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‘The Evil of This Time’

This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin's Widow

by Anna Larina, Introduction by Stephen F. Cohen, translated by Gary Kern
Norton, 384 pp., $24.95

The combination of terror and lies that marked the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union reached its height in the “Moscow Trials,” in which Communist leaders who had opposed Stalin publicly confessed to false charges of treason and other crimes, and were then executed. In the climax, the third of these trials in March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, “Lenin’s favorite,” was the chief victim.

His widow, Anna Larina, only twenty-four when he was shot, barely avoided execution herself, but survived to work for and finally secure his rehabilitation almost exactly fifty years later. Her account of her own and her husband’s travails is unique in its provenance from such high circles, and at the same time, though not unique, it is highly illuminating on her fate as one of the millions of victims of the terror.

Larina, herself of an old Bolshevik family, was only twenty when she married Nikolai Bukharin, who was then forty-six. His first marriage “fell apart,” according to Larina, during the 1920s, and he left his second wife, she writes, “in 1928 or 1929, I forget which at her request.” He fell in love with Larina in 1930, during a summer in the Crimea when she was sixteen. This was just after the defeat by Stalin of Bukharin’s attempt to continue the New Economic Policy (NEP) of concessions to the free peasantry and his own expulsion from the Politburo. In 1934, when he married Larina, he was appointed editor of Izvestia. The following four years saw his disgrace, his year incommunicado in prison, and his public trial and confession, followed by a bullet in the neck.

As so often with Soviet prison and camp literature, Larina’s experiences are written in an understated style, which if anything makes the story all the more heart-rending.

She was left with a baby son, born a few months before Bukharin’s arrest in February 1937. First exiled to Astrakhan, in June 1937 she was herself arrested and the boy grew up under another name in foster homes and orphanages, until they finally met again in 1956. After being held in an underground cell in the Lubyanka she was sent to Siberia to serve her eight-year sentence—the usual penalty for a “Member of the Family of a Traitor to the Motherland.”

She was in a labor camp at Tomsk when her husband’s trial and execution were announced. There the “wives” were packed so tight in their bunks that they could not turn over except in unison. Here, and in other camps and prisons, it is the same story of foul and inadequate food, rats, cells with water as high as the bed-plank. An NKVD officer found a photo of the baby which she had managed to hide. When he asked “spitefully” who it was and Larina replied “my child,” he yelled: “You bitch, still dragging a Bukharinist puparound with you,” then spat on then photo and ground it under his boots. A later interrogator, after shouting “Insolent bitch! Counter-revolutionary swine!” told her that her marriage was merely “a fiction to cover Bukharin’s counter-revolutionary ties with young people.” Larina said that they had had a child. His reply was that no one had proved who the father was.

Larina was from time to time resentenced, once to death; she was actually taken out to the execution ravine, though she was reprieved at the last minute for further interrogation. In fact, as she quietly makes clear, she experienced all the physical and mental distress inflicted by a system as squalid as it was lethal.

Some additional material on the fate of the rest of Bukharin’s family has lately been published. Larina makes a passing reference to the fate of Bukharin’s first wife (and cousin), Nadezhda Lukina, who lived with him and his father and Larina until the catastrophe. An old Bolshevik herself, she was crippled by a spinal ailment, and had to wear a special corset which allowed her to move, but only with great difficulty. On Bukharin’s arrest, she returned her Party card, and was herself arrested in April 1938. In prison, we now learn elsewhere, they took away her surgical corset, so that she was always in great pain. She was interrogated at intervals for nearly two years: at one point her brother Mikhail (who had also of course been arrested, with other relatives), after being severely tortured, confirmed her guilt as a traitor, but in a “confrontation” with her he courageously with drew his evidence. Later still, quite crushed, he again “confirmed” it. She was shot in March 1940. Svetlana, Bukharin’s daughter by his second wife, was later sentenced without an indictment, as “adequately convicted in being Bukharin’s daughter.”

Most of Larina’s book describes what happened to her in prison camps and exile until she was released by Khrushchev in the mid-1950s. Anyone who has studied the period closely has read scores of accounts of the sufferings of the innocent, and of the moral and mental squalor of their persecutors at every level. It is a shameful fact that one tends to become inured to these pitiful and revolting incidents or at any rate one does not read them with a sense of sudden shock. But even by that standard, Larina’s record is harrowing. The reader without such a background will certainly be shaken with pity and anger.

Stephen Cohen’s introduction is a model of its kind, giving not only the political and human background, but also describing his own relations with Larina and the Bukharin family, including his smuggling out of the book’s manuscript at a time when it was still banned in the USSR. Nor does he fail to note the unreliability of some of Larina’s assertions on particular matters of which she had no direct knowledge; this, as Cohen says, seems to be the emotionally understandable result of her wish to present her late husband in as good a light as possible.

