Tag Archives: Joseph Stalin

Utopian dreams: a post-mortem

In August 1940 Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, was assassinated in Mexico City, where he lived in exile. It was the second attempt on his life in less than three months. The assassin, Ramón Mercader del Río, was a Spanish Communist whose orders came directly from Joseph Stalin.

Stalin had banished Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1928, but Trotsky continued to write harsh criticism of the revolution’s direction under Stalin’s increasingly tyrannical regime. In 1936, in one of Stalin’s first show trials, a Soviet tribunal tried Trotsky in absentia for treason along with sixteen other high-ranking Bolsheviks arrested by the secret police. All were sentenced to death and all but Trotsky were summarily shot.

Four years later, in Mexico, Mercader, who claimed to be a Belgian named Jacques Mornard but also used a Canadian passport with the alias Frank Jacson, gained Trotsky’s trust by forming a relationship with his secretary. On August 21, while Trotsky worked at the desk in his library, Mercader plunged a sawed-off ice ax into Trotsky’s skull. Despite the blow Trotsky lived until the next day. Mercader, who was apprehended by Trotsky’s bodyguards at the scene, spent the next twenty years in a Mexican prison.

Trotsky's study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

Trotsky’s study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

From these bare facts Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura has written a fine historical novel that is Russian in scale, spanning much of the 20th century’s experimentation with Communist utopias. The Man Who Loved Dogs begins in post-revolutionary Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Iván Maturell, a self-censored writer who works as a proofreader for a veterinary magazine, tells how he met a mysterious Catalan with two Russian wolfhounds on a beach outside Havana in the late 1970s. Over the next few years, in intermittent encounters, the eponymous man who loved dogs relates the life story of Trotsky’s assassin.

22474310In alternating chapters Padura moves three separate stories forward until they collide: that of Trotsky’s wandering exile from Kazakhstan to Turkey and Norway and finally to Mexico, where the Communist painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo persuaded Mexico’s leftist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to accept the unwanted revolutionary; that of Mercader’s journey from the trenches of the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, then to France and Mexico in pursuit of his target; and finally, that of his depressed narrator, Iván Maturell, who occupies the terrible days of economic crisis in Cuba after the Soviet collapse with his compulsive desire to uncover the truth about the story the man on the beach told him.

Padura spent over ten years conceptualizing, researching and writing this novel, and it shows. The book breathes life into the character of Trotsky—a zealous, ruthless revolutionary who rues the destruction of his life’s work at Stalin’s hands. It makes real the transformation of a young, unthinking ideologue-soldier into a hardened assassin of Stalin’s secret police. And it is rich in describing the complex political currents facing Europe in the 1930s as two violent ideologies—Fascism and Communism—ripped Spain apart.

Today, the house where Trotsky lived in Coyoacán—an affluent suburb of Mexico City—is a museum. Trotsky’s study has been left much the way it was on the day he died, with his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, pages of correspondence and books in Russian and other languages on the table. Outside, in a courtyard garden surrounded by high walls  and protected by a guard tower and steel doors, a stone monument bearing a hammer and sickle marks Trotsky’s grave.

Trotsky's ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him. Photo credit: Museo Léon Trotsky.

Trotsky’s ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him from his enemies. Photo credit: Museo Casa de Léon Trotsky.

When I visited the museum on a cloudy, humid summer day in 1976, there was an oppressive atmosphere to the place; it felt more like a prison than a sanctuary. I remember thinking Trotsky’s life in Mexico would make a fascinating story. Padura, visiting the museum in 1989, had a similar thought, and he turned out to be the perfect writer to pull it off. Having lived through the Cuban Revolution, he knew firsthand the optimistic fervor of its early days, when Cubans embraced the great utopian dream of Communism espoused by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Padura also saw the gradual corruption of the dream and its decline into diminished freedoms, increasing authoritarianism and hopeless poverty for all but the elite few.

In the October 23, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wrote an insightful article about contemporary Cuban literature that highlighted Leonardo Padura. Since the Revolution, most Cuban writers have either had to write dull, non-controversial books in order to pass the censors or see their books banned. Padura was the exception. By devoting himself to detective novels, he managed to slip social criticism into his fiction elliptically, avoiding the ire of the state. This made him one of the most popular writers in Cuba. The Man Who Loved Dogs is his most openly critical book, and although he won a national literature prize for it, it’s noteworthy that, after years of skirting trouble in Cuba, Padura now lives in Berlin.

