Who Was Lavrentiy Beria?

That corpulent man wearing a pince-nez remains one of the most symbolic faces of Joseph Stalin’s era. Lavrentiy Beria was calculating and vicious, hard-working and hedonist – and people feared him so much that it led to his downfall.

Just like his boss Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (1899 – 1953) was born and bred in Georgia. An ethnic Mingrelian (a small nation closely-related to Georgians), during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) he specialized in spying and undercover operations for the Bolsheviks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Later, Beria returned to Georgia to work for the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission.

He made a great career in Georgia: in the 1930s, after Stalin got rid of the old Georgian Communists, Beria led the republic. “Beria had no values, was always ready to discard ideology or personal relations – and Stalin liked that about him,” historian Lev Lurie writes. 

Plus, Beria was indeed a good manager. “During his reign in Georgia, the republic became the main supplier of tea, grape and citrus for the entire USSR… the republic that was among the poorest turned into the most prosperous,” Lurie notes.

Cunning Beria established excellent personal relations with Stalin, who visited Georgia many times during his vacations. That helped him a lot – Beria was one of only two heads of Soviet republics ( there were 15) who survived the purges of 1937. Moreover, Stalin took Beria to Moscow, appointing him chief of the NKVD, the notorious secret police.

In Russia, it is common to associate Beria, the longest-sitting head of the NKVD during Stalin’s era, with mass repressions. In fact, it was Beria’s predecessor Nikolai Yezhov who ran the secret police during the height of the terror, 1937-1938. As far as Stalin was concerned, appointing Beria to head the NKVD was a way to scale back the extent of the executions.

“Stalin was a violent yet clever man who was well aware of the fact that further repressions would lead to the failure of his power,” wrote Sergo Beria, Lavrentiy’s son, in his memoirs. “He needed a man of a different kind [from Yezhov] to lead the NKVD.” Sergo’s objectivity can be disputed, but his father did alleviate the violence: in 1938 (the last year of Yezhov’s tenure as head of the NKVD), 328,000 people were sentenced to death in the USSR; in 1939, with Beria in charge that figure was 2,600.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean Beria was a bleeding-heart liberal: like everyone else in Stalin’s government he was always ready to spill blood if there was an order. For instance, it was Beria’s NKVD that sentenced 14,500 Polish war prisoners to death in 1940 (the infamous Katyn massacre).

Stalin appreciated Beria’s organizational skills enough to put him in charge of the manufacture of armaments, aircraft and aircraft engines during World War II – which was in addition to his duties in state security that included both coordinating the work of spies and the infamous deportations of ethnic groups accused of collaborating with the Germans – Chechens, Crimean Tatars and so on.

When the war ended, the USSR faced new challenges – the nuclear arms race, with Washington ahead of Moscow. Stalin had no doubt who could supervise the Soviet atomic project: Beria headed the Special Committee on Creating Nuclear Weapons in the shortest time possible.

The ruthless minister spent 1945 to 1949 providing Soviet scientists with everything they needed. Ninel Epatova, an engineer who used to work on the atomic project, saw Beria periodically, and she recalled: “Back then, Beria always looked exhausted… with red eyes, bags under them… It seemed he didn’t care about anything except work.”

That work consumed Beria, and historian Oleg Khlevniuk writes that: “Soviet nuclear testing could result in his triumph or, in case of failure, the end of his career or even life.” But testing was successful: in 1949, the USSR became a nuclear power, and Beria was among those who made it possible.

“Stalin’s attitude towards Beria was special. He was the only one among the top members of the Communist Party not to have an apartment but a mansion in Moscow all to himself,” Lurie states. Today, this mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in the Moscow center hosts the embassy of Tunisia and… is rumored to be haunted.

There are dark legends surrounding Beria: allegedly he was something of a sexual maniac, having young girls delivered to his house, raping and (sometimes) murdering them, while his guards helped him get rid of the bodies. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no proof for this urban legend, and most historians suppose it was Beria’s posthumous bad publicity that led to such rumors.

What has been proved is that Beria had, in addition to his wife, an ‘unofficial’ one – Valentina Drozdova, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they met in 1949. Their relations lasted until Beria’s death in 1953. Later, Drozdova claimed that Beria raped her, but it’s unclear if it was true or whether she wanted to distance herself from Beria’s legacy.

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Beria became one of the most influential people in the USSR, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with two other leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. In that ‘collective ruling’ system Beria was in charge of state security, which, along with his dark reputation, resulted in Khrushchev and Malenkov fearing Beria and a possible plot against them.  

So, they decided to strike first. In June 1953, Beria was detained, denounced as the architect of repressions and a British spy (a fabricated accusation) and executed the same year. Beria was Stalin’s only secret police chief to outlive his boss, but not for long.

Oleg Yegorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Soviet poster of Lavrentiy Beria, from the 1953.

The Lattice Towers of Vladimir Shukhov

Believe it or not, but the inspiration for this highly unusual engineering structure came from Russian wicker baskets. Despite being made of brittle twigs, they are able to withstand considerable weight. It is commonly known that a large wicker basket turned upside down can readily support the weight of a person, thanks to the interlaced weaving.

The first Shukhov tower was publicly unveiled at the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896, where visitors were shown some of the most interesting and advanced engineering inventions of the day.

The tower was no mere curiosity. It was there on duty, serving as a water tower and supplying water for the entire exhibition. What’s more, a viewing platform was installed above the water tank for all exhibition guests to come up and enjoy.

