Cursed Days


The Great Fear by James Harris

Stalin’s great terror, a period in soviet history in the late 1930s when millions of Russian people from all walks of life were purged and murdered, most often for no reason, holds an endless fascination for historians. However, a new book from OUP sets out to challenge the simplistic view that it was all based on Stalin’s insecurity and makes a very compelling case. Author James Harris, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, has spent years studying Soviet history, with access to many archives not available in the past and he’s used this knowledge and research to come up with fascinating new theories on the source of the purges.

great fear

The pat view of the Great Terror is that it was a result of Stalin’s paranoia and his attempts to ensure that all potential rivals were eliminated. The received wisdom is that the dictator wanted to crack down on old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, with the high-profile show trials having a deterrent effect on any plotters intending to try to unseat him. The assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad regional party secretary, on 1st December 1934, is generally considered as triggering the slaughter. But if the foregoing is the case, why then would so many of the purged be ordinary people – workers, lowly party members, engineers, soldiers and the rank and file who kept the Soviet Union going.?

Harris’s argument against looking at Stalin’s terror in isolation is a persuasive one; as his introduction reveals, the history of Slav countries is of a culture holding grimly onto power, riddled with paranoia and plotting. Mass killings and repression had taken place under the various Tsarist regimes, and continued in the early days of the USSR – Lenin was not averse to the removal of anyone perceived to be in the way. However, there are a number of other factors involved and as Harris makes clear, there is no one simple answer to the question of why this happened.

…it remains that the logic of the appalling political violence unleashed by Stalin was not the logic of some lone, paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator. it was the logic of the Bolsheviks, and albeit in a more extreme form, the logic of the Russian Tsars determined to preserve and protect the autocracy.

Pivotal to the book is Harris’s account of the kind of information gathering that was going on in the USSR at the time. The early 1930s were a time of much world instability and rumours of another war; Russia was in constant fear of invasion, perceiving itself as threatened on all sides by hostile capitalist powers. Used in the West as we are to seeing Russia as a large, confident, warlike and hostile force, it’s perhaps hard to recognise that the fledgling state felt anything but confident, and was convinced it was about to be invaded at any time.

In this kind of climate, the authorities relied very much on the secret services and the results of their spying for information on what was happening in the rest of the world and whether conflict was about to break out. But unfortunately the structure of the Soviet state, the constant pressures to achieve unreasonable targets and the various vested interests had created such a climate of suspicion and mistrust that the information reaching Stalin and his colleagues was anything but accurate. The powers given to the OGPU/NKVD allowed them such a free rein that they could obtain ‘confessions’ by any means, confessions which were quite probably worthless; and it was in their interests to keep the spectre of invasion real to justify their existence.

And as a result of this misguided, inaccurate and misleading intelligence which fostered an incorrect view of the state of the world and the threat to the USSR, the leaders were persuaded that there were enemies everywhere. Denunciations, which decimated society from top to bottom, resulted in the purges which weakened the state considerably at a crucial time just before WW2. And all the threads came together – the misleading intelligence, the ‘outsiders’ turning on those in positions of authority, the fear of invasion – resulting in a maniacal necessity to clamp down on any perceived transgression.


“The Great Fear” presents a nuanced reading of history drawing on a number of primary sources; its strength is to see the Great Terror in the context of world and Russian events which contribute to the structure of society and mindset of the people in power, rather than as the result of one’s man’s paranoia or capriciousness; indeed, Harris presents Stalin as making quite rational decisions based on the information he was receiving. However the effect on the country was dramatic and destructive, and had Stalin and his cronies had more accurate intelligence their behaviour might well have been very different. “The Great Fear” is not a book for the uninitiated; for example, if you don’t know what a Stakhanovite is, you’ll struggle here. But for those with a keen interest in Soviet history, this excellent book is a must for the light it throws on a dramatic and appalling period of the regime’s history.

