Julius “Jay” Wachtel: History, Fiction, and Something In between

Published: March 13, 2013

Julius (“Jay”) Wachtel was born in Italy. Two weeks later he and his parents, both Holocaust survivors, moved to Buenos Aires. A decade later the family emigrated to the US and settled in Los Angeles. The fact that his mother had been liberated by Soviet troops led Jay to develop an interest in Russian history and literature. After serving in Vietnam, he embarked on a career in federal law enforcement. Along the way he took a break to earn a PhD in criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany. In 1998 he retired from the government and took up a second calling as a lecturer in criminal justice at California State University Fullerton. He is most recently the author of 
Stalin’s Witnesses, a work of historical fiction.

Interview by SRAS Director Renee Stillings – Excerpt from the Book Below

SRAS: What led you to embark on Stalin’s Witnesses, a work of historical fiction focusing on the show trials of the Stalin era? I understand how your interest in Russia and the Soviet Union evolved. How did you come to specifically focus on this period and this figure?

Jay Wachtel teaches criminal justice at California State University Fullerton. He has written a new book on Stalin’s show trials called Stalin’s Witnesses.

Jay Wachtel: University criminal justice departments typically offer few comparative and historical courses. My interests in these areas led me to develop an elective about the Moscow show trials of the thirties, highly dramatic events that should prove compelling even for non-history majors. Half the semester is taken up with a study of the trials’ historical context. During the second half students rehearse a scripted reenactment of the three trials collapsed into one. Each takes on the role of a prosecutor or defendant, and as the term ends the class stages a thirty-minute performance for friends, families and the campus community.

SRAS: That is a fascinating and unique approach to education. How would you describe the role of this course in criminal justice education? What outcome did you expect and/or achieve by having American criminal justice students look at the terror campaign in such an immersive way?

JW: Few judges, prosecutors and police purposely set out to perpetrate falsehoods, yet such outcomes are not rare, even in the US. Show trials are a fascinating, admittedly extreme example that illustrates how entire justice systems can succumb to political pressures, and how self-interest can lead even well-intentioned officials to justify the most horrible behavior and look the other way. And in that, I think I’ve given my book’s theme away.

SRAS: Why did you choose historical fiction as your way of introducing the world to Vladimir Romm and the Moscow Show Trials? It has taken historical fiction some time to earn scholarly respect; did this drive your decision to include the section on documentary evidence?

JW: There were three trials: one each in 1936, 1937, and 1938. Virtually all the evidence at the first trial was in the form of confessions, and the predetermined end – the conviction and execution of all sixteen accused – led to some skepticism in the West. One supposes that’s why prosecutor Vyshinsky impressed five “witnesses” to corroborate the confessions at the 1937 trial.

As a student of the trials I became drawn to the notion of using these “witnesses” to explore the Soviet terror. But historians had preciously little to say about them. It was as though they had parachuted into court then disappeared. I set out to build dossiers on each. It turns out that three witnesses were Party members: Romm; Dmitry Bukhartsev, another correspondent/spy; and Vladimir Loginov, an apparatchik. A Belarusian colleague pored through Party files in Moscow. He also spoke with some distant descendants.

I pitched a nonfiction book to several publishers. But only one seemed even mildly interested. Their reaction, I think, reflected concerns about my lack of Russian history credentials and, as well, deep skepticism that such a narrowly-conceived book would have a market. I couldn’t disagree.

Stalins_Witnesses_3D_click SRAS: Do you think that historians, with looming austerity and budget cuts in the traditional university funding that many rely on, should think about writing in historical fiction to reach a broader market? If so, and this genre takes on an increasing role in presenting history and historical figures, should it be more standard to include notes acknowledging departures from documented fact? Based on what publishers have told you and your experience so far, do you think historical fiction has the potential to be significantly more profitable for historians (and publishers) than straight historical writing?

