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 …