After Lenin’s death a struggle for power between various factions and personalities shook the Bolshevik leadership. First Trotsky was isolated. Then the “left” faction of Zinoviev and Kamenev was defeated by Stalin and his adherents, who were fully and militantly supported, on the basis of the NEP, by Bukharin and his allies Prime Minister Rykov and the trade union chief Tomsky. This Stalin-Bukharin alliance then also defeated a joint effort mounted by the hitherto mutually hostile Trotsky and the Zinoviev-Kamenev group.

In 1928, Bukharin, still in power as a member of the Politburo and chairman of the Comintern’s executive committee, had belatedly come to realize what Stalin was like and what his program would mean to the country. Meeting the already discredited Kamenev that year, he spoke to him very strongly on this theme. The conversation became known, and a version was printed in the émigré Menshevik press. Larina holds that this was a disgraceful attempt to discredit her husband, and that the report wrongly said the exchange took place in Kamenev’s flat while it really happened in the street. But the Mensheviks, jailed and persecuted in Russia, had every right to print such material abroad, and do not seem to have distorted it (the error being minimal). Nor did they have any particular motive to discredit Bukharin personally; they wanted to give the world evidence of the Soviet political struggle.

The second, more important incident of the same sort was the publication in Paris in late 1936 and early 1937 of the famous “Letter of an Old Bolshevik,” described by George Kennan as being, as late as the 1960s, “the most authoritative and important single piece of source material we have on the background of the Purges.” Appearing pseudonymously in the Menshevik Sotsialisticheski Vestnik (“Socialist Herald”), it was in fact written by the Menshevik Boris Nicolaevsky. Bukharin had been sent to Paris by Stalin in the spring of 1936 to negotiate the purchase of some of Marx’s archives through Nicolaevsky and others. Nicolaevsky based the “Letter” in part on his conversations with Bukharin, though it also drew on other sources, to cover the period after Bukharin’s return to Moscow. Larina, who was in Paris with him for part of this visit, denies that Bukharin could have spoken freely to Nicolaevsky, and accuses Nicolaevsky and other Mensheviks who recorded similar conversations not merely of lying but also of actively seeking to get Bukharin into trouble. Cohen rightly rejects all this as baseless.

But if Larina’s attitude to Mensheviks cannot be taken at face value, this also to some extent applies in the opposite sense to her attitude to Bolsheviks. For she remains a Bolshevik, and a habit common to the memoirs of old Bolsheviks of whatever faction can be seen in her references to various revolutionary colleagues, such as Ivan Akulov, who is credited, among other qualities, with “crystal-clear honesty.” In fact, Akulov, though certainly not as bad as some, served Stalin as deputy head of the secret police, and later as deputy prosecutor to the repulsive Vyshinsky. But even in the pre-Stalin period Bolsheviks had enough dogmatic fanaticism to keep their consciences ostentatiously clear, however harsh the policies and punishments they inflicted on their subjects. The result was a form of mutual self-congratulation particularly hard to take if one was an unbeliever.

Larina also refers to various appointees of the dictatorship as “popular” with, or “much loved” by, the people, the workers, and so on. A free vote might have shown differently. Similarly with her reports of “the people’s great enthusiasm” for various policies. Here it is well to recall that less than a generation before the height of Stalinism, and only four or five years before it took power, the Bolshevik Party had been a small sect numbering only a few thousand members. It was regarded even by the rest of the European and Russian revolutionary left as a narrow-minded fanatical aberration. It is against such a background that we must consider the possibility of a Bukharinite communism that would have been radically different from (and, naturally, better than) Stalinism, a possibility that Larina evidently believes in, and that Stephen Cohen has long proposed.

A minor problem is Bukharin’s own character. Though listed by Lenin as one of the two brightest of the younger leaders, and later spoken to by Stalin as his only equal, there is little to show that he could have become the effective leader of a state. He had been outside the machinery of power at the top level. After his encounter with Kamenev he was described by his closest colleague and ally, Alexei Rykov, as “a silly woman, not a politician.” Lenin spoke of him as “devilish unstable.” Trotsky mentions him “behaving in his customary manner, half hysterically, half childishly.” Most telling of all, Larina herself says that his temperament was “pathologically” taut, unable to cope with “nervous overloads”; that he had “a considerable quotient of naiveté”; that he suffered “an emotionality so intense that it verged as the pathological.”