Shukhov’s tower was not the only construction he presented at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition. Another was an oval-shaped pavilion with a hanging steel-mesh cover. Soon afterwards, Russia adopted Shukhov’s pioneering technique for installing overhead covers on buildings, a prime example of which can be seen atop Moscow’s GUM department store.

The world’s first Shukhov tower immediately found an owner in the shape of Russian aristocrat, industrialist, and philanthropist Yuri Nechaev-Maltsov, whose place in Russian history is ensured as one of the founders of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

Nechaev-Maltsov purchased the tower in Nizhny Novgorod and had it transported to his estate at Polibino, where it was used as a water tower and viewing platform. Writer Leo Tolstoy, poet Anna Akhmatova, and Russian academic and cultural figure Ivan Tsvetaev (father of poet Marina Tsvetaeva) are all said to have climbed the tower at various times.

Today, the Nechaev-Maltsov estate is located in Lipetsk Region. The first Shukhov tower was preserved at Polibino, where it stands behind the main manor house. The tower almost perished in Soviet times, but was miraculously saved by the local history society. The tower has since been restored, and tourists can climb up to the viewing platform once more, as happened more than a century ago.

There are other Shukhov towers in Russia, of course. The most famous are surely the former TV tower at Shabolovka in Moscow and the world’s only hyperboloid multisectional transmission tower, which stands on the banks of the Oka River not far from the city of Dzerzhinsk.

Shukhov towers and other structures conceived by the great Russian engineer are found across the globe. The TV towers in Sydney and Guangzhou, Aspire Tower in Doha, and Kobe Port Tower in Japan (destroyed during the 1995 earthquake, but since reconstructed) all sprang up thanks to Shukhov’s genius.

Shukhov’s techniques are widely used in modern Russian engineering projects, not least in the construction of the Moscow International Business Center (aka Moskva-City), a major high-rise commercial development that dominates the capital’s skyline.

Vadim Razumov writes fro Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Constructionist work, entitled, “Space Force,” by Lyubov Popova, 1921.

The Assassination Of Paul Doumer

The assassination of the popular French leader by a Russian shocked France and the whole of Europe. By doing so, the killer wanted somehow to end Bolshevik rule in Russia.

On May 6, 1932, the entire French Republic was shocked to the core when President Paul Doumer was shot in Paris by a Russian émigré. Even more terrified was the huge Russian community in France. They were sure that the French authorities would punish them all for the actions of one madman.

During a visit by the president to a book fair in Paris, a young tall man came up to him, took a pistol out of his pocket, and fired twice. The bullets hit Doumer at the base of the skull and in the right armpit.

The president was taken to the hospital for urgent surgery. Doumer regained consciousness only once before dying the next day.

As for his killer, he was immediately seized after the shooting. The furious crowd was ready to tear him apart, and police quickly took the suspect away to find out who he was and what had driven him to commit such an awful act.

The subsequent investigation revealed that the killer of French President Paul Doumer was Pavel Gorgulov, a doctor, writer and poet who had emigrated to France from Russia after the 1917 Revolution.

During the interrogation, Gorgulov proclaimed himself a Russian fascist with a mission to end Bolshevik rule in Russia.

Other documents discovered mentioned him as the president of the “Peasant All-Russian People’s Green Party.” The so-called “greens” during the Civil War in Russia were mainly peasant forces who opposed both warring sides – the Reds (Communists) and the Whites (Monarchists, republicans, etc).

Most likely, Gorgulov was the only member of this party. He stated he had nothing personal against Doumer. The president was chosen as a target because he was the leader of France – a country that stopped the fight against the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks, and so was preparing for the destruction of itself and the whole world.

“Europe and America seem favorable to Bolshevism, so I decided to kill the president and cause France to declare war on Russia! I am a great Russian patriot. I had no accomplices,” Gorgulov said.

Nevertheless, the “great Russian patriot” was not supported by the Russian community in France. On the contrary, Russian émigrés strongly condemned his actions.

Afraid of the possible consequences, the émigrés tried hard to demonstrate their loyalty to France and that they had nothing in common with the assassin. All prominent figures among the Russian community sent their condolences to the government and the president’s widow, and took part in the memorial service.

There were even some absurd cases. On the very next day after the assassination, a waiter at one Paris cafe, former officer Sergey Dmitriev, committed suicide to wash away the dishonor. In his suicide note, he wrote: “I die for France!”

Despite the odd anti-Russian statement in the French press and parliament, there were no mass reprisals.

Benito Mussolini also declared his distance from the “Russian fascist.” The time for Il Duce to enter into conflict with France had yet to come.

Gorgulov’s lawyer wanted to portray his client’s actions as those of a madman, and thus save his life. Indeed, what the police found in Gorgulov’s documents clearly indicated some kind of mental illness.

Gorgulov had a detailed plan to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Russia by means of an uprising by ‘”The Green Brothers.” And the head of the future “All-Russian Nationalist Republic” was meant to be Gorgulov himself – the “Great Green Dictator.”

The documents meticulously described the political establishment of the “new” Russia, with flags and even army officers’ uniforms. Gorgulov expected to seize power with the help of certain “portable machines” that possessed great destructive power and were supposedly invented by the “dictator” himself.

Apparently, after Paul Doumer’s assassination, Gorgulov had plans to kill German President Paul von Hindenburg and the president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk. Remarkably, listed among Gorgulov’s future victims was a certain Vladimir Lenin, who had in fact died eight years previously.

