The war in Ukraine has turned our outlook upside down, challenged our political ready-made thinking and reintroduced anxiety into our minds. President Emmanuel Macron has rightly spoken of the “return of tragedy to history”.
It seemed obvious to us to re-publish the excellent series of Jacques Trauman devoted to the three great dictators and tyrants of the twentieth century, Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong, (The twentieth century, a century of iron and blood), 15 articles in total. They will all be put online at a frequency of several weeks.
TRAINS FULL OF BODIES
“A revolution without a firing squad makes no sense,” Lenin had said; a lesson the merry little Kremlin gang had learned well. The Bolsheviks, who had used and abused this doctrine, now had serious problems in Ukraine. Stalin would tell Churchill that it was the most difficult period of his life, even more terrible than the Nazi invasion: “It was a terrible fight, during which I had to destroy tens of millions of human lives. It was horrible and it lasted four years. It was absolutely necessary … talking with them was absolutely useless. « Montefiore* does not say what Churchill answered him.
The Politburo was fully aware of the situation. A Ukrainian asked Mikoyan if Comrade Stalin knew what was going on, giving him the following details: “A train laden with corpses, starving men, has just arrived in Kiev after having picked up bodies all the way since Poltava ”.
Of course, the Politburo knew the situation, it was in fact itself who organized it! Indeed, this appalling and absurd famine was intended to raise funds intended to build foundries and tractors, resulting in millions of deaths, four to five million according to estimates. This tragedy is on the order of Nazi terror or Maoist terror, which we will discuss later.
Nadia Mandelstram, the poet’s wife, wrote in her memoir “Against all hope”: “It was they, after all, the men of the 1920s, who destroyed old values and invented formulas … to justify an experience without previous: you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Each new murder was justified by the fact that we are building a remarkable new world ”.
Stalin once explained to Beria that the Bolsheviks were “a kind of military-religious order.“
Montefiore adds that “Stalin’s” sword-bearer “order was more like that of the Templars, or even the theocracy of the Iranian Ayatollahs, than a traditional secular movement. « They were ready to die and kill for their faith in the inevitable progress of mankind, even sacrificing their own families, with a fervor only encountered in religious massacres and martyrs of the Middle Ages. »
The situation in Ukraine made Stalin hysterical: “it seems that in some areas Soviet power has ceased to exist,” he wrote.
But his wife Nadia, with whom Stalin had a relationship of violent outbursts and tenderness, was also sinking into depression. She was fragile, but Stalin’s attitude towards her, and the deaths in Ukraine, made her more unstable than ever. Irascible and surly, she yelled at Stalin one day “You are an executioner, this is what you are!” You torment your own son, your wife, the whole Russian people ”. According to Molotov, Nadia was becoming more and more unbalanced. Stalin once told Khrushchev that he sometimes locked himself in the bathroom, while Nadia banged on the door screaming, “You are an impossible man. It is impossible to live with you ”. Monefiore writes that “this image of Stalin as a helpless husband and dominated by his wife, crouching in his own bathroom and besieged by a raging Nadia, must be among the most incongruous visions of the entire career of the Man of Steel “.
November 8th, 1932
It is the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In his office on the first floor of the Senate Palace, near Lenin’s Mausoleum and Red Square, Stalin, 52, works with Molotov, Valerian Kuybyshev, head of economy, and Genrikh Yagoda, Vice-President of the GPU. There is talk of new plots against Stalin, of the situation in Ukraine, and of how to “break the backs of the peasantry”. Iagoda is a particularly sinister character: aged 39, son of a jeweler from Nizhny Novgorod, short, sly, half-bald, with a ferret’s head and a small Hitlerian mustache, he was a statistician by training, but also a pushy and a corrupt one. His greatest achievement was the creation of the Gulag Empire, fueled by a vast slave army. Always in full uniform, he liked orchids, French wines, erotic gadgets and German pornography.
At 7:05 p.m. that day, Stalin left his office, leaving the others to continue working in his absence.
In Stalin’s apartments, at the Poteshny Palace, also known as the “Palace of Mild Pleasures” because it houses a theater, Nadia dressed for the evening gala dinner which was to bring together all the Bolshevik potentates. For once, she had decided to wear an elegant black dress adorned with red roses (which her brother Pavel Alliluyev had brought her from Germany), and she had abandoned her usual bun for a more flattering hairstyle.
That evening was therefore an exception. Because Nadia was inhabited by a “Bolshevik modesty”, wearing only shapeless dresses and never putting on makeup. She was much more beautiful in reality than in the picture, she was honest and sincere, but, as we have seen, she was psychologically unstable. Jealous, devoid of any sense of humor, she often suffered from debilitating migraines. But that night, she was happy.
At around 8 p.m. Stalin appeared in Voroshilov’s apartment on the first floor of the horsemen wing, where the dinner was taking place, dressed in his Party tunic, old pants, and soft leather boots. His gait was feline, heavy but fast, he was small (1 meter 67), and he liked the women enormously. “Beneath the disturbing calm of these unstable waters hid deadly whirlpools of ambition, anger and doom,” writes Montefiore.
The interior of Voroshilov’s apartment was spacious and cozy, paneled in dark wood, and Stalin sat down, not at the end of the table like a chef would have, but in the middle, with Nadia in front of him. At that time, there was plenty to eat and drink at the Kremlin banquets: Russian Zakouski, soup, salted fish, lamb, vodka and Georgian wine in large quantities; all while the country was suffering from a horrible famine, and even worse, a famine organized by the very people who were feasting.