JW: I wouldn’t encourage anyone down this road who lacks either tenure or (like me) a Federal retirement check. Unless there’s another Cold War, and barring the occasional Solzhenitsian masterpiece, the market for Russia-themed historical fiction seems very limited, both inside and outside academia. While the tools of fiction (i.e., dialogue) present many fascinating openings for class discussion, overburdened instructors may be indisposed to add to their plate, and especially if they must constantly weed out inaccuracies. It’s a reason why I included a factual appendix.

SRAS: Tell us about the process of writing this book. How long did you spend researching it and where did that research take you? Did you complete all or most of your research before starting the creative process? Or did the direction the writing took you in prompt you to engage in additional research? Is there anything that you tried to do differently in your approach to historical fiction?

JW: One witness seemed particularly interesting: Vladimir Romm. As Izvestia correspondent to Washington during 1934-36, he was the only who had spent time in the US. Romm’s Party dossier revealed that, during 1922-1936, he was posted in Germany, France, Japan, Geneva and Washington. I concentrated on him. French and Swiss archivists furnished dozens of pages of visa records, police memoranda and correspondence between ministries warning about Romm, whom European security services (correctly) assumed was a spy.

Continuing my probe, I discovered that Romm was a direct descendant of the famous Romm publishing family of Imperial Vilna. His father, George Romm, a physician, had been imprisoned for oppositional activities and self-exiled to Europe. So while the son’s antagonism towards the Czar – thus his embrace of Communism – made sense, his adopted identity was likely rife with contradictions. We were both Jews, and my mother was born in Vilna (what Vilnius was called under Polish rule). So that made him even more interesting.

Stalin’s Witnesses would be a work of fiction. I would hop on Romm’s back and use him as a guide to the interwar period, fleshing out the struggles of an ostensibly decent servant of the state as he navigated the maelstrom of the Soviet terror.

It took three years to gather materials. Another three years were spent on the first draft. To be as faithful as possible to the historical record the narrative tracks Romm’s actual movements and, where his activities are unknown (as is often the case) inserts him into key events. What would a Soviet intelligence officer be doing in Germany in 1923? In Japan in 1928? In Geneva in 1931?  Dialogue was of course invented. But I strove to conjure scenarios that were plausible and involved persons with whom Romm had associated.

Vladimir Romm
Vladimir Romm. Photo courtesy Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-Sur-Seine, France

Stalin’s Witnesses unfolds along two tracks. A narrative recounts Romm’s personal and professional lives, and to a lesser extent, those of the other witnesses, from the late Czarist era to the eve of World War II. Interspersed is a fictional diary that Romm purportedly kept during the months that he and the other witnesses were in prison, waiting to testify. An extensive appendix relates what took place after the trial, points out substantial departures from fact and provides references to source materials.

How to explain the inexplicable? Stalin’s Witnesses carefully applies the tools of fiction to demonstrate how personal ambitions and a trenchant ideology can lead people to justify – and to do – the most terrible things. That’s a problem, of course, that far transcends The Great Terror.

SRAS: Did you work in any of the archives yourself? If so, were there any specific challenges? Did your research involve any travel to Russia or other locations relevant to the story of Romm? Any adventures you’d like to share?

JW: My only personal visit was to the Hoover archives. A colleague visited the archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg. All other work was done through correspondence, e-mail and occasionally by telephone. An English-speaking archivist at the Bundesarchiv in Germany happened to have parallel interests and proved phenomenally helpful. Archivists at the Archives Nationales of France and the Swiss Federal Archives accepted my rusty French (with a grin, I suppose) and went on to unearth and photocopy a treasure trove of police files and correspondence. It included the most unique document that this retired Federal agent has ever seen. It’s the surveillance log of a Swiss detective, reporting that my novel’s protagonist, then a member of the Soviet delegation to the Disarmament Conference, was carrying on an affair with the secretary of the American legation.

SRAS: One last question. What advice would you give to a student hoping to follow in your footsteps and embark on a writing career?