However, the court refused to recognize Pavel Gorgulov as mentally ill and sentenced him to death. The accused responded as follows: “I die as a hero for myself and for my friends! Vive la France! Vive la Russie! I will love you until the day I die!” (Anatoly Tereshchenko. Mysteries of the Silver Age. Moscow, 2017)

On September 14, 1932, Pavel Gorgulov was executed at La Santé prison in Paris by guillotine.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows President Paul Doumer, illustrated in repose, drawing by Louveau-Rouveyre

Granny Was A Spy

Nobody among the residents of Bexleyheath, south-east London, could ever have imagined that their nice neighbor – the charming old lady Melita Norwood – was in fact one of the most important Soviet spies in Great Britain.

Courtesy of Melita Norwood, Stalin was better informed about the construction of the British nuclear bomb than most members of the UK Cabinet.

For almost 35 years, Mrs Norwood copied and transferred to the Soviet Union hundreds of secret documents on the British nuclear program.
Due to her socialism-oriented parents, Melita Sirnis (after marriage – Norwood) was a devoted Communist since childhood. In the 1930s she secretly joined the British Communist Party.

At the same time, she was hired as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which was developing Britain’s nuclear technology.

The British overlooked the Communist among their ranks, but the Soviets saw a great opportunity. In 1937 Melita was recruited by Soviet intelligence and started to work for “the cause of the World Revolution.”

“I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had at great cost given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service,” recalled Melita many years later.

Norwood had direct access to all the details of the British nuclear program, codenamed “Tube Alloys.” Her boss, G. L. Bailey, was a member of its advisory committee. Completely trusted, Melita had access to Bailey’s two safes: one at the office, the other at his London home.

Top secret correspondence, scientific reports, analyses, etc. were photographed by Norwood and handed over to the Soviets. This information significantly helped them in developing their own nuclear technologies.

Melita Norwood, known as “Agent Hola,” was highly praised in the Soviet Union, even more than the more famous Kim Philby. She was characterized as a “disciplined and devoted agent, who does everything that she can to help Soviet intelligence.”

Twice, in 1945 and 1965, MI5 counterintelligence service raised suspicions about Norwood’s true identity, but both times they did not have enough proof. So it was that in 1972 she quietly retired from her job at Non-Ferrous Metals, and hence from the Soviet secret service.

Disclosure came only 20 years later, when former KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Britain and exposed a huge number of files on Soviet agents, including Melita Norwood.

However, due to her old age “Agent Hola” was neither arrested, nor interrogated. The British government decided nothing was to be gained from sending the “granny spy” to prison, and Mrs Norwood was left in peace at her home in Bexleyheath.

Until her death in 2005, Melita Norwood never regretted what she had done. Working for the Soviet Union was a matter of principle for her. She even declined a secret lifelong pension from the Soviets, but gladly received the prestigious Order of the Red Banner.

“I did not want money. It was not that side I was interested in. I wanted Russia to be on equal footing with the West,” Mrs Norwood used to say.

The photo shows a famous poster of “Agent Fifi,” from World War Two.

The Demons

In 1872, Dostoevsky published his novel, The Demons [Бесы]. It demonstrated in a microcosm, the insanity that lay within the revolutionary movements of 19th century Russia. That insanity broke upon the world in 1917 and has remained present with us, in one form or another, ever since.

The madness that he describes takes place in a small town, away from the great capitals of Russia. It involves a relatively small cast of characters (at least for a Russian novel and revolution). There is love and intrigue. But mostly there is murder and mayhem. For the only revolutionary who succeeds is the one who fears nothing himself but creates and feeds on the fear of others.

It is interesting that great theories of economics and social justice do not form a part of this novel. Dostoevsky was no stranger to Russia’s radical movements and their political and economic theories: he spent a number of years in prison under the Tsar for having participated in one such group.

But he does not make the theory out to be of much importance. He rightly recognized that the spirit of revolution is not about a struggle for a glorious future. Revolution is about the destruction of the present and the will to power. Hitler’s rise to power and Lenin’s rise to power both belong to differing ideologies. What they share in common are lies and murder.

Dostoevsky’s revolutionary sees the world as teetering on chaos. The old order is a roadblock, an encumbrance that stands in the way of progress and the forces of renewal. Every convention, every custom and practice of tradition is the enemy. The revolutionary has to be prepared to sweep everything aside for the sake of his cause.

In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the Church was a primary conserving force. Its Orthodox practice was a shrine to Tradition and custom. Every aspect of life moved in obedience to the seasons of the Church. It is thus not surprising that the Church, God and the Christian view of the world were the primary targets of his drama.

But the title of Dostoevsky’s novel is even more to the point. Though he does not say so, the actors in the small “revolution” in the provinces, are only pawns. There is a larger game afoot, and that game is revealed in the title of the novel.

The work of the demons is not an ancient conspiracy, a carefully-planned work that ultimately results in the enthronement of the anti-Christ. Demons do not seem to be driven towards the construction of great empires – that activity is particularly human.

The work of the demons (both in the novel and in the real world) is the work of destruction. Existence is the gift of God. All that we know as existing is His gift. Its order, laws, even “reasonableness,” are all reflective of God’s creative work. Non-existence, non-being is the drive of the wicked ones.

Non-existence is not something that can be achieved by created beings, for existence is the gift of God and He alone sustains all things. Thus, the work of those in rebellion is to move things “towards” non-being. Lies, murder, destruction, disarray, deception, and the like are hallmarks of their work.

The demons are not the builders of civilizations, even civilizations that seem to have evil purposes. They corrupt and distort. The farcical “opera” that was the Nazi regime was a demonic attempt at civilization, a mimicry of the true thing.

Its delusional aspects seem so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously its grand productions and Wagnerian pretensions (the delusions of our own time should be considered as well). The destructive character of that regime began to manifest itself quite early. In almost every effort, its constructions were distortions, an anti-civilization.

