IX. Stalin took to spending long hours with the books in his Kremlin apartment and his dacha in Kuntsevo. Like many before him, he found that books tend to be better company than people; and his books were particularly good company, having been confiscated and picked among the best private libraries in the Soviet Union – and bought in some of the priciest bookshops of Paris, Berlin and London. Stalin had a special liking for White Russian literature written by exiles, the more bitter towards the Soviet Union the better: he enjoyed reading about the decadent society he had helped to destroy – its affairs, disputes, pointless worries – the sense of catastrophic loss – the jokes on arriviste Communists. He also enjoyed the fact that such books had to be acquired by stoic Red diplomats, embarrassed to be seeing buying such enemy propaganda; he loved the fact that they frequently were denounced by fellow Communists who spotted them in the moment of committing the crime, and some amusing incidents had been reported about diplomats quickly recalled from Moscow, then packed straight to the Lubianka headquarters of the NKVD, and then on to the Gulag, before Stalin aides had been able to clarify that the criminal books were purchased on direct Kremlin orders.
Stalin browsed Marxist and revolutionary literature too: this he did only in search for involuntary black jokes, and for that reason he read few of those books from cover to cover. One of those he finished was a 1919 tract by Karl Kautsky, a wide-eyed German Social Democrat with a Teutonic flair for the excessive, fond of calling for frequent, almost routine blood-spilling as a basis of sound policy. Another was one of Trotsky’s manifold concoctions, Terrorism and Communism: and the title really said it all.
It was soon after he read Trostky’s book that he decided to expel the author from the Soviet Union, altogether. By that time, Trotsky had spent over a year in internal exile at Alma Ata, the dusty provincial capital of the Kazakhstan “republic”, and was becoming a minor irritant there, what with the incessant speechifying, and his petty clashes with local officialdom he considered unworthy to address such lofty representant of the Revolutionary vanguard. To high party officials like Kirov and Dzherzhinsky, Stalin argued that Trotsky was turning into a danger for the security of the Soviet Union; in reality, he thought Trotsky was becoming a danger to his own reputation and losing relevance as opponent of the party center so obviously represented by Stalin. He reasoned that setting such a man loose in foreign exile would be a sort of experiment: perhaps he would regain just enough stature to become somewhat bothersome again. If so, he would be a sure poison for the Communist movement abroad, as well as to anyone who stood next to him; even if that didn’t turn out to be the case, he would be free of Trotsky’s presence for ever – and that was a very comforting reflection, regardless of other factors.
With Trotsky gone amid stolid agreement in the Politburo, and indeed some applause, Stalin saw that all remaining limits to his will were easy to remove: absolute power was his for the taking; they actually were begging him to take the helm all by himself, and steer the Soviet ship into Communist waters.
Stalin came to understand that tipping the scales slightly to the side of collapse would be his most lasting legacy to the workers of the world, so he acted with all decisiveness: there came the first five-year plan, restraining consumption and squeezing the fledging, tiny middle-class out of any gains that could have been amassed in the previous decade. At the same time, a drive was launched to eliminate the class of titled farmers – the kulaks – that had kept the countryside fed ever since the end of the civil war. Following the blueprint set out by some of the most adventurous officials in the Kremlin, Stalin signed off plans to send hundreds of thousands to thick forests or desolate steppes, where they would serve the Socialist cause by creating society out of the wilderness – or by their disappearance while trying. There were some reports of success with a couple hundred intellectuals sent to an icy island next to an army base: they skied in their spare time, as shown by pictures taken by proactive officials: so the plan had to expand. The kulak drive was increased to a scale that Stalin knew to be out of proportion with the number of actual kulaks: and local party leaders, unwilling to recognize the fact that there were no more class enemies to kidnap and work to death, started to grab anyone out on the street, and fill their “kulak” quotas with criminals, mental cases or unsavoury in-law relatives. At the same time, Stalin called for another glorious campaign to cram peasants into half-built collective farms, and make them work for the benefit of mankind, instead of their own.
As could be expected, the delicate stability of the Gulag was completely unbalanced and thousands of surplus mouths were dumped in whichever useless corners could be found, in the expectation that they would die quickly, by killing each other preferably. At the same time, grain production was severely reduced by all the changes; when suggestions were made for a “tactical” purchase of foreign food, Stalin pushed to spend any available funds in a huge increase of the budget for foreign operations: the entire Communist International had to be bought off and bloated enough so that Trotsky’s nefarious influence would be of some effect. People had to starve in the Soviet Union in the meantime.
In 1930, some minority voices were raised in the Politburo against all this deliberate craziness, also known as “strategic shift” towards “accelerated collectivization.” Stalin took note of the dissenters, and conceded some ground: orders were dispatched to allow some farmers to keep tilling their own plots for a while. An editorial was written for the Truth newspaper, so everyone could know about the leader’s tender-heartedness: it was titled “Dizzy with success,” and some bon-mots joked about other ways to achieve dizziness: lack of food, absence of medicines, excessive reading of Truth editorials. Many of those wits were taken to the Lubianka and shot straight-away, others were sent to those most rotten corners of the Gulag where dead bodies had remained unburied for months, and given one shove each – Soviet-built ones, and they broke after a few hours of strain: at which point everyone had to fulfill his own burial quota the best he could. A second editorial followed, with the sturdier title of “Reply to Collective Farm Comrades,” and jokes were absent this time.
The 1931 harvest was pretty bad in most of the country, but half-decent in the Ukraine, where hard-headed officials had slowed the collectivization drive, and some kulaks had managed to keep their lands. Stalin unleashed some controlled terror on the region, to avoid that happening the next year, and was entirely successful: in 1932, millions of Ukrainians starved to death, surpassing all expectation and setting new records for the entire Union, where famines of all sizes extended in almost every direction. When some officials suggested emergency aid for the areas hit hardest, Stalin noted that Ukrainians were notorious for their habit of hiding food away, and secured the agreement of most of the Politburo. By this point, his colleagues were awed by Stalin’s ability to inflict pain and destruction without flinching; they were certain that he was the leader to turn the Soviet Union into the paramount world power, or kill everyone while trying.
Some colleagues stood unconvinced: notably, the young, good-looking Kirov remained conspicuously silent during most high-level discussions on collectivization; and Stalin’s own wife Nadezhda was obviously critical at some official events, throwing off-the-cuff comments that would have resulted in enormous amounts of trouble for anyone else.
By 1932, Stalin’s marriage was past salvation: the couple had had two children, healthy-looking Vasilii, who Stalin considered too dumb to ever be of any use, and Svetlana, a crafty girl just as ugly as her mother, born in 1926. After that, Stalin had ignored his wife completely, finding her presence and her politics equally disgusting, and Nadezhda had become that most dangerous, drifting iceberg: scorned wife of a public figure. She knew Stalin better than most, and had come to understand that her husband had lost whichever faith he had had in communism – and he had lost it a long time ago. She knew of his cynicism, even if she ignored the degree to which he was willing to let it bloom. The first collectivization drive, the much-publicized tactical retreat, and the subsequent mass-murder of Ukrainians all met her approval: but she harbored deep suspicions that Stalin didn’t act in good Communist faith, and was enforcing Lenin’s policies in search for ends which were not Lenin’s.
Nadezhda thus challenged her husband, demanding explanations that at first she didn’t obtain. She kept pressing, in the full knowledge that Stalin just couldn’t expel the mother of his children from the Kremlin; and she eventually got a response: the next day, after another public row at a state dinner, she shot herself in the head.