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Sunday Times (UK)
June 29, 2003
Cover story:
Stalin's women

Pictures of a birthday party, forgotten for half a century in the Communist archives in Moscow until they were unearthed by Simon Sebag Montefiore, led him to discover a story of romance and terror at the court of Joseph Stalin, the Red Tsar

She sat at Stalins feet smiling up at the camera with a huge beam on her face, wearing one of her large lace collars. I recognised her immediately: Zhenya Alliluyeva, the Soviet dictators sister-in-law and probably his mistress.

I was sitting alone in a little room in the hideous concrete Communist party archives in central Moscow, still emblazoned with carvings of Lenin and Marx. The old wooden desk in front of me was covered in photographs, letters and diaries.

These treasures of the party archives had only just been opened to the public. There were Stalins letters to many of his Bolshevik magnates and friends; his love letters to his wife Nadya; the gossipy diary of one of his in-laws and the family photograph albums.

The newly opened documents in the archive change the way historians will see the Soviet leader and his entourage. Their power emerges as amazingly personal and informal and much more of an oligarchy in the early 1930s than was previously thought. It is fascinating to see handwritten letters in which Stalin often had to apologise to his magnates or in which they actually tease him or disagree with him.

The photographs are also revealing. Many histories of Stalin have claimed that after the death of his wife in 1932 he retreated into all-male society. Yet here he was, at his birthday party two years later, surrounded by women, Zhenya luminously among them. Blue-eyed and busty, with wavy blonde hair, dimples and glistening lips, she seemed to be leaning against his knee.

This photograph [not carried on the website] catches not only Stalins intimacy with her but an intimate moment in his world, when he found himself for a few years embraced into the suffocating warmth of his sisters-in-law and the wider Bolshevik matriarchy. It did not last. Stalin saw the wives as hostages for his comrades good behaviour and as gossipy, irresponsible liabilities.

The bitchy infighting among the excitable coterie of women also contributed to Stalins growing paranoia, which would result in the murderous Terror he unleashed in 1937. There was even an element of puritanism to his purges, a reaction to the growing elite corruption and decadence. Many of those in the birthday party pictures were shot or arrested. Zhenya herself faced a terrible future.

STALINS close relationship with Zhenya arose from a personal tragedy, the most wounding and mysterious of his career.

At about 7pm on November 8, 1932, his wife was dressing for a party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Fragile, 31-year-old Nadya prided herself on her Bolshevik modesty, wearing the dullest dresses and no make-up. But tonight she was making a special effort. In the Stalins gloomy apartment in the Kremlin, she twirled for her sister Anna in a fashionable black dress embroidered with red roses.

In his office a few hundred yards away, Stalin, 52, was chatting with his prime minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. The subject was their ruthless war to subjugate the peasantry, which was causing famine and widespread loss of life. At 8pm, they left for the party through the snowy alleyways and squares of the Kremlin. Stalin wore his Communist party tunic, baggy trousers, soft boots, old greatcoat and a wolfskin shapka with earmuffs.

The Vozhd had a reputation for inscrutability and modesty. But the real Stalin was a mercurial neurotic. He was highly intelligent, garrulous, sociable and a fine singer but also a lonely, cold and unhappy man. He loved roses and mimosas but believed the solution to every human problem was death. He could not have been a worse partner for his self-centred wife, who was troubled by depression and occasional attacks of hysteria.

They had become lovers in 1918 when he was Lenins brutal troubleshooter at Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) during the civil war; she was a teenage typist on his armoured train. Their later letters reveal a difficult but loving marriage.

Hello, Tatka . . . I miss you so much Tatochka Im as lonely as a horned owl . . . My kisses! Your Joseph, he wrote to her in June 1930. Her reply spoke of their very passionate kisses.

There were country weekends at peaceful dachas, cheerful dinners in the Kremlin and languid holidays on the Black Sea that Stalins children would remember as the happiest of their lives. But there were also dramatic rows. Nadya had recently ruined an evening at the theatre by throwing a tantrum when Stalin flirted with a ballerina.

Now, however, Nadya was excited as she placed a scarlet tea rose in her black hair and set off for the party. It was being held at the home of the defence commissar, Kliment Voroshilov, just across a lane from the Stalins apartment. All the Bolshevik potentates lived so close to each other around the spired and domed courtyards of the Kremlin that they resembled dons in an Oxford college. Stalin was always popping in for a chat. As the documents in the party archive show, he still had to use charm and cajolery to get his way.

These were men hardened by years in the Bolshevik underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the civil war, and now exultant at the industrial triumphs of the Stalin revolution.