Where do the demons lurk in our own time? Look to the places of chaos and destruction, where order is slipping away and violence triumphs. Take note of despair and mayhem, any place where the drive towards non-existence has taken hold. Occasionally these forces manifest themselves in larger eruptions.

The bizarre extremism within radical Islam has all of the hallmarks of the demonic. It is a form of madness, of chaos, unleashed. Other extremes seem bent on the destruction of traditional ideas and norms that have existed for millennia.

The Orthodox resistance to iconoclasm recognizes the true nature of this urge to destruction. For the discussion about icons has never been limited to quiet theological thoughts about the nature of images. Iconoclasm is not a theological position, it is what its Greek name says, “Smashing.”

The smashers in the modern world have multiplied. The revolution of 1917 initially swelled their ranks. Films of icon burnings and Church explosions were only the most visible expressions. The smashing of human beings, images of God, were among the most brutal in all of history.

We see as well the sad cases of individual iconoclasm. The mass murders in schools, theaters, shopping malls (which sometimes seem to occur on a weekly basis) represent the demonic collapse within a single person. The wanton destruction of strangers, murder for the sake of murder, reveals a frightening drive towards non-existence. Of course, such events involve mental illness and other social problems, all of which are exploited by the demons of our time.

But more to the point for readers of this article is the unraveling of existence within our own lives and souls. Solzhenitsyn famously said: “…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

In the existential/spiritual terms that I’ve used here, we must recognize that the forces of disintegration and entropy war within us with the forces of order and true being. And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return.

This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.

For the individual who can walk through an elementary school and blithely shoot teachers and children, the heart has grown cold – on the order of demonic coldness. But by the same token, we ourselves can walk through any number of crowded places, our hearts filled with judgment and envy, or worse still, nothing at all. The former is only a demonic sacrament of the latter.

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novel ended their melee in an orgy of violence – a short spree that came to nothing. He wrote of other such eruptions of madness. The student Raskolnikov murdered an old woman in the name of a bizarre Nietzschean will to power. Dmitri Karamazov was convicted of murdering his father, though he was only guilty of wanting to. But in both of these latter cases, the outcome was not destruction, but repentance – in prison. Imprisonment for these Dostoevskian heroes is the place of rebirth, just as it was for the author himself.

Repentance, in prison or not, is the only way forward from the nightmare of our present demons. It is love that has grown cold. What we see in our present world is not the result of mistaken political decisions or failures of diplomacy. It is as Solzhenitsyn said – a battle within the heart of every human being. It is there that the demons must be defeated.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Demon Fallen,” by Mikhail Vrubel, painted in 1902.

Edvard Munch And Dostoevsky

Ever get the impression that the somber pictures of Munch are ready-made illustrations for the equally somber works of Dostoevsky? We do, and it turns out there’s more to this hunch than meets the eye.

In April, Russia’s first ever major exhibition of one of Norway’s most famous sons, Edvard Munch, opens at the Tretyakov Gallery after several years of negotiations with the Munch Museum in Oslo. Although relatively few of his paintings are known in Russia, Munch’s work has a greater connection with Russia than one might imagine. His idol and inspiration was Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the artist’s most famous piece The Scream looks as if it is possessed by one of Dostoevsky’s demons.

The director of the Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova, noted that Munch essentially did for art what Dostoevsky did for literature: “He turned the human soul inside out and peered into the abyss and the vortex of passions that rip people apart, revealing the complexity of human nature.”

The bohemian atmosphere of 1880s Oslo, of which the young Munch was part, consisted of creative anarchists who fed on the works of Dostoevsky, freshly translated into Norwegian.

“Will anyone ever be able to describe those times?” We need Dostoevsky, or at least a mixture of Krogh [an artist, Munch’s mentor], Jeager [a scandalous anarchist writer], and perhaps myself to describe the wretched existence in Christiania [the old name for Oslo] as convincingly as Dostoevsky’s depiction of a Siberian town—not only then, but now as well,” wrote Munch.

A little-known work of Dostoevsky (or at least overshadowed by the later novels), A Gentle Creature had a profound influence on Munch. It tells the story of the suicide of an unhappy girl who, out of poverty, marries a moneylender she despises.

Experts believe that one of Munch’s most famous self-portraits Between the Clock and the Bed, which shows a nude female figure, might easily be an illustration for A Gentle Creature.

Munch and Dostoevsky shared an artistic weakness for sick, poverty-stricken wenches. Another of Munch’s most famous paintings, The Sick Child, which prompted a hail of indignation from critics for its “incompleteness,” was a reflection of the artist’s grief over the death of his beloved sister from tuberculosis.

“I am not entirely sure why I became attached to her, perhaps because she was always ill… If she had been lame or hunchbacked as well, I think I would have loved her even more…” says Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

Munch biographer Rolf Stenersen describes how the idiosyncratic artist considered his paintings to be his own children and showed tough love to those that didn’t turn out quite right. Such pictures he exhibited outside in rain, wind, and snow, and returned them indoors only after some time. It is known for a fact that this happened to the painting Separation, which suffered greatly as a consequence. Stains, smudges, and traces of bird droppings became part of the picture.

This strange method Munch called hestekur (translated as “horse treatment”). Experts believe it to be a reference to Raskolnikov’s dream, in which the protagonist, transported back to childhood, witnesses a peasant beating an old nag just because it is “mine.” Soon the crowd joins in with chants of “Flog it to death!”

