American politics can be vicious and un‐principled, but they are not deadly. Defeated politicians join think tanks, give big‐dollar speeches and plot campaign comebacks.
Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was different. What made the USSR different was Stalin.
Although the regime led by Vladimir Lenin was brutal to outsiders, internal competition was not winner‐take‐all. However, writes Paul R. Gregory, a historian at the Hoover Institution, Lenin’s death touched off “a power struggle with a bloody end; of the nine members of the Politburo on the day of Lenin’s death, only three died of natural causes. One of the three was Stalin himself. When the struggle began, however, few knew that it would literally be for life or death.”
This ignorance gave Stalin an immeasurable advantage in the ensuing battle.
Much has been written about Stalin’s rise to power. Mr. Gregory focuses on the fate of Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin was on the right, insofar as that label meant much in the USSR. He supported economic liberalization and opposed ruthless collectivization. He also had at least a spark of humanity buried within him and shared a love with a much younger woman who spent years in the gulag after his execution.
It is quite a story and is ably told by Mr. Gregory.
The tale begins with Stalin’s adept transformation from leading player to supreme dictator. First, Stalin joined with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinovyev against Leon Trotsky, the brilliant military commander who had played a leading role in winning the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.
Once Trotsky was defeated, Stalin turned against Kamenev and Zinovyev, who joined with Trotsky in the United Opposition. Then Stalin relied on Bukharin, “who had clear ideological differences with the United Opposition’s program of forced industrialization, hostility to peasant agriculture, and opposition to alliances with European social democrats.” In fact, Bukharin led the attack on “factionalism,” a charge that soon would be lodged against him. The uncomprehending Bukharin “had unwittingly helped dig his own grave,” Mr. Gregory notes.
Ironically, Bukharin and Stalin were friendly; their wives (Bukharin’s second) were confidantes. But the personal became political. Stalin abused his wife, who committed suicide. According to Mr. Gregory, rumors indicated that Stalin drove the Bukharins “apart in 1928 because she knew too much about Stalin’s private life.” Bukharin later married a woman 26 years his junior.
For Stalin, politics was all. His alliance with Bukharin lasted only until Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinovyev were ousted from power and exiled from Moscow. Stalin was a master intriguer. Bukharin was not.
Mr. Gregory assesses Bukharin: “Many considered him too ‘soft’ and emotional, perhaps even a crybaby. He had no talent for political infighting and intrigue. He talked and wrote too much, and became characterized by detractors as a windbag. He was easily outwitted by Stalin. The man who became the Master thought things through beforehand, while Bukharin acted impulsively and emotionally.”
The murder of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934 gave Stalin the excuse to launch what became the great terror. Trotsky had been exiled abroad, later to be murdered in Mexico in 1940. Kamenev and Zinovyev, along with sundry political allies, were convicted in the first show trial in August 1936 and executed for allegedly murdering Kirov. The two implicated Bukharin.
Bukharin was arrested the following February and tried, along with the usual gaggle of alleged co‐conspirators, in March 1938. Execution inevitably followed. While many in the West, including communists, realized that the proceedings were a charade, some took the trial seriously. Among the credulous was the New York Times, which collected a 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Walter Duranty’s pro‐Stalin reporting. (Duranty even dismissed reports of famine in the Ukraine.) Amazingly, Mr. Gregory adds: “Despite the fact that the Times bureau chief was arrested in the middle of the trial on trumped‐up charges, he concluded that the trial was not a fake and that the use of torture did not necessarily mean the confessions were untrue.”
Bukharin’s widow was released in 1945 and was reunited with her 20‐year‐old son 11 years later. They campaigned for Bukharin’s rehabilitation, finally approved by the Soviet Supreme Court and Communist Party Politburo in 1988. Of course, by that time the communist state that Bukharin had helped create was about to expire.
The tragedy of Bukharin was the tragedy of millions of dedicated communists. They were devoured by the system they had created to control others. Although Bukharin seemed genuinely horrified by the Ukrainian famine, he stood for several years at the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union, which was born, forged and sustained in blood. He could scarce disclaim responsibility for the consequences.
Moreover, notes Mr. Gregory:
“Bukharin was not a saint. He was content to use Stalin’s control of the party machinery to defeat his own ideological enemies, but he protested indignantly when Stalin turned the same weapon on him. As he saw himself losing to Stalin, he began to grovel and tried effusive flattery. He deserted colleagues and friends alike to demonstrate his obeisance to the Master. When innocents were condemned, Bukharin pretended that he, too, believed in their guilt. His confession was full of names of friends and colleagues — a virtual death sentence for them.”
Still, it is impossible not to feel at least a twinge of sadness when finishing Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin. Perhaps not at Bukharin’s fate, but certainly at that of his family and so many others who did nothing to deserve the horrors visited upon them.
Moreover, what if Bukharin had prevailed over Stalin? No brutal Ukrainian collectivization and mindless terror. Perhaps a less aggressive and threatening Soviet foreign policy. Probably no pact with Adolf Hitler. Presumably no Cold War.
The story of Nikolai Bukharin presents a fascinating mix of selfless love and selfish ambition. In presenting this tale, Mr. Gregory teaches about both history and life. Perhaps the most important lesson is to remind us how lucky we are to live in a country where the price of political failure is not death.