1. The Complete Control Narcissist.

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1. The Complete Control Narcissist. When most people first met Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) in the early part of his reign as premier of the Soviet Union, they found him surprisingly charming. Although older than most of his lieutenants, he encouraged them all to address him with the familiar “you” form in Russian. He made himself completely accessible even to junior officials. When he listened to you, it was with such intensity and interest, his eyes boring into you. He seemed to pick up your deepest thoughts and doubts. But his greatest trait was to make you feel important and part of the inner circle of revolutionaries. He would put his arm around you as he accompanied you out of his office, always ending the meeting on an intimate note. As one young man later wrote, people who saw him were “anxious to see him again,” because “he created a sense that there was now a bond that linked them forever.” Sometimes he would turn slightly aloof, and it would drive his courtiers crazy. Then the mood would pass, and they would bask again in his affection.

Part of his charm lay in the fact that he epitomized the revolution. He was a man of the people, rough and a bit rude but someone an average Russian could identify with. And more than anything, Joseph Stalin could be quite entertaining. He loved to sing and to tell earthy jokes. With these qualities it was no wonder that he slowly amassed power and assumed complete control of the Soviet machinery. But as the years wore on and his power grew, another side to his character slowly leaked out. The apparent friendliness was not as simple as it had seemed. Perhaps the first significant sign of this among his inner circle was the fate of Sergey Kirov, a powerful member of the Politburo and, since the suicide of Stalin’s wife in 1932, his closest friend and confidant.

Kirov was an enthusiastic, somewhat simple man who made friends easily and had a way of comforting Stalin. But Kirov was starting to become a little too popular. In 1934, several regional leaders approached him with an offer: they were tired of Stalin’s brutal treatment of the peasantry; they were going to instigate a coup and wanted to make Kirov the new premier. Kirov remained loyal—he revealed the plot to Stalin, who thanked him profusely. But something changed in his manner toward Kirov from then on, a coldness that had never been there before.

Kirov understood the predicament he had created—he had revealed to Stalin that he was not as popular as he had thought, and that one person in particular was more liked than him. He felt the danger he was now in. He tried everything he could to assuage Stalin’s insecurities. In public appearances he mentioned Stalin’s name more than ever; his expressions of praise became more fulsome. This only seemed to make Stalin even more suspicious, as if Kirov were trying too hard to cover up the truth. Now Kirov remembered the many rough jokes he had made at Stalin’s expense. At the time, it had been an expression of their closeness that Kirov dared to laugh at him, but now Stalin would certainly see these jokes in a different light. Kirov felt trapped and helpless.

In December 1934, a lone gunman assassinated Kirov outside his office. Although no one could directly implicate Stalin, it seemed almost certain that the killing had his tacit approval. In the years after the assassination, one close friend of Stalin after another was arrested, all of this leading to the great purge within the party during the late 1930s, in which hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Almost all of his top lieutenants caught up in the purge were tortured for a confession, and afterward Stalin would listen eagerly as those who had conducted the torture would tell him of the desperate behavior of his once-brave friends. He laughed at the accounts of how some got down on their knees and, weeping, begged for an audience with Stalin to ask for forgiveness of their sins and to be allowed to live. He seemed to relish their humiliation.

What had happened to him? What had changed this once so congenial man? With his closest friends he could still show unadulterated affection, but in an instant he could turn against them and send them to their deaths. Other odd traits became apparent. Outwardly Stalin was extremely modest. He was the proletariat incarnate. If someone suggested that he be paid some public tribute, he would react angrily—one man should not be the center of so much attention, he would proclaim. But slowly his name and image began to appear everywhere. The newspaper Pravda ran stories on his every move, almost deifying him. At a military parade, planes would fly overhead in a formation spelling the name Stalin. He denied having any involvement in this growing cult around him, but he did nothing to stop it.

He increasingly spoke of himself in the third person, as if he had become an impersonal revolutionary force, and as such he was infallible. If he happened to mispronounce a word in a speech, every subsequent speaker from then on would have to pronounce it that way. “If I’d said it right,” confessed one of his top lieutenants, “Stalin would have felt I was correcting him.” And that could prove suicidal.

As it seemed certain that Hitler was preparing to invade the Soviet Union, Stalin began to oversee every detail of the war effort. He continually berated his lieutenants for slackening their efforts: “I am the only one dealing with all these problems. . . . I am out there by myself,” he once complained. Soon many of his generals felt like they were in a double bind: if they spoke their mind he could be terribly insulted, but if they deferred to his opinion he would fly into a rage. “What’s the point of talking to you?” he once shouted to a group of generals. “Whatever I say, you reply, ‘Yes Comrade Stalin; of course, Comrade Stalin . . . wise decision, Comrade Stalin.’” In his fury at feeling alone in the war effort, he fired his most competent and experienced generals. He now oversaw every detail of the war effort, down to the size and shape of bayonets.

