(Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012), 392 pp., $35
He struts around bare-chested, flexing his muscles for the cameras like Il Duce Mussolini. He sends troops and tanks in to protect ethnic Russians in the Crimea and southern Ukraine, just as Hitler “protected” ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia in 1936. At Sochi in February, the self-styled Great Russian nationalist announced that the fall of the Soviet Union was a “tragic error” and a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people. But now, he says, “a strong Russia is back.” To questions about Olympic preparedness, he snarls at reporters. The man has had enough of post-imperial chaos in his neighborhood and personifies the angry humiliation of the Russian downfall which in his view could only be the product of weakness, betrayal and conspiracy. This anger is especially potent among former apparatchiks in the near abroad. In 1991, an Armenian banker in Yerevan growled a reminder at me that America could never defeat the Soviet Union. As a representative then of the IMF, I told him only that nobody really defeated the Soviet Union. Rather, it collapsed from economic mismanagement and paranoid leadership, such as we found in his state bank.
With fists clenched defiantly, Putin has been watching the victors deviously surround him with NATO treaties and EU regulations. Now they stir up even more chaos in his “near abroad” territory of Ukraine. Quite reasonably, he said he wants the spectacle of thieving Ukrainian leaders being replaced by other thieves to stop. Unreasonably, what he will not tolerate is if all the thieves shift allegiance to the European Union. That would amount to a personal affront and even more national humiliation. What should the ex-KGB man of action do? Defiance rather than mere heated speeches are his style.
His obvious first move has been to play to the heavily Orthodox Russian parts of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The strong Russia pitch doesn’t work as well in Kiev and the western part that Stalin took from Poland and the former Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1939. We should remember that his Red Army crossed the Ukrainian and Belorussian borders into eastern Poland. So, to keep control, he will pull on more of the big levers of traditional power. Russians play ice hockey and chess the same way: aggressive, focused and usually victorious. In his view, he has all the pieces and doesn’t need to compromise or make deals. He watched Russian leaders during the early 1990s respond successfully to the humiliating Soviet collapse with an aggressive energy policy that strangled Europe in oil and gas dependency, by way of such engineering euphemisms as the “friendship pipeline” to Central Europe. That worked out quite well. Now he’s thinking: Let’s see what else we can do.
Ukraine was the perfect place to begin reconstitution of the old empire. Kiev is even called “Little Moscow,” and Russian history really began with what was called Kievan-Rus. After the “transition” period in the early 1990s, Ukraine did little to shake off the Soviet legacy by adopting market economics or democratic institutions; it remained a perfect target. Despite the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, brutal repression of anti-government protesters continues in the classic Kremlin style. Like the other former satellites, Belarus and Moldova, Ukraine remains in the Russian sphere of influence, the near abroad or “vodka belt,” because it has done little to reform its institutions, unlike others such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. With the exception of places like Lvov, it is still the old Soviet Union. Even famous dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhhenitsyn insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and Russia.
Western aid programs worked with local officials and groups mostly in western Ukraine to develop constitutionalism and due process. Elsewhere, the Soviet-Russian system of arbitrary, corrupt and bureaucratic justice prevails to settle conflicts large and small. Ukrainian elites including President Yanukovych recreated the Kremlin system of governance, jailing opponents and steering cash from the treasury and state firms to family and friends. Putin is well aware that the West prefers to ignore all this, and that European and U.S. elites still accept Russian assets acquired through graft and theft. He rightly doubts that they and their political allies will seriously oppose his annexation of Crimea.
Yet he may be overlooking the extent to which the Slavs in other countries aren’t buying his friendship gambit. They see a saber and fist behind every offer of financial assistance and (temporarily) lower natural gas prices. Even Kazakhstan, with a population of 45 percent Russian speakers and hardly a bastion of Western constitutional democracy, protested against Putin’s moves. Like others, younger Kazaks who want the freedoms of Europe don’t want their country carved up or partitioned into Russian and non-Russian zones that take orders from Moscow.
Oh, to be a Stalin and not have to deal with these annoying trifles! But all tin-pot dictators today are petty anachronisms compared to Stalin—from Nicolás Maduro, Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad to Putin and Yanukovych. Stalin was a genius in creating a state religion with himself as pope, remote and holy, the dear leader of a new Bolshevik church. The difference from modern tin-pots is that he had the NKVD secret police and its chistka units to cleanse the party of imposters and wage full-scale terror against anyone deemed an enemy of the people. Modern day political thugs can only swoon in jealousy at how Stalin did it.
