“Comrade Kalinov, it’s good to see you,” said the burly man with a walrus mustache. I had heard about Stalin from the leader of the worker council in Kiev though I never thought I would meet him. Now he was acting like he already knew me. Had we met before? Stalin extended his hand as he rushed towards me. He was even more intimidating than I expected and had a coarse accent that betrayed his Georgian origins. It was the fall of 1917 and I was sent here because I had shown some leadership potential in the party. The July strikes had failed and now there was talk of another coup planned in the fall.
I thought back to my humble beginnings in the caucuses mountains, in a small farming village. We were typically starving at these time of the year when there was nothing left of the harvest and all we can get was some crumbs from the Kulaks who belonged to the few families that owned all the land. My father provided for his seven children by a combination of begging and stealing, and when he would get caught my mom would sell what she could from a meager inheritance. There seemed to be no hope for the future until I left for Kiev and my eyes were opened to the possibility of revolution. The provisional government’s days seemed to be numbered. The streets of the Kremlin were nearly empty and there was an eerie silence in the air. Even the prostitutes who used to congregate in the back streets were gone. The silence was occasionally punctuated by a rifle shot or a shout from a soldier.
“I’ve heard good reports from the Kiev soviet about you. We need you to rally the workers and soldiers tomorrow in support of the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. After we take the winter palace we are going to need coordinated efforts from the workers in cities across Russia. Are you up to the job?” The workers and soldiers in Kiev will support the revolution, I assured him. I had connections to arms merchants and we were ready to do our part. The police had raided our headquarters the day before and I only barely escaped through the back door. Luckily they did not find our stash of arms hidden in the basement. Just then a man of rather short stature with an awkward gait, a bald head with just a fringe around the side, and piercing, vaguely Asian eyes walked in. He wore a ragged black suit that looked about two sizes too big. I knew immediately that it was Vladimir Lenin, more for the presence he commanded than from the similarity to the few photos I had seen. He stormed past me to the balcony and gazed out to a small crowd that was congregating below. “We shall start the revolution tomorrow. The time is right. The army cannot save the provisional government against the mobilized proletariat,” he said. Stalin gestured towards me. “Comrade Kalinov has the support of the Kiev Soviet and will be responsible for mobilizing our forces there. Lenin looked at me for a long moment, his eyebrows furrowed as if in deep thought. “Good. At 6 pm tomorrow we start with an assault on key government buildings. We need you to coordinate with us in Kiev. There is a train leaving in an hour. Be on it and let the members of your soviet know of our plans.”
On the train ride back my mind began to wander and doubts bubbled to the surface. I had heard that Stalin was involved in bank robberies and kidnapping in Georgia. He seemed to gain Lenin’s confidence and was soon to be promoted to general secretary. How can such a brutal man be given such high authority? Then there was the undeniable rise in Ukrainian nationalism. Would the revolution be dominated by a new set of Russian oligarchs who will subjugate the Ukraine to even greater brutalities than those we endured under the Czar? I couldn’t push these thoughts out of my mind.
The next day there were reports of government offices being occupied in Petrograd. There were signs everywhere that I had miscalculated the reaction in Kiev. There were crowds denouncing the attempted coup and calling for independence. The workers had armed themselves and I was a target as a known Bolshevik. Why not form a united front with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries? I asked at an emergency meeting of the soviet. We needed all the support we could get. I was immediately denounced by almost everyone else for being a collaborationist. One said that our role is not to unite with bourgeois elements, but to defeat them. Lenin had said you can’t have a revolution without killing people. Finally there was a vote and the resolution to form an alliance was defeated overwhelmingly.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I had become an enemy of the people. I was not backing a popular uprising for justice, but a putsch led by fanatics who would turn on me in a minute even if I supported them. I heard even loyal Bolsheviks who were devoted to Lenin were shot for any sign of disloyalty or deviation from party dogma. I had read Freud and even saw him give a lecture in Vienna. I was taken by the parallel between psychological repression and political/economic repression. At that point I knew that the revolution had to come from within. Instead Stalin was to usher in a “revolution from above.” My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps punctuated by gunfire. Was it the Czarist police? I quickly found out that it was an angry mob reacting to the events in Petrograd which reached the streets. The only escape was through the side window which was quickly smashed and I made my way out, not a moment too soon. I ran towards my apartment down the block, but my path was blocked by protesters. I was hit on the side of the head by a rifle butt and found myself on my back with a pool of blood streaming from my temple.
