Serendipity: Soviet High Society

Stalin and Members of the Politburo 1925

I have just finished reading Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball (Material for a Novel), a book that attempts to cover the high society of the Soviet Union as if it were Marcel Proust’s fin de siècle Paris. It is a strange book, probably because Malaparte was never able to finish it after numerous visits to Russia up to 1957, when he died. It makes it a tricky read, as one is never sure exactly what period the author is talking about in a particular chapter. Still, I loved the following picture of all those figures whose lives depended on the whim of Joseph Stalin.

Of that era’s Soviet high society, corrupt, always thirsty for pleasure, greedy for money, glory, and power, proud and snobbish, capable of any infamy in order to maintain their ephemeral power, ready to betray the people, the Revolution, communism, Russia, to deny their own revolutionary past, in order not to have to renounce the honors and privileges of their position, of that Soviet nobility corrupted by Trotskyism and Bonapartism, almost no one was still alive. L’ancien régime of the Communist Revolution, the new nobility that had emerged from the communism of the war and NEP [the New Economic Plan], made up of men who believed themselves to be Marxists and were actually nothing but krasni burjui, red bourgeois, who believed that they were the guardians of Marxist and Leninist theory but were instead Bonapartists, who believed they were leaders of the proletariat but were really leaders of the Trotskyite counterrevolution, had by then given up their positions to the élites of the Stakhanovites and the Udarniks [shock workers], and to the Stalinist élites who were tough and lean but nevertheless more human and born of the Five Year Plans. Of all the merveilleuses of the communist ancien régime, of all those men corrupted by ambition, hatred, jealousy, comfort, pleasures, and privileges, all that remains is memory: the “snapshots” firing squads caught of them in their supreme, ultimate moment, their pale faces turned toward the rifle barrels, their hands clenched in fists, their eyes widened, their brows enraged, the great wind of death unobstructed in the cold, squalid, magnesium light of the camera flashes that lit up, from some invisible height, the scenes of execution in modern Europe.

NKVD Firing Squad

“Yet To Die Unalone Still”

Russian Poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

He got it right when he said, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” In fact, Osip Mandelstam was killed for his poetry, mostly for having written some highly uncomplimentary things about Stalin, things like:

His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.

Although Stalin wanted to send him to the Gulags considerably earlier, Mandelstam spent much of the 1930s in a Siberian labor camp, finally dying in 1938 of a heart condition.

He is without a doubt one of the three or four leading Russian poets of his generation, as this short poem proves:

Yet to Die. Unalone Still.

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

The translation is by John High and Matvei Yankelevich. I got it from the Poetry Foundation’s website.


The Death of Stalin

Poster for The Death of Stalin (2018)

In my retirement, I have been seeing more current films than I usually do. Today, I went in the rain to see Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy of the transfer of power in the Soviet Union when Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Predictably, the movie was banned in Russia and several other of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, I think that in many instances the truth was stretched a bit to make a better film.

Steve Buscemi plays an ambitious Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor, a delightfully cowardly Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale, an incredibly evil State Security chief Lavrenti Beria; and Michael Palin, an indecisive Vyacheslav Molotov. The actor who practically runs away with the show is Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, who is the only member of the government who is willing to take on Beria.

Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov

One of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that the fearless leaders were too fearful to arrange for a peaceful transition of power after their deaths. In fact, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), Stalin’s sudden death caused a such a crisis, so that the staff in his dacha were afraid to confront the body for fear that it meant some sort of trick that would lead them to execution or a gulag.

Georgy Malenkov is initially selected to rule because of his rank in the Politburo, but his cowardice is such that, by the end, Khrushchev is holding the reins of power.

This film is loaded with violence. Beria’s NKVD carry out executions using their sidearms with alarming regularity. There are at least several score of these executions taking place during the film.

So far, this is the best film I have seen this year.



Looking Past Devastation to Hope

Nathan Altman Portrait of Soviet Poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

I love this poem. Its first stanza is like the United States under Trumpf, or Russia under Stalin—take your pick! Then, in the second and third stanzas, the devastation turns to hope. The poem’s name? “Everything.”

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

There is something of the seer about the gaunt poet, who under her bangs sees into futures that might possibly, hopefully lie in wait for us.



Children of the Nobility Wearing Russian Peasant Costumes

Children of the Nobility Wearing Russian Peasant Costumes

What happened to the Russian nobility after the October Revolution of 1917? Either they escaped the Soviet Union, or they became targets for extermination under Stalin. Around 1918 Grigory Zinoviev declared that as much as ten percent of Russia’s then population of ten million would have to be annihilated as being “counterrevolutionaries.” As Zinoviev’s colleague Martin Latsis said:

Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words…. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.

Ironically, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, Zinoviev was ordered to be arrested and tried during the first of the big show trials what became Stalin’s purges. Of course, he was found guilty and executed, along with thousands of others.

In a new book by Douglas Smith entitled Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, a brief description entailed what happened to one noble family, the Obolenskys:

Prince Vladimir Obolensky was killed at his estate in early 1918; later that year his older brother Alexander was shot at the Fortress of Peter and Paul in Petrograd. Prince Mikhail Obolensky was beaten to death by a mob at a railroad station in February 1918. Prince Pavel Obolensky, a cornet in the Hussars, was shot by the Bolsheviks in June 1918 and left for dead…. Princess Yelena Obolensky was killed at her estate in November 1918; her dead body was burned along with her manor house. Many more Obolenskys suffered similar horrific fates; they included seven members of the family who perished in Stalin’s prisons years later.

