of the people are preparing for revolution, not for peace with the Tsar. They hold firmly to the proverb "The hunchback can only be cured by the grave." Yes, gentlemen, your efforts are fruitless! The Russian revolution is inevitable. It is as inevitable as the rising of the sun. Can you stop the rising sun? The greatest force of this revolution is the urban and rural proletariat, and its standard-bearer is the Social-Democratic Labor Party, not you, liberal gentlemen! Why do you forget this obvious "trivial detail"?
- Stalin, "Workers of the Caucasus, now is the time to take revenge!" (1905)
But that phrase occurs nowhere in Stalin's collected works, or, for that matter, in Lenin's; in one dictionary of quotations it is described as "supposedly said by Stalin." The book I translated last year attributes the phrase, in an uncited epigraph, to the Latvian Bolshevik Martin Latsis--a version I am inclined to believe, since Latsis was more genuinely bloodthirsty, if you can believe it, than either Lenin or Stalin, and masterminded the Red Terror during the Civil War. The origins of the connection, then, are vague. It is clear that sometime in the early Soviet period the saying came to be associated with revolutionary violence, but not much beyond that is known; Dal's list of Russian proverbs includes only "где дрова рубят, тут и щепа валится (там не без щепок)" ("where there's woodchopping, there are wood chips," a phrase of uncertain meaning) and "у вас (или в лесу) дрова рубят, а к нам (в город) щепки летят" ("you chop wood over there (or in the forest) and the chips go flying over here (or into town)," which seems to mean something else entirely).
In the end, I think the phrase is fundamentally a red herring. There are few people, Stalinist apologists or no, who would not acknowledge the legitimacy of "breaking eggs" in one form or other--criminals and minorities being the equivalent in liberal-capitalist society. The only insight the phrase gives us is the emotional one, the sheer disgust at how disposable human life was under conditions of Communist terror. It is invoked lazily to suggest the inevitable human cost of doomed utopian projects, but it does not force us to confront the equally costly failures of our own favorite kind of omelette. It's comforting, but unhelpful.
A much better equivalent--which I have, thanks to Google, found in one of Stalin's earliest published works--is the saying "горбатого могила исправит," or "the hunchback can only be cured by the grave." The proverb has its roots in the Bible, which would have suited Stalin's seminary education (though one wonders if Kant's line about the crooked timber is related too). Unlike the other one, where people are referred to only euphemistically, here the meaning is direct and only indirectly implies an unpolishable turd: flawed human beings must be killed. This represents a very specific view of human characteristics and the relationship between the vanguard and the rest of the people; in fact, as Igal Halfin's recent book shows, it is precisely the ideological transition to a view of counterrevolutionary sympathies as immutable and ineradicable that marked the apex of the Terror.
As punctual accumulations of conventional wisdom, proverbs are powerful indices of popular views. What makes them so is not their homely, day-to-day utility, but in fact the very meaninglessness of the collected body of proverbs. Zizek, I'm told, points out somewhere that proverbs are pointless because for every proverb there is an equal and opposite proverb. What matters, then, is which of the options one takes. Is the hunchback incurable, or did labor make a man out of the ape (also a popular line)? How a generation answers that question can tell us much about what it thought it was doing.