This is an excellent book by Paul M. Levitt, but it is not the easiest book to read. The author is a professor of English at the University of Colorado, and I think he distracts from a great story to discuss literary figures. That might be a positive to those who are interested in Russian writers and poets. On the positive side, the book provides insight into a brutal time in the Soviet Union when millions of people were dying in the “Great Terror.” Describing the experiences of a barber who is sufficiently skilled to shave and trim Stalin is an interesting way to frame the historical fiction. There is the undercurrent of mystery as the barber realizes that he is barbering Stalin and body doubles. He works hard at attempting to identify the real Stalin by engaging him in reminiscences about his life experiences. That’s a clever way for the author to work information about Stalin into the narrative.
The book begins as the barber decides he and his wife have to leave the desolation of Albania and make their way to the Soviet Union where the rumors say life will be better. They are on a train that travels through Moldovia and then the Ukraine. There are women and children showing obvious signs of starvation holding their hands out begging for food. One woman beseeches him to take her emaciated son. A soldier declares the child is as good as dead and throws the boy “…off the train as carelessly as one would dispose of a cigarette.” That startling episode and vivid descriptions of “death trains” should be a warning that this book, which I’m convinced accurately portrays a brutal time, can be difficult to read. The prosecutor of the “show trials” proudly declared that “…confession of the accused is the queen of evidence…” in describing confessions extracted by torture. One passage in the back half of the book that “…the proliferation of labor camps and denunciations had turned the country into an asylum inhabited by cowed citizens too terrified to speak their minds or ask innocently, “Can you tell me why my husband was arrested?” (I suppose there could be some consolation that many of the worst officials who were the head of the Soviet secret police at one point or another as millions were dying in the “Great Terror,” to include Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, and Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, were all executed.)
One son of the barber’s wife is a Soviet secret police official and a homosexual who is interestingly described as dispelling his homoerotic feelings by studying “…his signed photograph of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who had taken the revolutionary code word ‘Stalin,’ which combined the Russian word stal (steel) with Lenin…” He is also called “Vozhd,” “Supreme Leader,” “Soso,” “Koba,” and “the Boss,” among other names. The son inadvertently alerts the barber and his wife that their apartment is bugged. They take to going to a park when they wanted to talk about sensitive matters and notice the park is always filled with people even in freezing weather.
The barber, in Russian tradition, has various names, but settles on “Razan.” There are numerous descriptions of his skill as a barber. The trimming of hair and beard is described as being done in the “Turkish manner.” However, the feature that seems to gain Razan widespread admiration is his ability to use alcohol and a match to singe hair from the ears without burning the ears. This is described many times. Razan is declared to be “an artist” when he perform this little ceremony on Stalin (or the body double) during his audition. Perhaps to test Razan, Stalin tells a joke about himself. He says that he told his driver he knew the driver has told jokes about him and that are impertinent. “I am after all the Great Leader, Teacher, and Friend of the people.” The driver replies, “No, I haven’t told that joke yet.” Razan is given permission to laugh, laughs too loud, and then explains he wasn’t laughing at the joke but “…at the artful way you told it.”
Another joke is that an old man was at a May Day parade holding a placard that read “Thank you Comrade Stalin, for my very happy childhood.” A policeman tells him everyone can see Stalin hadn’t been born when the man was a child. The man replied, “That’s precisely why I’m grateful!” And another is that a dozen workers from the Urals were visiting Stalin, and when they left Stalin found his pipe was missing. He ordered the workers held and questioned, and then found his pipe. He ordered the workers released, but was told, “But Comrade Stalin, they’ve all confessed.” There is a hint of the fear that pervaded all the jokes. Telling a joke about Stalin would undoubtedly result in torture and execution or banishment to starve working in the Gulag.
There is an interesting discussion of the policy that dictated absolute compliance with whatever the Party decreed, even if it was a change from the previous decree. “Rules free a man from the vagaries of choice. Follow the orders of your superiors, and you’ll fit right in.” One man whose family had died in the camps was kept alive because officials thought he knew where the family treasure was hidden. Being interviewed in the mental institution when he was being held he exclaimed, “They should all bite their tongues and die of the poison.”
There is a brief reference to a physicist who is being held because he refused to work “…on nuclear projects he feared might accidently incinerate the globe.”
There are interesting episodes about the staunchly anti-Communist Pope Pius XI and his efforts to send agents into Russia to cause turmoil. They are trained at a place the book calls the “Russicum.” The internet helped me learn there “…is a Catholic college in Rome dedicated to the studies of the culture and spirituality of Russia…It was founded by…Pope Pius XI, who was touched by the large flow of immigrants from Bolshevik Russia and the persecution of Christianity in that country.” The college is informally called the “Russicum.” Interesting what you can learn reading fiction books. There is discussion of Stalin thinking the suffering of priests was appropriate as he remembered the beatings he received during his seminary training in Georgia.
One last historical fact is that back marketers were considered enemies of the state and shot when caught. The irony is that the black market was essential in many aspects of life for the Russian people. The black market provided crucial supplies to the long-suffering Soviet soldiers enduring brutal conditions during the invasion of Finland. Anyone who underestimates the strength and resolve of Russians should read about that invasion, the conditions (i.e., no reprieve from sub-zero temperatures) that the soldiers endured.
I don’t suggest this is an entertaining book or a book that will leave you with a satisfied feeling, but I recommend it to those who want to understand the brutality that was required to perpetuate the myth of the “Worker’s paradise” in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Read it, learn, and weep! If nothing else, the book should cause us to celebrate the wonderful lives freedom (opinion alert!) and the economic power of Capitalism gives to all of us!