These personal traits cast doubt on Bukharin’s capacity for leadership. But we may also note that although he was opposed to the Stalinist policies of collectivization through terror, he had himself been a strong supporter of extreme policies such as the crushing of all non-Bolshevik parties, and had been soggily romantic about the secret police. In fact even in his “last letter,” which Larina learned by heart before his arrest, he defended the “wonderful traditions” of the secret police and its “special honour, authority and respect” under its original leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky, which “justified cruelty toward enemies.” The statue of Dzerzhinsky outside the Lubyanka was the first to be pulled down after the failed coup of August 1991, and understandably so. If he had held a comparable post under the worst Latin American dictatorships he would have been thought an exceptionally murderous fanatic. It is true that he was not as bad as Yezhov, just as Bukharin was not as bad as Stalin: but to be better than Yezhov or Stalin is not a severe ethical test.

But if Bukharin himself seems implausible as the leader who could have replaced Stalin, he was nevertheless the most prominent figure in the group of “rightist” Bolsheviks who opposed Stalin’s swing to crash collectivization, and it is possible to argue that (if, say, Stalin had dropped dead) a leadership might have emerged based on his principle that collectivization should be gradual and voluntary. There were, however, strong elements in the Party, at every level, that wanted to recover the old revolutionary élan, and these, as much as Stalin’s personal following, were a powerful hindrance to more “liberal” policies such as the ones proposed by Bukharin. In any case, the central problem remained: the peasants would never have collectivized themselves voluntarily. Apart from anything else, this would have gone against their class interest, as most Marxists saw. Still, one can envisage in theory a Communist regime with the land in private hands. Lacking full control of the population and the economy, it might then have evolved toward “liberalism” and “pluralism.”

The real snag was the conviction on the part of most Party officials of Leninist omni-competence, and of “democratic centralism” in what amounted to a quasi-military sect; in fact, the entire Bolshevik cast of mind stood in the way of an opening toward pluralism. In March 1930, Stalin’s policies had collapsed. The Soviet cattle herds had been half-destroyed, and Stalin had no option but to allow the mass of the peasants to leave the collective farms into which they had been forced. In any other political system this would have been the occasion for those who had predicted ruin, and been proved right, to come forward with an alternative. A break with Stalin and his leadership in 1930 would have been dangerous; but above all, radical change would have had to appeal for support outside the Party, and would have meant an “opening to the Right”—that is to the nonpolitical, or non-Communist, majority. Bukharin’s own attitude to any such “liberal” policy was summed up in his remark that two parties could exist in the USSR, provided one of them was in jail. In fact, the idea and possibility of “liberal” communism broke down on the issue of the one-party state.

Stephen Cohen, himself the author of the definitive biography of Bukharin, raises in his introduction the question of what kind of change could have been possible. He does so in suitably tentative fashion. It is a serious and significant question, and it has all sorts of implications for the evolution or otherwise of the regime and similar regimes. And, of course, it became a subject of lively controversy when the Gorbachev leadership appeared to be proposing a “liberal Communist” political solution in the USSR, or “socialism with a human face” (which sounds a bit like the Phantom of the Opera).

Cohen has been an eloquent proponent of the approach Gorbachev seemed to be taking. It is true that the argument has sometimes been heated (and even Cohen has not always been entirely dispassionate about it). In part this was because the dispute became entangled with American domestic politics—and, to some degree, with such particularly controversial matters as Reagan’s policies and the SDI. It is now almost unanimously accepted by post-Gorbachevite officials in Moscow that, as a result of SDI, the Soviet leaders recognized that the hypermilitarization of the Soviet economy was a failure. It is not so much a matter of any particular weapons system as of the USSR facing the prospect of an unwinnable competition in military technology. Of course, the regime was in any case in terminal crisis, and one can agree with Senator Moynihan that it would have collapsed sooner or later. It would have been necessary for the US to continue to maintain adequate deterrent defenses and in fact both of the American political parties (and the democratic parties of both left and right in Europe too) were committed to doing so. Still, better sooner than later.

More generally, those who had taken a “hard” view of the Soviet regime were loosely labeled “conservatives” and their opponents “liberals,” and a litany of factional accusation came into play. “Liberals” were accused of agreeing with Professor Jerry Hough of Duke University, who held that the USSR under Brezhnev was already liberal and getting more liberal every day. As to so-called conservatives, a fairly typical piece by Abraham Brumberg in a recent issue of Dissent (headlined “Why Conservatives Hate Gorbachev”) argued, while granting goodwill to this reviewer, that all who had described the USSR as “totalitarian” had thought that it could not change. This is quite untrue. I used the term freely of that regime, as both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were to do later, but at the same time I continually predicted that it would eventually collapse (even suggesting that the first round of changes would take place within the Party and its leadership).