Their cheerful soirees usually ended in Cossack jigs and Georgian laments. But this November night things did not end as usual. Stalin never forgot the part each played. Many of them would die terrible deaths within five years.

Some time during the evening, over a table of vodka, Georgian wines and simple food soup, salted fish, maybe some lamb Stalin and Nadya became angry with each other.

He had barely noticed how she had dressed up. Irritated, she started dancing with her louche Georgian godfather, Uncle Abel Yenukidze, the official in charge of the Kremlin, who had shocked the party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.

Stalin was flirting with Galya Yegorova, the beautiful wife of a Red Army commander. Galya, 34, was a brash film actress well known for her affairs and risqu dresses.

The Soviet dictator was no womaniser, but he was not uninterested in women and women were definitely interested in him. Whether they were the wives of comrades, relations or servants, women buzzed around him. He was bombarded with fan mail. Dear Comrade Stalin, I saw you in my dreams . . . I have hopes of an audience, wrote a provincial teacher. I enclose my photograph . . .

His bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik, once confided that Stalin was so besieged with offers that he could not resist everyone: He was a man after all.

Certainly Nadya suspected him of having affairs, most recently with a female hairdresser in the Kremlin. Disappointed by Stalins oafishness, she now exploded.

Some accounts claim that, sitting opposite Nadya at the table, Stalin upbraided her for not raising her glass when he toasted the destruction of the enemies of the state.

Why arent you drinking? he called, tossing orange peel at her. Hey you! Have a drink! My name isnt hey! she retorted, and she stormed out screaming: Shut up! Shut up! Molotovs wife Polina followed her out and calmed her down. When they said good night she seemed perfectly calm.

Stalins own movements after the party are a mystery. Some have it that when he did not come home Nadya called their dacha.

Is Stalin there? Yes, replied a security guard.

Whos with him? Gusevs wife.

Gusev, said to have been an army officer, has never been identified. Others say Stalin slept at home. He certainly returned at some point and went drunkenly to his bedroom down a different corridor from his wifes.

He woke late in the morning, apparently unaware of the consternation in the apartment. But when he walked into the dining room Nadyas godfather greeted him with the news that she had shot herself during the night, still wearing her black dress.

AMONG the first relatives to arrive were Zhenya and her husband Pavel, who was Nadyas brother. They were shocked not only by the death of a sister but by the sight of Stalin himself, who had never seemed so vulnerable. He threatened suicide and asked Zhenya: Whats missing in me? She temporarily moved in to watch over him. One night she heard screeching and found him lying on a sofa in the half-light, spitting at the wall, which was dripping with trails of saliva.

The all-powerful widower soon found himself in the loving but overwhelming embrace of a newly reconstructed family. Pavel and Zhenya became his constant companions. Nadyas sister Anna and her husband Stanislas Redens, boss of the Moscow secret police, also drew close.

A third couple, Alyosha and Maria Svanidze, completed this inner circle. Alyosha was the brother of Stalins first wife, who had died in 1907. Maria was a Jewish Georgian soprano with a peaches and cream complexion and big blue eyes. She began to keep a remarkable diary, one of the most revealing documents of the 1930s, which was later preserved by Stalin in his own archive.

Alongside these close relatives, the wives of the Bolshevik magnates were in constant bitchy competition for his favour.

The most important of Stalins courtiers were all at his dacha on December 21, 1934, for his 55th birthday. It was a dangerous time. Sergei Kirov, Stalins favourite magnate, had been assassinated. In the few weeks since his death more than 6,500 people had been executed. Yet a saddened Stalin allowed his entourage to arrange his usual birthday party.

As I went through the Communist party archives I read the details of that night recorded in Maria Svanidzes diary. I also interviewed Stalins adopted son Artyom Sergeev, now a retired general, who had attended the birthday party as a boy of 13. Their memories matched.

Stalin served cabbage soup to his guests and there were tearful toasts to Kirov and Nadya. Then his bodyguard assembled everybody for photographs.

In the most telling photo, Stalin is surrounded by his worshipful women. To his right is Sashiko Svanidze, pushy older sister of his first wife; then Maria Kaganovicha, wife of one of the most powerful magnates, and the busty Maria Svanidze. On his left is the elegant Polina Molotova.

Stalin had long admired Dora Khazan, wife of another politburo member, who stands behind him; indeed it has been claimed that she was once his mistress. But the whole group is framed around Zhenya, who smiles like the cat who has got the cream.