JW: First, don’t follow in my footsteps. While you’re still wrinkle-free take courses in literature and writing. Attend workshops and conferences, hang out at salons, and grab every opportunity to network with authors, agents and publisher rep’s. And of course, write. And rewrite. And rewrite your rewrites. Submit your (polished) work to student and literary journals, and take their feedback to heart. Bon voyage!

Excerpt from Stalin’s Witnesses
by Julius Wachtel 
Reprinted with permission

from Knox Robinson Publishing, London

Stalins_Witnesses_3D_click The following is the first chapter of Stalin’s Witnesses. An interesting feature of this novel is that the author has chosen to alternate chapters between two moving time periods. One, the “diary” (post-arrest) and the other starting with the X’s childhood. While this initially feels frustrating, it rapidly feeds the page-turner nature of the novel as you find yourself wanting to progress in both storylines.

Lubyanka prison, 27 November 1936

My cell is a narrow, rectangular affair, three meters wide by four meters in length, with a stained concrete floor, rude masonry walls and a sturdy steel door bearing the disquieting imprint of the labor camp where it was manufactured. There is one small window. High and out of reach, it is so encrusted with dirt that little light enters. My sole source of illumination is a single bulb that burns dimly around the clock, something that was at first bothersome but to which I’m growing accustomed. I sleep, or try to, on a rude metal cot with a thin, badly stained mattress. Into the little space that remains they’ve wedged a battered old desk and a flimsy chair, probably castoffs from some petty bureaucrat’s office. What function they might serve eludes me as I’ve been denied the right to correspond. I leave for last my lodgings’ most unpleasant feature, a metal pail euphemistically referred to as the “honey pot,” which generates a stench so unpleasant that during my first days in this hellhole it was difficult to breathe.

Over the years I have heard tales of how prisoners adapt. Now that I’ve joined their ranks I’m not sure whether getting used to such indignities is something to celebrate. But I refuse to despair. I’ve done nothing wrong, and before long this horrible injustice will be sorted out.

I was notified of my reassignment three months ago, in August, while posted as Izvestia correspondent to Washington. There was little to suggest that anything was amiss. All who serve the Soviet Union are well aware of the pretexts that Moscow Center employs to recall officers who have fallen out of favor, like the sudden illness of a spouse or an accident involving one’s child, but such events aren’t normally celebrated with elaborate champagne receptions, good-bye gifts and congratulatory speeches by colleagues and well-wishers.

Moments after the embassy’s communications officer decoded the message that brought to a close my two years of service as Izvestia correspondent to Washington, my superior, Ambassador Troyanovsky, announced that after a brief sojourn in the Soviet capital I would be sent to Great Britain. It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn’t apprehensive, as sham transfers aren’t exactly unknown, but his words seemed sincere, and after fifteen years in the Soviet secret service, much of it spent under the guise of being a foreign correspondent, it was easy enough to attribute my unease to a bad case of Bolshevik paranoia.

A few weeks earlier we had gathered in the embassy’s projection room to watch clips from the trial this past August where sixteen comrades, among them several leading Party officials, took the stand and one after the other tearfully confessed that they had conspired to assassinate Stalin, wreck Soviet industry and abandon the country to its mortal enemies, Germany and Japan. That high-ranking Bolsheviks would participate in such a scheme seemed astounding – to me, it still does – but they spoke earnestly and their detailed accounts left little to the imagination. A few staffers actually fell ill.

As Soviet law prescribes, each of the accused was shot within twenty-four hours of the verdict, with no right to appeal. To execute comrades of high rank is an unprecedented step, and the auditorium remained quiet well after the projector ceased whirring. Troyanovsky tried to lift the mood with a small speech praising Procurator-General Vyshinsky’s tireless efforts and brilliant investigation for thoroughly discrediting the plot’s kingpin, the exile Trotsky, then in his seventh year of running around Europe, spouting off against the General Secretary and trying to spur a counterrevolution.