It soon became a matter of life or death for his lieutenants to accurately read his moods and whims. It was critical to never make him anxious, which made him dangerously unpredictable. You had to look him in the eye so that it did not seem like you were hiding something, but if you looked for too long, he became nervous and self-conscious, a very risky blend. You were supposed to take notes when he talked but not write down everything, or you would seem suspicious. Some who were blunt with him did well, while others ended up in prison. Perhaps the answer was to know when to mix in a touch of bluntness but to largely defer. Figuring him out became an arcane science that they would discuss with one another.

The worst fate of all was to be invited to dinner and a late-night movie at his house. It was impossible to refuse such an invitation, and they became more and more frequent after the war. Outwardly it was just like before—a warm, intimate fraternity of revolutionaries. But inwardly it was sheer terror. Here, during all-night drinking bouts (his own drinks were heavily diluted), he would keep a watchful eye on all of his top lieutenants. He forced them to drink more and more so they would lose their self-control. He secretly delighted in their struggles to not say or do anything that would incriminate them.

The worst was toward the end of the evening, when he would pull out the gramophone, play some music, and order the men to dance. He would make Nikita Khrushchev, the future premier, do the gopak, a highly strenuous dance that included much squatting and kicking. It would often make Khrushchev sick to his stomach. The others he would have slow dance together while he smiled and laughed uproariously at the sight of grown men dancing as a couple. It was the ultimate form of control: the puppet master choreographing their every move.

Interpretation: The great riddle that Joseph Stalin and his type present is how people who are so deeply narcissistic can also be so charming and, through their charm, gain influence. How can they possibly connect with others when they are so clearly self-obsessed? How are they able to mesmerize? The answer lies in the early part of their careers, before they turn paranoid and vicious.

These types generally have more ambition and energy than the average deep narcissist. They also tend to have even greater insecurities. The only way they can mollify these insecurities and satisfy their ambition is by gaining from others more than the usual share of attention and validation, which can really only come through securing social power in either politics or business. Early on in life, these types stumble upon the best means for doing so. As with most deep narcissists, they are hypersensitive to any perceived slight. They have fine antennae attuned to people to probe their feelings and thoughts—to suss out if there is any hint of disrespect. But what they discover at some point is that this sensitivity can be tuned to others to probe their desires and insecurities. Being so sensitive, they can listen to people with deep attention. They can mimic empathy. The difference is that from within, they are impelled not by the need to connect but by the need to control people and manipulate them. They listen and probe you in order to discover weaknesses to play on.

Their attention is not all faked or it would have no effect. In the moment, they can feel camaraderie as they put their arm around your shoulder, but afterward they control and stifle its blossoming into anything real or deeper. If they did not do so, they would risk losing control of their emotions and opening themselves up to being hurt. They pull you in with a display of attention and affection, then lure you in deeper with the inevitable coldness that follows. Did you do or say something wrong? How can you regain their favor? It can be subtle—it can register in a glance that lasts a second or two—but it has its effect. It is the classic push and pull of the coquette that makes you want to reexperience the warmth you once felt. Combined with the unusually high levels of confidence displayed by this type, this can have a devastatingly seductive effect on people and attract followers. Complete control narcissists stimulate your desire to get closer to them but keep you at arm’s distance.

All of this is about control. They control their emotions, and they control your reactions. At some point, as they get more secure in their power, they will resent the fact that they had to play the charm game. Why should they have to pay attention to others when it should be the other way around? So they will inevitably turn against former friends, revealing the envy and hatred that was always just below the surface. They control who is in and who is out, who lives and who dies. By creating double binds in which nothing you say or do will please them, or by making it seem arbitrary, they terrorize you with this insecurity. They now control your emotions.

At some point, they will become total micromanagers—whom can they trust anymore? People have turned into automatons, incapable of making decisions, so they must oversee everything. If they reach such extremes, these types will end up destroying themselves, because it is actually impossible to rid the human animal of free will. People rebel, even the most cowed. In Stalin’s last days he suffered a stroke, but none of his lieutenants dared to help him or call for a doctor. He died from their neglect, as they had come to both fear and loathe him.

You will almost inevitably encounter this type in your life, because through their ambition they tend to become bosses and CEOs, political figures, cult leaders. The danger they represent to you is in the beginning, when they first apply their charm. You can see through them by employing your visceral empathy. Their show of interest in you is never deep, never lasts too long, and is inevitably followed by a coquettish pullback. If you stop being distracted by the outward attempt at charm, you can sense this coldness and the degree to which the attention inevitably flows to them.

Look at their past. You will notice that they do not have one single deep and intimate relationship in which they exposed any vulnerability. Look for signs of a troubled childhood. Stalin himself had a father who beat him mercilessly and a rather cold and unloving mother. Listen to people who have seen their true nature and have tried to warn others. Indeed, Stalin’s predecessor, Vladimir Lenin, had understood his lethal nature, and on his deathbed he tried to signal this to others, but his warnings went unheeded. Notice the terrified expressions of those who serve such types on a daily basis. If you suspect you are dealing with this type, you must keep your distance. They are like tigers—once you are too close, you cannot get away, and they will devour you.


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