RECENTLY I finished reading Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore - an exhaustively researched book of great erudition by the British born, Russian speaking author.
Montefiore traces the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia from 1929 to 1953 and effectively created the Soviet Union.
Like most of the early Bolsheviks (Russian communists), Stalin was poorly educated but totally committed to the cause of communism.
He was also a man of ferocious intelligence, considerable cunning and a great deal of energy, which enabled him to rise through the ranks of the communist party until, ultimately, he achieved total personal dominance over the party and its membership.
Stalin became, as the title of Montefiore's book says, the Red Tsar.
Like virtually all the Bolshevik leadership, Stalin regarded both the Russian middle class and the peasantry with contempt, seeing them as stupid, bovine and a major barrier to the introduction of necessary economic reforms.
So, for example, he and his colleagues ruthlessly implemented the party's plan to collectivize all agricultural production even though this meant the dispossession and relocation of tens of millions of people.
Any resistance to the party's program was regarded as an attack upon the state and mercilessly crushed by force. Very conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 million people died during the collectivisation program, most due to starvation.
The Bolshevik leadership were, to a man, political fanatics. More than a few of them were ignorant, cruel, capricious, depraved, self serving and violent. That said, many were also intelligent autodidacts, who learned to master the intricacies of government as well as survive in the malignant swamp of Bolshevik politics.
Stalin towered over all of them, deeply paranoid and, like his German counterpart Adolph Hitler, a megalomaniac.
As I read the book, I marvelled at how a very small number of Bolsheviks somehow managed to seize control of the apparatus of a huge and diverse state like Tsarist Russia.
They were not the cleverest people in Russia by any means, but they were certainly the most committed, ruthless and violent. Torture, murder, intimidation and lies were simply tools of statecraft, justified by an unwavering commitment to the Marxist-Leninist "science" of history. Nothing could be permitted to impede the Bolshevik revolution.
I am struck by the parallels with the rise of the Chinese Communists and their ‘great helmsman’ Mao Zedong. Mao was much like Stalin, famously saying that political power grows from the barrel of a gun. Like Stalin, Mao presided over the destruction of a corrupt and incompetent regime.
As in Russia, tens of millions perished in the ensuing Chinese revolutionary struggle, with society being regularly convulsed with violence until Mao's death in 1976, when he was replaced by the pragmatic reformer and true architect of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.
As I contemplated the appalling history of communism, it struck me that there are more than few eerie parallels to be found in recent developments in the USA.
In Donald Trump, we have a president who is petulant, impulsive, egotistical, hypersensitive and narcissistic and displays many of the hallmarks of a megalomaniac. Worse still, he has surrounded himself with people who share many of his outlandish ideas about how the world should be ordered with, of course, the USA calling all the shots.
I think it is no accident that Trump feels instinctively drawn to Vladimir Putin, whom he has admiringly described as strong leader. Putin is, in my judgement, a hugely smarter, more strategic and more cunning political operator than Trump, much more in the mould of Stalin.
An important reason why Trump cannot become a US version of Stalin is that he does not control the whole apparatus of the state, notably the legal system. Nor, in truth, can he control the legislature, many of whose Republican members actively detest him.
Also, while Trump is commander in chief of the US military, he lacks the practical ability to control it, at least in the manner that Stalin did.
Importantly, there is no equivalent to the KGB (Committee for State Security) within the USA. The KGB (now called the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation or FSB) served as Stalin's instrument of intimidation, terror and extrajudicial killing within Russia.
Some people believe the CIA fills this role but this thinking reflects a profound misunderstanding of what it really does.
For all that, the Trump ascendancy is reflective of a situation where the governance of a democratic state can be effectively taken over by a small but vociferous minority (less than 25% of eligible voters actually voted for Trump), whose disregard for truth and evident contempt for much of the population are very evident.
So what has this to do with Papua New Guinea.
PNG is, in my judgement, peculiarly vulnerable to an effective takeover by a small but determined cabal of political activists or opportunists. This is the case because, like in Tsarist Russia and Imperial China, some key institutions such as parliament, police, army, bureaucracy, media and perhaps business, are deeply susceptible to political influence, subversion and intimidation.
I do not think that it necessary for me to recite a litany of evidence that suggests that these institutions have been or are being compromised by PNG's political leadership.
Some people may not even understand that they are undermining these institutions, but some undoubtedly do understand this and are taking full advantage of their positional power to do so.
Also, the huge bulk of the population in PNG are, like the Russian kulaks and Chinese peasants, reliant upon subsistence farming to survive.
Their capacity to exert any truly effective influence over political and economic decision making is severely constrained by a combination of poverty, ignorance and multiple cultural barriers.
Happily for PNG, it has a few things going for it. First and foremost, its government is operating in a relatively transparent environment, where most of the time the world can see and hear what is going on.
This obliges the government to mostly conform to accepted international behavioural norms when dealing with its citizens.
Stalin and his colleagues operated in a closed, secretive society without any effective internal or external scrutiny. The Bolshevik solution to crises such as that in Hela Province would have involved the arrest and deportation or murder of anyone who resisted their plans.
Second, there is at least some overt political opposition to the government which seeks to make it accountable for its actions. While the O'Neill government has done its best to prevent scrutiny of its decision making processes, it has thus far been unable to stop it entirely.
Stalin solved this problem by the simple expedient of defining his opponents as "enemies of the people", having them tortured into confessing to fictitious crimes and executing them.
Third, PNG still has an independent judiciary which, thus far at least, has largely succeeded in resisting attempts to subvert it.
In Stalin's Russia, all members of the judiciary had to be members of the party and conform to the wishes of its leadership. This is the current situation in China, while Russia's judiciary is thought to be largely independent, although sometimes susceptible to political influence or corruption.
Thus it seems to me that, despite its vulnerabilities, PNG is not yet ripe for a Stalinist-style takeover.
However, it is clearly vulnerable to the sort of populist politics that exist in places like Venezuela, where the poor were made extravagant promises by the late and unlamented Hugo Chavez; promises which could never be fulfilled and which had the primary effect of bankrupting the country.
It is possible that Mr O'Neill and his political allies will draw some lessons from Donald Trump's successful demagoguery and run a populist election campaign, promising much that cannot be delivered. The rural population may in particular very well be susceptible to this style of politics. Certainly, more than a few Americans were.
Once reinstalled in power, O’Neill and his colleagues will be able to continue their efforts to further bend the apparatus of the state to their will, probably by making additional judicious appointments to critical leadership positions across the important institutions, just like Trump. Who knows where that might lead?
PNG's brightest and best could do worse than read Montefiore's book, in which history delivers an ominous warning about how a very few really determined fanatics or opportunists can first subvert and then overthrow and utterly dominate an ancient and well established nation state.