During my quiet hours, cozying up with thoughts of Stalin is not my general modus operandi.
He’s not my favorite. He was a little fellow, weak with a deformed arm from a carriage accident, scarred by small pox and kids made fun of him. He acquired something of a cruel streak. His mother wanted him to be a priest.
Young Stalin was a Russian revolutionist: often arrested sometimes exiled. After war and strife, Joseph Stalin endured. He became a self-proclaimed man of steel.
I’m not drawn to the decades of terror in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship. Honestly, I’d much rather feed my flock of magpies and shake my fists at the squirrels.
Uncharacteristically, as our early cold set in I decided to see the film “Death of Stalin,” sponsored by the Russian Club of Jackson Hole and Off Square Theatre Company at the Center for the Arts.
I bundled up, put on my mittens, my winter hat and insulated shoes and took the brisk walk through blowing leaves to the Center for the Arts.
“The perfect night for Stalin,” I said to myself.
The film, something of a black comedy, was excellent. I wasn’t 20 minutes into the story when Stalin was discovered lying in a puddle of his own urine on the floor of his dacha. Soon Nikita Khrushchev arrived on the scene wearing pajamas stuffed beneath his suit.
“Is that Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev?” I whispered to my seatmate while offering a few Whoppers malted milk balls. It was.
The movie gave me just enough information to rekindle suppressed thoughts stored deep in the recesses of my memory of Stalin’s Soviet regime: The Reign of Terror, at least 750,000 executions, millions sent to forced labor camps.
Walking home after the movie, I passed the circular composition of timber panels on the Center lawn.
“I don’t think Stalin was that crazy about artists and intellectuals,” I said to myself.
Though it was spitting a little snow and rain I took the long way home to clear my head. There was little traffic. I waved to the START bus drivers passing by.
I remembered my grandfather’s stories about the kommunalka, the communal apartments built to help alleviate the housing crisis in Tsarist Russia. Families of various social groups were housed together in tightly packed units.
Each family lived in one room, which served as a living room, dining room and bedroom for the entire family. The kitchen and bathroom were used by everyone in the building. Families would carry their own pot to cook in, using their meager rations, to the kitchen, waiting their turn to use the stove. Then they would carry their food- filled pot back to their room.
There were certain benefits provided for Soviet citizens through their employment. If you worked in a factory, the factory would provide day care for your group. Your medical care would also be associated with your job and housing. The government subsidized public transportation. Between 1917 and 1930 state-owned property began to account for a larger share of the country’s total housing stock and construction projects. The government took over the task of allocating housing for its people.
There were occasions when individuals would sublet a government-subsidized room from another tenant. The cost was generally four or five times greater than the government controlled rent.
Through the years, with tears streaking down his face, my grandfather told me many times, “I would dream of bread.” My grandfather grew up in a Polish boarder town. His village and home were destroyed.
Mass murders, arrests and assassinations continued in the Soviet Union until Stalin’s death in 1953. My grandfather made his way to America well before that time.
In 1967 Svetlana Stalin, Stalin’s daughter, later going by the name of Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the United States. She settled in New Jersey. I also lived in New Jersey.
Svetlana resided in Princeton, wrote best sellers and became a millionaire. Later she married Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law, William Wesley Peters. In 1973 they had a child, little Olga, who some years ago was described in the New York Post as being an “all-American badass.”
Olga now lives in Portland, Oregon. She has a shop where she sells antiques, candles and trinkets.
“Honey, I want to go to Portland,” I told my husband.
“Yes, I really want to meet Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter.”
Or maybe I should just stay home and share my bits of bread with my birds as Svetlana Stalin Alliluyeva might have done in her last years, residing in a Wisconsin nursing home collecting Social Security.