Then 36, Zhenya was the daughter of a priest. With her golden skin and mischievous nature, she radiated health. While the other women had grown older and fatter, she was young, fresh and feminine in her frilly dresses, flamboyant collars and silk scarves.

Stalin had long admired her joie de vivre. She said whatever she thought and was unafraid of him. On her first visit to his dacha she had found a meal on the table. She ate it all. Stalin then walked in and asked: Wheres my onion soup? Zhenya admitted she had eaten it. This might have provoked an explosion but he had merely smiled and said: Next time they had better make two.

She was the only person who could tease Stalin. He openly admired her dress sense, humour, even her mischievous defiance. She was an expert teller of the chastushka, bawdy punning rhymes. They do not translate well but Stalins favourites were such gems as Simple to shit off a bridge, but one person did it and fell off or Sitting in ones own shit feels as safe as a fortress.

After Nadyas suicide a fresh relationship developed between the widower and this blithe woman. They probably became lovers in 1934. Bolshevik secrecy and prudishness make these matters especially difficult to research, but Maria Svanidze observed their relationship and recorded it in the diary that Stalin himself preserved.

Maria spotted how Zhenya went out of her way to be alone with him. He teased Zhenya about getting plump again. He treated her very affectionately. Now that I know everything I have watched them closely.

This is confirmed by Zhenyas daughter Kira, who frequently saw them together. A former actress, Kira is now a very old lady but still possessed of electric energy and mischief like her mother. When I met her in Moscow she talked for hours about the relationship with Stalin, who was in love with my mother. Another child of the era, Kiras cousin, Leonid Redens, agreed that it was more than a friendship.

The paradox was that Stalin was an awkward man of the 19th century: flirtatious with the women of his circle, strictly prudish about his own daughter and shocked at feminism and free love. Even the reign of terror he was unleashing was partly among many more important things the triumph of prissy Bolshevik morality over the sexual freedom of the 1920s. The scent of actresses, the whirl of diplomatic salons and the glow of foreign decadence were sometimes enough to convince the lonely Stalin, reeking of puritanical envy, that treason and duplicity lurked.

The aunties as Stalins children called them were about to be purged. One pities these haughty, decent women, who found themselves in a quagmire they so little understood.

IN THE spring of 1937, Stalin began to distance himself from the family, whose gossipy arrogance suddenly seemed suspicious. When they gathered at his apartment for his daughter Svetlanas 11th birthday on February 28, he did not attend.

The Svanidzes were the first to fall. On April 2, Stalin wrote an ominous note to Nikolai Yezhov, the secret police chief: Purge the staff of the state bank. Alyosha Svanidze was its deputy chairman. Marias access to Stalin suddenly ended. Her diary stopped abruptly.

Then came news of the arrest of Galya Yegorova, with whom Stalin had flirted before Nadyas suicide, and her best friend, Olga Budyonny, wife of one of Stalins favourite marshals.

It seems that Olga, a Bolshoi singer, was cuckolding Budyonny with a tenor and flirting with Polish diplomats. According to the secret police, she and Galya visited foreign embassies. Galya was shot and Olga went mad in solitary confinement.

So the purge was not confined to the aunties. Stalin was probing the submission of his comrades by investigating and sometimes killing their wives. You must be brave, he told Budyonny. Do you think I dont feel sorry when my closest circle turn out to be enemies of the people? In the view of Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few top Bolsheviks to outlive the dictator and enjoy a peaceful old age, Stalin did not recognise personal relations. The love of one person for another did not exist.

Maria Svanidze and her husband remained under investigation for the rest of the year. At Christmas they visited Zhenya in the House on the Embankment, the apartment block by the Moscow river where the family all lived. Maria showed off her new low-cut velvet dress. After they left at midnight, Zhenya and Kira were doing the dishes when the bell rang. It was Marias son: Mama and Alyosha have been arrested. She was taken away in her beautiful clothes.

Zhenya received a letter from Maria who begged her to pass it on to Stalin: If I dont leave this camp, Ill die. Zhenya took the message to the dictator, who warned her angrily: Dont ever do this again! Maria was moved to a harsher prison. Both she and her husband would eventually be shot.

Next it was the turn of Yevgenia Yezhova, wife of the head of the secret police. One of several pretty young Jewish women who fluttered around Stalin more interested in clothes, jokes and affairs than dialectical materialism she fell victim to the iron law of terror: the executor must be executed.

Lavrenti Beria, the intelligent and able sadist whom Stalin brought in from Georgia to assist in the purges, threw suspicion on her in his efforts to usurp her husband. She poisoned herself in an attempt to save Yezhov, but he too was eventually executed.

