The kiss: “Stalin was feeling extremely gay”

Here at UR we absolutely adore simplicity. The truth is not always simple, it’s true. But the lies are always complicated. And there are so many lies! Even in this historic golden age of bullshit, is it possible to oversimplify? To steal a line from Hunter Thompson, it’s possible for a Hell’s Angel to catch the clap, too. He doesn’t waste much time worrying about it.

But America has so many problems! No, she doesn’t. America has only one problem: America is a communist country.

And has been since before you were born. And probably before your mother was born. Earl Browder was right: communism is as American as apple pie. Russia didn’t infect America. America infected Russia. After which the germ went back and forth a few times—as we’ll see. It eventually died out in Russia, which is nice because that just leaves us. How simple!

Alas, this beautiful, simple, horrifying reality is simply too difficult for most Americans to grasp, let alone do something about. If you tell an American of any political persuasion that his is a communist country, the poor fscker will simply laugh in your face. Cancer, that’s so funny. Of course I couldn’t possibly have cancer. Yes, there’s this thing—it’s just a growth

If you love your American, don’t let him get away with it! Don’t let him wallow in his denial! Hit him straight in the teeth with a fast overhand right. “Of course America is a communist country,” you can say. “You just have to translate. For workers and peasants, read blacks and Hispanics.”

Now this is a zinger, but it’s just a zinger. One little zinger never cured anyone. It gives you something to work with, that’s all. Your interlocutor, if there’s any hope for him, may be a sharp fellow himself. He might punch back with a zinger of his own. For example, he could say: “oh, yeah? So tell me, smart guy, on what day did America become a communist country?”

Whereupon some might be stumped. But you, dear UR reader, have an answer. America became a communist country on December 20, 1933. Was there transmission of saliva? Oh, yes, there was transmission of saliva.

I say “at a bare minimum,” because the published edition (1972) of William Bullitt’s letters to FDR was edited by Bullitt’s brother, Orville, with assistance from George Kennan. Orville’s elisions (which I’ve marked OB) are frequent, especially at the juicy moments. Do they conceal even more… “intimate…” revelations? It’s clear that nothing really juicy could remain, but even what’s left is… remarkable. I’ve of course made my own cuts, which conceal nothing.

Personal and Confidential On board steamship Washington—January 1, 1934

My dear Mr. President:

In addition to the report of my trip to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which I shall submit to the Secretary of State, I should like to set down for your own eye some of the more intimate episodes. […] Berlin […] I avoided seeing any officials of the German Government, but “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s intimate assistant, called on me and talked in his customary irrational manner, saying among other things, “Of course you and I know that the Jews make all wars and are the sole beneficiaries of all wars.” I disagreed. The most fantastic thing which has happened in Germany lately is the christening of the new military academy “Ernst Roehm Kadetten Erziehungs Anstalt.” In view of the revelations about Roehm, the English equivalent would be the renaming of Sandhurst “Oscar Wilde Institute.”

U.S.S.R. […] On Wednesday, December 13, at noon, I presented my credentials to Kalinin at the Kremlin. [OB…] I had a delightful conversation with Kalinin after presenting my credentials. I had never met him and I had thought from all that I had read that he was a simple-minded old peasant, but he is far from simple-minded. He has a delightful shrewdness and sense of humor.

