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Stalin as Depicted in “Children of Arbat”

By  A. Charumati Ramdas

 

Russian literature of the last decade of XX century is like a kaleidoscope which presents different patterns and different colour combinations. The people were quite thrilled about the whole idea of ‘freedom’, which promised freedom of expression as well. It was therefore imperative that all that could not see the light of the day during the Soviet regime would definitely be published.

A quick look at the literary scene clearly shows that the following major works were published during this period:

  • Some ancient historical works, such as History of Russian Kingdom written by Karamzin;
  • Literary works of authors  who were punished or exiled during the early years of The October Revolution : This category includes such authors as E.Zamyatin, B.Pilnyak, M.Bulgakov, M. Zoshenko etc.;
  • Works of those writers who were banned during the post-Stalin era : B.Pasternak’s Zhivago, A.Solzhenytsin’s works and similar others fall into this category;
  • Works of immigrants, such as J.Brodsky, V.Nabokov etc.;
  • Works which remained unpublished without any proper reason, such as The Children of Arbatwritten by A.Rybakov and other works;
  • The socialist writers who were writing about society, human psyche, social problems, intricacies of human nature etc continued their pursuit of art by trying to evolve new devices of presentation, thereby adding a new dimension to the socialist realism.

 

It is, then, obvious that the themes of these works would also vary. One major theme of Russian literature during the period 1987 – 1997 was that of Stalin.

A lot has been written about Stalin after his death and very little during his life time.

During his life time only a few, very few writers dared to write about him. In the 20’s Boris Pilnyak wrote his Tale of unextinguished moon, which was based on the circumstances in which Commander Frunze died.

Frunze had an ulcer which he got cured by use of mineral waters. But Stalin made him undergo surgery for removing this ulcer. Frunze could not protest – he had to listen to the command of his leader. A young doctor was ordered to perform this surgery. The doctor started administering chloroform to the patient. Chloroform was given to Frunze for the whole 48 minutes, as a result he died before the operation.

Copies of this Tale…were confiscated, Pilnyak was first made to apologize, and later on he was arrested and shot dead. In his Tale… Boris Pilnyak had warned about the dark era that was soon going to engulf the country. The Tale… is also the ‘tale’ about ‘the straight man’ whose face is not shown, as it was in the shadow of the lamp, his voice could only be heard. The Tale… tells about his silent ways of ruling the country, about his formulae to eliminate the unwanted people from his way.

Pilnyak was probably the first who dared to present the scene of Commander’s death, which looked similar to a political murder. But this Tale… could not prevent any more political murders, nor the purges which shook the country in the 30’s.

After Boris Pilnyak, another person to write about Stalin was Osip Mandelshtam. In 1934 he wrote a poem in which he described how people talk in whispers as they are scared that their conversation would be heard by the Kremlin Giants. Mandelshtam compared Stalin’s moustaches with cockroaches; his orders with the hoofs of running horses which fall on somebody’s groin, forehead, eyebrows or eyes irrespective of the age and gender of the victim. All these killings for him are like collecting raspberries in a field. Mandelshtam also says that Stalin’s fingers were thick and always oily. Clue for this real description he got from a note in a proletarian poet Demyan Bednyi’s diary wherein he had written that he does not like to lend books to Stalin because he leaves thick greasy marks of his fingers on their pages. Bednyi’s secretary carried this to Kremlin, as a result Bednyi fell into disgrace. Mandelshtam wrote his poem on hearing about this incident. Of course, there was no question of it being even recited anywhere. Only once, while going on an evening walk Mandelshtam recited it before Pasternak, who first asked him whether he had read it before anyone else. On hearing a negative answer Pasternak advised Mandelshtam to burn it and forget it. But somehow news about a derogatory poem about Stalin reached him and Mandelshtam had to repent by giving his life.

After these two incidents, nobody ever dared to depict a realistic character of Stalin in their works. All that was written, only praised him. Even during Khrushchev’s period, when there was a short period of ‘Thaw’ writers didn’t think to write about Stalin. But after the declaration of Glasnost and Perestroika, things slowly started changing and many works were written about Stalin. But even in them, all the truth about him was expressed allegorically. Stalin was shown under a mask. The first attempt to give a realistic portrait of Stalin, based on real life incidents was made in Anatoly Rybakov’s novel The Children of Arbat. The novel is based on real life incidents of the author and hence it could well be considered as his autobiography. The novel was completed in the 60’s and Novyi Mir announced that in 1967 it is going to publish Rybakov’s The Children of Arbat. This could not happen. Then, in 1979 another journal OCTOBER announced its proposed publication, which too failed to fulfill its promise. The novel ultimately came out in 1987 in a third journal ‘ Druzhba Narodov’ .