(Review book kindly supplied by Oxford University Press – for which many thanks!)

Madcap hijinks – and plenty of alcohol…..


The Embezzlers by Valentin Kataev

There’s something really special about Soviet satire from the 1920s. When you look back at the decade, so many great works came out – in particular, Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog”, Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs”, as well as slightly less-well known works such as Yuri Olesha’s “Envy”. Maybe there was something in the air, because Valentin Kataev (the brother of Petrov) also produced a rather wonderful satirical work himself, in the form of “The Embezzlers”.

There were of course many shorter works in the same vein by all these authors, and I *have* been reading several of Kataev’s pieces recently, as well as his wonderful memoir “The Grass of Oblivion”. It was enjoying these so much that prompted me to send for a copy of “The Embezzlers” and I’m really glad I did. It was Kataev’s first novel, published in 1926, and my copy is a battered old 1973 US library edition; it’s a reprint of a 1929 Dial Press edition translated by Leonide Zarine, and I’ve seen this described as the one to read – particularly, I suppose, as he translated it close to the original date of publication.

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket...

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket…

The embezzlers of the title are one Philip Stephanovitch Prohoroff, a respectable chief accountant working for a Soviet trust in Moscow, and his cashier, known as Young Ivan. Prohoroff is married to the rather terrifying Yaninochka, and Young Ivan is a country boy trying to make good in the city. To be honest, calling the two embezzlers is rather overdoing it; in fact, they have no real intention of running off with sums of money. However, Nikita the messenger will keep going on and on about the amount of people who are absconding with official funds, and somehow, after withdrawing a cheque from the bank for wages and expenses, the two hapless men end up drunk and on a train to Leningrad….

In fact, alcohol plays a large part in the story and the men seem to be in a constant state of inebriation. They’re soon taken under the wing of Isabella, an alarming woman of the world who commences to fleece them for as much as she can get; and in fact our two heroes seem to be incapable of holding onto their money and are constantly being conned out of large sums. They are taken in by a gang of so-called Royals in Leningrad who turn out to be a collection of out of work actors; vast sums are squandered on food, drink and entertainment; and in desperation to escape from Isabella they flee to the countryside, ending up in Ivan’s old village. However, things seem no better here and the money is running out – and quite how our two embezzlers will survive is not clear….

The colleagues crept into a queer, narrow sledge, which was strewn inside with straw, put the cover over their knees and drove to the town, which had the same appearance as all other towns of the Soviet Union – ten old churches and two new ones, an unfinished building and a fire station, and a closed market-place secured by huge bolts.

Well, Kataev was certainly having a lot of fun here, and swiping away at everything: so-called respectable citizens desperate for a glimpse of old royalty; the amount of alcohol that seemed to be imbibed in Soviet Russia; the amount of people on the make under a so-called Communist regime; and the foolishness of just about everyone encountered in the tale.

In fact, I found myself wondering quite how he got away with so much criticism of the times and stayed in one piece, until I recalled that during the 1920s Russia was struggling under the NEP (New Economic Policy) where a limited amount of ‘state capitalism’ was allowed. The book (and all the other satire of the decade) reflects an era before Stalin had tightened his grip on his empire, and in these transitional times it was still possible to criticise the authorities. After the NEP was abolished in 1928 the dictator came more to the fore and by the time the next decade was well underway he was in a position to unleash the Great Purges of the 1930s.

The train dragged slowly from station to station, and night dragged as slowly towards the train, creeping through the rattling carriages with their banging doors, with their shadows of heads and flickering flames of candles in rattling lanterns. Young Ivan stood in the corridor of the uncomfortable carriage and, pressing the palm of his hand on the low handle of the door, gazed intently through the rain-splashed window. His knees and his back ached with having stood so long in one place.

