X. In 1933, the second year of the Ukrainian famine hit a Soviet Union that was in shambles: real income had fallen to one-tenth of the 1926 level, grain production was at all-time lows, most heavy industries suffered long stoppages due to supply problems. Stalin was satisfied with a work well done.
Osip Mandelstam, a writer who thought he had ideas, was caught trying to disseminate among a handful of intellectual friends an epigram he had written, with what he thought were witty, mortal attacks against Stalin. This, Stalin found amusing, and he ordered Mandelstam arrested. He was told that Boris Pasternak, a mediocre poet who clung to the illusion that any of them had ever been a true Communist, whatever that was, was a friend of Mandelstam.
He decided to call Pasternak by phone. The poet was startled. He asked Pasternak his opinion of Mandelstam, what he had done, the Damage that caused to the People, etc. Pasternak mumbled excuses for himself, and also some for Pasternak: the People could not be Damaged by such an obvious fool as Mandelstam, his stupidity deserved commiseration, not punishment; they all loved Stalin from the depths of their cultivated Hearts; Mandelstam possibly deserved the worst, but he shouldn’t get it because he was unimportant and foolish. By now thoroughly entertained, Stalin then chastised Pasternak for not defending his friend enough. Pasternak mumbled some more, coughed, excused himself in every which way. It was all very comical, Stalin thought.
Just days later, a report arrived that news of Pasternak’s desertion of his friend (spread by Stalin’s minions) had considerably lowered his standing among his bookish friends. Laurenti Beria suggested Pasternak might perhaps be detained to raise his standing, or shot, since he was known to have started writing an anti-Soviet novel, a soap opera in costumes he called Doctor Zhivago. Stalin smiled, intrigued by the prospect, and only said “Leave the cloud-dweller alone.”
Early in 1934, a Party Congress gave proof that not everyone was as amused as Comrade Stalin. When the vote for the new Central Committee was held, Stalin received the highest number of negative votes of any candidate, a total of 229, just ahead of his fellow Georgian, Beria. By contrast, Kirov received the lowest number of negative votes – only three, and one was Stalin’s. Of course, mere polling didn’t affect the real balance of power in the country or the party, and neither Stalin nor Beria’s positions were threatened by votes; but Stalin knew it was an indicator he had to watch.
There was talk of bringing Kirov to Moscow. He was the party superstar in Leningrad – the new, silly name for the old Saint Petersburg – and many felt that his weight was needed in the Kremlin to balance Stalin’s. Stalin agreed with this point of view: Kirov was too dangerous at Leningrad, where he had built himself a nice base of supporters: he would be easier to keep an eye on while in Moscow.
Kirov himself was enthusiastic about his recall to the capital, and prepared for what he thought would be his grand move to the top state echelon. He was still packing his bags when he was shot in December 1934, by a jealous husband named Nikolayev.
Most knew that was a fitting end for Kirov, known as a ladies’ man ever since his teenage years. Still, everyone in the Central Committe tried to use the event to his own advantage: the feeble bloc of openly anti-Stalin cadres, which had been somewhat reinforced by Kirov’s popularity, spread the rumor that Stalin was behind the murder, out of fear of losing his post; the growing group of Stalin apppointees and hangers-on, choreographed by the increasingly assertive Beria, counteracted with the thesis that Kirov’s friends had killed him, so they could later blame Stalin in a well-crafted conspiracy that, alas, had been discovered and should be explained before the masses. Stalin himself decided to blame Trotsky, who could use some boost to his flagging popularity abroad, and instructed Beria to prepare the net to take in as many “Trotskytes” as he could find.
The next two years were devoted to the large-scale political joke known as the “show trials”: unimpeachable, true-believing Communists whose only sin was to try and put some sense into the growingly anarchic state-machinery and mildly oppose Stalin (plus having murdered millions of their non-Communist compatriots; but that was largely ignored by most of those involved, and most observers – not, of course, by Stalin) had to endure ridiculously long and detailed legal processes which chicanery was obvious from beginning to end, and were forced to confess to fake conspiracies and imaginary betrayals carefully concocted by Stalin himself, now in his more literary vein again. By 1936, Kamenev, Zinoviev and hundreds of others former top officials had been tortured and executed. A few of the most evidently useless “conspirators,” including the writer Serge, were sent abroad in the hope that they would join Trotsky and his ineffective band of flame-keepers.
The expensively staged assassinations of so many noted comrades caused some uneasiness even among those who had filled in their vacated posts, including the duplicitous Beria, who used every chance he had to leave his Georgian fiefdom to visit the Great Georgian of the Kremlin, and postrate himself adequately: Stalin had quickly realised that Beria lived in permanent panic of taking the slightly wrong step and ending shot or worse, and enjoyed such fearful visits, enlivened by the sustained humiliation Beria inflicted on himself in his presence, in a forceful attempt to be seen as the biggest Stalinists of all the Stalinists.
Stalin knew that Beria was a supreme despot at Georgia, and terrorized everyone within sight, but never harbored any plan to dispense of such a useful tool. Beria was a symbol of everything that was wrong in the Soviet Union: the fact that the system had allowed for such an individual to rise to the highest levels of power was for Stalin living proof of the wrecked, condemned nature of Communism.
When Beria fretted and transmitted the suggestions of other leaders – never his own – to review such or such case, or slow down the purges in such or such ministry or region, or allow such or such prize-winning, disgraced scientist to continue useful work for the state during the breaks of his work in the frozen mines of Kamchatka. Stalin clapped him in the back, feeling his entire body shudder in pure, distilled terror.
“I’ll take all the blame,” he used to tell him.
Beria never quite understood what his boss meant. For all his sadism and vengefulness, he was a natural-born sidekick, whose ambition – truly boundless, like that of most people – was clouded near the top: neither his looks nor his acts inspired any trust: many had been happy to use his skills, and that had propelled his rise; but nobody had ever felt prepared to give him the leading position at any level, in anyplace, fearing what would come next. In a way, Beria understood this was his most relevant weakness, and had always operated accordingly: had he joined a shop as apprentice, he could have worked harder than anyone for decades and his boss would have been satisfied with the effort, but would have never put him in charge. Thus, Beria had always evaded middling posts and halfway appointments: if he was to be denied promotion to the top, it would be to the very top of the state itself: and better still if it was the nebulous, unfathomable top of the universe.
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