He asked me to say to you that he was following with the closest attention everything you were doing in America, and that he and everyone else in Russia considered you completely out of the class of the leaders of capitalist states; that it was clear to them all that you really cared about the welfare of the laboring men and the farmers and that you were not engaged in protecting the vested rights of property. […] [OB…] Even the party press of the Communist Party which hitherto has been uniformly hostile to Ambassadors unearthed various remarks of Lenin about me from his “Testament” and various speeches. Apparently he really liked me and expressed his liking many times. In view of Lenin’s present position in Russia, which is not unlike that of Jesus Christ in the Christian church, this is a bit like having the personal endorsement of the Master recorded in St. Mark. Divilkovsky, for example, said to me, “You cannot understand it, but there is not one of us who would not gladly have his throat cut to have had such things said about him by Lenin.” [OB…] There was one [OB building site] which was not offered to us, but which we offered to ourselves: a bluff covered with beautiful woods containing a lake overlooking the river and the whole city of Moscow in the center of the great city park. It is a situation which suggests Monticello, and I can conceive of nothing more perfect for an American Embassy than a reproduction of Monticello in that setting with houses for the entire staff of both consulate and embassy arranged along the sides of the property. We were not modest in our demands, but asked for the entire bluff containing some fifteen acres of property. The Moscow Soviet continued to offer us other building sites, any one of which would be adequate but none of which compared in interest or beauty to this site. [OB…] That night Litvinov, with whom I had previously had several meals in private, gave me a formal dinner to which nearly all the members of the Government were present. It was a superb banquet with food and wines of a quality that no one in America would dare to serve nowadays, and many toasts were drunk to you and to me and to the United States. [OB…] […] […] [OB…] The men at the head of the Soviet Government today are really intelligent, sophisticated, vigorous human beings and they cannot be persuaded to waste their time with the ordinary conventional diplomatist. On the other hand, they are extremely eager to have contact with anyone who has first-rate intelligence and dimension as a human being. They were, for example, delighted by young Kennan who went in with me. […] Litvinov said to me as I looked over the room, “This is the whole ‘gang’ that really runs things—the inside directorate.” I was introduced to Stalin after I had shaken hands with Kalinin and Molotov, but made no effort to continue conversing with him before dinner, considering it best to let him come to me in his own good time. He drifted to one side of the room and I to the other. [OB…] The first impression Stalin made was surprising. I had thought from his pictures that he was a very big man with a face of iron and a booming voice. On the contrary, he is rather short, the top of his head coming to about my eye level, and of ordinary physique, wiry rather than powerful. He was dressed in a common soldier’s uniform, with boots, black trousers and a gray-green coat without marks or decorations of any kind. Before dinner he smoked a long underslung pipe, which he continued to hold in his left hand throughout dinner, putting it on the table only when he needed to use both knife and fork. His eyes are curious, giving the impression of a dark brown filmed with dark blue. They are small, intensely shrewd and continuously smiling. The impression of shrewd humor is increased by the fact that the “crow’s feet” which run out from them do not branch up and down in the usual manner, but all curve upward in long crescents. His hand is rather small with short fingers, wiry rather than strong. His mustache covers his mouth so that it is difficult to see just what it is like, but when he laughs his lips curl in a curiously canine manner. The only other notable feature about his face is the length of his nostrils. They are unusually long. With Lenin one felt at once that one was in the presence of a great man; with Stalin I felt I was talking to a wiry Gipsy with roots and emotions beyond my experience. […] As soon as we had settled ourselves at the table Stalin rose, lifted his glass and proposed a toast “To President Roosevelt, who in spite of the mute growls of the Fishes dared to recognize the Soviet Union.” Everyone drained his glass to the bottom and sat down again with considerable laughter at Stalin’s reference to Ham Fish. I then proposed the health of President Kalinin and thereupon a series of toasts was begun which continued throughout the entire meal. The next one was Molotov’s to me in which he proposed “The health of one who comes to us as a new Ambassador but an old friend.”

After the tenth toast or so, I began to consider it discreet to take merely a sip rather than drain my glass, but Litvinov, who was next to me, told me that the gentleman who proposed the toast would be insulted if I did not drink to the bottom and that I must do so, whereupon I continued to drink bottoms-up. There were perhaps fifty toasts and I have never before so thanked God for the possession of a head impervious to any quantity of liquor. Everyone at the table got into the mood of a college fraternity banquet, and discretion was conspicuous by its absence. Litvinov whispered to me: “You told me that you wouldn’t stay here if you were going to be treated as an outsider. Do you realize that everyone at this table has completely forgotten that anyone is here except the members of the inner gang?” That certainly seemed to be the case.

Stalin proposed my health several times and I did his once and we had considerable conversation across Madame Voroshilov. Toward the end of the dinner Stalin rose and proposed the health and continued prosperity of the American Army, the American Navy and the whole United States. In return, I proposed a toast “To the memory of Lenin and the continued success of the Soviet Union.” […] After dinner we adjourned to an adjoining drawing room and Stalin seized Piatakov by the arm, marched him to the piano, sat him down on the stool and ordered him to play. Piatakov launched into a number of wild Russian dances, Stalin standing behind him and from time to time putting his arm around Piatakov’s neck and squeezing him affectionately.

When Piatakov had finished playing, Stalin came over and sat down beside me and we talked for some time. He said he hoped that I would feel myself completely at home in the Soviet Union, that he and all the members of the Government had felt that I was a friend for so long, that they had such admiration for yourself and the things you were trying to do in America that they felt we could cooperate with the greatest intimacy. I told him that you sincerely hoped that war might be prevented in the Far East and that the Soviet Government might work out its great experiment in peace. He said, “I know that that is what President Roosevelt wants and I hope you will tell him from me that he is today, in spite of being the leader of a capitalist nation, one of the most popular men in the Soviet Union.”