It’s no secret that many loyal communists, myself included, favored Trotsky at a time when such sentiments were widespread and, I might add, perfectly legal. It’s also true that as the ambassador pointed out – I might add, with a glance in my direction – all had ample opportunity to recant their errors, so the few who failed to live up to their end of the bargain have only themselves to blame. Still, his comments were disturbing. Were any of us at risk? No one dared ask. Truly, all notions of “democracy in the party” vanished long ago.

Throughout the talk I spotted more than a few sallow faces, but as we filed out things livened up. Surely, went the whispers, treachery that severe left the authorities no option, especially now that fascists are breathing down our necks. Looking back on that day I suppose we just wanted to put it all behind us.

In the USSR the verdicts were celebrated with speeches and rallies. But world reaction was mixed. Troyanovsky told me to do what I could to counter the onslaught of virulent anti-Soviet propaganda, but nothing could stop the capitalist press from harping about our reliance on confessions, a curious posture as that is the main way of securing convictions in the West. As for calling the results “preordained,” a smooth trial hardly seems something to criticize. Is it preferable that the accused deny their guilt?

Then the other shoe dropped. There I was, trying to sell my American counterparts on the wonders of Soviet justice when rumors began to float around the embassy about a second trial. Its scope seemed remarkably similar to the first, with Trotsky reprising his role as the enabler of an Axis-inspired plot to destabilize the motherland. What shook me up was that authorities kicked off their campaign by running Izvestia through the wringer, publicly disparaging my colleagues for their lack of patriotism, then added fuel to the fire by arresting the famous journalist Karl Radek and accusing him of being Trotsky’s main go-between.

Radek and I – at the time of his arrest he was nominally my editor – go back a long way. Although not all my memories of him are pleasant, to argue that he was a fascist stooge seemed awfully far-fetched. Still, it was true that Radek was for a time Trotsky’s most fervent disciple, at least until Stalin had them both exiled. In those days a bullet to the back of the head wasn’t yet the preferred solution, and Trotsky was deported to Europe. Amazingly, Radek was allowed to remain and eventually clawed himself back into the General Secretary’s good graces. I hadn’t seen him since my going-away party in Moscow, and before that had steered clear of the man for years, so I managed to convince myself that his turn to counterrevolutionary activity was somehow plausible.

On a breezy afternoon only a month ago, as Washington enjoyed its last breath of fall, Galina, our son Georgie and I got together with Paul Ward and his wife at their fine home just outside the capital. While our wives took Georgie for a stroll, Paul and I sat in a “small” kitchen. Nearly the size of our Moscow apartment, it was equipped in typical American fashion with all the conveniences of a fine restaurant.

Affluence has not blinded Paul to his country’s failings. The respected political columnist of The Nation was one of the first to point out Germany’s threat to world peace and criticize as incredibly wrong-headed the isolationist tendencies of the American Congress. Regrettably, while many writers and intellectuals openly support the Soviet cause, neither Paul nor I had much success persuading legislators to join in, and he and I both fear that by the time the U.S. grasps that its future and ours are entwined it may be too late. Prick the skin of most Americans and out oozes European blood. What will it take for the most powerful nation on Earth to come to its senses?

Galina and I first set foot in America in early 1934. We were instantly overwhelmed by its apparent prosperity, the spacious apartments and fine homes, many occupied by persons of modest means, the abundance of inexpensive, high-quality consumer goods, and most of all the numerous automobiles clogging the roads, their fumes choking passers-by and casting an eerie pall. Yet in time the rough edges began to show. Coming from the USSR, where it is a serious crime to discriminate based on ethnicity, we were disturbed by racism so pervasive that even in the capital the colored ride in the back of public transport, hold menial jobs and live in the least desirable areas. I have written of the deplorable inequality in the distribution of wealth, with affluent areas bordering neighborhoods beset by the deepest imaginable poverty. Crime and violence are rampant, far worse than what one should expect in a civilized society. Yes, America did have its material comforts. Russians are perennially faced with a scarcity of conveniences – say, good soaps, nice toothbrushes – that could make everyday life a little more pleasant. Yet our sojourn in America convinced us that however well it might provide in the way of consumer goods, capitalism, particularly the unforgiving, every-man-for-himself kind practiced there, can have terrible consequences for those left on the outside.