The novel has seven small novelettes – each one being the fate of seven children – four boys and three girls who lived in Arbat. They studied in the same class, in the same school; they were friends, had the same doubts and confusions about life. Obviously a more or less similar career and fate as well could be expected for them. But they found themselves in diametrically opposite situations. While Sasha Pankratov – the protagonist, had to suffer for three long years of his prime youth in a small village on Angara in Siberia for some cartoons which appeared in the wall-newsletter of the Polytechnic Institute where he was studying; his classmate Yura Sharok proved successful in the Internal Security Department. This was the same notorious department which was responsible for arresting and torturing millions of innocent people.

Another important person in this novel – or, we could say, another hero there, is Stalin. This is a novel about Sasha Pankratov and about Stalin. Seemingly unconnected, the plots are very much connected with each other, as Stalin influenced the fate of millions like Sasha. Conflict between these two opposite characters is in fact the main conflict of time. Did Stalin really know about Sasha? Why was innoncent Sasha, who was related to a powerful Party leader Mark Ryzanov arrested and sent to Siberia? Behind this and similar incidents lay the reasoning and arguing tacticsa of Stalin. Through internal monologue Anatoly Rybakov presents a real picture of Stalin. Author describes not only his appearance, character, childhood, but also leads us through events which led to Kirov’s murder.

Rybakov writes that Stalin was short – less than medium height – well built, speckled person with slightly Mongolian eyes. From his thick hair over a narrow forehead could be seen some greyness. His eyes were light brown, lively. When he was in normal mood they looked smiling, but when he was angry, the same smiling eyes would turn yellowish, heavy, like the eyes of a tiger; they reflected anger at the person to whom he would be talking. One eyebrow would go almost vertical. He used to speak with a strong Georgian accent.

Time described in the novel is – first half of the 30’s. Main Party leaders were Orjhonikidze, Voroshilov, Molotov, Zhdanov, Kirov, Enikudze, Budyagin, Ygaoda, Mikoyan etc. Though most of them had been working with Stalin since Prerevolutionary times, he was never friendly and kind to them, especially after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party. Such was his nature – even in exile, he had stopped talking to friends who used to make fun of his funny habit of sleeping without removing his linen, of his silken quilt. Stalin took these jokes seriously. He thought they were laughing at his impracticality, at his weakness. So, friends stopped making fun of him. It was impossible to enter into an argument with him – he would never compromise, never forget the argument – no one, then, wanted to insult him. Not insulting implied not arguing, not putting counter arguments. The opponent in discussion would become, for him, his personal enemy. HE was thus intolerable with all these whims, insults, misunderstandings. While others used to go for hunting or fishing, he would sit in his hut by window and would read in Kerosene light. BY this, the lonely uncompromising Georgian won sympathy – friends excused him a lot.

During the years of the Civil War – in the 20’s – Stalin started playing an important role. His strong will power and energy would serve the cause of Revolution: disloyalty, rudeness, desire for autocracy was tolerated. Yes, Revolution uses even the ultimate devices. But in the epoch of construction, these very qualities proved dangerous. Stalin possessed comprehensive, uncontrolled power. Lenin had long back warned about it in his famous letter and recommended Stalin’s removal from the post of General Secretary. He did not want Stalin to be his successor who considered loyalty to an idea as loyalty to himself. Feeble and weak in childhood, he was easily insulted by anything that questioned his physical strength and bravery – this state of mind later on gave rise to suspiciousness.

What were the reasons for such behaviour? Could be his origin, could be his childhood.

Joseph Vissarinovich was born in a small village Atheni, 10 kms away from Gori in shoe-maker Jugasvili’s family. Father often had to go out in connection with his work – he was not on good terms with wife. Mother was a dominating type; she was clean Georgian, while father was Ossetin. Little Joseph’s mother used to work in a rich man Egnatashvili’s house. In the seminary where Joseph was studying, it was said that Egnatashvili was Joseph’s father – since he was taking all care of the kid, put him into Seminary. Had he been shoe-maker Jugashvili’s son, he would have been taught the craft of shoe-making.

Stalin himself did not believe any of these rumors. He believed that his father was Jugashvili. Mother often quarreled with his father because he was too poor. For this Stalin did not like his mother.