Stalin was feeling extremely gay, as we all were, but he gave me the impression he was speaking honestly. He had by this time made the impression on me of a man not only of great shrewdness and inflexible will (Lenin, you know, said of him that he had enough will to equip the entire Communist Party), but also possessed of the quality of intuition in extraordinary measure. Moreover, like every real statesman I have known, he had the quality of being able to treat the most serious things with a joke and a twinkle in his eye. Lenin had that same quality. You have it.

As I got up to leave, Stalin said to me, “I want you to understand that if you want to see me at any time, day or night, you have only to let me know and I will see you at once.” This was a most extraordinary gesture on his part as he has hitherto refused to see any Ambassador at any time. [OB…] After I had said good-bye to Voroshilov and the others, Stalin went to the door of the apartment with me and said, “Is there anything at all in the Soviet Union that you want? Anything?” There was one thing I wanted, but I hesitated to ask for it, as Litvinov had told me that the Moscow Soviet had definitely decided it would not give us the building site in the center of the town’s park, and that a map would be submitted to me showing that the new canal would run through the center of the property. Therefore I first said, “Everyone has been more than kind to me and I should hesitate to ask for anything in addition, except that the intimate relations we have begun tonight may continue.”

Whereupon, Stalin said, “But I should really like to show you that we appreciate not only what the President has done, but also what you yourself have done. Please understand that we should have received politely any Ambassador that might have been sent us by the Government of the United States, but we should have received no one but yourself in this particular way.” He seemed moved by a genuinely friendly emotion.

Therefore, I thanked him and said that there was one thing I should really like to have, that I could see in my mind’s eye an American Embassy modeled on the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence on that particular bluff overlooking the Moscow River, and that I should be glad to know that that property might be given to the American Government as a site for an Embassy. Stalin replied, “You shall have it.”

Thereupon, I held out my hand to shake hands with Stalin and, to my amazement, Stalin took my head in his two hands and gave me a large kiss! I swallowed my astonishment and, when he turned up his face for a return kiss, I delivered it.

This evening with Stalin and the inner circle of the Soviet Government seems almost unbelievable in retrospect, and I should have difficulty in convincing myself that it was a reality if I had not on returning to my hotel awakened my secretary and dictated the salient facts to him. Moreover, the next day shortly before my departure Litvinov told me that the property in the park should be ours if we wished to have it.

Alas, his astonishment wasn’t the only thing Bullitt swallowed. When he kissed Stalin back, so did his boss. So did America. We’ve gotten over our Stalin crush—but not our FDR crush. What’s one more degree of separation? To a virus? The virus is in us yet, albeit in its late, bureaucratic form.

No, America in 2012 is not crackling with revolutionary fire. Anything but! Neither was Russia in 1988, despite its rulers’ best efforts. It’s hard to start a fire when there’s nothing left to burn. It’s equally unfortunate that Monticello in Moscow was never built—it would have been the finest possible homage to America’s founding Jacobin. Had enough revolution yet, America? Whose streets? Our streets!

But in some ways the worst part of the story is that the Bullitt letter records the highest level of “intimacy” ever achieved between US and USSR, and nor was it our choice to pull away. Au contraire! From day one, the Soviet tactic with their American patrons was like that of an alpha female with her hareem of beta males—constantly flirting but never actually putting out. The “inner gang” was quite conscious of their sovereignty and their need to retain it. They saw quite clearly that if they went down the Monticello in Moscow path, they would just be America’s wife. America has never had any shortage of wives.

Naturally, each such rejection only stimulated the “wise men” of American diplomacy (all of whom spent the rest of the ’30s pleading with Stalin to let them lick his balls again) to further efforts of contemptible affection. Only after WWII did it finally dawn on our best and brightest that no such marriage could ever never happen.

To our official historians, this breakup is called the “Cold War,” and all those episodes of American progressivism serenading Russian progressivism with boombox held high are swept under the carpet as “naivete.” (Or sometimes, with amusing consistency, as “realism.”) Dear professors, the terms you’re looking for are “Anglo-Soviet split” and “freshman homo crush.”