If there is one history lesson from the 20th Century that echoes throughout Leonardo Padura’s important novel, it is this: Any ideology—political, religious, or economic—that must compel people to change their behavior in order for the system to succeed inevitably becomes abusive, corrupt and cruel, and is inherently doomed to fail. All three of Padura’s protagonists love dogs but only one, his questioning Cuban narrator, shows any compassion for his fellow man.

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A polyphonic classic

solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, the totalitarian state that imprisoned him, exiled him and turned him into one of its fiercest critics was already twenty years gone. The Soviet Union—in particular, the despotic regime of Joseph Stalin with its sham trials and violent purges, its forced collectivizations and frozen gulags—was a thing of the past, a dark spot from another century. As I began Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle recently, I wondered if the novel would prove to be a historical relic or, worse, a dated polemic masquerading as art.

I needn’t have worried. In the First Circle is a Great Russian novel in the realist tradition of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Epic in scope and genesis, and based on personal experience, it is polemical only in the way War and Peace is: it asserts the dignity of the individual in the face of a nation’s collective crisis. In the First Circle condemns the corrupted political system left in the wake of a failed revolution while it depicts a society terrorized by a secret police that operate through intimidation and cruelty.

Solzhenitsyn wrote the first draft of In the First Circle in the late 1950s. After winning worldwide acclaim for his 1962 novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he hoped to see this large novel published, too; he even excised some of its more critical sections and softened the plot to make it more palatable to the authorities. Still, the censors rejected it. But the expurgated version did see publication overseas, in English as The First Circle (1968). Later, dissatisfied with the “distorted” version as it had appeared, Solzhenitsyn restored the text to his original intent. This definitive version only appeared in English in 2009.

2080190Differences in the two versions begin with the title, which is a reference to Dante’s Inferno. A novel that takes place in the first circle of hell is different than one about it; the former emphasizes the people there over the place itself. The plot changed as well. In the restored version, the story hinges on the treasonous act of a disenchanted Soviet diplomat who on Christmas Eve, 1949, telephones the American embassy to inform them that Soviet spies are about to steal secrets about the atomic bomb. The secret police intercept the anonymous phone call, triggering a hunt for the traitor.

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Solzhenitsyn as a political prisoner. Image: scienceblogs.com

After what seems like a fine opening to a thriller, Solzhenitsyn shifts gears. The detective story is only a thread to loosely hold together the fabric of a much larger story. In order to determine the traitor from the recorded voice, the secret police turn to their experts: the zeks, or political prisoners, held in a sharashka, a prison research institute on the outskirts of Moscow (modeled on the prison where Solzhenitsyn spent three years). There, a select group of scientists held without trial for undefined crimes against the state are ordered to identify the traitor. If they fail, they will be sent from the comparatively comfortable existence “in the first circle” of the sharashka to one of the harsher physical-labor camps in Siberia.

When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, the Soviet authorities refused to let him travel to Sweden. Karl Ragnar Gierow, who accepted the prize on his behalf, described Solzhenitsyn as the creator of the “polyphone” or “horizontal novel,” where “each person becomes the chief character whenever the action concerns him.” In the First Circle is perhaps the finest example of this technique. Each of the 96 chapters is told from a limited third-person point of view in which we think and feel with the character, and in this novel there are some thirty different points of view.

The result is a bottom-to-top depiction of Soviet society, of the prisoners, their wives and children, the guards and police, and the privileged apparatchiks who made the system work. Some of the stories are full of ironic undertones, even gallows humor; some epitomize the turbulent upheavals that so many Russians faced, first in civil war then in world war, and several chapters of the restored version even attempt to penetrate the midnight musings of a paranoid Joseph Stalin. Hell, it appears, is not reserved for the prisoners alone. Everyone in this novel lives in one circle of hell or another, except perhaps the prisoners being sent to the gulags. Having had everything taken from them, they have nothing left to fear.

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