Sex, suicide, slavery and Stone-arse

Stalin - Gulag - Surviving Freedom

January 2, 2004

Harold Shukman examines Soviet life from purges, parties and paranoia in the Kremlin to the terror and torture of the Gulag

Within the mountain of biographies of Stalin, his personal life has remained largely unknown. Recent memoirs and archival research have done much to shift the spotlight. Simon Sebag Montefiore has marshalled the existing material, uncovered long-buried testimonies of Stalin's entourage and their families and, as a zealous journalist, even managed to interview three generations of Kremlin survivors. He has written a graphic and highly readable account of Stalin's personal life.

The author's dramatic conception of his subject is striking from the outset: he describes the 15th anniversary of the revolution in 1932, an evening that started out as usual with the deftly dubbed Kremlin "magnates" and their flashily dressed wives feasting lavishly, and would normally have ended in dancing or a little whoopee. This evening, however, ended when Stalin's second wife, the neurotic Nadezhda Alliluyeva (21 years his junior), left the party in a rage and shot herself in a neighbouring apartment.

Stalin's paranoid personality was well established by this time but Nadya's suicide changed his attitude to his Kremlin cronies, many of whom she had had friendly relations with. The easy-going Kremlin camaraderie soon gave way to an atmosphere of nervous circumspection: the "tsar" began to play the cat, and the magnates the mice. Continuing the liquidation of "class enemies" launched by Lenin but on a much larger scale, Stalin found enemies at virtually every level of society, including his Kremlin entourage. He watched the magnates and their wives with growing suspicion, and many of them would become familiar with the Lubyanka torture chambers.

Nicknamed "Stone-arse" for his uncomplaining workaholism, Vyacheslav Molotov had the longest and closest association with Stalin, co-signing thousands of death sentences, and was noted for his ice-cold personality.

(Abba Eban once described the smile Molotov gave him when they shook hands as "like the light going on inside a refrigerator".) But newly discovered letters to his wife tell us he loved her deeply. Polina Molotova was Jewish - like a large number of Kremlin wives, a still-unexplained fact first noted by Dmitri Volkogonov in his biography of Stalin, published a decade ago - and her downfall was an early sign of Stalin's mounting suspicion of Jewish disloyalty when the establishment of the state of Israel was greeted with exuberance by Russia's Jewish population. Stalin would do nothing to save Polina and told Molotov to divorce her and find another wife.

The story of the high-level party and army purges is well known, yet it still beggars belief. Stalin's relations with the 1917 generation of Bolshevik grandees - Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, the military top brass and others - excluding Trotsky who had always viewed him with a heartily reciprocated contempt - were warm, intimate and comradely until he decided to root out and destroy every vestige of opposition to his policies, targeting the absent Trotsky as the invisible mastermind. His letters to his comrades were generally good humoured and informal. Yet, when he decided their time had come, he would have his comrades savagely tortured to produce the confession - "the queen of evidence" - that would implicate further echelons marked for extermination, and then shot like dogs.

Sex and the Kremlin are not usually mentioned in the same sentence, and Sebag Montefiore's revelations are quite arresting. Here for the first time we are given a documented account of the sex lives of the magnates and their wives, their sons and daughters. Lavrenti Beria's taste in underage girls is well known, but we learn that ballerinas were provided for the decrepit "President" Kalinin and for the phoney hero of the civil war, Kliment Voroshilov; that Genrikh Yagoda organised orgies in the Kremlin; that wife-swapping was common; and that Stalin did not embrace celibacy when his wife killed herself.

The self-indulgence of this upper crust of Soviet society was amazing.

Apart from their large Moscow apartments, there were palatial country houses, American limousines, holidays in Black Sea villas, access to the best foreign physicians and fashion houses, lavish food while the country starved, and power and authority that was virtually unlimited, as long as they conformed to the unpredictable line laid down by Stalin.

This worm's eye-view of life at the top in Stalin's Russia is composed of detail not usually found in academic studies. Any notion that it "humanises" Stalin should be resisted. If anything, it reinforces our perception that he was in the first rank of history's most inhuman monsters.

As characteristic of Stalin's regime as the NKVD's knock on the door in the small hours, is the Gulag, the subject of a meticulous and comprehensive study by the distinguished journalist Anne Applebaum. If anything gives us an idea of the scale of Stalin's paranoia, it is surely the Gulag - Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei , the main camp administration - a vast system of camps and harsh exile villages located throughout the Soviet Union to which, by the author's most conservative calculation, some .8 million prisoners were committed from 1929 until it was dismantled in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev, himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners. This figure does not include the tens of thousands incarcerated by Lenin, who created the camps during the Red Terror of 1918, and the author leaves open the question of "how many died?" as too intractable in the context of Soviet history.