Munch created what might these days be described as fan art—artwork created by fans of a particular work. In one of his numerous self-portraits, Munch depicts himself with a skeleton hand. This work is said to have been inspired by a portrait of Dostoevsky made using a similar technique by Swiss artist Felix Vallotton.

On display at the exhibition, there is a small volume that belonged to the artist. It is called Djasvlene, the Norwegian title of Dostoevsky’s novel, Demons. It was this book that Munch had on his bedside table on being found dead at his country estate, not far from Oslo, in 1944.

Alexandra Guzeva writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Evening on Karl Johan Street,” painted in 1892.

Mystery Bouffe And The Start Of Soviet Censorship

Despite being a revolutionary and futuristic masterpiece by Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Malevich, Mystery Bouffe was the first victim of Soviet censorship.

On a warm day one hundred years ago a small group of friends heard the first-ever play by a Soviet dramatist. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was reading Mystery Bouffe to a group that included the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and the famous theater director, Vsevolod Meyerhold.

The play was an aggressive piece of Bolshevik propaganda, opening at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1918 for three performances, with stage decorations and costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich. This first piece of Soviet theater seemed to be pure brilliance, with three giant radical artists celebrating the Revolution’s first anniversary. But it didn’t turn out well.

The creative process was all but sabotaged, and the audiences indifferent. Lenin called it “hooligan communism.” But why such hostility to a show that seemed so in line with the times?

Things started ominously. A few days after the October Revolution, Lunacharsky as the Commissar of Enlightenment convened a meeting to discuss revolutionary approaches to art in the new era. Hundreds of artists were invited, but only five showed up, among which were Mayakovsky and Meyerhold.

Why such a low turn out? These were still deeply uncertain times, and even though all theaters were under Lunacharsky’s control, many artists were not sure about throwing their lot in with the Bolsheviks. But these five did. Meyerhold’s biographer, Edward Braun, called this “a hazardous act of faith.”

Mystery Bouffe is by any standards a strange play, written in Mayakovsky’s trademark energetic and tumbling verse. The story is the Biblical parable of Noah’s ark transplanted into the industrial age. The flood is the Revolution, cleansing the world of the bourgeoisie. The ‘new common man’ leads the proletariat to a mechanized paradise, where tools and even food obey humans.

The play’s cast was huge, with over 70 characters acting in a declaratory and rhetorical style. The conservative Actor’s Union labeled it “futuristic,” which according to Mayakovsky’s biographers Ann and Samuel Charters, is the “word they gave to everything they didn’t understand.”

We are certainly very far away from the living rooms of Chekhov, Mayakovsky says as much in the Prologue. Other theater gives you:

“Uncle Vanya
And Auntie Manya
Parked on a sofa as they chatter

But we don’t care
About uncles or aunts:
you can find them at home – or anywhere!”

He did not want the play to imitate observable reality. This was also Malevich’s approach to the design, as he said: “I saw my task not as the creation of associations with the reality existing beyond the stage, but as the creation of a new reality.”

The play opened with actors coming onstage and ripping up posters of popular performances of that time. It was a declaration of war on Imperial-era theater.

The Petrograd Conservatoire was less than cooperative, and they refused to sell copies of the script. The doors to rehearsal rooms were boarded shut. Nails for the set were kept under lock and key. Actors were very suspicious of the project, and most refused to be involved. An advertisement was put in the paper: “Comrades! It is your duty to celebrate the great day of the Revolution with a revolutionary show.” In the end they had to use students, and Mayakovsky had to play several key roles himself.

Tellingly, most critics did not think the play worthy to be reviewed. Later, however, theater director Vladimir Solovyov wrote that, “it didn’t get across to the audience. The witty satirical passages…[were greeted] with stony silence.”

An outdoor performance was canceled, and the Futurists were banned from participating in forthcoming May Day celebrations. Bolsheviks worried that this style would put off the proletariat.

In retrospect, the experience suffered by this show anticipated the subsequent careers of Mayakovsky, Malevich and Meyerhold. Within 12 years of Mystery Bouffe they’d all be dead, and not from old age. Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 was no doubt largely due to mental health issues and his complicated relationship with Lilya Brick. But his constant struggles with the authorities had a huge impact on his inability to live and create.

Malevich’s artwork was banned and confiscated for being abstract and “bourgeois,” and he was imprisoned in 1930 where he developed cancer. He dabbled in figurative art in the early 1930s, but then died in 1935.

Meyerhold suffered the most: his performances were banned, his theater was closed, he was tortured, murdered and rewritten out of history. What began with the locked rehearsal rooms of 1918, ended in the inner chamber of Lubyanka prison in 1940.

Indeed, the optimism of the Revolution gave way to paranoia, censorship and murder in the 1930s. This is mostly attributed to Stalin’s personality and his insistence on promoting the stifling official ideology of Soviet Realism. This certainly played a huge role, but perhaps the truth is more subversive. The immediate reaction to Mystery Bouffe in 1918 was not unlike later arguments against the Avant-garde art in the purges; that it would not be immediately accessible to the common man and was therefore on the side of the bourgeoisie.

As Lunacharsky said of Mystery Bouffe, it was “incomprehensible to the new world.” The history of the play shows that Bolshevism and art had a troubled relationship from the very beginning. Even when they seemed to be toeing the ideological line, these artists were too independent and radical even in the supposedly experimental and revolutionary atmosphere of a hundred years ago.

Oliver Bennett contributes regularly to Russia Beyond. Courtesy of Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a sketch for Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe at the Rustaveli Theatre, 1924, by Irakli Gamrekeli.

