The Time Trotsky Got Owned by a Door
Drama in the Grand Kremlin Palace
So I’m about two thirds of the way through the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s enormous recent biography of Stalin. I don’t have any global takeaways about the book yet, but there’s definitely some interesting stuff going on in it. Among other things, Kotkin draws parallels between the early Soviet enterprise and the art movement known as Dadaism, which intersected in a variety of nifty ways with the peregrinations of Lenin during his Swiss exile and the zany practices of which Kotkin argues, albeit more evocatively than empirically, were mirrored in the grandiose proclamations of the incipient revolutionary regime.To be clear: this is the first Stalin biography I’ve read, I’m not a trained historian, and I only really ever read biographies with an eye towards random factoids, grim humor, and colorful incidents. Of these Kotkin offers plenty. We learn, for example, that Stalin enjoyed cilantro (presumably in niortskali) and loved him some smoked bear sausages, prepared “Lithuanian-style” by a trusted bodyguard (how much these differ from kiełbasa, I do not know). And we get a bunch of amusing vignettes of interactions between confident Soviet cadres and representatives of Western powers.
But the episode that really did it for me, that had me laughing at 3:30 AM two nights ago, and that I wanted to share with you occurred during the tumultuous September of 1923. This is a moment when Lenin is still alive, but already debilitated by one of the strokes that would eventually kill him. Without getting too much into the complex factionalism and byzantine maneuvering of all the players involved, the important thing to know is that the Soviet hierarchy is thus even more of a pressure cooker of marathon meetings, strident denunciations, and psychoneurotic breakdowns than usual.Documents supposedly dictated by Lenin calling for Stalin’s “removal” are being circulated, support for a (doomed) revolution in Germany is a subject of fierce debate, and the long-simmering antagonism between Stalin and Trostky has come to a rolling boil. Seeking to sideline his competitor, Stalin has formed a temporary alliance with the so-called “Old Bolsheviks” Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, a plenum of Central Committee, and shit gets wild. Writes Kotkin:
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“The opening day saw two reports, one by Zinoviev on the international situation, which concerned Germany, and another by First Deputy Head of government Rykov on the defense of the country and the creation of a special reserve fund. The plenum approved a date for the German coup of November 9, the anniversary of the kaiser’s abdication and the “bourgeois” revolution (i.e., the founding of the Republic). Kuibyshev reported on changes in the composition of the Revolutionary Military Council, headed by Trotsky. In other words, instead of a discussion of Lenin’s apparent demand to find a way to remove Stalin—the “Ilich letter about the [general] secretary”—Trotsky was ambushed by a scheme, developed without his consultation, to enlarge and stuff the Revolutionary Military Council with partisans of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. Trotsky announced his intention to resign from every one of his posts—including his politburo and Central Committee membership—and requested to be sent abroad “as a soldier of the revolution” to assist the German Communists in the planned coup. When one attendee from Petrograd, Fyodor Sobinov, known as Nikolai Komarov—the son of poor peasants and himself a former factory worker—suddenly asked why Trotsky “put on such airs,” Trotsky exploded. He shot up, stated “I request that you delete me from the list of actors of this humiliating comedy,” and stomped out, resolving to slam the cast-iron door—a massive metal structure not given to demonstrative slamming. He could only manage to bring it to a close slowly, unwittingly demonstrating his impotence. Whether by design or dumb luck, Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had humiliated Trotsky.”
I can’t get over this image. Betrayal and cigarette smoke hang thick in the air. Trotsky gets called out. His narcissistic rage is epic. Looking for a dramatic gesture, he sets on one - but the door, that cursed portal, fails to budge. Whether the scene is more Curb Your Enthusiasm (with the theme played on a balalaika) or Arrested Development, who can say. But goddamn, what a thing.
Anyway, Happy Tuesday. May you not need to slam any doors, but if you do, may they prove accommodating. Probably check them first though.
