Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Historian Paul Gregory's Guest Blog on New Bukharin Book

Soviet Roulette would like to extend its heartfelt thanks to Paul Gregory for this gracious guest blog related to his new book on Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina. The book is well-written, well-researched, and offers new insights into Bukharin, Stalin, and early Soviet politics. It's also a tragic love story.

Re-Examining Nikolai Bukharin: Forty Years Later

By Paul R. Gregory

Author of Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Press, 2010)
Available on Amazon

My Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Press 2010) follows Stephen Cohen’s Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography (1973) by almost forty years. Cohen reintroduced Bukharin – a figure whom Stalin wished eradicated from memory -- to students of Russian history. It contributed to memorable events, such as Anna Larina’s autobiography and Gorbachev’s rediscovery of Bukharin’s ideas. Written before the archival revolution, Cohen captured Bukharin’s finest hour in his final statement to the court in March of 1938 and the essence of Bukharin’s economic thought and his political career. We hope to look forward to a new edition from Cohen.

My Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina is not a biography. Rather, it tells of the love affair between the 26-year older Nikolai and Anna against the backdrop of the power struggle. The reader learns much about Stalin through his treatment of his friends and enemies (Bukharin was both). I tell their story in a series of scenes taken from memorable moments in their lives, and in many instances I use their own words as extracted from transcripts, letters, interrogation protocols, and Anna’s autobiography. The Soviet party archives, which began to be released for scholarly use in the early 1990s, offer a rare opportunity to write history using the very words of those who made history. An example of the use of verbatim dialog is the brutalization of Bukharin before the Central Committee, where Bukharin, weakened by a hunger strike, tries to defend his hunger strike before a jeering mob at the February-March 1937 plenum:

Bukharin: Comrades, I plead with you not to interrupt because it is very difficult for me to speak. In my letter I described my psychological condition as it should be understood as a person. If, of course, I am not a human being, then there is nothing to understand. But I consider myself a human being and that I have the right to write about my psychological condition in this particularly difficult moment of my life. And in this regard, there was no attempt to frighten or deliver ultimatums.

Stalin: And your hunger strike?

Bukharin: And I’ll continue my hunger strike. I wrote to you, because I, in despair, grasped at this option. I wrote to a narrow circle because, with such accusations hanging over me, it is impossible to live. I am not able to shoot myself because then they’ll say that I committed suicide to harm the party; but if I die, as from a disease, what would you lose from this?

Voice: Blackmail!

Bukharin: But understand how difficult it is for me to live.

Stalin: And is it easy for us?

The love story of Nikolai and Anna is one of the great romances and political intrigues of the twentieth century, yet most educated readers no longer recognize Bukharin’s name. Their story is a combination of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Pasternak’s Zhivago, as Anna disappears into the Gulag and exile before reemerging to fight for his rehabilitation. As Robert Conquest writes in the foreword, the book “works as a romance or even thriller.” Indeed it has all the elements of a thriller – mock and real executions, spy-mistresses, threats, intimidation, blackmail, romantic jealousy, torture, pleas for mercy, while introducing the fundamentally different visions for Russia that Bukharin and Stalin expressed in their own debates and in their own words.

We cannot examine the life of Nikolai Bukharin without asking two questions: First, did he have a good chance to win the power struggle? Cohen suggests that Bukharin had powerful allies and could have won had he been willing to go public early with his disagreements with Stalin. E. H. Carr, on the other hand, dismissed Bukharin as a relatively insignificant figure, romanticized by his tragic fate. My own view is that a Bukharin-like figure was unlikely to win in the rough-and-tumble of Bolshevik politics, whereas the worst is likely to rise to the top. Politics, Murder and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin shows Stalin consistently outwitting Bukharin and his allies, not by chance but by his willingness to do anything and everything to win.

The second question is whether Bukharin was guilty of the charges for which he was executed. In this regard, it is clear that after his political defeat in 1929, Bukharin retired from politics. He cut off relations with his former allies and students. He hoped that by keeping his nose clean he could survive. He miscalculated. For Stalin, anyone who had opposed him earlier or might oppose him again was too dangerous to leave alive. Stalin, however, could not openly sentence potential opponents to death on such grounds. He therefore had to force his victims to confess to horrendous crimes that even Western journalists would consider worthy of death. We must remember that in an absolute dictatorship, the dictator is free to define what is a capital offense. Stalin’s definition was very broad.

Stalin was purported to have remarked that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic. In my previous work on Stalin’s terror, I indeed focused on the statistic. Yet Stalin continues to have considerable appeal in Russia despite widespread knowledge of his incredible brutality. My book focuses on the tragedy of one man, his wife, and child. Perhaps the tale of one man, who experienced personally Stalin’s brutality, will have a greater impact on the way Stalin is viewed than the statistics of his cruelty.

Paul Gregory
Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
Cullen Professor of Economics, University of Houston

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis. I was always fascinated by Bukharin's love story and the story of his dawnfall. In my opinion, to put it simply: Bukharin was too much of Russian Intelligentsia to have lived through the Stalin's era. The brutality of the regime broke him into pieces. His wife is a tragic figure as well - to sacrifice everything for a man who was two decades older, survive the camp, and live to see the beginning of rehabilitation era. What a story!