Indeed, formidable cleverness and paranoia were required to keep the people in thrall, and perhaps no one had a closer view of these than the quiet, ordinary man tasked with grooming the man himself. A new book tells the story of the barber who tended to Stalin and his lookalike decoys (used to confuse real and imaginary assassins). He was never sure which of them he was shaving, but nonetheless gained privileged insight into the dictator’s psyche. He had good reason, after all, to be attentive while doing his daily job at the Kremlin cutting hair and trimming beards for Stalin and his inner circle: Even if he didn’t nick or cut the man (while security watched to prevent an assassination attempt), he knew his days were numbered.
Stalin’s Barber tells this man’s story in a classical piece of historical fiction that reads like a richly textured Russian novel of Tolstoy, Turgenev or Bulgakov. As one critic put it, “Men will tell their barber things they wouldn’t tell their wives, and Stalin was no exception. In a novel as tantalizingly broad as the steppe and a plot as treacherous as the taiga, Paul. M. Levitt penetrates to the heart of Soviet darkness.” Levitt, an english professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has written several novels, plays and works of literary criticism.
In this compelling novel, Avraham Bahar and his family leave King Zog’s 1930s Albania at a time of growing prejudice against Jews and cosmopolitans. His friend tells him that Albania is “black” and that in Russia a “new day is dawning.” Noting the many Jews in high Soviet offices, Bahar musters enough hope to sell out, pack up and leave, along the way changing his name to Razeer Shtube. A fast-paced political thriller and family drama swiftly follow, as Razeer is recommended for the job of Kremlin barber by his step-son, who works for the GPU secret police.
Ghastly scenes of starvation, intense suffering and ruthless state terror tactics are leavened with wry humor. For instance, Razeer’s adopted daughter Yelena, nine years old, innocently paints portraits of Stalin’s mustache and begins selling them as relics or icons to bring good luck. For this she is denounced by a neighbor informant and investigated by the secret police. (Police informants were judged by the number of denunciations in their dossiers. Fewer denunciations were taken to mean that they weren’t doing their jobs, which brought their own loyalty into question.) Yelena couldn’t have known that Stalin used decoys and was paranoid about enemies recognizing the difference in their mustaches. Genrikh Yagoda, head of the NKVD, grimly investigates, worried that she may have painted it from the wrong Stalin photo. He eventually accuses her of spying. “Remember”, the official explains, following the peculiar Soviet logic: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Razeer suddenly realizes that Stalin is using a double after he reads an unfinished Isaac Babel manuscript about a Georgian leader with an iron hand, pockmarked face and droopy mustache who is exiled to Siberia and pays a look-alike imposter to take his place. (Perhaps, at least, Stalin read good literature.)
Stalin’s Barber is filled with the kinds of dark Slavic jokes that Russians are famous for, such as:
A dozen workers from the Urals were visiting Stalin in his office. After they left, Stalin was missing his pipe. He told Poskrebyshev (his aid) to see that all the workers were questioned. A few minutes later, Stalin found the pipe in his desk and told Poskrebyshev to release all the workers. ‘But Comrade Stalin, they have all confessed.’
Of course, one had to be careful about joking in this climate. One of Razeer’s sons, Alexi, is a medical doctor who, denounced by a neighbor, is ordered to work in a mental asylum. There he finds that the inmates whose “mental illness” was insufficient gratitude for the state that housed and fed them. One man had been sentenced to five years in the asylum for telling a joke about Stalin.
To be an effective autocrat with staying power, however, maintaining an unmerciful state security apparatus isn’t enough. One must also control the political system and, with no shortage of charisma, offer a vision larger than oneself. Putin has been working on these basic requirements, with limited success. His security apparatus is crude but effective in small cordoned-off areas like Sochi. But beating up on the Chechens and recent dissidents (including such national threats as the Pussy Riot) may backfire; pent up resentment at his tactics will get worse for him. More importantly, Putin offers no vision other than himself: a tough, patriotic little man with fists clenched and a plan for return of the good old days of five-year plans for the Soviet empire. Stalin, by contrast, excelled in all three categories.
