VII. After Lenin died in January 1924, Stalin allied himself with his old acquaintances Kamenev and Zinoviev, to form a Party center that would stand between the opposing left (Trotsky) and right (Bukharin) wings, which clashed on a wide range of academic issues mainly regarding the speed of peasant collectivisation and the required level of aggressiveness in international policy. This central position Stalin found very comfortable: he wasn’t expected to take many decisions: mainly, he was expected to inject some sense into the abundant plans of Trotsky and keep in check the bold ambition of Bukharin, which he did by accepting most of his suggestions, before presenting them as his – or the Party center’s – own.
Trotsky liked to rant about permanent revolution, a slogan that he found very attractive ever since he had started to fancy himself a great strategist, in the weeks after the collapse of the White armies in the Ukraine. Trotsky thought that, given his obvious resemblance to Hannibal, all that the Soviet state had to do was give him a decent army with which he would storm Poland and then advance unchecked until Berlin.
“Lenin himself used to say that the Germans are a more evolved people than the Russians, and they would make perfect proletarian legions,” he frequently told his Russian party colleagues; and they never ceased to find such condescension, coming from a Jew to boot, as food for thought.
On such occasions, Stalin enjoyed the chance to act as a voice for conciliation and moderation. He would say that Trotsky was no doubt a brilliant man and was, no doubt, right when it came to the main thrust of his argument. The he would add that, of course, there were other matters to consider: for instance, the fact that many parts of the Soviet Union suffered severe shortages of mostly everything, and those that didn’t were scorched by a decade of international and civil war. Plus, there was the drive for collectivization to think about, and other important policies to implement. And everyone else around the table nodded, while Trostky fell silent and sneered at his colleagues.
Stalin didn’t care for collectivization. He had plenty of (confidential) reports to prove that it was turning a disaster for most of those involved, and many of the famines in the country had been triggered by the policy that was supposed to end with all the famines. Still, both Zinoviev and Kamenev, sons of tradesmen who could have never told a plow from a plane, were enamored with the idea of fixing the old problems of Slav peasants in strict accordance with the ideas of Marx, a long-dead German who lived in the London downtown off the gains of his capitalist friend Engels, in complete ignorance of all things agrarian. And Stalin needed both Zinoviev and Kamenev to survive at the top, since the top was the only place where he felt secure. Only at the top was he free to disregard the weight of the Party, already making itself felt on each and every Soviet citizen. Stalin suspected that even a short period as a more-or-less common Soviet citizen would drive him mad.
These thoughts helped him act with resolve a few months after Lenin’s death, when a last attempt was made to disrupt Stalin’s Pax in the Georgian republic. Stalin gave precise orders to Laurenti Beria, a young upstart in charge of the republic, that he knew would be executed with the maximum amount of excess: Beria was to make sure that some rallies were allowed in the Tiflis downtown; and those stupid enough to show up would then be machine-gunned as they walked down the streets.
Stalin’s ruthlessness against his own folk caused much admiration at the Kremlin. After many years of blood-letting, the Bolsheviks couldn’t help but to appreciate the finer points of mass murder; to many, Stalin – aloof, funny-sounding, mysteriously chained to his desk – was a glorious specimen of the new Soviet man, always willing to shoot and smash his way to proletarian glory, and still take care of the many schemes necessary to create heaven on Earth.
In early 1925, Stalin heard the first whispers about a rumor that apparently had been doing the rounds at the Kremlin for a few months: that Stalin had been a double agent for the Czar’s secret police before the war. In itself, the rumor wasn’t particularly harmful: that kind of talk had been attached to many party leaders – even Lenin himself – at some point or another, and most were spread by rivals looking to weaken the target’s position. Thus, few gave it much attention in or outside the Kremlin. The problem was that, of course, Stalin knew the rumor to be true; and was tortured by the thought that there was somebody, somewhere, with the documents to prove it.
Secretly, he organized a wide search of the Party archives while, at the same time, a large public roundup was conducted: several low-ranking party members were detained and tortured to extract as much information about the ugly slander as possible. Nobody in the Politburo raised an eyebrow: after all, Stalin was the party leader – it made sense for him to be mad at such insinuations; plus, Trotsky was already rather busy preparing a coup to get rid of Stalin, and found it convenient that his rival was engaged in such a waste of time.
Eventually, a lead was found: some old Czarist official named Timowitz had been talking in his labor camp at Sakhalin island: this Timowitz had died of dysenteria, like so many others, and a fellow prisoner named Surolov had tried to trade his secrets for food and improvements in his living conditions, uselessly as it turned out; then the foolish camp commander had made a joke out of his wanton accusations.
Stalin had Timowitz’s friend taken to a small dacha outside of Gorki. The man, who used to be proudly fat, had shrunk to a poor shadow, a wrinkled core of his former self; he was given a sumptous lunch and just enough vodka to loosen his tongue. When he was brought to Stalin’s presence, a timid smile broke in his face.
“I knew Timowitz wasn’t the lying sort,” Surolov said.
Stalin asked him about Timowitz and he told him what little he knew: that Timowitz claimed to have fought with the Whites in the war, and then to have escaped to northern China with the troops of general Kolchak. He said he had married a Russian widow in the Manchurian shit-hole of Harbin, just across the Amur river, but then his wife had died in chilbirth not long afterwards. Despaired, and deeply in debt with Chinese racketeers, he had made his way back to Russia, to Khabarovsk, where in his supreme ignorance Timowitz had expected to be able to make himself inscospicuous enough to take a train to Moscow, despite his lack of any documents whatsoever. He planned to look for a job in the capital, but the NKVD – the very efficient Communist succesor of the Czarist secret police, run by Stalin’s fellow Georgian Felix Dzherzhinsky – had captured him in a matter of hours. They had sent him to the Sakhalin camp, and he had survived about the same as any other man unaccostumed to hard labor:
“We call it the average intellectual life: six months in our camp gets about every man like Timowitz killed,” Surolov explained. “I’ve survived a whole year because I’m just a farmer. Peasant and industrial workers are tougher. Petty criminals are the ones who control things inside, so they can last for a long while.”
Timowitz had been a very discreet man to the bitter end, Surolov said. He had told him his secret about the past life of comrade Stalin only when he was about to die, in exchange for some bread. Surolov wasn’t as discreet, and he tried to use the story to stay alive.
“I obviously failed,” he added, shrugging. “I would have died there anyway.”
The man knew the system. Stalin’s bodyguards shot him on the dacha’s backyard and dumped his body into a large burial ground used by the NKVD. The camp commander later begged for his life, and told Dzherzhinsky about Trostky’s plans for a coup: the man had friends who had friends in Trotsky’s inner circle. That didn’t save his life, but the fact that Dzeherzhinsky told Stalin about the plot enhanced his stature in the top leader’s eyes.
With the help of Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin moved against Trotsky, and managed to strip him of most of his power inside the Party. Then, he enlisted Bukharin and Rykov in a campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had grown too close and too emboldened for Stalin’s comfort. When the pair looked for an alliance with Lenin’s widow, an ill-tempered woman with many enemies within the Central Committee, Stalin understood that victory was within his grasp: on the occasion of the 15th Party Congress of 1927, Trotsky and Zinoviev were accused of leftist excesses and expelled from the party altogether, together with their most renowned crony, the buffonnish writer Victor Serge; Kamenev was ejected from the Central Committee, and Lenin’s widow was sent into definitive retirement. After that, it was the turn for Bukharin and Rykov to have their wings clipped, on account of their rightism.
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