All our family, wrote Svetlana, was completely baffled as to why Stalin made Beria, a provincial secret policeman, so close to himself and the government in Moscow. But this was precisely why Stalin had promoted him: nobody was sacred to Beria.

Putting him in the family circle was like putting a fox in a chicken coop. Burning with the inferiority complex of a scorned provincial, he was determined to prove himself by destroying the new nobility, and the wives were a special target.

There was a history of tension between Beria and Zhenya. He had once tried to flirt with her while her husband and Stalin were sitting nearby. She warned: If this bastard doesnt leave me alone, Ill smash his pince-nez. But Beria had persisted, and she appealed to Stalin: Joseph! Hes trying to squeeze my knee! Now, in November 1938, Zhenyas husband Pavel, a tank forces commissar, died suspiciously. Zhenya was convinced that Beria had poisoned him.

Next Stalins brother-in-law, Stanislas Redens, was arrested. His wife Anna badgered Stalin about him for several years, unaware that he had been shot. Perhaps Stalin was settling private scores against his over-familiar, interfering family. But he did not regard the Terror as a private spree: in his view he was cleansing his country of spies before war broke out with Germany. If his family were among the casualties, he regarded them as his own sacrifice.

Zhenyas relationship with Stalin had cooled. Yet he chose this moment to make a strange, indirect proposal. Beria came to see her and said: Youre such a nice person, and youre so fine looking, do you want to move in and be housekeeper at Stalins house? He is unlikely to have made such a suggestion without Stalins permission. This was surely a marriage proposal, an awkward attempt to salvage the warmth of old days. But it was unforgivably clumsy to send Beria, whom Zhenya loathed.

Zhenya was alarmed, fearing that Beria would frame her for trying to poison Stalin if she became his housekeeper. She swiftly married an old friend instead.

Stalin was appalled, claiming it was indecent so soon after Pavels death. Beria fanned the flames by suggesting she had poisoned her husband. She was banned from the Kremlin.

Stalin looked elsewhere for a housekeeper and found her in a busty maid at his dacha. She became his trusted companion and effectively his secret wife.

Henceforth, his private life was frozen in about 1939: the dramas of Nadya and Zhenya that had caused him pain and anger were over. He warned his son Vasily against women with ideas Weve known that kind, herrings with ideas, skin and bones.

But he retained his fascination with Zhenya. After Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, Stalin summoned her and asked her to take his children east to safety. With typical bravery, she refused. Stalin never saw her again.

Zhenya survived the Terror only to fall foul of Stalins increased anti-semitism after the war and of his bristling suspicion of female meddling.

Solomon Mikhoels, a Yiddish actor and Soviet star accused of being anti-Soviet and pro-American, mistakenly hoped to appeal to Stalin on behalf of Russias Jews through his daughter Svetlana.

Mikhoels asked Zhenya, who mixed with the Jewish intelligentsia, for help in meeting Svetlana. Her family warned her against meddling, but it seems that the ever fearless Zhenya agreed.

Stalin was already brooding about the taste for Jewish men that Svetlana had developed as a young woman. When he heard that Zhenya had introduced her to Mikhoels, he erupted. The Jews were worming their way into the family. He muttered to Svetlana that Zhenya was a poisoner.

Zhenya was arrested and accused of disseminating foul slander about the head of the Soviet government. Her new husband turned out to be a secret police agent who had been informing on her ever since their marriage.

Kira was also arrested; and Anna Redens, who had been annoying Stalin with phone calls, joined them in prison.

Svetlana tried to intercede for the aunties but Stalin told her: They talked too much.Kira claims that he warned his daughter: If you act as their defender well also put you in jail.

Mikhoels was murdered. Zhenya was jailed for 10 years and Kira for five for supplying information about the personal life of (Stalins) family to the American embassy. Anna also received five years.

In solitary confinement Zhenya tried to kill herself by eating stones, but she was kept alive by the kindness of strangers. A Polish prisoner in the neighbouring cell knocked in prison code: Live for your children.

Anna lost her mind in the gulag, but Zhenya survived. She was released in 1953, unaware of the reason why.

So finally Stalin saved us after all! she told Kira, herself newly released. You fool! exclaimed her daughter. Stalins dead!

An unrepentant Stalinist, Zhenya remembered him with admiration up to her own death in 1974.

Simon Sebag Montefiore 2003 Extracted from Stalin: The Court Of The Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore to be published on July 10 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at 25. Copies can be ordered for 18 plus 1.95 p&p from The Sunday Times Books on 0870 165 8585

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