Springtime for Stalin and Harmony

The year 1933 marks the beginning of a new diplomatic relationship between the US and the Soviet Union and brings an end to the break of ties subsequent to the October Revolution of 1917. The last of the Western powers to recognise the Bolshevik regime, the new American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, even goes as far as to send comedian Harpo Marx to the Soviet Union as a “goodwill ambassador”. The Marx entertainments prove so popular that they have a six-week run. The Soviet Foreign Minister, Maxim Litvinov, is a particular fan, so much so that on one occasion the two perform a routine together. The tour succeeds on another front. Marx is also able to act as a secret courier for the new embassy and remembers at a later date, on returning home: “I pulled up my pants, ripped off the tape, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch for ten days.”

This honeymoon period also precipitates a growth in Soviet tourism under the auspices of the Russian tour operator Intourist, then headed by Wilhelm Kurz. Kurz will eventually become the first Soviet official to visit America after the renewed diplomatic ties. In 1938 he will also become one of the many thousands of Russians to be executed at the Kommunarka Firing Range, the former dacha of Soviet secret police head Genrikh Yagoda. The American diplomat Charles W. Thayer would describe the rush on Soviet holidays as follows:

During the early thirties, and right up until the purges of 1937–1939, Intourist carried on a brisk trade with Americans in search of adventure, paradise or emancipation. It was mostly women who came for emancipation after reading the books about free love in Russia. But they also came to see the abortion clinics (closed in 1936), the Kremlin Museum (closed to outsiders in 1937), or the University (closed to most foreigners by 1938). There were professors who came to study the new economics of planning; agriculturists who wanted to see how the collective farm system worked; engineers who wanted to see the famous new subway. But usually they were just tourists who wanted to see what was going on in general and be able to tell their friends they’d been to Russia.

Thayer’s boss, the American Ambassador, William Bullitt—who we have already seen as a dab hand at moving dispatches—was keen to celebrate the new ties by way of organising parties. The embassy residence, Spaso House, was ideal for such occasions. Standing on land used in the seventeenth century by the Tsar’s dog-keepers and falconers, the mansion had originally been built in 1913 for Nikolay Vtorov, an industrialist who—House of Romanov aside—had been considered up until the First World War Russia’s wealthiest man. He had died in 1918—quite how is still unclear, possibly murdered—and the property had been requisitioned by the government. Bullitt had chosen the mansion because of its large entertaining area—a lavish domed hall with its centrepiece the largest Russian crystal chandelier in Moscow—and also because an American-style heating system had been installed there in 1928.

The first party, a 1934 Christmas celebration, saw Thayer left in charge since the Ambassador had been briefly recalled home. Bullitt had left explicit instructions, however: “Make it good, they’ve been long enough without a real shindig.”

And “make it good” he did. Three seals from a Moscow circus were intended as stars of the show and indeed received raucous applause as they entered the ballroom, one balancing a small Christmas tree on its snout, another a bottle of champagne, and the third, a tray replete with several glasses. With much aplomb, the seal’s handler promptly filled the glasses and handed them to nearby guests before downing what was left in the bottle himself. More hearty approval resounded throughout the marble interior. All was progressing swimmingly. At this point, however, the seal’s handler, having already imbibed amply so as to settle his nerves prior to performance, became unsteady on his feet and passed out. The seals now abandoned their theatrics and quickly reverted to being seals. Applause gave way to shrieks until the animals were eventually lured with fish and herded into the van that had delivered them. Despite this, the night was considered a roaring success.

The Spring Festival Ball of 1935 would prove something else again. Bullitt’s instructions were once again simple: “The sky’s the limit, just so long as it’s good and different.”

“Different” in this instance is expressed by way of a forest of potted birch trees assembled beneath the great chandelier, a thousand tulips flown in from Helsinki, an aviary containing pheasants, parakeets and dozens of eager-to-escape zebra finches, all on loan from the Moscow Zoo, as well as mountain goats. A dozen white roosters are on hand in the expectation that they will announce the arrival of the new dawn, since Bullitt’s parties require guests with staying power. However, the pièce de résistance on the animal front is a baby bear.