But, of course, to foresee a fundamental democratization was not to suggest that it would be instantaneous. There was bound to be some sort of transition; and during the transition the position of Gorbachev was critical to the whole argument. He was either the new liberal Communist standard bearer or a provisional figure. I wrote of him in 1987 that “Gorbachev will probably appear one of those transition figures who was able to see the problems, but was too much part of the system to face solutions which would transform it.” This is far from denying him credit for what he did do, even if with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. At any rate, the “liberal Communist” perspective, a form of neo-Bukharinism, proved a deceptive hope. Gorbachevites in the West suffered from two delusions—that the free speech and writing made possible by Gorbachev’s reforms were compatible with preserving the oneparty system, and that the USSR, given free voting, would remain a unified state.

This latter error cannot be ascribed to “liberals” as opposed to “conservatives”: it was at its worst in Secretary Baker’s entourage at the State Department. I can hardly be accused of kicking its members when they are down, since I made the same points in The Washington Post three years ago. For it was then already clear that those in charge at the State Department wished to preserve the Soviet Union as a single entity and to discourage the non-Russian national aspirations of the various republics. Lithuanians were publicly warned not to make trouble by American officials who also publicly upheld the Soviet right to forcibly restore order in the Caucasus. It was actually said by some Washington spokesman that relations with a large state are easier to manage than with a set of smaller ones. True enough, but the whole idea of a stable state in the form of a liberalized Soviet Union was a contradiction in terms; as some of us had long since pointed out, if liberalization took place, the subject nations would break away.

Thus Washington’s policy encouraged the regressive centralizers in the USSR. And the error was made worse by the administration’s China policy: as I said in the same Washington Post article, normalizing relations with Beijing so soon after the Tienanmen massacre could only encourage similar moves by repressive forces in Moscow. And so it did—the conspirators of August 1991 have said so.

This conceptually erroneous policy culminated in the unfortunate speech President Bush was induced to make in Kiev in the summer of 1991, shortly before the coup, when he spoke of trouble between “our two nations”—these “nations” being the US and the USSR. But the USSR was not a nation, and these remarks were made in the capital of a real nation which was to vote overwhelmingly for independence within months.

Bukharin’s own moment of high posthumous reputation in Moscow was brief. His rehabilitation did indeed mark the end of the attempt to preserve the Stalinist historical myth. And he was deservedly seen as the quintessential victim of the great faked trials. As had long been noted in the West, it was now recognized in Russia that Bukharin’s conduct in the dock had been, within the limits of what was possible, stout-hearted; he confessed to treason and terrorism, but denied taking any specific actions against the state. His re-emergence into the political daylight in the 1980s was a symbol of the gradual advance of glasnost from mere rehabilitation of Party victims of the terror of the late 1930s, to the implicit, then the public, condemnation of the earlier forced collectivization policies of which he had been the leading opponent in the Party leadership.

But repudiation of the past broadened further. Soon the heroes in the Party were men like Martemyan Ryutin, Bukharin’s former protégé, who, in 1932, had actually tried to organize an attempt to remove Stalin, and when arrested had refused to confess. During recent weeks a letter of Bukharin’s to Stalin from prison, dated December 10, 1938, has been found in Stalin’s archives, and has been printed. He says he is willing to go to trial and confess in the interests of the Party; he asks that if he is condemned to death he should be allowed to take morphine rather than be shot. If he is allowed to live, he asks to be sent to America with a trusted NKVD guard, to conduct anti-Trotskyite propaganda, leaving his wife in Moscow as a hostage for six months. If this is not granted, he hopes to be allowed to run a university, a museum, or a journal in one of the labor camp areas.

Bukharin by this time had been in jail for over nine months. Cohen accepts the various reports that he was not tortured (though his co-defendants, such as ex-Politburo member Krestinsky, certainly were). Either way he was by now in a very bad state, and his letter is pitiful to read. Even so, his words seem in accord with what he has recently been criticized for, in contrast to Martemyan Ryutin: with all his private reservations, he accepted Stalin’s leadership during the 1930s as legitimate, and never attempted serious political opposition. And this is part of the reason why during the past few years the notion of a liberal Communist alternative in Russia came to appear more and more chimerical. The members of the political, economic, and literary intelligentsia have made it clear that they have no time for Marxism. Ironically enough, the greatest and earliest revulsion against Marxism and Leninism emerged within the Party’s own ideological research institutes.