Mother often took him to Egnatashvili so that he could be fed properly. Joseph hated sitting out in the verandah and eating alone, while other members of that family would eat, drink and talk in the big hall. Whenever he was taken to Egnatashvili , mother used to dress him in good clothes. Why? Joseph thought that dress, on the one hand shows off wealth, and on the other it covers poverty. He was not ashamed of his poverty…so he continued putting on simple dresses like a real man! Like a simple soldier! He started hating rich, for they were proud of their wealth and also hated poor   because they were ashamed of their poverty.

In Seminary no one touched him because of a defect in his hand, but later on this was not considered as his physical disability; they were rude and ruthless to him. He answered with more rudeness. Lenin criticized him for this rudeness, but Joseph Vissarionovich had only one principle – one can rule only by rudeness, rudeness of state machinery can keep under thumb rudeness of people. Rudeness can be suppressed only by a strong power, such a power is called dictatorship.

Gradually Joseph Vissarionovich became more powerful and strong, but even then this strong feeling of loneliness kept on haunting him. He knew that though his associates stand and applause for him, they don’t love him, they are scared of him. They can’t digest his supremacy, exceptionality, uniqueness (He had a very high opinion of himself). For them he is an illiterate seminarist. They are afraid that his power is getting stronger and stronger; they talked about collective leadership, about the role of Central Committee, criticized the role of a person in History, thus trying to belittle his role in the history of Party, in the history of Russia.

But they didn’t succeed. He decided to create not only a new history of Russia, but also work out new criteria for evaluating historical events – that was the only way to ensure a correct judgment by the present and the future generations about HIS  EPOCH.

Till then the authoritative book prevailing on history of Russia was Pokrovsky’s ‘Compact Russian History’. Pokrovsky, according to Stalin, presented himself as the only interpreter of Lenin’s ideas. “No,” thought Stalin, “excuse me, please! The exclusive interpreter of Lenin’s ideology could be only his successor and  Stalin, being Lenin’s successor and leader of the country, is the exclusive interpreter of Lenin’s heritage and in the historical field as well; as HE will MAKE this history. Pokrovsky’s school is anti-Marxist and it should be torn into pieces. Lenin’s ideas should satisfy Party’s present as well as future needs – Lenin’s ideas should be inherited by his successor. Stalin is today’s Lenin; when Stalin dies – his successor would be called ‘Today’s Stalin’. Historical sciences should affirm that Stalin is the real successor of Lenin, there could have been no other successor. Those who aspired for this heritage were MISERABLE IMPOSTERS, conspirators. History should affirm that STALIN ALWAYS STOOD BY LENIN and not Zinovyev, who was Lenin’s secretary in emigration; not even Kamensky, who was his steno there – but HE, who practically constituted Party in Russia. That’s why it is called the Communist Party of Lenin and Stalin. All the petty differences between Lenin and Stalin should be forgotten and thrown out of history forever. History should retain only that which is making Stalin today’s Lenin. Main thing is to create a strong socialist state, for this a powerful, strong government is required. Stalin is leader of this power which implies that he, along with Lenin stood by its origin, guided The Great October Revolution. History should not say anything different.

But will this be distortion of History? No, not at all. October Revolution was performed by Party and not by those who lived in Paris, London and elsewhere. While these intellectuals were busy organising discussions and seminars in cafes, the real workers had to speak in whispers. It was they who raised the masses for the decisive battle. HE is the representative of these Party cadres and hence, their role in The Revolution is – his role. That is the true role of the masses and the person in history.

On these principles should the history of country and history of Party be written. The so called collective rule is a myth. There has never been a collective leadership in the history of mankind. History of mankind is the history of class-struggle. But a class is represented by its leader, so history of mankind is history of its leaders and rulers.  Essence of the epoch is determined by those who create this epoch.”

Having thus decided to change the history, Stalin started eliminating his close allies one after another.

He would declare them peoples’ enemies, frame court cases against them, and, strangely, under some pressure, made them publicly confess their sins.

First to die under this plan was Kirov. He was shot dead while boarding a tram-car. Some people started doubting Stalin’s intentions, tried to caution people, but Stalin grew stronger day by day. He ruled the country by terror, made the ‘apparat’ listen to him and enjoyed this position till the end of his life.

 

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Charumati Ramdas

I am a retired Associate Prof of Russian. I stay in Hyderabad. Currently keep myself busy with translations of Russian works into HIndi.
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