“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”
Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening. Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.
Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:
I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.
Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:
They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility.
Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:
The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire.
Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:
All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.
On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb, the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:
What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.
The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.
Translated by Jenny McPhee