My memory is hazy now on how I escaped. Somehow I was helped to my apartment where I quickly grabbed my belongings and headed for the Dniester River. After the war, it was the dividing line between the Ukraine and Romania and freedom. Looking back, it was easy to predict back then the Stalinist purge trials that were to happen 20 years later. It was the classic defense mechanism of projection. Stalin was negotiating a pact with Nazi Germany and so he projected his guilt by accusing everyone around him of treason. Freud could have predicted that too.
In 1921 I was living in Paris in a Russian immigrant community. At that time the red army had won the civil war and the Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. One day a letter arrived posted in Kiev from a party member whose name seemed vaguely familiar. It read as follows:
My Dear Leonid,
I got your address from our mutual friend Yuriy who you must know has returned to his home. Now that victory is ours, we need you to help us rebuild and create a new society. You were our best leader in the days leading up to the revolution. I was glad to hear that you made it out safely in the days after when the reactionary forces tried to stop us. Now that we won the war, we need you more than ever. I look forward to your reply and hope to see you in Kiev soon!
When I finished reading my eyes swelled with tears, and only then I realized how much I missed my homeland. I made the fateful decision to follow my heart and left the next week. Surely the work I did for the party before 1917 would be appreciated and I could expect to obtain a position of some power. I made arrangements to stay at a building in Kiev that had been recently built for mid- level functionaries working in government.
I arrived on a cold, bleak day that seemed a fitting background for a city full of dull, gray, uniformity. I was taken to my apartment in a cavernous building in the center of a circle surrounded by a maze of smaller buildings, identical except for the numbers above the door. The apartment was small and sparsely furnished with only one window facing another side of the building. I immediately fell asleep, exhausted from the arduous journey. The next morning I was awakened by a rap on my door and two men who appeared to be officers from security entered. I was told to pack my belongings and follow them to the building next door.
The room I was led to had two chairs separated by a low wall, and I sat on one side and one of the officers sat facing me. Then he proceeded to an interrogation.
Him: Why did you abandon your post and illegally cross the border in 1917?
Me: I started to develop doubts about the party and whether we should oppose the will of the people. I didn’t expect the opposition we encountered after the events in Petrograd
Him: What could you have been doing in France other than aiding counter-revolutionary forces? Did you return to undermine the new government?
Me: No. I was invited to return by Valery Korsakov who I worked with in Kiev.
At that point he got up and left the room. A moment later he returned with my old colleague Valery. He looked much older than the last time I saw him, his brown hair having turned gray and heavy lines marking his face.
Why did you betray me Valery? I wanted to confront you on why you abandoned your country and chose to commit treason, he said with a scowl. It is you who betrayed us! The officer asked whether I was ready to sign my confession. What if I don’t sign? I asked. Then your punishment will be even greater considering that you have not repented, he said.
After signing my confession, I was put on a train bound for Siberia and one of the notorious work camps set up in the days after the revolution. I was told that I was lucky as prisoners were executed for lesser crimes. The work was hard and conditions were brutal. We were allowed to read, but not to write. In 1945, just after the war, I was in my 70th year, and the many years of work and the cold had affected my lungs and caused many other ailments. It felt like this was my last year and my destiny was to die in this camp. Then one day a new prisoner was brought in named Alex. He was a young intellectual, in his mid-twenties, and not yet broken by the system. I took delight in our long conversations as we had a similar upbringing. His mother was of Ukrainian descent and had been a dedicated Marxist like myself. He was a very good listener and he seemed to be interested in the story of every prisoner. One day I lamented that our stories would never be told, all our lives were wasted in obscurity. He smiled and said, I have your story right here, pointing to his temple. One day everyone will know. I smiled at the thought and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn smiled back.