Unlike Hitler's death camps, the Gulag was not a machine expressly designed to kill people. It served Lenin as the garbage bin for his political enemies, but, as Applebaum stresses, in 1929 when Stalin launched his first five-year plan, the camps were turned into an essential asset, an irreplaceable part of the vast industrial process that was programmed to meet his impossible targets, and the Gulag therefore had to be expanded correspondingly. Its population jumped from 200,000 in the 1920s to ten times that number by 1934, almost doubling again in 1949 and still well above 2 million in 1953.

"A country within a country", in conditions of extreme hardship the Gulag's slave labourers constructed the White Sea canal, the Moscow-Volga canal, built roads across Siberia, produced a third of the USSR's gold, much of its coal and timber "and a great deal of almost everything else", including their own slang and something of a distinct culture.

The year 1937 symbolises the climax of Stalin's Great Terror but, as Applebaum shows, the Gulag's population was higher during the famine of 1932-33 and in 1942-43, at the worst moment of the second world war, and reached its peak in 1952, coinciding with the high watermark of Stalin's paranoia. Deportation of Poles, Ukrainians and Balts in 1939-41; and entire ethnic groups from the Caucasus at the end of the war; the incarceration of ex-prisoners of war and troops who had broken out of German encirclement; along with "repeaters" in 1948, that is to say, all those who had once been in the Gulag, had been released into the Red Army and returned home, many of them covered with medals for bravery; and, on the eve of Stalin's death, the mass arrest of Jews.All these are reflected in the figures. Stalin's "repression" knew no intervals; it was a continuum.

Stalin's concentration camps were well known to a world reluctant to compare them with Hitler's. Soviet ideology and propaganda, however mendacious, were always more presentable - an end of exploitation, equal distribution, national self-determination - than the racism and declared destructiveness of Nazism. But a first authentic glimpse of Gulag life came in 1962 with the publication of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , which, even though its publication was permitted by Nikita Khrushchev to serve his political purpose, nevertheless gave a startling insight into the ethos and conditions of an average Soviet concentration camp. After his expulsion from the USSR in the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn wrote his own account of the Gulag.

In her Gulag , Applebaum has provided the fullest account of the entire story: the methods used by the authorities to bump up the Gulag's population; the different aims of the different camp complexes; the brutal behaviour of prisoners to each other and the sadism of guards that made the Gulag a hell on earth; and the statistics and a rich array of official and personal archives (200 of them, plus interviews with a dozen survivors).

Written for the specialist and non-specialist alike, Applebaum's book echoes Anna Akhmatova's promise to write about this, the most appalling chapter in Russia's tragic history.

Janusz Bardach's Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin's Gulag figures in Applebaum's account as among the most graphic and harrowing accounts of the Gulag. Bardach, a Polish Jew in Soviet-occupied Poland, joined the Red Army in 1940, was arrested in 1941 as a foreigner with an untamed tongue and sentenced to ten years' hard labour in Kolyma, northeastern Siberia, where he was quickly "transformed from an outspoken, gregarious person into a wary, isolated prisoner". Released early in 1945, he found himself in Moscow, facing the ordeal of trying to rebuild his shattered life in the conditions of postwar Moscow, a story he tells in Surv iving Freedom: After the Gulag (with Kathleen Gleeson, the co-author of his first book).

For a camp survivor, the living conditions and even the bureaucratic antagonism in postwar Moscow were endurable, and he succeeded in becoming a facial surgeon. But finally the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Stalin's last years compelled him to make a bid to return to Poland. There, however, as a professor from Moscow and a Jew, he faced redoubled hostility, especially as Polish anti-Semitism rose to a peak in 1968 in a wave of nationalism, when many Jewish professionals finally recognised that post-Holocaust Poland wanted to be rid of them. In 1972, he was invited to the University of Iowa as a visiting professor and managed to get his wife and daughter out of Poland to join him. There they have lived happily ever after.

Bardach's saga is not unique - countless victims of 20th-century violence and upheaval have made the long journey from home to war, concentration camp, displaced persons' camp, rehabilitation and ultimately tranquil success. His special achievement is in his remarkable recall of detail and atmosphere, and his compelling talent as a narrator.

Harold Shukman is emeritus fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and editor of Redefining Stalinism .

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Author - Simon Sebag Montefiore
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 583
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 84212 726 8

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.