Cohen, though still rather nostalgic for the Gorbachev approach, now seems to accept its demise. Of course Gorbachev remains an important historical figure. And so does Bukharin—who at least saw clearly in the late 1920s that Stalin’s program would lead, as he put it, to bloodshed and a full-scale police state. This indeed followed, first in the assault on the peasantry in 1930 to 1933, and later in the successive terrors of which Bukharin himself and his family were victims.

Almost unbelievably, there is nowadays still dispute among Western students about the nature, and the extent, of the Stalinist terror. On the one hand most informed opinion in the West, with the virtually unanimous support of historians and other experts in Russia itself, takes the view that it was physically and psychologically devastating, and that its victims numbered many millions. On the other hand, there are academics in the West who dispute these propositions or regard such matters as minor epiphenomena of the large social and institutional changes that were supposedly the real essence of Stalinism. Even quite lately some were found even to deny that the famine of 1933 was deliberately carried out by terror but the Russian Archives have now produced instructions to the secret police to prevent the starving peasantry from moving to seek bread and the figures on the millions of tons of available grain reserves. It is important to note that this controversy over facts does not reflect a political division of opinion—though, of course, apologists, partial or total, for Stalinism itself take the less critical view. Professor Cohen, for his part, has strongly and consistently stressed the huge scope of Stalin’s terror. So, of course, has the Leninist Roy Medvedev. Indeed, in conversation with leading Russian “hard-liners,” one never finds anything else but this view. Ms. Bukharin’s book is a powerful argument in its favor. When it came to the “tragic mission of subjugating the peasantry,” she writes, “death awaited those who refused orders.”

As to the extent of the terror operations, and the number of victims, there is as yet no definitive answer—and, as their last-ditch defense, some writers have used this lack of precise information to reduce as far as possible the impact of the purges. Professor Cohen is not among them. He once told the present reviewer that, apart from study of the documents, he became convinced of a very high mortality rate from the fact that almost no one he met in Moscow had not lost at least one father or grandfather or father-in-law or grandfather-in-law. This was even true of people who rose high in the Party itself, such as Gorbachev, Ligachev, and Shevardnadze.

If we turn to recent Russian figures of camp inmates, these are lower than earlier estimates but the execution figures are much higher, and the two roughly balance each other out. The state of the argument can be summarized as follows. The work of the historian Viktor Zemskov typifies the “low” estimates of the numbers of camp inmates. But he has lately given the total number of prisoners who entered the Gulag between 1934 and 1947 (including those in camp already in January 1934) as approximately 10.75 million, to which must be added those in the other penal camps, the “labor colonies.” According to the proportions between different categories of the prisoners that Zemskov gives elsewhere, the labor colonies would have held another 4 to 5 million, for a total of some 15 million. Moreover, many were also imprisoned between 1948 and 1953.

In fact, if we take Zemskov’s estimate of 15 million-odd prisoners as a basis, it does not contradict the “high” figures which have come out of Moscow in recent years. The final speech for the prosecution in the recent trial of the Communist Party quoted Olga Shatunovskaya, a member of the Commission of Party Control, and head during the 1960s of Khrushchev’s rehabilitation commission, to the effect that on the basis of KGB documents, “from 1 January 1935 to 22 June 1941, 19,840,000 enemies of the people were arrested. Of these 7 million were shot in prison, and a majority of the others died in camp.” These figures were also to be found in the papers of Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan, which were released by his son Sergo.

General Volkogonov, head of the parliamentary commission on rehabilitation says, on the basis of KGB material, that “from 1929 to 1953…. 21.5 million people were repressed. Of these a third were shot, the rest sentenced to imprisonment, where many also died.” Nikolai Grashoven, head of the security ministry’s own task force on repression, says that between 1935 and 1945, 18 million were arrested and 7 million shot. It will be seen that these figures (although they cover different periods and different time spans) are compatible with Zemskov’s camp figures. And as Grashoven remarked, it depends what one means by “repressed.” Consider, for example, the more than 2 million people who were members of the nationalities deported between 1941 and 1946, of whom at least a quarter died. Like the kulaks before them, these were not in the camps of the Gulag but in NKVD-controlled “special settlements.” But at any rate, until more definite figures are available, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, as has long been believed, the post-1934 death toll was well over 10 million. To this should be added the victims of the 1930–1933 famine, the kulak deportations, and other antipeasant campaigns, amounting to another 10 million plus. The total is thus in the range of what the Russians now refer to as “The Twenty Million.”

It is true that we do not know within millions just how many perished—in itself a horrifying reflection of the past from which the country is still emerging. Russia faces many difficulties. But when one reads the historical record today, as in Larina’s book, one must surely feel like Dickens’s Sydney Carton, in an earlier revolutionary despotism, who speaks of

a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.