Nikolai Bukharin: The Movie


A torn picture of Nikolai Bukharin is the only original photo of him at Hoover archives. After his execution, the government confiscated all his records. (Photo: Hoover Archives)

July 1928.  Nikolai Bukharin rose to contradict Stalin at every point.  Stalin’s extraordinary measures had caused grain output to plummet wherever they had been implemented.  Eventually they resulted in a famine that would cost 6-7 million lives, but the immediate effect was unrest among the peasants.  The kulak — Stalin’s favorite scapegoat — was not to blame. The popular leader Lenin had dubbed the “Golden Boy of the Revolution” concluded:

BUKHARIN:  “We must immediately remove extraordinary measures which were historically justified and correctly enacted. They have outlived their time. But we now face a wave of mass unrest. There have been some 150 different uprisings throughout the union and dozens of terrorist acts [he described them].  Middle peasants are deserting to the camp of the kulaks. … We were victorious in gaining Soviet power, but we can also lose it.”

Stalin’s stooge Lazar Kaganovich, party head where much of the Ukrainian unrest occurred, protested that the Bolshevik leader was exaggerating.

BUKHARIN:  I could cite still more such examples given at the Central Committee plenum of Ukraine.

KAGANOVICH:  There were other speeches there.  You should cite them as well.

VOICE FROM THE CROWD, A BUKHARIN ALLY:  And the former general secretary of Ukraine, Comrade Kaganovich, comes here and doesn’t say anything about this?

KAGANOVICH:  Give me two hours like Comrade Bukharin, and I will tell you all and cite speeches.

BUKHARIN:  When Lenin encountered panic-mongers, he said they must be shot to maintain a united front.  But he never said that we should keep quiet about facts. … I don’t know whom I am contradicting.  I only know that I learned about this widespread peasant unrest yesterday.

This is an excerpt from Paul Gregory’s Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, which I wrote about here.  If it sounds like a screenplay — well, you’re not the first one to think so.

“Almost without exception, readers, including my editor, came independently to the conclusion that their story would make a great film — a kind of Darkness at Noon/Zhivago combination,” Paul Gregory told me.  “I sent the book to two producers, both of whom read the book and concluded it should be a movie. An appealing feature for filmmakers is that at least two of the roles — Anna and Stalin — would be exceptional roles for major actors. Their concern, however, was that Hollywood was not financing ‘good’ films these days and was only interested in sequels, comic books, and special effects. They felt it would either have to be made as an independent film or by cable TV concerns like HBO or SHO.”

The reason for the astonishing transcripts, said Paul, is the emergency of a huge amount of formerly secret documents, released from the Soviet archives beginning in the early 1990s; many exist on microfilm at the Hoover Institition, where Paul Gregory did his research.  They include the transcripts of Central Committee plenums (like the excerpt above), stenograms of the Politburo, transcripts of interrogations, correspondence.  (Irma Kudrova’s compelling Death of a Poet also made use of new documents — I reviewed it here.)

“This story is non-fiction fiction. It seems too good a story to be real,” he said.   “I have ten years of experience and could not have written this book without that ten years.  I may have been the only one with sufficient patience to make my way through all these records. I would classify among the more important finds the original transcript of Bukharin’s last statement to the court with Stalin’s edits in pencil, the official record of the carrying out of his execution, his ‘hunger strike’ speech before the Central Committee in February of 1937, his arrest warrant.”

Not new is his final letter to his beloved wife, Anna Larina, which she received 50 years late.  Neither of them ever lost faith in the revolution that executed Bukharin in 1938.

Anna Larina got his last letter 50 years late

Dear Sweet Annushka, My Darling!

I write to you on the eve of my trial…with a special purpose, which I emphasize three times over: no matter what you read, no matter what you hear, no matter how horrible these things may be, no matter what might be said about me or what I might say–endure everything courageously and calmly. Prepare the family. Help all of them. I fear for you and the others, but most about you.

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…. Regardless of what happens and no matter what the outcome of the trial, I will see you afterwards, and I will be able to kiss your hands.

Good-bye my darling, Your Kol’ka
January 15, 1938

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4 Responses to “Nikolai Bukharin: The Movie”

  1. Elena Says:

    When I met CP founder Jay Lovestone at the Hoover Archives in 1978 he still believed the Soviet Union would have “worked” if only Bukharin had won the power struggle with Stalin. Jay would pound the table in the coffee room to emphasize all of this. Of course, by 1978 Lovestone was deeply involved in right wing Republican politics. Some kind of cracked cognitive dissonance.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Actually, Elena, I understand the cracked cognitive dissonance. My own grandfather was a member of the CP — became a Democratic union organizer in Detroit. My mother, a Red Diaper Baby, became a Goldwater Republican in reaction. Plenty of cognitive dissonance in the 20th century to go around. Why do I get the feeling the 21st may not be that different?

  3. Elena Says:

    There is definitely a pattern here. Another early CP founder Ella Wolfe (widow of Bertram Wolfe) also hung out in the archives reading room, and revered Bukharin’s memory even as she voted for Reagan.

  4. Lois White Buffalo Says:

    Well, Bukharin’s speech on the peasants sounds a little like the current USA of today. Anyone see a connection here folks? History does repeat itself after all. Let’s see 1929 to 2009 yeah that’s about right. The conditions are remarkably similar; engagement in delusional wars to settle global problems that are not threats to the usa, resulting in bankruptcy of the country, flagrant excesses by the ruling elite pissing off the peasants and depriving the bourgeoisie and middle classes of everything they have ever earned in their lives, life savings retirement accounts etc. well the list goes on. But now we are emerging also into the 1939 period of the Weimar republic where the financial and public sector is controlled by about 15 conglomerates who support the emerging dictatorship, need I say more?
    Oh, one more thing, remember Goethe:
    “None are more hopelessley enlaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” [end quote]
    Lois White Buffalo is a former Sovietolog
    Dissident living in Indian country, ex-patiot