In his 2002 book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Martin Amis wrote, “it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany.” When Penguin released the paperback edition of Yuri Krotkov’s 1979 novel, The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, the cover featured a pencil sketch of Stalin topped by a big red clown’s nose, clearly demonstrating that the Soviet dictator had already reached the point where he could be treated with ridicule.
Krotkov’s purpose in writing The Red Monarch was not comic, though the book is full of moments of gallows humor, schadenfreude and even a few authentic jokes. Born within days of the October Revolution, Krotkov grew up surrounded by the image and impact of Stalin. “I never met Stalin and I never talked to him,” he writes in his introduction, “But for thirty-five years I lived with this man, day and night, voluntarily and involuntarily, thinking about him and knowing that my destiny depended on him and his personal reasoning.”
In The Red Monarch, combines historical fact and personal imagination to create a series of set pieces, each depicting an incident involving someone confronting Stalin at the height of his powers. The first date from the middle of the Second World War; the last deal with his death and its aftermath.
The famines, the first waves of the Great Terror, the show trials and the worst days of the German invasion are all behind him at this stage. Everyone who deals with Stalin–including men like Beria and Vlasek, who control much of the terror system and know the worst that it has carried out–come into his presence a bit like a lowly feeder into the cage of a great lion with violent instincts and hair-trigger reactions.
Krotkov does a marvelous job of conveying the ambient sense of terror that could turn a conversation about something as mundane as a pair of slippers into a veiled threat of being sent off to a firing squad or the gulag:
“And what is that on your feet, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
“Night shoes … my wife brought them from Leningrad … as a gift.”
“Ah, that’s what they are … slippers.”
“No, Josif Vissarionovich, they are not slippers,” Shaposhnikov corrected Stalin, “they are night shoes. Slippers usually have no backs, but these …”
“No, Comrade Shaposhnikov, they are slippers, slippers.” Stalin repeated stubbornly, “and do not argue with me.”
“So they are slippers …”
“If I say they are slippers, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that means they are slippers. Right?”
But it is not enough to prove that night shoes can only be slippers. Stalin must draw out the most insidious intent from them:
“When she gave me these night shoes …”
“… she said, ‘Wear these in good health, so you will be comfortable when you are on guard, and so there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to Comrade Stalin at night to cover him or fix his pillow.”
“Thank your wife, Comrade Shaposhnikov, for her double consideration, for you and for me. How was it that Seraphima put it: ‘So that there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to him at night….’ Interesting. What had your wife in mind, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
“Felt absorbs noise. That is, in these … slippers, it is possible to come up to a person and he will not hear you.”
Stalin’s mustache twitched slightly and his right eye suddenly squinted. But Shaposhnikov did not notice this.
“You said, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that it is possible to come up to a person so that he will not even suspect it. Is that not so?”
“That is so,” Shaposhnikov answered.
“In other words, in these slippers it’s possible, in your view, to come up to a person from behind and kill him during his sleep. And, in your view, it’s quite easy to do. Right?”
Krotkov’s Stalin is almost feline in his pleasure in toying with his victims as they lay before him, paralyzed with terror. In a number of the episodes, he lets the victim go, confident that he can repeat the torture at a moment’s notice.
Krotkov, a writer with KGB links who defected to the West while in the UK on a tour in 1963, grew up in Georgia and had many Georgian friends, including the actor Mikhail Gelovani, who played Stalin in numerous films such as The Fall of Berlin. This gave him an advantage in portraying Stalin, and the book includes several pieces focusing on Stalin’s relationships with Georgian colleagues and friends–which were even more complicated than those with Russians. Even Gelovani features in a chapter titled, “The Two Stalins,” in which Stalin repeatedly teases the actor: should he be praised for the accuracy of his portrayal? Or attacked for caricaturing Stalin?
I’ve read a fair number of books about Stalin and the Soviet era, such as Orlando Figes’ Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, but The Red Monarch impresses me as the most succinct summation of the bizarre web of intrigue and fear that Stalin was able to create around him. It’s sharp as a razor, and like a razor, not to be picked up without due care and respect. I recommend it, as well as The Nobel Prize, Krotkov’s similar mediation of the experiences of Boris Pasternak following the international acclaim of Doctor Zhivago.
The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, by Yuri Krotkov
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979