This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow
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.”