book review

Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin:
The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina
Paul R. Gregory, Hoover Press, 2010, 191 pages
Reviewed By

I t's hard to have much sympathy for Nikolai Bukharin. Although he was considered by some to be the “human face” of socialism, much of this is wishful thinking: he was in fact one of the original architects of the Soviet totalitarian state, and a supporter of Josef Stalin's show trials until becoming a victim himself. As the editor of Pravda, and a pre-eminent socialist and Marxist theoretician, he was probably also the most verbally gifted of the original Bolsheviks. This book by Paul Gregory details the brief rise and fall of Bukharin.

Although intelligent, Bukharin had no political skill. He was impulsive and emotional--a “soft wax”, as Lenin called him--in other words, a person with no independent vision. Gregory recounts how in 1927, as an ally of Stalin, Bukharin was instrumental in driving Stalin's three rivals Trotsky, Zinovyev, and Kamenev from the party. Later, after Bukharin made the mistake of disagreeing with Stalin's policies, Kamenev saw his chance for revenge. In a scenario that had become all too predictable, Kamenev accused Bukharin of plotting against Stalin. When Politburo member Sergei Kirov was murdered in 1934, Kamenev struck out one last time at Bukharin, implicating Bukharin as an accomplice in the murder before his own execution.

It was a pointless act of revenge, since Buhharin's fate had long since been sealed. Bukharin, like so many of his comrades, naïvely believed that, as a member of the ruling class, he would be protected from being murdered by Stalin. He was mistaken. In a totalitarian state, rule of law is only window dressing: what the leader wants is all that matters. Sadly, the Western press, enthralled by the ideas of Communism and envying the USSR's absolute power to change society, were fooled: the New York Times and other papers considered Bukharin guilty. Only with the end in sight, after four months of torture, did Bukharin use his verbal skills in his famous “confession,” to struggle, however feebly, against those who condemned him unjustly to death.

Anna Larina, Bukharin's third wife, married him after his fall from power. She paid a hard price for it: eight years in the Gulag and twelve more in exile. Although she figures prominently in the subtitle, Anna Larina is only a peripheral character in this story. The book's title phrase “love in Stalin's Kremlin” is not really accurate, unless one interprets it ironically. This is not really a love story, but a light history aimed at a popular audience. It is the tragic story of how one man overflowing with talent but bereft of vision and ignorant about the reality of power inevitably became another one of Stalin's “statistics,” and in so doing, participated in the destruction of those who cared about him.

Stephen F. Cohen has written an authoritative biography of Bukharin. Bukharin's wife, Anna Larina, also published a collection of memoirs.