Witnesses To Stalin’s Russia

On November 16, 1933, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the USSR, and William C. Bullitt was the first ambassador, serving from 1933 to 1936. In April 1936, in his cable sent to the State Department, he described the new state in a dark and menacing way.

“The standard of living in the Soviet Union is extraordinarily low, lower perhaps than that of any European country, including the Balkans. Nevertheless, the townsfolk of the Soviet Union have today a sense of well-being. They have suffered so horribly since 1914 from war, revolution, civil war, and famine, that to have enough bread to eat, as they have today, seems almost a miracle.”

At the same time, in 1933, Victor G. Reuther, a young automobile engineer, traveled to Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) to work at the Gorky Automobile Plant. Years later, he recalled:

“The morning we arrived the temperature was 35С below. The station was full to bursting and the stench was indescribable. The peasants, many looking as lifeless as the bundles beside them, covered almost every inch of the floor…”

Famine was ravaging the USSR and peasants were traveling in great numbers in order to find work and food. As Ambassador Bullitt noted, “All that is being done to improve the conditions in the cities, to build up industries, communication and the war machine, is being done at the expense of the peasants…”

But even for foreign engineers, the living conditions have been dire. Reuther recalled:

“We were given… a room so small that when our footlockers and bikes were delivered, we had to fasten hooks to the ceiling and hang them over our beds. There was a single-burner electric stove…, central heating, a lavatory with a cold water tap in the hall. The walls were made of sheets of plywood with six to eight inches of straw and manure packed tightly between them… a perfect breeding place for roaches and vermin of every variety.”

The plant was at the forefront of industrial production, so its workers were fed decently compared to most Soviet citizens at that time, and here’s what they ate, according to Reuther:

“We ate in the cooperative cafeteria instead of the special restaurant for foreigners, where a better grade of food was offered at no higher price. We did not want to abet that sort of caste discrimination. Usually, there was a large bowl of schtchi, or cabbage soup, a big piece of moist black bread, and a cup of weak tea… We had no butter for many months; fresh meat was an infrequent luxury, though occasionally there was some dried fish, and fresh fruits were nonexistent.”

George F. Kennan, the author of the anti-Soviet “policy of containment,” served in the U.S. Embassy in 1933-1936. He very precisely described the situation:

“…Both the maintenance of internal political security and the building of heavy industry, has been carried out at a terrible cost in human life and in human hopes and energies. It has necessitated the use of forced labor on a scale unprecedented in modern times under conditions of peace.”

In addition to all of this, the Russian worker had “political oppression hanging like a sword over his head,” as Reuther wrote:

“…Near the end of August, a knock on the door at midnight prefaced the arrest by the secret police of an Italian worker who had been at Gorky long enough to marry and have several children. The next day the rumor was carefully wafted around that he had been in league with the Trotskyites and would be sent to Siberia… There was no trial, no defense… The lynching urge was encouraged in every factory in Russia… Under these circumstances, political talk was taboo in the tool room, and it was only on those rare occasions when we were alone with friends on a walk through the woods or perhaps in a rowboat in the middle of the Oka that we could talk to any Russian worker about his opinion of the Stalin regime…”

Even under these circumstances, there was little chance of widespread discontent and major protests from the peasants and the workers.

“The majority of citizens in the Soviet Union had never known a democracy; neither under Czarism nor Communism did they have the right of dissent, or true freedom of personal expression. Therefore, for most of them, Stalinism was at first no surprise.” – Victor G. Reuther

Still, the power of the regime relied not so much on the nation’s attitude as on the police force.

…The secret police and the army are better fed, housed, and entertained than any other portion of the population. Their loyalty to the Soviet regime is unquestionable.” – William C. Bullitt

“The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state… Here, caution, circumspection, flexibility and deception are the valuable qualities; and their value finds natural appreciation in the Russian or the oriental mind.” – George F. Kennan.

And so, life in the Soviet 1930s, in the eyes of Bullitt and Kennan, could leave only a grim impression.

“Communists are agents of a foreign power whose aim is not only to destroy the institutions and liberties of our country, but also to kill millions of Americans… We would not cherish for a moment the illusion that it is possible to establish really friendly relations with the Soviet Government… We should never send a spy to the Soviet Union. There is no weapon at once so disarming and effective in relations with the communists as sheer honesty. They know very little about it.” – William C. Bullitt.

“The rulers can no longer dream of parting with… organs of suppression. …We are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.” – George F. Kennan

Meanwhile, at the end of his business trip, Reuther was more optimistic than Bullitt and Kennan were at the end of theirs:

“By the time we left, young Soviet technicians, though not yet so skilled as the American toolmakers, had taken over the full responsibility of building replacement dies and designing new ones… Almost all the foreign workers were gone… What was perhaps even more gratifying was the sight of hundreds of thousands of peasants… moving into the workers’ flats and enjoying, with their children, the kind of education, food, and health care they had never known before. One can measure a society by how it treats its children and its old people, and in some respects that still primitive Soviet economy seemed to do better than some of the advanced industrialized countries.”

Georgy Manaev writes for Russia Beyond. Courtesy of Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “First Group of Five Move Out,” by Nikolai Getman, a Gulag survivor, painted in the 1980s.

Ivan The Terrible’s Secret Police

The oprichnina, the personal force of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, was responsible for mass executions, the persecution of the monarch’s enemies, and confiscation of property: They enjoyed and abused a phenomenal scope of power. But why did this ancient dark-robed special service emerge?

Uncompromising, ruthless, and eternally loyal to the tsar, they terrorized the entire country and even had the final say over the courts. Severed dog’s heads hung from their steads’ necks and they sported outfits that resembled monk’s dark robes. Everyone feared them, from the poor to the nobility.