But back to “The Embezzlers”. Despite being great fun to read, a kind of frantic, madcap adventure of the type that would turn up in later Hollywood movies (and believe me, there’s just *so* much alcohol!), there’s a thoughtful undercurrent. Kataev’s writing (as rendered here) is excellent and he conjures up atmosphere brilliantly. The opening paragraphs, where Prohoroff stomps off to his office through a rainy Moscow, are striking and bring the city vividly to life; and Leningrad (Petrograd/Petersburg/St. Petersburg/whichever name you prefer) is a living, breathing city too. He doesn’t sugar-coat his look at urban life, but neither does he present the countryside through rose-tinted glasses. Poor Young Ivan, who spends much of the book out of his comfort zone, longs for his home village at one point and is initially delighted when they reach it. However, he soon remembers how dull and repetitive life was back there, and how much he wanted to get away, leaving him wishing to return to Moscow to seek out a simple life with the beautiful step-daughter of Prohoroff…

v kataev

In the end, “The Embezzlers” seemed to be making the point that we really should accept that the grass will *always” seem greener on the other side of the fence, but in fact the world is pretty much the same all over and we might as well make the best of what we’ve got. Certainly, the two heroes constantly attempt to find the high life but end up with the same old troupe of dancers in pantaloons doing Ukrainian folk dances – wherever they go! As I said earlier, Kataev’s writing is really excellent, and very evocative in places, and the whole experience of reading “The Embezzlers” was a joyous one, leaving me even keener to try to track down any more of his work available in English!

Recent Reads: Travels of a Capitalist Lackey by Fred Basnett


Time for some non-fiction – and what a joy this book was! As I mentioned here, I came across this book totally by chance in a charity shop box, thanks to Youngest Child’s eagle eye, and was attracted to it by the title, then discovering it was a record of the author’s travels through Soviet Russia and beyond in 1961. It sounded right up my street and it was!

I’d never heard of Fred Basnett or his book before finding it, and there is precious little about him on the Internet – all I have managed to discover is his obituary here which makes mention of his as a writer and broadcaster. He seems to be a forgotten figure but on the basis of this book I’m not sure why.

Alas - not my edition!

Alas – not my edition!

In August 1961, Fred found himself co-piloting an ancient (1926!) Alvis car with his friend Paul Redfern, as they have somehow been convinced it would be a good idea for them to drive it through Russia then on through Iran and Turkey before returning to the UK. This would be something of an undertaking at the best of times, but bearing in mind that this was at the height of the Cold War, not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis, then it starts to seem foolhardy. Fred and Paul set off nevertheless, travelling with the car by boat to Sweden, then up to visit the Arctic Circle, before heading south through Finland and crossing into Soviet Russia. Somehow the car holds together and they manage to survive through Leningrad, Moscow and right down through Georgia to Tbilisi. After complex border negotiations they pass through Iran, spotting Mount Ararat on the way, before finally arriving with car in Turkey and enjoying slightly more civilised living in Ankara and Istanbul. The book ends as they reluctantly take their leave of Turkey, and alas we don’t get to enjoy their final drive home – maybe this was less eventful than the rest of the journey!

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

This is a wonderful book on several different levels. Firstly, as an illustration of the kind of travel book described by Hilary on Vulpes Libris as “brilliant reading for anyone who enjoys perceptive, personal travel writing for its own sake”, it’s exemplary. It’s funny, opinionated, poignant and infused with a genuine love of the people Fred met on his travels. Secondly, it gives an excellent snapshot of what it was like to travel through Soviet Russia at the time. Whether dodging potential informers or controlling Intourist “guides”, Fred and Paul are always aware that they are being observed and it is a rare occasion when they can sneak away to get a glimpse of the reality behind the Iron Curtain. When they do meet the ordinary citizens they get on like a house on fire, and are met with constant kindness (and a desire to buy anything western they are prepared to part with!). The book is almost a historical document and worth reading to remind yourself what life was like for Russian citizens at that time. There is a desperate need for anything from the outside world, and at one point they are even approached for the printed word:

“Lingering in the corridor of the train, not knowing how to say goodbye, the shy youth opened up a little and told us that his father was a languages professor who translated English books. I gave him Muriel Spark’s ‘Memento Mori’, and then he asked, with tense off-handedness, if there were any English newspapers I’d finished with. All I could find was a tattered copy of The Guardian…”

I wonder what the professor made of Ms. Spark’s novel?

