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.

 

Aristocide

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.