Bullitt himself finally soured on Stalin’s hawtness and, as a result, was pushed out of the New Deal’s inner circle in the early ‘40s (but not before setting up World War II by, at least if we can believe Joe Kennedy, orchestrating the British guarantee to Poland). There was no shortage of Achesons, Hisses and Hopkinses to replace him. I have of course elided all the actual substantive details of Bullitt’s intimate diplomacy with Stalin, which largely center around the New Dealers’ desire to provide political, economic and military protection for their “Soviet experiment.” This twisted, dysfunctional oyabun-kobun relationship did not begin in 1933, nor did it end in 1945. But I digress.

In any case, while no reminder should be necessary, I thought I’d pair the Bullitt letter with a story, probably but not certainly true, from the recently published memoir of one Fyodor Mochulsky, Gulag Boss—the title says it all:

The new boss was a lean man, somewhere around thirty years old, with combed-back light hair and energetic facial features. He had a long, skinny nose with a protuberance, and his thin lips were usually pursed together tightly. His movements were sharp, and his judgments were categorical.

His dugout was right next to mine, so there was nowhere to go to get away from him. And as soon as he began to drink, he would come to me, sit for hours and recount the details of how he had been sentenced to the death penalty. It almost drove me mad, but there was no way to get out of it. All around us, there was only the dark night and the tundra.

I would be glad to forget his stories, but you can’t order away memories. Here are some of the things he told me.

To the question of how he had gotten himself into such unusual work, he told me that when he had been demobilized from the army, he had been given a security job at Butyrka prison in Moscow. One day, the prison’s private vehicle arrived at the prison’s courtyard with a contingent of arrested men. As it happened, the gates to the inner courtyard would not unlock, so they opened the doors of the vehicle in the outer courtyard and let the prisoners out. One of the prisoners noticed that the outer gates to the prison were still hanging open, and he took off running. As the security guard on duty, my unit boss at that moment had been standing next to the gates. When he saw what was happening, he did not hesitate. He drew out the sword that hung at his side and stabbed, right into the spine, the prisoner who was trying to escape.

The Butyrka guards who had carelessly left open the courtyard gates were punished. The security officer (our current unit boss) had prevented the prisoner’s escape. For his decisive action, he was offered a transfer to a new job. At this new job, he would be carrying out “special commissions,” that is, he would work as an executioner, shooting the enemies of Soviet power. He agreed to the transfer, and after some special training, he was sent with his new specialty to the ancient Russian city of Uglich.

For days at a time, he said, from mission to mission, he sat around doing nothing. He rested. Then, when the prison had accumulated a large number of condemned prisoners, the authorities would set an execution date. A specially trusted group from the security department of Uglich’s prison was then sent out to carefully select a place in the woods and dig a pit. The pit was guarded until the executions took place. Starting at night and working until the morning, the prison officials would transport the condemned prisoners in a closed truck to this pit. Besides the security men and the person who would ensure that the executions took place, he said, there was always a doctor on hand. It was his duty to certify the death and write up the necessary documents.

One at a time, they led a condemned prisoner from the truck to the edge of the pit, and forced him to get on his knees with his face toward the pit. The executioner than shot him in the back of the head, and the dead man fell in. From the blow to the head, the executioner told me, the body would turn over facing up, and straighten up on the bottom of the pit. The doctor then went down into the pit and certified that the body was dead. Then they went to retrieve the next condemned prisoner.

He told me that from time to time, there was a prisoner who would not do what he was told and go submissively to the edge of the pit. In these cases, the security guys had to help out, and the job for the executioner would be more complicated.

When the mission was finished and the pit was filled, they covered it with soil and tried to make it look unobtrusive. After every mission, he told me, he got drunk and tried not to think about what he had done until the next time they called. For a long time, though, he was convinced that his job was important and honorable, because he was destroying the enemies of Soviet power. He believed that not everyone could be as trusted as he was with such a job.

But then one day, he had to shoot a fourteen-year-old girl. The executioner was told right before he had to kill her that not only was she the daughter of an “enemy of the people,” she was also a “German spy.” Suddenly and involuntarily, questions sprang to his mind. He was to kill a fourteen-year-old girl in an ancient Russian small town far from the front, in a place that had no classified establishments? Where had this adolescent girl done her spying, and for whom?

When they brought her to the execution place, she held herself up firmly and was silent. But when they led her to the pit, she spoke up. She said that she did not understand why they were depriving her of her life. “Even Stalin said that children do not answer for their parents, so why me?” she asked. She was unaware, he added, that she was also accused of being a “German spy.”

In the words of my unit boss, after this execution he drank himself into a stupor so profound that he felt nothing. Soon he was sent to a hospital for crazy people.

National guilt—it’s not just for Germans anymore.