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Stalin at Home

Peasants and political rivals were Joseph Stalin's best-known victims: he caused the deaths of 20 million in the former Soviet Union and imprisoned, exiled, or relocated another 20 million, by the estimate of historian Roy Medvedev. But the dictator's carefully guarded private life was just as bloody, reports Bunting Institute Fellow Patricia Blake, who is writing a book about Stalin. "He killed almost every member of his immediate and extended family, leaving only his second wife's parents, her brother, and his own children."

In her manuscript, "Close to Stalin: The Story of a Family," Blake aims to assemble an intimate portrait of the man in order "to contribute to an understanding of dictatorship-producing situations, to the ability to identify the dictatorial temperament and intent, and to the early recognition of emerging dictators." As an associate of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Studies, she has benefited from access to prominent Russian scholars and important documents, such as Harvard's copy of the Volkogonov papers, which contain much unpublished information assembled from archives now closed in Russia.

Stalin, as Blake portrays him, was a man of contradictions, and documenting his complex relationships with children has been of particular interest to her. One of her examples came from the daughter of Sergei Kavtaradze, a leading Georgian Bolshevik whom Stalin imprisoned for five years, and then made a deputy minister of foreign affairs. His daughter, then nine, recalled in a recent interview with Blake how "Stalin, [secret police head Lavrenti] Beria, and their entourage burst in unexpectedly on the Kavtaradzes, bearing masses of food and drink," writes Blake. "Holding the child on his lap, the sadistic Stalin betrayed to her and the group how closely and with what relish he had followed the suffering of his old comrade in a Kolyma labor camp and the pleas for her father the little girl had made in many letters to him in the Kremlin." This from the same man who, says Blake, "made 12-year-olds liable to the death penalty."

Stalin's own father was a small-town cobbler and alcoholic, Blake says; his mother was a washerwoman. Both parents beat the boy, though his mother recognized his gifts, among them an extraordinary intellect and prodigious memory. Well aware that his mother's work often took her to upper-class houses, and encouraged by persistent rumors, Stalin may have believed that he was actually the son of an aristocrat, says Blake.

His first wife, Ekaterina, died three years after their marriage, leaving a son, Yakov, whom Stalin considered a weakling. When his son was captured during World War II, Stalin not only refused a German offer to exchange him (captured Russian soldiers, Blake notes, were regarded as traitors), but had Yakov's Jewish wife arrested. Yakov died a war prisoner. Stalin later ordered Ekaterina's relatives shot.

Nadya, Stalin's second wife, had two children, Vasily and Svetlana. "Vasily grew up a victim of his father," says Blake, "weak, venal, and cruel." Nikolai Bukharin recalled that Stalin liked blowing smoke in his son's face. When the boy was 14, one of his teachers reported that he had written a suicidal note. Stalin, who took 33 months to reply, instructed the school not to let Vasily "blackmail you with threats of suicide."

As an unqualified 24-year-old major general in the air force, Vasily falsely denounced one of Russia's greatest World War II air commanders, who was consequently tortured and then imprisoned for almost six years in solitary confinement. "Vasily was a pathetic version of Stalin," says Blake. "He would beat members of his own entourage, including police and other generals." His signature meal, reportedly, was five ounces of vodka and three slices of watermelon, and he died of alcoholism, which his father did nothing to curtail.

Svetlana, on the other hand, was a favorite, at least until she reached adolescence. "Stalin was tender with her as a child, and called her 'his little sparrow,'" says Blake. "He would write her touching notes, and would pick her up and hug her when she started to cry, especially when her mother hit her."

Nadya herself died a violent death when her children were 11 and 6. She may have committed suicide, but Blake says she may have been murdered. Doctors and others who examined her body said either that she died of a gunshot wound or that she had been strangled by bare hands, as suggested by marks on her neck. The official government explanation was that she died of appendicitis. In any event, says Blake, Stalin became more violent, more bitter, and more consumed with vengeance from that time onward.

Blake says her book will portray a Stalin who was cruel, cunning, and an extraordinary actor, who "set up the stages for his public scenes, a man who personally masterminded virtually every detail of the great purge trials, including the tortures, confessions, and executions of the victims. Understanding the dictator himself," Blake asserts, "is an em- pirical contribution to understanding the totalitarian state for which no other method of inquiry can substitute."

~ Jonathan Shaw

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