Particularly brutal were the fates of those aristocrats who sided with the White Army during the Civil War that followed the Revolution. And then along came Stalin, who did his best to demolish what remained.

This is not to say that there weren’t survivors, former aristos who “blended in” with the proletariat and lay low to avoid the attention of the Chekhist agencies of the Red Terror. What is astonishing was that the Bolsheviks and Stalinists found it necessary to execute an entire class which had already forfeited all its powers and wealth. But then, that’s what tyranny is all about: It is not above kicking you when you’re already down.


The General Who Came Back from the Dead

Field Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky of the Soviet Union

Stalin was one of the great paranoids of history. Beginning in 1937, he purged a large percentage of the top officers in his military—just before Hitler invaded Russia and caught the army and Stalin flat-footed. Gone were three of the five marshals of the Red Army, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky (a brilliant strategist who has influenced warfare to this day), Vasily Blyukher, and Aleksandr Yegorov; thirteen out of the fifteen army commanders; eight out of nine of the admirals; fifty of fifty-seven army corps commanders; 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars; and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

Did he not think he would be needing his military commanders to fight off the coming Nazi onslaught? It’s hard to tell, but when Operation Barbarossa kicked off in 1941, the Russians had 3.3 million men under arms, 2.1 million of whom were dead or missing in the third quarter of 1941 alone!

Somehow Stalin had to find generals to replace those whom he had shot or imprisoned. In fact, he had to release about 30% of the purged generals and admirals who were festering in various of his Gulags.

One of them was General Konstantin Rokossovsky, who was half-Polish and half-Russian. Under interrogation by Stalin’s NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB), the General had eight was his teeth knocked out (which is why you don’t find too many pictures of him smiling). Yet, Rokossovsky was the go-to guy for such operations as the victory at Stalingrad, where he all but wiped out a whole German army. For this, he was promoted to Field Marshal and, later, promoted to command one of the three Russian armies converging on Berlin.

After the war, he was made one of the leaders of the Polish Peoples’ Republic and returned to Russia to serve in several key defense posts under Khrushchev. He died in 1968 at the age of seventy-one and is buried in Red Square.

Apparently, once he returned to active service after being tortured and accused of false crimes—mostly for being an adherent of the brilliant Marshal Tukhachevsky—there was no longer any question of his loyalty, which he proved time and time again by clipping the wings of the Nazi war machine.

Here in the United States, we don’t know much about the men who had more to do with Hitler’s defeat than anyone on the Western Allies’ side, including Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. Rokossovsky was just one of those immortal heroes, along with others such as Zhukov, Konev, Vasilevsky, Cherniakhovsky, and other men whose names we can’t pronounce but who helped change the course of history.

The Time magazine cover shown above was for the issue of August 23, 1943.


Imaginative Infamy

Soviet-era postage stamps honoring Sergei Kirov

No one could say that Josef Stalin was unimaginative when it came to being one of the greatest tyrants in living memory. You may have heard of the old saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Sergei Kirov was a rising star in the Communist party, and reputed to be one of the dictator’s best and closest friends. They even took working vacations together on the Black Sea.

But there was this nagging problem: Kirov was getting much too popular. At the Seventeenth Party Congress early in 1934, both positive and negative votes for various leaders were cast; and it appeared that a large number of negative votes were cast against The Man of Steel (Stalin). In fact, some party leaders approached Kirov and suggested that he take over the reins of power. As a loyal party member, Kirov reported this to Stalin, who thereupon rigged the vote count so that he himself won.

On December 1, Kirov was shot in the back of the head just outside his second-floor office at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. When Stalin was contacted in Moscow, he rushed at once to Leningrad and took over the investigation in person. The gunman was, in all probability, Leonid Nikolaev.

But it didn’t stop there. Stalin saw Kirov’s death (which he may or may not have engineered himself) as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of some enemies from the earliest days of the party. Hurled into prison were Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, two of the early Bolsheviks whom Stalin accused of masterminding a massive conspiracy leading to his friend’s death. Before it was all over, upwards of several thousand enemies and families and friends of enemies of Stalin were fingered by the NKVD and either imprisoned, exiled, or shot outright.

In the meantime, Stalin make a big show of grieving for Kirov, being one of his pallbearers, and retrospectively naming him as one of the Heroes of the Revolution. Also he authorized some postage stamps honoring his memory (see illustration above), renamed streets around the Soviet Union to honor him, and even changed the name of the Maryinsky Ballet in Leningrad to the Kirov Ballet.

This was only the beginning of what came to be known as Stalin’s Purges, which reached their peak in 1937-1938. In the end, untold millions of lives were affected, and the literature of the era has given birth to many great novels in which these events were mirrored, books such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tularev, and Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and Fear. And these in turn gave birth to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s many works about the Gulag Archipelago.

I have just finished reading Amy Knight’s excellent Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, in which she concludes:

The story of Kirov’s murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov’s assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin’s, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.

Friendship with those who are too powerful and too paranoiac has its price.