Subscriber Friends: brain fog bedamned, I’m mid-way through writing no less than five separate longer things (on bank robbers, mafiosi semiotics, ChatGPT, Lacan, and ancient Babylonian officials doing goat-involved corruption), so stay tuned (and thank you!).
“The decree naming the unemployed Pestkowski as central bank governor, and many similar pronouncements, had an absurdist quality reminiscent of the provocations of the new performance art known as Dadaism. A perfectly apt nonsense term, Dada had arisen in neutral Switzerland during the Great War, largely among Jewish Romanian exiles, in what they called the Cabaret Voltaire, which, coincidentally, lay on the same street in Zurich (Spiegelgasse, 1) as Lenin’s wartime exile apartment (Spiegelgasse, 14). Tristan Tzara, a Dada poet and provocateur, and Lenin may have played chess against each other. Dada and Bolshevism arose out of the same historical conjuncture. Dada’s originators cleverly ridiculed the infernal Great War and the malevolent interests that drove it, as well as crass commercialism, using collage, montage, found objects, puppetry, sound poetry, noise music, bizarre films, and one-off pranks staged for the new media they mocked. Dada happenings were also transnational, and would flourish in Berlin, Cologne, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Tiflis. The Dada artists—or “anti-artists” as many of them preferred to be known—did not conflate, say, a urinal repurposed as a “fountain” with a new and better politics. Tzara composed poems by cutting newspaper articles into pieces, shaking the fragments in a bag, and emptying them across a table. Another Dadaist read a lecture whose every word was purposefully drowned out by the shattering noise of a train whistle. Such tactics were a world away from the pedantic, hyperpolitical Lenin: He and his decrees about a new world order were issued without irony. But Bolshevik decrees were also issued into Dada-esque anarchy.”
Consider this scene, from peace talks with Germany in December of 1917:
“Upon arrival, the Bolshevik Karl Radek—born Karl Sobelsohn in Habsburg Lemberg (Lwów)—had hurled antiwar propaganda out the train window at rank-and-file German soldiers, urging them to rebel against their commanders. Seated across the table from the German state secretary for foreign affairs, Baron Richard von Kuhlmann, and the chief of staff of German armies in the East, Major General Max Hoffman, Radek leaned forward and blew smoke. At the opening dinner in the officers’ mess, one member of the Russian delegation, a Left SR, kindly reenacted her assassination of a tsarist governor for the meeting’s host, Field Marshal Prince Leopold of Bavaria. The head of the Bolshevik delegation, Adolf Joffe—whom the Austrian foreign minister, Count Ottokar Czernin, pointedly noted was a Jew—observed that “I very much hope that we will be able to raise the revolution also in your country.” Thus did the leftist plebes of the Russian Pale of Settlement and Caucasus square off against titled German aristocrats and warlords of the world’s most formidable military caste.”
This is not hyperbole on my part. Throughout the 1920s, high officials seemed to be constantly burning out, suffering heart attacks and nervous breakdowns, petitioning for permission to take the waters at Sochi sanitariums, etc. Kotkin even mentions - tantalizingly - an official inquiry into the problem, ventured after the death of prominent the Revolutionary Military Council official Mikhail Frunze. Afflicted by a chronic ulcer, the workaholic Frunze died following a grisly botched operation, and while rumors of his having been murdered were unfounded, the broader problem was very real. Writes Kotkin:
“Beyond these false accusations, Bolshevik susceptibility to illnesses became the talk of the day as a psychoneurologist presented a grim report about pervasive “revolutionary exhaustion and attrition.” early half of all visits by top party figures to medical clinics were for nervous disorders (with tuberculosis well behind, at around one quarter). Two German specialists were imported to examine a list of fifty regime figures, beginning with Dzierzynski and Mezynski and working through to Rykov and Stalin, with what results remains unknown, but the internal discussions indicate acceptance, including by Trotsky, of the fact that Frunze had died of natural causes, even if better medical care might have saved him.”