'One death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic': Stanford book tells the tale of the ill-starred life of Nikolai Bukharin, the Bolshevik

From beginning to end, Stalin was a deadly element in the Bukharin marriage – a saga that ended in front of a firing squad. The couple's story is told in a compelling new book.

Jack Hubbard

Hoover research fellow Paul R. Gregory, author of a book about the complexities of living in the Stalin era.

Her first love letter was intercepted by Josef Stalin.

In the summer of 1925, the 11-year-old Anna Larina wrote a poem to the Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, a kindly friend of the family, concluding: "Without you I am always blue." Her stepfather, another high Bolshevik official, encouraged her to deliver it to Bukharin personally.

Anna had planned to ring the doorbell, hand him the envelope and run away. On the stairway, however, she ran into Bukharin's friend Josef Stalin, who was also on his way to see the popular 37-year-old, a founding father of the Bolshevik state. She thrust the envelope into Stalin's hand instead.

Stalin was in the picture at the beginning of her relationship with Bukharin and remained in it till the end. Anna Larina paid a heavy price for her eventual marriage to the well-educated and soft-hearted Bukharin, a man Lenin had dubbed the "Golden Boy" of the Revolution: 20 years of prison, gulag, exile and the confiscation of her infant son.

Paul Gregory, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the University of Houston, cites Stalin's quip that "one death is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic."

Paul Gregory mined the Hoover Institution's archives to research his book.

Paul Gregory mined the Hoover Institution's archives to research his book.

Hence, Gregory's research focused on a tragedy: "an epic tale that would draw readers into the dark labyrinth that was Stalin's Russia," in his words. Politics, Murder and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina, recently published by the Hoover Press, is the fruit of Gregory's excavations into the Hoover Institution archives.

But this is not a dusty tale rehashed for scholars. The forceful, compelling book often reads like a screenplay. According to Stanford history Professor Norman Naimark, Gregory "tells this painful tale using newly accessible Politburo and Central Committee materials that document the Stalinists' assaults on Bukharin and his desperate attempts to defend himself."

Gregory discussed his work in June at a noon presentation sponsored by Stanford's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and the Forum on Contemporary Europe.

He writes that his story is a cautionary tale "for those sympathetic to benevolent dictatorships as a way of escaping national poverty."

"The dictator can turn out to be a Stalin instead of a Bukharin. … Bukharin proved helpless against a ruthless competitor who thirsted for absolute power" – a competitor who, in Gregory's words, "began as a thug, the organizer of bank robberies and murders in his native Georgia."

Svetlana Stalin, Stalin's daughter, who defected to the United States in 1967, remembers Bukharin as playful, a friend to the children who filled Stalin's dacha at Zubalovo with hedgehogs, a hawk and foxes. Bukharin, however, was an eyewitness to Stalin's sadistic abuse of his wife Nadezhda and heard the quarrels in the Stalin household – not a situation to endear him to Stalin.

Anna Larina later wrote: "Nikolai told me how once, by chance, he called at Zubalovo when Stalin was not at home. Nadezhda was there, and they took a walk around the grounds. … Unnoticed, Stalin arrived and crept up stealthily behind them. When they turned in surprise, he looked Nikolai straight in the face and uttered a terrible threat: 'I'll kill you.' Bukharin took this as a cruel joke, but Nadezhda shuddered and turned pale."

Nadezhda was right. Bukharin, who opposed Stalin's disastrous forced collectivization plans, was subjected to "slow strangulation," said Gregory. He was expelled from the Politburo and dismissed from the editorship of Pravda. In 1928, the young Anna was distraught when she found him ashen and exhausted after a confrontation in the plenum. "Don't feel sorry for me, Larochka. Feel sorry for the peasant," Bukharin said.

Disgraced and ostracized, Bukharin met with the 16-year-old Anna in the Crimea two years after that incident. Walking along the shore, he suddenly asked Anna, "Would you be able to love a leper?"

Her stepfather warned on his deathbed that a marriage with Bukharin would be ill fated, but that 10 years with Bukharin would be worth a lifetime.

The couple married in January 1934. They moved into the Kremlin apartment where Nadezhda had committed suicide in 1932. Their wedding night was interrupted by a drunken telephone call from Stalin.

Bukharin was being sucked into a terrible vortex. During the "Great Purge" that killed a million "enemies" of Stalin between 1936 and 1938, Bukharin was an obvious target. By 1937, Bukharin, facing accusations of counterrevolutionary activities, went on a hunger strike.

"Just look at yourself," said Stalin with unctuous cruelty. "You've wasted away to nothing. Ask the plenum to forgive your hunger strike."

Bukharin answered, "With such accusations hanging over me, it is impossible to live. I am not able to shoot myself because then they'll say that I committed suicide to harm the party; but if I die, as from a disease, what would you lose from this?"

"Blackmail!" someone shouted.

"But understand how difficult it is for me to live," said Bukharin.

"And is it easy for us?" Stalin answered.

He was arrested a few months later, and, after torture, confessed, accepting responsibility "even for those crimes about which I did not know or about which I did not have the slightest idea." Anna was sentenced to the gulag and exile as "the wife of a traitor"; their son Yury was taken away. Bukharin was Stalin's star attraction for the final Moscow show trial in March 1938.

Most foreign observers, including the New York Times, the New Republic and The Nation, assumed they were watching a legitimate judicial proceeding as the 21 defendants were tried for planning to assassinate Lenin and Stalin and killing other Soviet officials.

Bukharin begged to die by poison rather than firing squad. Not only was his request denied, but he was given a chair so that he could watch as others were shot first.

"Bukharin was erased from the history books. When he was arrested all his papers and photographs were confiscated. There is not one picture of Nikolai and Anna together," said Gregory.

Bukharin had written a final letter to his wife: "Don't feel malice about anything. Remember that the great cause of the USSR lives on, and this is the most important thing. Personal fates are transitory and wretched by comparison. A great ordeal awaits you. I beg you, my dearest, muster all your strength, tighten all the strings of your heart, but don't allow them to break."

The letter was delivered in 1992. Anna spent her post-gulag years trying to rehabilitate Bukharin's name, which she achieved in 1988; she died in 1996. By that time, the USSR had dissolved and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union no longer existed.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu