Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin
The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina
by Paul R. Gregory

Hoover Institution Press: 2010

Review by
Phyllis T. Smith
196 pages December 2010


I found Paul R. Gregory's book enlightening and deeply moving, and hope it finds a wide readership. It tells the story of a marriage, and of the tragic fall of Nikolai Bukharin, by any standard the most appealing figure in Lenin's inner circle. One has the feeling that this charming and humane man, if he were born in a stable, democratic republic, would have been a generally beloved figure. It's easy to imagine him in another place and time as a popular professor, a crusading newspaper editor, or a left-leaning politician that even conservatives couldn't help liking. Somewhere other than Stalinist Russia, his tragic flaws — difficulty recognizing true evil when he saw it, a shaky grasp of human nature, and impractical idealism — would not have destroyed his life or helped to destroy anyone else's. He seems to have been seduced by the dream of a communist utopia not through lust for power but because of what was best in him — hope for an egalitarian and just world.

Bukharin advocated "socialism with a human face" and opposed Stalin's ruthless exploitation of the peasantry. He wept when he saw the horrors Stalin's manmade famine caused but was unable to do anything to help the victims other than give away his pocket money to starving children. Stalin targeted him for destruction. Still, Bukharin was complicit with the regime. Early on he helped prop it up, and later, under horrific pressure, he seems to have named names and helped to destroy others. He never fully comprehended the dangers inherent in communism, and before his imprisonment asked his wife to raise his infant son as a true Bolshevik. Just the same, in reading about him one has the sense of a fundamentally decent man outmatched by the forces with which he grappled. He was easily overcome by a wily psychopath whose chilling portrait Gregory vividly paints — Joseph Stalin.

There are aspects of the love story of Bukharin and his wife, Anna Larina, that may give the reader pause. She developed a crush on him when she was eleven years old; the role of her Leninist father in encouraging this child to write the adult Bukharin a love note seems odd to put it mildly. By the time she was sixteen Bukharin returned her feelings. Despite the difference in age her devotion to him was real and stood the test of time. When she was twenty she married the forty-seven year old Bukharin and they had a son. She stood loyally by her husband and fought for his vindication. The scene of Bukharin just before his arrest, knowing that his wife will face persecution or worse, going on his knees to her and begging her to forgive him for ruining her life, is one of the most moving in the book. One reads the story of Bukharin and his Anna hoping against hope that somehow they will have a long, happy life together.

The author assumes at the beginning that his reader knows Bukharin's eventual fate, and the narrative starts when he is already imprisoned. It weaves back and forth through time, giving us vignettes from Bukharin's life. Possibly, a straight chronological telling would have been easier to follow or more suspenseful for the general reader. Nevertheless, I was caught up in the story — a story worthy of a great historical novel. The book takes us right into Party meetings and the show trial in 1938 where Bukharin, accused of nonexistent crimes and fighting for his life, confronts his accusers in all their savage hypocrisy. Later, we are there when Anna meets the grown son she has been forcibly separated from since his early childhood, the question in her mind, should she tell him who his father was?

I read Stephen F. Cohen's Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (1973) many years ago. Gregory's book is not as comprehensive — it does not trace Bukharin's entire life story — but has the great advantage of making use of historical documents that have become available in the intervening years. Gregory can tell us much more about what happened to Bukharin after he was imprisoned and he can tell us exactly what happened at the disappointing convocation of Party timeservers convened under Gorbachev to consider Bukharin's exoneration.

Certain historical riddles are riddles no more. Why did Bukharin confess at his show trial? Was it to perform a last service to the Communist Party, like the fictional character, supposedly based in him, in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940)? Well, as it happens he refuted every concrete charge against him, heroically and brilliantly, after giving a pro forma guilty plea. And the behavior of his fellow defendants is not puzzling, when one considers that they were tortured.

Readers interested in Russian history or totalitarianism will find much that is worth pondering in this book. It can also be read as the tale of two lovers brought together and torn apart in terrible times. I was riveted and could hardly put it down until the last page. It's first rate history.


First appeared at Amazon

This book was made available to me
on my beloved Kindle
via NetGalley courtesy of the publisher.

Phyllis T. Smith's historical novel,
I Am Livia
— about Livia Drusilla,
wife of Rome's first emperor, Augustus —
is currently a finalist in the
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

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