Ivan the Terrible, the Grand Prince of Moscow who allegedly killed his own son, is linked to one of the darkest periods in Russia’s history. The feared ruler created a new social class: His personal guard cum secret police – coined the oprichnina. He used this special class of loyalist to punish those he disliked.

When Andrey Kurbsky, a military leader of noble origin and Ivan’s most intimate friend, betrayed him in 1564, the latter made an unprecedented step. He left Moscow while Russia was waging war with Lithuania, and after a quick prayer, the Tsar rallied his family – packed the state treasury and departed the Kremlin without a word.

He traveled 123 km outside Moscow and entombed himself and his loved ones in the Alexandrov Kremlin, a fortress that served as a royal residence. This bold move followed a huge fallout with Russia’s political elite and the brutal leader had reason to fear for both his grip on power and his life – but fleeing Moscow later proved to be a bad move.

Panic ensued in the capital. People were terrified that the country was perched on the precipice, doomed even, without the monarch occupying his seat. Crowds flocked outside Alexandrov Kremlin demanding that Ivan return to Moscow and put an end to the anarchy that was wreaking havoc in the capital.

One month later, Ivan returned to Moscow with an ultimatum: He would continue to reign, but the country would be split into two. One half would be completely owned by the Tsar and his personally picked guard force, the oprichnina, and the other half by boyars and knyaz (the elite), as in the past. All the other classes would continue with their own life, and would only be made privy to the monarch’s internal affairs in extraordinary circumstances.

Members of the oprichnina were picked from the low classes, the main criteria being that they had no links to any of the noble dynasties. Each member, or oprichnik, pledged allegiance to the Tsar and vowed to live according to a special code: Namely, to abstain from eating, drinking, or keeping company with anyone who was not a member of the oprichnina. Should a member breach these rules, both himself and the other person would be executed.

Members of the oprichnina lived in a separate part of the city, in several central districts of Moscow (around Stary Arbat and Nikitskaya Street). Ivan unceremoniously ousted the former tenants to house his loyal guard, with people literally being “thrown out onto the thoroughfare together with their wives and children, and were sometimes forced to trudge to their new places of abode on foot, begging for food along the way.” After taking control of the district, the ruthless ruler ordered the construction of a new palace surrounded by tall walls.

The monarch’s personal guard, which was 1,000-strong, eventually grew to 6,000 men. The ominous symbol of the oprichnina was a severed dog’s head – and broom – tied to their horses. This signified their loyalty to the Tsar and their readiness to tear any “enemy” of Russia to pieces with the ferocity of a dog and “sweep” them out of the country.

he political rationale behind the oprichnina was to prevent dissent in the country and retain control. It was at that time that the term “crime against the sovereign” first emerged as an actual ground for reprisals (legislatively it started being used only in 1649).

The Chronicle of Novgorod reads that members of the oprichnina conducted mass executions, robbed, and looted people. In 1570, the oprichnina accused all the Novgorod nobility of treason against the Tsar. “The accusation was patently absurd and controversial,” historian Vladimir Kobrin believes. Nevertheless, the noble people of Novgorod were executed, as were several hundred residents. They were doused with flammable liquid, set on fire, and thrown into the Moskva River while still alive before being finished off by men in boats.

Ivan the Terrible’s legal code made the death penalty one of the most frequent punishments. Sometimes, however, an oprichnik’s word was enough. After the execution the oprichnik claimed the entire property of the “traitor,” and the most active ones would be generously rewarded. “The sovereign’s will is the law and a mystery,” says the main character of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which tells the story of the tsar’s favorite personal guard, Malyuta Skuratov.

Little wonder then, that nobody assessed the persuasiveness of evidence submitted in support of executions “in accordance with the sovereign’s will”; some accusations were downright fictitious.

The oprichnina eventually weakened to the extent that they could not defend against external enemies. One year after the devastation of Novgorod in 1571, the Crimean khan attacked Moscow. The oprichnina barely managed to defend the throne so Ivan the Terrible disbanded them and did what he did best: Executed its senior officers.

Yekaterina Sinelschikova writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Oprichniks” by Nikolai Nevrev painted ca. 1870, which depicts the execution of the conspirator I. P. Fedorov, after his mock coronation.

The Soviet Search For Immortality

Given the rumors, Russians often wish all those theories about our super-soldiers and X-Men skeletons were true. Alas, the Soviet Union only went as far as trying to make immortal politicians (not as cool – but still cool, right?)

Not long before the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, a clandestine society emerged in Russia. Its members would conspire to meet in safe houses where they summoned volunteers to take part in blood transfusions. Creepy, right? You may be forgiven for thinking this was a sect or a religious cult, but in fact, the organization was run by a very sane Bolshevik higher-up, Alexander Bogdanov (real name Malinovsky), close Lenin ally, co-founder of the party and noted scientist behind the Socialist Institute.

“The great visionary”, as he was called by followers, was trying to unlock the secret to immortality.

Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ had found great favor with readers in the Russian Empire, including Nicholas II himself. This fascination carried over into Socialist times. The meanings of blood and sacrifice enjoyed mystical fervor in a country that had just lost two million people in a war the likes of which the world had never seen in scale or efficiency of brutality.

“Why couldn’t they just resurrect him?”, wrote many in army circles about the 1924 demise of Vladimir Lenin. The idea that a figure of such colossal stature could die was unfathomable.

Lenin appeared to have been worn down by stress, exhaustion and malnutrition – all leading to a whole bouquet of symptoms afflicting nearly every old-school ruling class Bolshevik barely in his mid-thirties. They haven’t even had time to properly start ‘emancipating the world from capitalist tyranny’. Something had to be done.