With the party in full swing, a gypsy orchestra alternates with a Czech jazz band and Georgian sword dancers. On the second floor of the building a special shaslik grill room operates, while downstairs guests help themselves to the best available delicacies, with the pâté de foie gras having made the long trip from Strasbourg. Of the four hundred guests, seemingly the only person of importance not present is Joseph Stalin himself. The event will provide one guest, Mikhail Bulgakov, with the inspiration for “Satan’s Grand Ball”, a chapter of his posthumously published novel The Master and Margarita (1966):

The ball descended on her [Margarita] immediately as light combined with sight and smell … [she] found herself in a tropical forest. Red-breasted, green-tailed parrots clung to liana vines, hopping all about and shouting deafeningly … But the forest came to an abrupt end, and its bathhouse humidity was replaced by the coolness of a ballroom with columns made of sparkling, yellowish stone …

Another guest, Karl Radek, takes special interest in the welfare of the baby bear. A year earlier, Radek had addressed the First Conference of the Union of Soviet Writers on foreign literature. He had elucidated on Marcel Proust as follows: “in the pages of Proust, the old world, like a mangy dog no longer capable of any action whatever, lies basking in the sun and endlessly licks it sores”. He described James Joyce’s Ulysses in the same address as “a heap of dung creeping with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope”.

But for the moment he is more interested in removing the nipple from the bottle of milk that the little bear clasps in its claws, for he is intent on stretching it over the opening of a bottle of G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge. Mission accomplished, he gives it to the bear to guzzle. The fizz of champagne does not sit well with the animal and it flings the bottle away. This prompts fellow guest Alexander Yegorov, one-time commander of the Red Army, member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and now one of the country’s five marshals, to offer the youngster assistance. When he lifts the bear and begins to burp it as one would a human baby, the distraught beast’s response is to vomit over the marshal’s military jacket. An infuriated Yegorov shouts, “Is this an embassy or a circus? … Soviet generals are not accustomed to being treated like clowns!” Swearing that this will be the last time he ever darkens the door of the embassy, he storms out and the party goes on. A less petulant Yegorov will return several hours later wearing a new tunic.

Kliment Voroshilov, Semyon Budyonny and Mikhail Tukhachevsky are the other marshals present. Vorosholiv is a close friend of Stalin and during the Great Purge to come, will sign 185 execution lists. This will place him in fourth position behind Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin himself and another party guest, Lazar “Iron Lazar” Kagonovich. Collectively they will be responsible for many thousands of deaths. Kagonovich has already been a key player in the collectivisation policies that resulted in the Soviet famine of 1932-33 and in particular that known as the Holodomor (literally, hunger-plague) in the Ukraine. Here, estimations of the numbers starved to death have since varied from between three and six million. Now Kagonovich is Commissar for Railways, Heavy Industry and Oil. At one point he will have so many railway workers exterminated that a major line will be left completely unmanned. Kagonovich has come up the hard way, beginning work at thirteen for a shoemaker and with little or no education. He is the one who has sold Stalin the idea that an omelette cannot be made without breaking eggs and Stalin thinks enough of Kagonovich to give him three months leave to rectify his inability to use commas correctly. That aside, right now, Kagonovich is nodding in agreement with Budyonny and Tukhachevsky regarding the pungency of the German pâté.

Budyonny, it must be said, also sprang from humble beginnings, first as a farm labourer, then an odd-job boy and blacksmith’s apprentice. An ardent and highly decorated cavalryman, he has an aversion, unlike Tukhachevsky, for mechanical warfare, and unlike Tukhachevsky again, tanks in particular. Tukhachevsky, nicknamed “the Red Napoleon”, had shared a cell with Charles de Gaulle in Bavaria during the Great War and in his youth, as a vocal neo-pagan, expressed a hatred of both Christians and Jews. In more recent years he has become a keen amateur violinist and has befriended and defended the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Nikolai Bukharin arrives late. An associate of Stalin and former editor of Pravda, he, like Radek, had been asked to prepare an official report for the First Soviet Writer’s Congress. His subject was Soviet poetry and while it was too risky to mention his friend Osip Mandelstam who had recently been arrested, he had spoken at length and favourably on the work of Boris Pasternak. He makes a beeline for Bulgakov and engages him in the latest literary gossip. Bulgakov’s wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, has heard the likes of this all before. She remembers the party—“I have never seen such a ball in my life”—as in the end being somewhat tiresome: 

We wanted to leave the place at half past three but they did not allow us to leave. We left at half past five in one of the cars of the embassy. A certain Steiger … a man whom we do not know but whom all Moscow knows and who can always be found when there are foreigners, joined us in the car. He was sitting next to the driver and we were in the rear. It was already daylight when we arrived home.

Baron Boris Sergeevich (von) Steiger works for the Secret Service (NKVD). His job is to report on foreigners with connections to the theatre and on the Soviet citizens who are in frequent contact with the American embassy. A regular attendee at Bullitt’s receptions, he will provide Bulgakov with the character of the spy Baron Meigel in The Master and Margarita.

Hours after the Bulgakovs have returned home, there are still plenty of willing dancers at the party busily keeping the musicians hard at work. “Red Napoleon” Tukhachevsky’s staying power is such that he is now impressing the new ballet sensation Lolya Lepishinyanka with a Georgian dancing routine all of his own. With the sun well up, the last to leave is the corpulent Turkish Ambassador Vasif (his friends call him Massive) Çinar and the future Soviet ambassador to Washington, Konstantin Umansky. It is generally agreed that Soviet Moscow has never seen such an event. The Summer Musicale to be held later in the year in which Sergei Prokofiev will conduct a performance of his opera The Love for Three Oranges will be considered tame by comparison.

Many of the guests did not fare well in the after-party, however. Practical joker Radek, having helped write the 1936 Soviet Constitution, will be arrested and accused of treason in 1937 and will confess to Trotskyist charges after having been interrogated and tortured for ten weeks. Found guilty at the Trial of the Seventeen, he will escape execution by implicating fellow guests Bukharin and Tukhachevsky. Yet he will still be sentenced to ten years penal labour. Many years later, his murder in the camp will be found to have been orchestrated by a senior NKVD operative. Bukharin and Tukhachevsky will appear at the Trial of the Twenty-One and the Trial of the Military respectively. The volatile Yegorov will be asked to sit in judgment at Tukhachevsky’s trial in 1937, however he too will be demoted and then arrested in 1938 and shot in early 1939. After Tukhachevsky’s arrest, pressure will be placed on Shostakovich to denounce him, however he will be saved from this due to the investigating officer in charge being himself arrested and disposed of.

Tukhachevsky’s interrogation and torture will be supervised by NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov (himself executed in 1940 on charges including “unfounded arrests”) and eventually he will confess to having acted as a German agent in collusion with—yes, you guessed it—Bukharin. This confession mystifies even Stalin who declares, “It’s incredible, but it’s a fact they admit it.” Forensic tests on Tukhachevsky’s archived confession have since revealed that the brownish stains on the document were in fact spattered blood. The military trial will be held secretly and only two of the ten presiding over it—Marshal Budyonny being one—will themselves survive the purges. As soon as Tukhachevsky’s guilty verdict is brought down he is shot, with Yezhov overseeing the execution. In the aftermath, Tukhachevsky’s wife and brothers are also shot and three of his sisters and one of his daughters will serve lengthy sentences in the Gulag. The British historian Robert Conquest has since speculated that German Nazi Party leaders, including Heinrich Himmler, had in fact forged documents that implicated Tukhachevsky in an anti-Stalin conspiracy.

Bukharin will be executed at Kommunarka in March the following year, having been accused of having planned to assassinate both Stalin and Lenin as far back as 1918 and having later colluded with others in an attempt to poison Maxim Gorky. He is also accused of having a long-term plan to oust Stalin, partition the Soviet Union, and divide its territories between the German, Japanese and British governments. State Prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky refers to Bukharin at the trial as an “accursed crossbreed of fox and pig” and guilty of a “whole nightmare of vile crimes”. Bukharin’s confession reads in part: “the monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of the struggle of the USSR. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the USSR become clear to all.”

Bukharin’s last written message to Stalin is “Koba, why do you need me to die?” Not only is this a cry of despair, but testament to the fact that the two had once been intimate friends. The message is found in a drawer of Stalin’s office desk after his own death in 1953.

Quite how Bulgakov escaped the Gulag or worse is mysterious. Stalin had lauded his play The Days of the Turbins (1926)—a reworking of his 1925 novel The White Guard—and had seen it performed some fifteen times, but this did not stop the bulk of Bulgakov’s output from being banned or considered unpublishable. The Master and Margarita, considered his masterpiece, could not be published until 1966, twenty-six years after his death from kidney disease. Steiger, who had shared the ride with the Bulgakovs in an embassy car, was arrested and shot alongside Avel Yenukidze, a Soviet official and chairman of the boards of both the Bolshoi and Moscow Art Theatres in 1937.

In Bulgakov’s novel Woland, the host of the fictional Grand Ball that had been inspired by Bullitt’s ambassadorial offering has this to say to Steiger’s counterpart Baron Maigel:

By the way, Baron … rumours are circulating regarding your extraordinary inquisitiveness. They say that this, matched with your no less developed talkativeness, has begun to attract general attention. Moreover, spiteful tongues have dropped the words “informer”, and “spy” … [hence] we have decided to … take advantage of the fact that you wangled yourself an invitation here with the express purpose of eavesdropping and spying on everything that you could …

It is at this moment that the Baron is shot in the chest by Azazello the wall-eyed henchman, who is a member of Woland’s entourage. Woland and Margarita then drink the Baron’s blood, which has been siphoned into goblets. Simultaneously, the mansion’s columns as well and the gathered guests begin to dissolve. Grandeur is replaced by the reek of corpses. Decay engulfs the ballroom. The lights go out.

The party is over.

Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor, lives in Geelong. He wrote on the aftermath of the death of Stalin in the June issue.


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