The constant run-ins with Intourist (the Soviet travel agency), the endless waiting around for visas, paperwork and even meals, the interminable bureaucracy were unbelievable and the frustrations the travellers had to put up with would have tried the patience of a saint! Fred and Paul at one point end up stranded in a border town that is no more than a railway station whilst waiting for the car to catch them up by train, and as they sink into torpor, Fred finds amusement in watching the antics of local ants!

Thirdly, this is a glimpse of a lost world – a world where travel still seemed like exploration and to set off on a whim in an old car was carrying on one’s travelling heritage (e.g. Robert Byron’s “Europe in the Looking Glass”), where the globe seemed large and regular jet-setting had not reduced the excitement of discovering a new land. And finally, this is just such a readable book – the writing is lovely, evocative and I became completely absorbed, ending up feeling as if I’d made the journey with them.

Lovely map from the book - all good travel books should have a map!

Lovely map from the book – all good travel books should have a map!

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for those who enjoy travel writing – it seems to me that this is such an unjustly neglected book which should be up there alongside Newby et al. It’s full of lovely descriptions of the regions they passed through and also some very funny sections – here are some examples, but I could have pulled out loads:

“Still looking like an inland sea, Lake Sevan must have been even larger before they started tapping off water for a hydro-electric scheme whose pylons go striding off in all directions over the naked hills. What was once an island out in the lake is now a peninsula, an over-large head on the end of a thin, chalky neck of land, which sent the sun bouncing into our eyes as we walked across. Two cosy little churches of the ninth century squatted comfortably at the turfy summit of the former island. The steep path leading to them passed a clump of intricately carved tombstones, as ancient and withdrawn as a group of geriatric patients. The carving was blurred by strata of lichens, which overlapped like stained, corroded, paper-thin medals.”

“The last call was to the covered market to buy some food for the train journey. Ambivalence again – this time of old and new, of apathy and ebullience. A colossal bronze screen, fretted and pierced like a giant doily, fills the arch of the portico. The fifteen-foot door cut through this looks like a mouse-hole; you scuttle through and find yourself in a high, spaciously echoing vault, more like a hygienic hangar than a market. The traders seem cowed by this space, and cling unhappily to the walls like people who’ve come to a dance too early. Old men squat on their hunkers among green-marbled hills of melons thinking nostalgically of the dirty, bustling life of the old street markets.”

“For all I know, the approach to Maku may be beautiful, even spectacular, when the sun is up, but it is very different on a blind, moonless night. The road runs through a strangely brooding valley, thickly peopled with tall boulders which stand humped like cloaked trolls, sometimes in quiet groups, sometimes alone and waiting with terrible patience at the very edge of the road. The silence was a straining drum-skin waiting to burst in one dreadful boom – and the rocks would then stir stiffly and begin to lurch forward. In this context Maku appears like the good fairy….”

“The dome rang with the sound characteristic of swimming pools everywhere – a compound of the baying of muscled extraverts (sic) and the cries of the drowning. The only thing missing was the whiff of chlorine. The water needed more than a whiff. It was opaque enough to makeĀ  your hand disappear six inches down and, after swallowing a half-pint, I rejected any idea of joining in the wrestling.”

Negative points? I can’t really think of any – perhaps there is the occasional slightly politically incorrect reference (mainly to women rather than ethnic minorities) but there was nothing that made my hackles rise. In summary, this book is going to have pride of place on my travel shelf and if you have any love of travel writing at all, please track down a copy – there are plenty of low-priced ones online, and you’ll be in for a treat! Loved this book!

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