Rattling like skeletons


(March 5th, 2017)

Stalin died on this day in 1953. It was a peaceful passing, in his own bed. His corpse was embalmed and treated and put on display next to Lenin’s, and the people passed by in their hundreds of thousands, never realizing till then just what a little guy–five foot four inches–Stalin had been. The powers of life in death in such compact form. Had a single man ever had such total control over so many people over such an expanse in the history of humanity? Nyet. Stalin was unsurpassed.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. For days vast mobs filed the streets in extraordinary public grief. So vast was this grief that the body of Prokofiev, who died the same day as Stalin, was stuck in his house for three days such was the press of flesh in the streets. The official state journal of music mentioned the composer’s death on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to the musical contributions of Comrade Stalin. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the musical contributions of Stalin. They seem to have disappeared quickly.

His instrument of terror, Beria, was arrested that June, when a bunch of leading party leaders and functionaries and generals grabbed him, quite unsuspecting, at a dacha outside Moscow. Beria’s associates and underlings, all cold eyed KGB men, were picked up across the country in a final bloody purge. Some were arrested, others dispatched on the spot. Beria himself was held in some discomfort for six months before they got up the nerve to try him. He was accused of being a traitor, a pervert, a terrorist and a counter revolutionary. He was found guilty on all counts except perversion (though he was as evil a sexual predator as there has ever been) and sentenced to death, and as he pleaded for his life in a rather pathetic fashion, a general (chosen by lots, I believe), after stuffing Beria’s mouth with a rag to shut him up, put a revolver to his forehead and blew his vile brains out. Thus ended Stalinism, two days before Christmas. Beria’s corpse was taken outside and burned, the ashes scattered in the nameless taiga, where they dissolved into nutrients, feeding birch trees that rattle in the Russian wind like skeletons every December 23.


Leventy Beria

Stalin on the phone


It occurred to me several years ago [back in the 1990’s] that Stalinist Russia would have been an impossibility without the telephone. A call is made, a man arrested. Another call is made, the man is shot. Bureaucratic terror emanating via phone lines. There were mailed instructions, of course, and couriers, and telegrams. But a phone added a voice. You hear Beria on the phone and you respond instantly. The phone gave immediacy, extending Stalin’s absolute power the length and breadth of Russia because he could order–or his minions could order–an arrest or execution instantly and personally. There could be no delay. No dissembling. No shuffling of papers or death sentences lost in the mail. Not that things weren’t shuffled or lost in the mail. But doing so risked the wrath of someone higher up and a phone call. A phone call to you. Or a phone call to someone about you. Death and terror whisked across the Soviet Union in fractions of a second. I wonder if, during the height of Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s (when a million at least were shot, and ten million sent to the Gulag), people stared in dread at a ringing telephone, knowing they had to answer, and if it would be the last time.

But now I wonder if such a vast purge would have been an impossibility with the answering machine. I mean, if no one is there to hear the command, will it be obeyed? Stalin’s calls would be answered, of course. And Beria’s. But down the line, an assistant of an assistant of an assistant people’s director of security, would their calls be answered? Arrests and executions piling up unheard on feebly blinking answering machines, or perhaps heard but unacknowledged, allowing warnings and escapes. Oh how we hate leaving messages. Imagine then Stalin, leaving a message after the tone.


Stalin at his desk at the height of the Purge. His phone is a remarkable decadent thing, thoroughly bourgeoisie, a contrast with the massive black utilitarian phones that appear on his desk in all the museum replicas.