A day in the life of Josef Vissarionovich
or historical realism
A book review by Isabel del Rio
“Red Monarch” by Yuri Krotkov
(translated into English by Tanya E. Mairs, published by Penguin)
“Red Monarch” by Yuri Krotkov is a satirical novel on the life of Stalin. It includes a number of episodes and anecdotes, perhaps not factually accurate but descriptive enough of that catastrophic period of 20th century history. Inspired by the book by Krotkov, I decided to write the review unlike an evaluation and more like a detailed debriefing of a single day in the life of Josef Vissarionovich. Here are then eight sketches from one morning to the next morning.
Josef Vissarionovich is not a puppet nor a peasant. He is the supreme leader of the proletariat, or President of the USSR, or the soviet dictator, or the man of iron. It is at breakfast time when Beria likes to ask him questions.
“Do not call me batono. That’s what they do in Georgia. Call me Stalin!”
“Call me Josef Vissarionovich!”
“Yes, of course. Josef Vissarionovich. What is it that are you capable of?”
“I can reinvent the world, but in a way that is entrenched in historical realism.”
“And what is it that you like to do?”
“To be paradoxical, but also to be a historical realist. Or even simply a realist.”
“How would you define your age?”
Stalin murmurs something, but Beria hears something completely different.
“A joke without humour, a made up truth, a historical episode that did not bear fruit, the ultimate reality …”
“But you are world leader of the Proletariat…”
It is Stalin’s voice, but not his message.
“Comrade Beria. It is not that the world is mine, but that I am of the world. Can one be more realistic than that?”
“And your most important ability?”
“Why, realism, of course!”
It is lunchtime and the Georgian cook Rodionovna prepares satsiviin the Georgian way, the only way she can prepare it, or the only way it can be prepared, as the dictator likes to say. Josef Vissarionovich drinks Kindzmareuli and vodka in honour of the Soviet screw. He gives teddy bears to children. He reflects on how first thing tomorrow he will send one of his old chums to Siberia. And as he looks up, he sees himself across the table. Yes, there are indeed two Stalins in the dining-room.
“I am the real one!”
“I am the actor.”
“I am the man of the people.”
“No, that’s me. I represent Stalin on the screen. I am the one the proletariat sees with its own eyes.”
“Would you dare occupy my place?”
“Of course I would. I am an idealist!”
“Then you don’t know how to be Josef Vissarionovich. To be like me you have to be a realist!”
He smiles as he says this and thinks that most of his realist ideas (Socialist Realism, as he formally calls his theories) come from having his feet firmly on the ground. After all, his father had been a cobbler.
After lunch, Josef Vissarionovich visits the tomb of Nadezhda, his second wife. They both conspired on two very different fronts, love and revolution.
“The realist revolutionary will lead an ascetic life!” he shouts, remembering what he would say to her on a regular basis, and that she did not agree one bit. He would flick cigarettes at her face, scream, have fits.
He is now looking at her picture, aged twenty, with a red beret and a glittering smile.
Ah, suicide has always been on the cards in the family. His son Yakov had attempted suicide and failed, and because of this he was seriously mocked by Stalin. And so when Yakov tried to kill himself again (this time, a prisoner in a concentration camp), he got it right.
But Nadezhda also committed suicide. Stalin could not understand at first, but then he did.
“Suicide is the only realist death!”
In the afternoon, a new theatre director comes over to talk about a play soon to be performed. Josef Vissarionovich listens to endless explanations without saying a word. Finally he speaks.
“What can the soviets learn from Hamlet? Perform the play if you wish, do not listen to me. I am not a man of letters. Intrigue cannot allow for affection. Hamlet is a manifesto on individualism, a declaration of spiritual chastity. But I am a realist. Drama has to be realistic. Art has to be realistic. Life has to be realistic.”
Before supper, Josef Vissarionovich says to Beria:
“I will dress up in the Chinese way, and I will give President Mao traditional peasant garments as a gift. Thus, we will become brothers.”
And then the Chinese President enters the room with an interpreter.
Siaoo says Mao.
“Comrade interpreter, what does the great leader say?” Stalin asks.
“The hard toiling of the Soviet peoples is like the song of birds migrating to find new and sunlit lands where life will not be endangered, where they can raise their young without the fear of cold or storm.”
“I agree”, says Stalin, “but I want to know what the great Chinese leader thinks of me.”
Siaoo says Mao.
And the interpreter explains.
“President Mao points out that in the same way that all clouds are thrust forth by the wind which gives it shape and sometimes makes them appear as dromedaries or flowers or trees, the Soviet peoples can be stand on the shoulders of the much admired President Stalin and become so much more than the sum of all of them…”
“Yes, thank you”, Stalin replies, getting up and sitting down again, “but I would very much like to know which aspects of our revolution are inspirational for the People’s Republic of China”.
Siaoo says Mao.
And the interpreter proceeds to explain.
“Our great President has just said that days are short, but not life. That wild animals are dangerous, but not their roars. That leaves fall from trees, but only in Autumn. That there is no fruit that has not been a flower first, no song that was not previously a whisper, no image that was not darkness once upon a time. And so this is why these two peoples, the Chinese and the Soviets, supporting each other in the world, contribute in equal measure to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Stalin folds his arms and breathes in more air than he can manage.
“And what does the great Chinese leader think of the fact that I am a realist?”
Siaoo says Mao.
After supper, Stalin calls his closest men to his private quarters for a game of cards.
“How much is two and two?” he asks without lifting his eyes from his cards, already knowing that he has won.
“It will be whatever you say”, Beria replies.
“You first”, says Molotov.
“I am willing to change my answer if you do not like it”, Georgievich adds.
“It could be one, it could be two, it could be three, or even perhaps four”, suggests Shaposhnikov, hiding behind his cards.
“Come, come, comrades”, says the dictator, winning his hand yet again, “let's be realists!”
Just before going to bed, Josef Vissarionovich looks out of the window of his dacha.
“The fear that I instill in you”, he says, “will disappear when I die. You will write chronicles about my deeds smearing them as crimes against the people, and you will mock me and ridicule me, reduce my statues to pulp, my deeds to dust, my campaigns to footnotes in history books. And perhaps a writer, even a minor writer will write a book with episodes from entirely made up stories, not historical but apocryphal. And perhaps other minor writers will write reviews with stories that never actually happened but that sound good on paper.”
“But the characters will be authentic”, Beria dares to say.
“The characters must be realists! The word to use is realist! It is a very different word from authentic or truthful or genuine!”
8. A new morning
Josef Vissarionovich has drunk so much that he locks himself in his study. There is only silence coming from inside. His closest wait and wait. It is morning, and still no news. It is now midday, and only silence from the other side of the door.
“Batono, batono!” Beria calls out.
“Leader of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!” they all shout.
They wait a little more before deciding to break down the door. Beria, Bulganin, Kruschev and Malenkov tiptoe into the room, the rest follow in silence. They must be close to a hundred now, the room is now filled with loyal followers, devotees, hangers-on, henchmen.
For all to see, there he lies on his bed, in all his might. His moustache still stiff, his fists still clenched. But is he dead?
“Perhaps not…” someone says.
They seem to be convinced that Josef Vissarionovich is capable of anything, everything. He is even able to sleep without breathing, moving, winking. They stare at him in admiration, perhaps for over an hour, in silence, on tiptoe, in awe.
Finally Beria coughs, putting an end to it all.
“A very realistic body!” he says, trying to paraphrase the master.