It is no secret that Russia at the dawn of the Bolsheviks was a highly experimental country. No stone was left unturned in the search for the perfect Russian – including the famous sex reforms.

Given blood’s mystical allure, some scientists of the time also theorized that the person’s entire personality, soul and immune system were contained in their blood.

Bogdanov was such a scientist. Not only that – he was a polymath and an avid stargazer with a deep fascination for Mars, which he envisioned as a sort of socialist utopian society of blood brothers. These ideas laid the foundations for his novel, ‘The Red Star’, about a scientist who travels to the Red Planet, and finds out that the Communists there had almost attained immortality, all thanks to this culture of blood.

Lenin was disappointed with Bogdanov’s preoccupation with fantasy and sci-fi, leading to a rift between the two, Lenin believing that Bogdanov was making people chase foolish dreams instead of focusing on the work of forging the Revolution. But Bogdanov was too useful at the time, being the second figure in the party – the man directed the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s exile.

Even so, their camaraderie could not have survived their differences: Lenin advocated for dialogue and cooperation, including participation in the Duma – Russia’s legislative body. Bogdanov wanted no part in it, leaning even further left than Lenin himself had.

Together with his friend, Leonid Krasin, Bogdanov set up a military wing under the RSDLP’s  Central Committee. Money from its expropriations would be distributed to the various organizations controlled by Lenin and Bogdanov. The latter was furious that more money seemed to be going to Lenin’s cause.

Bogdanov would soon be expelled from the Workers’ Party. The two were split on their interpretation of Marxism, and Lenin’s works had begun to reflect that, calling out Bogdanov for his “bourgeois” outlook. At that point, even Lenin’s family thought he could’ve taken it down a notch. But the Bolshevik was having none of it – even banning Bogdanov’s novels from being read in the household.

Bogdanov, on the other hand, thought of Lenin’s ideals as those of ‘absolute Marxism’ – “the bloodsucker of the Old World,” turning followers vampire, chief among them Lenin. Bogdanov had lost his party, his job and his credibility while exchanging literary jabs with people he considered his comrades.  

After the devastation of WWI, however, a glimmer of light had appeared: “science can do anything” was to be the mantra of the 1920s-30s.

Mikhail Bulgakov had then just published his brilliant piece of sci-fi satire – ‘A Dog’s Heart’, which talked about transferring a dog’s soul into a human subject, another telltale sign of the times. It became obvious that science was beginning to take inspiration from fiction. With Bogdanov as the main proponent.

Bogdanov cared not for what we know about blood today – from blood groups and the Rh blood system to a whole host of other factors. His science was fraught with danger, with him as the most frequent guinea pig.

The blood would be taken from patients, poured into a sterile container and mixed with an anti-clotting agent, before the transfusions took place. They would have to be fast as well, to prevent bacteria forming.

Bogdanov’s fan base grew as this borderline-mad experimentation began to show signs of progress: Bogdanov himself was said to have begun looking 5-10 years younger, while his wife’s gout also began showing signs of improvement. People couldn’t believe their eyes!

It wouldn’t take long before Stalin himself would be bitten by the science bug, leading him to call upon Bogdanov and his experimentation, even suggesting he join back with the party he was expelled from by his predecessor.

Stalin was certainly no Lenin, and believed he needed every edge if (when) the next World War was going to take place. No money was spared to find a military application for the transfusions.

The Institute for Blood Transfusion was set up in 1926 on the leader’s orders. Bogdanov becomes director. This fascination with the idea of blood brotherhood expressed in his Martian sci-fi novel would finally begin to bear fruit.

Tragically, the mad scientist and sci-fi Bolshevik had not had enough time to properly study the effects of his rejuvenation procedures. We had no idea about erythrocytes or plasma or any checks and practices in place today for a successful transfusion.

Bogdanov was very interested in whether a person’s entire immune defenses were also transferred through blood. It seemed that a young man suffering from tuberculosis was the perfect candidate to test that theory.

A liter of blood was exchanged between the patient and the ‘doctor’.

It didn’t help that Bogdanov had been comparing his own blood to that of Dracula – immune to human afflictions. That twelfth transfusion would become his last. In the space of three hours, both started to suffer a steady deterioration: fever, nausea, vomiting – all signs of a serious poisoning.

However, Bogdanov decided to keep the transfusion under wraps. On that excruciatingly painful day, he’d felt even worse than the poorly Kaldomasov – the tuberculosis sufferer. He refused treatment nonetheless in a vain attempt to understand what had happened.

Bogdanov’s kidneys gave out in 48 hours, resulting in death from a hemolytic reaction. His last words, according to Channel 1’s interview with close descendant and economist Vladimir Klebaner, had been “Do what must be done. We must fight to the end.” He passed on April 7, 1928, aged 54.

But what of the student? The 21-year-old had lived. The doctors couldn’t tell why, even after another last-minute transfusion had failed to save Bogdanov from death. It would later become apparent that this final procedure wasn’t the culprit (both he and Kaldomasov were type O) – but the 11 preceding ones had been, creating antibodies in Bogdanov to the degree that even the correct blood would have been rejected. That’s all we know.

Stalin was very angry. Having pledged tens of thousands of rubles toward Bogdanov’s blood institute, the Soviet leader began now to think that all scientists were charlatans and extortionists.

In the end, however, it was thanks to Bogdanov’s work that Soviet hematology got a much needed push forward.

The photo shows, “Ivan the Terrible and his son,” by Ilya Repin, painted in 1885.