Paul opened a fresh bottle of vodka and poured two shots. Not quite the Slav, he took only a small sip.

“To my good friend Vladimir Georgievich Romm, may you enjoy the pinnacle of success in whatever it is that you really do, now and in the future. LeChaim!

Za vashe zdorov’ye!” I downed my drink in a single gulp. Its unusual flavor prompted me to inspect the bottle. As I suspected, it was Smirnoff, from the Smirnov family, those infamous distillers who fled Russia during the Revolution.

I slid the tumbler forward. “Well, now that you’ve entrapped me I might as well have another.”

I was expected to do much more than just take America’s pulse. How could we assure its support in the battle against fascism? If war breaks out with Germany and Japan, as our generals are convinced it will, the Soviet Union will need the West’s material support and, more likely than not, its armed might. I was to seek out persons of influence – journalists, capitalists, politicians – and bring them to our view of things. It was critical to overcome the isolationist sentiment, particularly noticeable in their Congress, which made it impossible for Roosevelt to fully embrace the USSR.

My relationship with Paul was much more than business, and because of it far more productive. I also had some nice chats with the New York Times’ manicured, resplendently tailored Walter Duranty. Of course, both were already sympathetic to the Soviet cause. It’s not that other reporters were hostile: it’s that they didn’t care. Most assumed that I spent all my time just like them, engaged in trivial concerns, and when I tried to steer discussions to issues such as the threats posed by fascism they usually groaned. Their editors were interested in drawing in readers, not putting them off. Pressures in the U.S. to return a profit imbue everything with a commercial flavor, affecting even newspapers, which as honest reporters will admit pretend to provide a public service while mostly chasing advertising dollars. American writers expend tons of newsprint and innumerable column inches reporting “juicy” events that lack any enlightening value or social significance, such as lurid crimes and the comings-and-goings of movie stars, topics that would be ridiculed in Moscow. Urging America to become involved in foreign conflicts is strictly taboo.

If newsmen were difficult, bureaucrats proved nearly impossible. Most were fearful that I might discover some horrible secret and were extremely tight-lipped, at least until a few shots of bourbon (a horrid drink to which Americans seem addicted) lubricated their tongues. Even then what I mostly got was nonsense. However, I did make inroads with one well-connected person. I first met Allen Dulles in 1932 at the disarmament conference in Geneva during that hopeful time when it seemed that world peace and prosperity was finally within reach. Dulles and I (he was legal counsel to the American legation) established a back-channel to smooth the way for establishing diplomatic relations between our countries. We became reacquainted when I was posted to Washington and he was spending time in the capital in connection with his famous brother’s New York law firm. Dulles is rumored to be in line for a top intelligence post, and developing him as a source remains a very worthwhile objective.

But my fondest recollections are of Paul. He and I have a common outlook, a belief that under the right conditions America could transition into a just and peaceful society without artificial social and political boundaries; indeed, without a government of any kind. That’s not to say that we are exactly of the same mind, as Paul had come to feel that the path chosen by the USSR was excessively centralized and authoritarian.

“When are you leaving?” he asked.

“Wednesday. We take the train to New York then sail for England the following day.”

“Are you sure that you want to do that?”

My friend’s somber tone took me aback. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I be sure?”

Paul fiddled with his drink. “Everyone’s heard about Radek. Could you be next?”

That was a startling thing for Paul to say, and it took me a moment to regain my composure. Was I being recalled under pretext? My conscience was clear. Indeed, I felt indebted to the USSR. Through its graces three citizens – Galina, Georgie and I – were participating in a great adventure, enjoying perquisites that would have been completely out of reach for Jewish persons under the Czar, and it seemed unthinkable to pay back that debt by turning our backs on communism.