The book reveals some of Stalin’s deeper, paradoxical features—the kinds that are missing from the one-dimensional, Putin-style autocrats of today. He was educated in an Eastern Orthodox Church school in Georgia, admired Harry Houdini movies, and viewed the fascist leader Mussolini as a role model. Stalin thought Il Duce was a “spellbinding leader whose speeches generated reverence and ecstasy comparable to a religious conversion.” He hated the brutality of the church, which had abused him as a boy. But he admired its discipline, authority and rigid hierarchy—the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests, the ornate garments and mystical rituals. Brutality, after all, has its purposes. In seminary, he learned that constant beatings were an effective teaching tool to cure children of independence. In Stalin’s Barber Levitt has Stalin tell Razeer, “And so I condone beatings, severe ones, terrible ones, to eliminate heresy. Now don’t you see?”
Religious schooling also taught Stalin the art of psychological manipulation, since the priests “were always trying to expose our inner life and feelings.” Unlike the autocrats of today, who rely on the crude tools of repression and fear, Uncle Joe Stalin redirected the universal need to believe in something from church rites, catechisms and worship powers to support for the Bolshevik state. In a Houdini-like sleight of hand, he changed the idea of “Soviet” from rule by the proletariat to rule by the Politburo and then to rule by one person.
Some of Razeer Shtube’s family die in prisons and others are murdered by the NKVD, forcing the rest of them to flee to Finland. If a man like Shtube were alive today, he might paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s famous line denigrating Dan Quayle in 1988 and tell Putin, “I knew Koba, and you’re no Joe Stalin.” Just as Shtube gained insight into one of Stalin’s obsessions through a Babel story, Stalin’s Barber can provide one the acumen to avoid mistakes when dealing with autocrats like Putin. In fact, Putin is megalomaniac lite, a middling autocrat with no intention of replacing God or the Orthodox Church. His harsh response to Pussy Riot derived in part from the women’s sacrilege against the church. His ability to mobilize support for his actions is pretty much limited to the hardcore Russian nationalists of Eastern Ukraine and a few converts whipped up by the Russian media. Beyond that, he has minimal personal capital, and his expansionary plans can be “checked” by the military hardware of NATO. He lacks the fatherly aura of Stalin, the ability to move crowds to ecstasy like Il Duce, and the “man of the people” instincts of Juan Peron. Most consider him an accidental leader, whom Boris Yeltsin anointed as his KGB-trained protector. He has no more charisma than the average Mafia boss. No crowd will break into song with: “Oh Putin be praised for the light that the planets and fields emit.”
Today’s Ukrainian dissidents can probably survive by fleeing to western Ukraine. But this option doesn’t change the fact that the political systems of Russia and parts of Ukraine are becoming more corrupt and despotic. Given the growth of civil society institutions in Russia and Ukraine on the heels of aid programs over the past 25 years from such sources as the Open Society Institute, USAID, DFID, UNDP and the World Bank, many people in these countries and the near abroad are extremely uncomfortable with these trends. Those aid programs reinforced the political culture of legal due process and constitutional institutions developed during the Austro-Hungarian and the Hapsburg Empires. These qualities are evident in the political systems of such former Soviet satellites as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary today. This historical fault line accounts for much of the political rift between western and eastern Ukraine. Besides reinforcing NATO members in the region and escalating sanctions to use banking and financial access as sticks and using more aid and trade as carrots, there is little that the United States and the European Union can do to salve these newly deepened divisions in the former Soviet Union.
In a conversation with Anna, Razeer’s wife, at the Solovki island prison, the intellectual, dramatist and prisoner Ya Mazarov explains, “We prisoners are like dogs. You can intimidate a dog to a point. But if the dog has a need to growl, nothing can stop him, not even beatings. The same is true of the Russians. You can cow them into submission but eventually they will resist.” Whether or not they are all from the same breed, one should never try to break up a dog fight. To counter the current attempt to reintegrate cross-border Slavic mafias, it may be easier in the long run to distract them with new bones to chew on, such as targeted Western aid, more trade with the European Union and financial assistance from the IMF conditioned on needed democratic and fiscal reforms.