Friday, September 16, 2011

It's Hard Out There For An Apparatchik

What was it like to be one of Stalin's henchmen? Did Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, Kaganovich, Molotov, Zhdanov, and the others actually enjoy being in power? In the Soviet Union it was always better to be in power than out of power, but life for the oligarchs wasn't all vodka and caviar. The 1990 documentary, I Worked for Stalin: Songs of the Oligarchs, interviews the children of many of Stalin's closest political allies to explain why.

The advantages to being in power were clear enough. The oligarchs received something much better than a large salary. Rather, they received direct and therefore almost unlimited subsidies from the state treasury. They also enjoyed a number of very visible perks in a politically stratified country. One aging official, deputy to Zhdanov, remembers riding around Moscow in a splendid car. Being driven in a certain type of car meant nobody in town would dare to stop you. You were recognized immediately as a member of a very privileged class. Oligarchs had permission to go wherever they wanted, which wasn't of course the case for most ordinary Russians, who required passes to move about the country and were subject to police searches.

The chief benefit of belonging to Stalin's group of chief political advisers was of course power. While Stalin was always in charge, and was called "the master" in recognition of this fact, individual oligarchs often participated in the decision-making process, or could at least promote allies to key political positions, or block the advancement of potential enemies.

The flip-side of power was the risk of losing that power at a moment's notice. During the 1930s, vast sections of the Communist Party were exiled, imprisoned, or shot. In fact, one put one's own family members in harm's way by blindly devoting oneself to Stalin's whims. As the film reminds one, Molotov's wife was imprisoned at one point, as was another Politburo member's sister. Another peril of the job was being forced to attend to an isolated, elderly, and paranoid Stalin's dull dinner parties. At the end of Stalin's life, each of the oligarchs was forced to eat, drink, and watch movies with Stalin into the wee hours of the night to preserve one's political position.

This is the principle theme of the film. The oligarchs worked very hard--sometimes 17 hours a day, sometimes without vacations, and sometimes sleeping at the office--but even hard work could not guarantee one's political future. In fact, Stalin distrusted even his closest colleagues. At the end of his life, he would specifically dis-invite one member of the Politburo to his nightly gatherings. The result of Stalin's distrust was a state of perpetual tension. As his son remembers, Malenkov stood to take Stalin's calls, even though he couldn't be seen. He also made sure never to mention any individual even at home, since the "walls had ears" as every Soviet official knew. In fact, the secret police were never far behind the oligarchs. Even the children were followed by the GPU.

In the end, Stalin's death created one final challenge for his cronies. Everyone was at risk in the new and radically unstable political situation. Beria, who controlled the local guards, frightened his erstwhile comrades most of all, but was famously outflanked by the man this film claims was his own protegee, Nikita Khrushchev. In the end, most of the oligarchs experienced an ignominious political end, although only Beria was executed outright. Malenkov found himself demoted and exiled to extremely remote posts in Eastern Russia. Perhaps, as his son asserts, he was was even killed by secret police posing as doctors.

One political heavyweight who was interviewed in the film sums up the ambiguous testimony of this political group. This man, although sent to prison on trumped up charges, still believed that many of his disgraced colleagues--Yezhov for example--had actually been foreign spies, as the Stalinist legal system so often asserted. And, despite the fact that he himself eventually wound up beyond bars and without friends after years of political service, he felt good about the hard work he had done on behalf of the Soviet Union. Since when, he must have asked himself over and over again over the long years of political isolation, can hard work ever be a bad thing?

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