A child prodigy, Dmitry Shostakovich, born 25 September 1906, completed the first of his fifteen symphonies at the age of nineteen. During the early years of Stalin’s rule, he and fellow artists enjoyed a period of creative freedom but Stalin brought this period to an abrupt end in 1932 when all forms of avant-garde creativity were banned.
Muddle Not Music
It was in 1932 that Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, was first performed to gushing reviews. It survived for four years enjoying unqualified success until, approaching the height of the Great Terror, in 1936, Stalin decided to attend a performance. (1936 was a difficult year for Shostakovich’s family – both his brother-in-law and mother-in-law were arrested that year). Shostakovich was in the audience and from the corner of his eye, watched in horror at the expressions of distaste on the dictator’s face. Obliged to take a bow at the end of the performance, Shostakovich looked ‘as white as a sheet’.
Within days, a review appeared in Pravda entitled ‘Muddle Not Music’, widely believed to have been penned by Stalin himself: ‘Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.’ (Click for the full text of the Muddle Not Music review).
The opera was immediately withdrawn and reassessed. The authors of rave reviews now rushed to publish revised reviews condemning the work and apologising for failing to see its inadequacies first time round. Shostakovich’s fall from grace was spectacular. With his works banned and labelled as an enemy of the people, he fully expected to be arrested at any moment and reportedly slept fully clothed with a packed suitcase at hand.
Charming, dashing and aristocratic, Dmitri Bystrolyotov’s life reads like a far-fetched spy thriller. Addicted to danger, Bystrolyotov seduced French, British and German women procuring for Joseph Stalin vital information in the years leading up to war, including, amazingly, Hitler’s plans for rearmament. He was, without question, Stalin’s most daring and successful spy.
But then, in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s purges, Bystrolyotov was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Tortured and crippled, and made to ‘confess’ to fantastical charges, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Incarcerated and broken, Bystrolyotov felt the full force of the corrupt regime he had served so loyally for so long. But always one to take risks, Bystrolyotov recorded his experience within the gulags. With the help of contacts he smuggled out, page by page, his damning first-hand account of Stalin’s labour camps.
Now, 38 years after his death, the life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov is retold in a dramatic new book, Emil Draitser’s Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative.
The name is Bystrolyotov, Dmitri Bystrolyotov
Dmitri Bystrolyotov is a well-known name in Russia, an action hero for today reclaimed from the myths of yesteryear. Hailed on TV and film, subject of books and documentaries, Bystrolyotov is to Russia what James Bond is to the West but with one slight difference – Bystrolyotov was real.
On 21 March 1921, Joseph Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Yasily Stalin, or Vasily Dzhugashvili. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. On 9 November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself. Naturally, her death affected both children who, from then on, were brought up by a succession of nannies and security guards but it seemed to particularly disturb the 11-year-old Vasily.
At the age of 17, Vasily joined an aviation school, despite only obtaining poor grades. His father’s aides had to ensure his entry. Stalin once described Vasily as a ‘spoilt boy of average abilities, a little savage… and not always truthful,’ and advised his son’s teachers to be stricter with him.
Once enrolled in the school, Vasily used his name to obtain privileges usually reserved for the most senior members. Stalin, on hearing of his son’s abuses, ordered an immediate end to his special treatment.
As a young man, Vasily continually used his name to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women. It was a trait that his father deplored. Vasily drank to excess and, again exploiting the family name, denounced anyone he disliked or barred his way. Amazingly, he managed to graduate as a pilot. Continually drunk, he would commandeer planes and fly them while inebriated. Vasily was married twice but never managed to curtail his womanising.
Born 18 March 1907, Yakov Stalin (or Dzhugashvili) was the son of Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze. Stalin certainly didn’t harbour particularly warm feelings for his son. Deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov, or Yasha as Stalin called him, once tried to shoot himself. As he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.
Yakov Stalin joined the Red Army at the outbreak of war in the East in June 1941, serving as a lieutenant in the artillery. On the first day of the war, his father told him to ‘Go and fight’.
Peace loving and gentle
His half-sister, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin and his second wife, Nadezhda, claimed in her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, that Yakov never ‘took any advantage [as a soldier]; never made even the slightest attempt to avoid danger… Since my father, moreover, hadn’t any use for him and everybody knew it, no one in the higher echelons of the army gave him special treatment.’ Yakov, according to Svetlana, was ‘peace-loving, gentle and extremely quiet.’ But he wasn’t fond of his half brother Vasily (Svetlana’s brother) and disliked his ‘penchant for profanity’, and once turned on Vasily with his fists ‘like a lion’.
On 16 July, within a month of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Yakov was captured and taken prisoner (pictured). Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonised as ‘malicious deserters’. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’.
Certainly Yakov, by all accounts, felt that he had failed his father. Under interrogation, he admitted that he had tried to shoot himself. His father probably would have preferred it if he had.
On 15 March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading members of the post-Russian Revolution politburo, was executed.
Born in Moscow on 9 October 1888 to two primary school teachers, the 17-year-old Bukharin joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals to the point that, in 1910, he fled into exile. At various times he lived in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, the latter where he met Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda, ‘Truth’. In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.
‘Favourite of the whole party’
Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar, Nicholas II, Bukharin returned to Moscow and was elected to the party’s central committee. Bukharin clashed with Lenin on the latter’s decision to surrender to Germany, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War, believing that the Bolsheviks could transform the conflict into a pan-European communist revolution. Lenin got his way, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky was duly signed in March 1918.