“Why should I worry?” I asked, trying to convince the both of us. “I’ve kept my distance from Radek, and whatever the fool’s done, or not, I wasn’t in on it.”

“I’m sure you had nothing to do with a plot, if there was one,” Paul hastily replied. “But from what I heard there’s a trial on the way. You know the man. If he’s squeezed he’s liable to…”

At that moment Paul’s wife Dorothy rushed in. Georgie’s brace was giving him trouble and I left to help. Paul and I never did finish that discussion.

Galina was overjoyed at the news of our return. Despite putting on a good show she dearly missed the homeland and was in fact quite miserable. My wife’s absence from Moscow had forced her to give up a leadership role in a communist women’s organization, and other than for an occasional lecture at the Soviet legation there was little in Washington to satisfy her thirst for political enlightenment. Her opinion of American culture wasn’t favorable. She was badly put off by the preoccupation with wealth, the banal entertainments and careless form of speech and dress, and neither our spacious apartment, which in Moscow would be out of reach to all but the nomenklatura, nor the skilled therapists who attended to Georgie seemed to her worthy of squandering one more day in the hub of world capitalism.

Those, as best I can remember, were her exact sentiments.

Our travel plans coincided with the Queen Mary’s schedule, and we secured a fine berth, a small luxury that, considering our little fellow’s special needs, the ambassador was happy to indulge. Everything had been proceeding well until the evening before our departure, when after making my final round of farewells I returned to the apartment to find Galina hysterical.

“Why didn’t you tell me that Radek was arrested?”

I took a deep breath. “I suppose I didn’t want to worry you,” I replied. Galina had called Dorothy to say her good-byes, and one thing led to another.

“Worry me? They shoot a score of traitors, and then two weeks later that repulsive little man who nearly manipulated you into collaborating gets picked up by the secret police!”

Galina was rarely frightened, and the depth of her concern got me thinking. What if, indeed?  “Since those times all we’ve worked on together are a few newspaper articles,” I insisted. “If there’s anything even vaguely counterrevolutionary about them, give me a pistol, I’ll save the bastards the trouble and do it myself!”

We had forgotten all about Georgie, and when our son heard these horrible words he began to sob. I took him into my arms and the three of us hugged for a very long time.

Cookies and a coloring book settled the little man down. But Galina was badly upset. My wife had always been the stauncher communist: deep down, did she think that I had somehow stepped over the line?

“Will you call the ambassador?” she asked.

Her plaintive tone threw me off balance. “What could I say without making him suspicious?” I protested. “Should I ask, ‘Comrade Ambassador, exactly what kind of recall is this – the ‘good’ kind or the bad? Look, everyone knows that we’re friends – he’s the one who lobbied to bring me here – so if I was really in trouble he’d be the last person whom Moscow Center would tell. Only yesterday you and Elena were making plans to meet in London. Do you really think that Alexander Antonovich would knowingly lead us into a trap?”

My wife’s tears returned, and when I tried to comfort her she ignored me and curled up on the sofa. I fell into bed, physically and emotionally drained. Galina had always been the more resilient. When doctors diagnosed Georgie’s condition and warned there was already considerable damage she quickly took charge of things, learning everything there was to know about his illness and even arranging to have him treated in a French sanatorium, a placement that vastly improved his prognosis and probably saved our marriage as well. Now it was my turn to hold things together and I wondered if I was up to the task.

A few days later, after a nice send-off by the Troyanovskys and a good night’s sleep in a fine New York hotel we stood in awe of the most magnificent steamship ever built, a vessel of such enormous dimensions that when Georgie asked how an object like this could float all I could say was, “It’s a miracle!” The lengthy boarding process passed in the blink of an eye, and as I helped my son navigate the gangplank Galina squeezed my hand. Neither of us had brought up that unpleasant business again, and we let the excitement of the journey and the anticipation of reunions with family and friends carry us along.