Dinner was interrupted by lots of toasts, settled by a “tamata” (chef de table in Georgian), but at one point Nadia and Stalin began to argue, which was not unusual. Indeed, Stalin had not even noticed the beautiful dress his wife was wearing. No one paid any attention to the argument, neither the handsome Jewish shoemaker, Lazare Kaganovich, Stalin’s deputy, nor Mikoyan, nor Mikhail Kalinin, nor Nikolai Bukharin, nor anyone in fact.
Nadia, in an attempt to anger Stalin, then danced with her Georgian godfather, the sleazy “Uncle Abel“.
Stalin, in response, began to flirt with Galia, a film actress and (very pretty) wife of Alexander Egorov, a commander of the Red Army. Stalin amused himself with the actress by bombarding her with dumplings.
Nadia was irascible, frequently shouting against Stalin in public, as Pauker, the head of security reported, which is why Nadia’s mother considered her an “idiot.” Nadia was going to lose her temper once more.
Indeed, while Stalin raised a toast to “the elimination of the enemies of the state,” Nadia pointedly did not raise her glass, as she disapproved of the famine her husband was imposing on the peasants.
“Why don’t you drink? Stalin said aggressively.
Nadia didn’t answer. Stalin sent him orange peels and cigarettes, shouting “Hey, you! Have a drink! ”
« My name is not Hey, you!” Nadia replied, fuming. She got up and left the table.
“Shut up, shut up !” Nadia yelled again to Stalin as she stepped out the door.
“What an idiot,” replied Stalin.
“I wouldn’t let my wife talk to me like that“, said Boudionny
We couldn’t let Nadia go back to her rooms alone. The wife of number two in the regime, Polina Molotov, put on a coat and followed her.
“He’s constantly growling, and why does he need to flirt like that?” Nadia said to Polina.
The two women said goodnight to each other and parted ways.
The evening ends (very) bad…
Dinner continued at Voroshilov’s house, even after Stalin left. Had he gone to see Nadia? That nay; because Vlassik, a bodyguard, said later that Stalin had gone to his dacha in Zubalovo, about fifteen minutes from the Kremlin, to find a woman named Gousseva (wife of Goussev, an officer). A woman that Mikoïa, who knew her, described as “very beautiful“. This version is not fully confirmed, but it is plausible; anyway, he didn’t get home until the early hours of the morning, without going to see Nadia, whose room was at the other end of the apartment.
Nadia, who did not see her man come in, had phoned the dacha in the middle of the night.
“Is Stalin here?” She asked.
“Who is with him?”.
In the next five years, many of the dinner attendees will experience horrific deaths. Stalin never forgot the part played by each one on that dreadful evening.
Because Nadia’s brother Pavel had brought more than a pretty dress from Germany. He had also brought his sister a Mauser, a lady’s little pistol.
Nadia wrote a letter to Stalin, then between two and three in the morning she lay down on the bed.
Stalin never got up before eleven in the morning. But no one had seen Nadia either. Nadia’s housekeeper, Caroline Til, decided to go see what was going on and tried to open her door, then, getting no response, forced her because Nadia had locked it from the inside. Nadia lay beside the bed in a pool of blood, the gun beside her; she had committed suicide.
Hearing this news, all the servants were paralyzed, scared to death, not knowing what to do. The steward telephoned Pauker, the head of security, then “Uncle Abel“, then Polina Molotov.
The boss of the Soviet Union, oblivious to the drama, was baking his wine in his room.
Molotov and Voroshilov arrived, then Pavel, and Nadia’s parents Sergei and Olga Alliluyev. Everyone was terrified. Stalin’s apartment was packed with people, servants, Politburo members, family. Nadia’s letter was found, which has since disappeared, no one knows what it contained or who destroyed it, Stalin or anyone else. No one knew what to do. Should we wake up Stalin? But Stalin suddenly entered the room.
Someone said to him, “Iossif, Nadezhda Sergeyevna has left us. Iossif, Iossif, Nadia is dead! “.
Stalin received a real blow with a sledgehammer. This man, capable of mercilessly slaughtering millions of human beings, was utterly helpless, hurt, shocked. Valium had been brought for Nadia’s mother, who refused it, but Stalin said: “I will drink it“. Stalin was crying, saying, “She annihilated me. Oh Nadia, Nadia, how we needed you, me and the children ”.
This suicide changed the course of history, said Leonid Redens, Stalin’s nephew.
Stalin picked up Nadia’s pistol and said to Molotov, “It’s a toy. It has not been used more than once a year. Stalin even declared that he was going to resign. “I can’t go on living like this,” he says.
Montefiore ends this episode with these words: “Nadia’s death caused one of the rare moments of doubt in the life of a Stalin sure of himself and his political convictions. How did he recover, and what were the effects of this humiliation on him, on his entourage, and on the Soviet Union itself? Did revenge for this personal failure play a role in the Terror that followed, leading some banquet guests to eliminate others? “
Sources et bibliographie
(*) «Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003.
En version française : «La Cour du Tsar rouge», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Editions des Syrtes, 2005.
(**) Simon Sebag Montefiore est un historien britannique éduqué à Cambridge et spécialiste de le Russie. Son livre, traduit ,en 25 langues, a obtenu le British Book Award en 2004.
Le XXème siècle, un siècle de fer et de sang
Calendrier de publication
1/1 Such a nice team
1/2 Un dîner qui finit mal
1/3 Le tribunal des flagrants délires
1/4 Une improbable rencontre
1/5 Un mélomane passionné
2/1 Dans la tannière du diable
2/2 Le style c’est l’homme
2/3 Hitler chef de guerre
2/4 Le commencement de la fin
2/5Vingt-quatre heures avant l’apocalypse
Mao Zedong 毛泽东
3/1 La momie de Zhongnanhai
3/2 Mao et Staline
3/3 Dans la tannière de la louve
3/4 Guerre et Paix
3/5 Nous sommes informés de tout, nous ne savons rien