Bukharin was a thinker and produced several theoretical tracts, works that didn’t always meet with Lenin’s full approval. In Lenin’s Testament, in which he passed judgement on various members of his Central Committee, Lenin wrote that Bukharin was ‘rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party,’ but ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’ (Lenin’s Testament was particularly damning of Joseph Stalin but, following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, was quietly suppressed).
On 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of party leaders in which he dismantled the legend of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin and, over four hours, criticized almost every aspect of Stalin’s method of rule. The speech entitled On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences would become known as simply Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’.
Why stir up the past?
Joseph Stalin had died three years earlier, on 5 March 1953. In late 1955, Nikita Khrushchev had been mulling over the idea of ‘investigating Stalin’s activities’ for some months. It was a momentous prospect – Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for the best part of three decades; he had taken the nation to victory over the fascist Germans; and his legacy was still everywhere to be seen.
Khrushchev’s colleagues were aghast at his proposal, especially the ones who had served in senior positions under Stalin, men like Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (both pictured here with Stalin). These were men with blood on their hands, who, under Stalin’s orders, had facilitated and organised the liquidation of tens or hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. Not surprisingly they asked, ‘Why stir up the past?’
Joseph Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, born 5 February 1858, married at the age of fourteen. Her first two children, both boys, died within their first year. Her third child, Joseph Dzhugashvili, was born 18 December 1878, and although struck by a bout of smallpox, he survived. History would remember him better as Joseph Stalin.
‘A sensitive child’
Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, known as Keke, dictated her memories in 1935, two years before her death. The transcript was stored by the Georgian archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was only released in 2007 on the specific request of British author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who, at the time, was writing his second biography of Stalin, Young Stalin.
She called her son ‘Soso’, Georgian for ‘Little Joey’: “My Soso was a very sensitive child,” she wrote.
Seeing her son’s survival as a gift from God, Keke was determined to see Soso enter church school to train to become a priest, fighting off, often physically, her husband’s insistence that he become a cobbler. “Mummy,” said the young Soso, “what if, when we arrive in the city, father finds me and forces me to become a shoemaker? I want to study. I’d rather kill myself than become a cobbler.” “I kissed him,” wrote his mother, “and wiped away his tears. Nobody will stop you studying, nobody is going to take you away from me.”
In December 1922, while recovering from a stroke, Bolshevik party leader, Vladimir Lenin, wrote his 600-word ‘Testament’ in which he proposed changes to the structure of the party’s Central Committee and commented on its individual members, comments that caused turmoil within the party leadership following his death in January 1924.
Lenin began his Testament with his concerns over the open antagonism between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, fearing that their hatred of each other would cause a split within the Centre Committee: ‘Relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split,’ he wrote. He suggested doubling the membership from 50 to 100.
But it is Lenin’s judgements on individual members of the Centre Committee that make his Testament such a fascinating document. Leon Trotsky, for example, is described as ‘distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C., but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.’
Of Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin wrote, he is ‘rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’
There’s also mention of Georgy Pyatakov who is, in Lenin’s words, ‘unquestionably a man of outstanding will and outstanding ability, but shows far too much zeal for administrating and the administrative side of the work to be relied upon in a serious political matter.’
Kamenev and Zinoviev
On 18 December 1878, in the town of Gori, Georgia, was born one history’s greatest tyrants, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known to history by his adopted name – Stalin, ‘man of steel’. For reasons that remain a mystery, Joseph Stalin always maintained he was born on 21 December 1879 and it was this date that was celebrated throughout his life. The change of date may possibly be to do with Stalin’s attempts to confuse and evade the tsar’s secret police.
Joseph Stalin’s father, Vissarion Dzhugashvili, known as Basu, was a shoemaker. An alcoholic, he spent much of his time in Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, 50 miles east of Gori) producing shoes for the Russian army. On his drunken and increasingly rare appearances at home, he would beat his wife and son. (Pictured is Stalin, aged 15, in 1894).
‘Like a Tsar’
Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina, or ‘Keke’, also meted out punishment on her son but generally was protective of her ‘Soso’ (Georgian for ‘Little Joey’), especially on account that her first two children, both boys, had died in infancy. Stalin only learnt to speak Russian when aged about nine but never lost his strong Georgian accent.
Alexander Svanidze, an old school friend of Stalin’s and a fellow revolutionary, introduced the 28-year-old Joseph Stalin to his sister, Ekaterina Svanidze. Nicknamed Kato, Ekaterina was born in Georgia on 2 April 1885. Respecting her devoutness, Stalin put aside his atheism and the couple were married in an Orthodox church in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), capital of Georgia, in 1906.
Together they had a son, Yakov, born 18 March 1907, but with Stalin away so much, inciting unrest, his wife and son saw little of their wandering revolutionary. Ekaterina Svanidze was struck by typhus and died, possibly in Stalin’s arms, on 5 December 1907. She was twenty-two.
‘My last warm feelings for humanity’
Her death greatly affected Stalin and he later claimed that, beside his mother, also called Ekaterina, Kato was the only women he had loved. At her funeral, which, again, Stalin allowed to take place in an Orthodox church, he reputedly said, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She’s died and with her have died my last warm feelings for humanity.’
He ignored his son, who was brought up by the Svanidzes. Alexander Svanidze was, according to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter from his second marriage, a ‘splendid character’. But it didn’t save him.