The voyage was uneventful. Galina and Georgie passed the time reading and playing games while I wrote letters to colleagues whom I did not personally bid farewell. I particularly wanted to stay in touch with Allen Dulles, who remains influential even though his cronies are presently out of power. Sooner or later Allen will return to government, most likely in the intelligence service, which has long been his obsession. I had hoped we could work together when that day came, but that possibility now seems remote.

Our welcome-home celebration was hosted by my brother Alexander and his wife, Elena.  Both are well-known Moscow art critics, and Alexander’s biography of the French impressionist Matisse is due out as I write. Just before we left for Washington he and Elena were awarded a spacious flat in a Tverskaya Street – brownstone, with high ceilings, a separate dining room and a splendid view of the Kremlin. Galina is terribly jealous, as our family, which includes her mother Ludvika, is stuffed into a tiny apartment that suffers from a bad case of Russian plumbing, meaning that we must often resort to buckets.

To my delight my other brother Evsey and his wife Esfir joined us. They live in Leningrad. Evsey is an engineer in the paper industry. He hasn’t been in the best of health, and when I scolded him for making the long trip he responded by loudly bussing my cheeks, making the ladies laugh and reminding me of those times in Vilna when my brothers (I’m the baby of the family) would give me a big smooch as they snuck off to attend meetings of their revolutionary cell. Neither Alexander nor Evsey have children so they brought Georgie many gifts, spoiling him rotten, as uncles tend to do.

Every Russian family has a poet. Ours is Evsey. His passion, unfortunately, is for the Western-style romantic kind, which places him at odds with the proletarian ideals that the Soviet Union expects its artists to promote. It’s an interest that he picked up from one of mother’s artsy friends and which is bound to land him in hot water, even if he always does use a pseudonym.

Alexander, who has little tolerance for non-conformism, skimmed Evsey’s most recent book of verse. “Can you show me which of these so-called ‘poems’ speaks to the struggles of the workers?” he asked, trying without much success to conceal his irritation. His attempts over the years to reform his liberally-minded sibling have had little apparent effect.

“What struggles do you have in mind, dear brother? Hell, even if you halve the figures the Commissariats are flaunting – no, if you quarter them! – every Soviet worker must be a Stakhanovite!”

Evsey’s digs at the exaggerations of the Five-Year Plans and the glorification of Soviet workers riled Alexander. “Is it still your position, Evsey Georgievich, that art has no obligation other than to itself?”

“Please, call me ‘Sallo’. Everyone else does.”

Alexander grinned weakly. “Very well, Sallo. You may call me ‘Sasha’.”

Evsey clapped in excitement. “Wonderful! Now that we’re addressing each other as intimates let me explain why evaluating art through the prism of socialism does both a disservice. Better yet, why don’t you ask your friend Shostakovich?”

That really was going too far. Everyone knows that Shostakovich is still on the mend politically after the inaugural performance of his “Lady Macbeth” led Stalin to publicly storm out of the Bolshoi. A biting editorial in the next day’s Pravda pointed out that glorifying the murder of one’s spouse to make way for a lover hardly qualifies as socialist art, and within days the Union of Soviet Composers announced a corrective campaign to assure that future productions support rather than disparage communistic values. A tempest in a teapot if you ask me, but don’t get Galina going on it!

“Dmitri Dmitrievich’s errors were the products of youth and inexperience,” Alexander explained. “We recently had him over for dinner. He personally reassured us that he is working day and night to create more socially conscious works. Elena and I are doing all we can to help.”

Evsey refilled his glass with a healthy dose of pepper vodka. “That’s exactly my point, Sasha. Here the Government – I mean the critic – advises the composer, who writes a piece, which is criticized, then rewritten, then criticized some more, squeezing out whatever creative juices remain, so when the infernal cycle is done all you have left is a prune. No! Not a prune – the pit! But why worry? We’ve already let the Party decide for us in every other respect!”

The front door slammed. Galina and her mother were gone, taking Georgie with them. I couldn’t blame them. After the ups and downs of collectivization, the wildly exaggerated goals of the plans, the struggles with Trotsky, the trials, and the looming war against fascism, there’s precious little room left for differences of opinion, and with the risk of being denounced lurking around every corner it’s best not to get into the habit of speaking too much from the heart. Tolerance for competing views is not a quality that Socialists have in abundance, and to that extent we could probably learn something from the West.

When I arrived at the apartment all were asleep. Early the next morning I woke to my wife’s sweet breath, a steaming cup of tea and an excited eleven-year-old who couldn’t wait to rekindle old friendships. All the unpleasantness seemed behind us. Galina was buzzing around the apartment, thrilled to be back and anxious to resume teaching at the primary school. Catching a glimpse of her fine figure and stunning profile, I considered myself a very lucky man.

On her way out she gave me a nice kiss. “You were right. I was silly to worry.”

Ludvika was in the kitchen. As usual, she caught everything. “Worry? What’s there to worry about?”

An hour later I was sitting in the reception area of Izvestia waiting for Nikolai Bukharin, the editor-in-chief. He never showed up, so the receptionist eventually turned me over to a preoccupied editor who knew nothing of my pending reassignment or really much of anything else (“we just placed someone in London, why would they send you too?”). He led me to a dusty, vacant office and told me to make myself at home. While cleaning out the desk of its prior occupant I found one of Radek’s calling cards, an unnerving coincidence that left me a bit shaken. To clear my head I wandered around the news room. No one seemed interested in having a chat, which wasn’t surprising considering what I later learned, in the men’s room, when a reporter took pity and whispered the chilling news that Comrade Bukharin was confined to his home awaiting the findings of a Party inquiry into his alleged links with Trotsky.

Radek, then Bukharin. The dominoes were falling, all right.

The editor returned and we agreed that I would write a piece about American isolationism, a topic that was very much on everyone’s mind. The hours passed quickly and it was soon time to leave. For a change of pace I tried the spectacular new Metro, opened only last year. As I walked down elegantly arched corridors lined with paintings and sculptures depicting robust workers, bountiful harvests and the USSR’s military might it was impossible not to be impressed. Comrade Stalin may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his impact on productivity and morale has been nothing short of amazing. Moments later, seated comfortably in a shiny new railcar, I glanced out just in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the General Secretary’s likeness beaming down from the tunnel entrance. Public transportation in Washington was poor and there was no underground, so when I traveled it was mostly by car, one of those “freedoms” that Americans enjoy along with frequent jam-ups, breakdowns and accidents. One cannot truly appreciate the orderliness of Moscow without visiting the West.

I exited the train eager to get home and share news of my writing assignment and subway ride. My euphoria lasted all of a few seconds. Not more than twenty meters away, standing in a corner but making no attempt to hide, were the same two dour-looking characters who had been hanging around the paper when I left. I walked home quickly, their presence at the station instilling a sense of foreboding that not even Galina’s warm greeting could shake.

I feigned a headache and took refuge in the bedroom. My mind was buzzing. What should I do? Under such circumstances what does one do? Pack a bag? Make a run for it? Destroy incriminating documents that don’t exist? Time passed and I gradually relaxed. Maybe these were different men. Maybe my mind was playing tricks.

Alas, it wasn’t. I’d been napping for an hour when a squad of secret police – yes, including my two shadows – barged in and spirited me away, their disinterest in looking around for proof of my guilt proving nearly as unsettling as my arrest.

Excerpt reprinted with permission
from Knox Robinson Publishing, London

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has managed the SRAS Family of Sites, a grouping of publications that cover geopolitics, history, business, economy, pop culture, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He lived in Moscow, Russia from 2003-2022. He also assists in program development and leads SRAS' scholarship programs.

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