Authors: Owen Matthews
The famine was not just a disaster - it was a weapon deliberately used against the peasants. 'It took a famine to show them who is master here,' a senior Party official told Victor Kravchenko, a Party planning apparatchik who defected to the US in 1949. 'It has cost millions of lives . . . but we have won the war.'
Bibikov must have seen the hunger too - the pinched faces, the bloated bellies and the empty eyes. He travelled often on Party and factory business in his black Packard, or in firstclass train carriages with guards in the corridors. He must have known that special trucks, on secret orders from the municipal authorities, patrolled the cities of the Ukraine at night to collect the corpses of peasants who had crawled there from the villages. Many must have made it to the barbed-wire perimeter of the KhTZ, on the outskirts of the city. By morning there was no trace, for those who chose not to see, of the horror which was unfolding all around. George Bernard Shaw declared, after a carefully stage-managed tour of the Ukraine in 1932, that he 'did not see a single undernourished person in Russia'. Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning
New York Times
correspondent, dismissed reports of famine as anti-Soviet propaganda. To the Party, starving peasants were simply the waste-matter of revolution, to be ignored until they obligingly died - and then forgotten. The Party's leaders wanted the world to see only the shining achievements, not the price which was being paid for them.
Bibikov made sure his family knew nothing. Lenina's memory of those years in Kharkov is of bazaars filled with fruits and vegetables, and her father coming home laden with sausages from the factory's canteen and boxes of sweets for the children. She doesn't remember wanting for anything. What did Bibikov think, as he tucked those paper-wrapped sausages into his briefcase as dusk fell, bringing the night and its crop of starved and desperate wanderers? He thought, I am quite sure, thank God it's them, instead of us.
The convulsions of collectivization two years previously could be explained away as a war against the Revolution's class enemies, the kulaks. But now those enemies had been liquidated and the collective farms of the future established. Yet even those blinded by ideology could scarcely fail to see that the Workers' and Peasants' State was, painfully obviously, failing to feed its own people. Moreover, for all the glorious achievements of industrialization, it was equally clear that the whole dream of Socialism was being held together increasingly by coercion. Already in October 1930 a law forbade the free movement of labour, tying peasants to their land and workers to their factories, as in the days of serfdom. In December 1932 internal passports were introduced in an effort to stem the exodus of the starving into the cities.
Does Bibikov's decision to continue believing, in the face of mounting evidence that the dream was becoming a nightmare, make him a cynical man? It's hard to know, since first and foremost he had little choice but to follow the Party line. The alternative was to join the starving, or worse. Yet he was clearly intelligent enough to understand that terrible cracks were appearing in the paradise he had spent his adult life fighting for.
Perhaps, like many of his generation, he convinced himself of that greatest of twentieth-century heresies: that bourgeois sentimentality had no place in the heart of a servant of a higher humanity. Maybe he believed that the Party would ultimately create a brave new world from all this chaos. Or perhaps, less self-righteously, he convinced himself that his duty was to do what he could to conquer the backwardness of Russia, with its famines and grinding poverty, by helping to forge it into a modern, industrial nation. Most likely, though, is a more human explanation: it was much easier to live by one's myths, and to continue to believe in the ultimate wisdom of the Party, than to speak out and risk disaster.
Yet the famine-ravaged country Bibikov saw during the winter of 1931-32 seems to have profoundly altered him. The Party was always right, yes - but the Party's tactics might at least be altered. Like many Party leaders in the Ukraine who had seen the horrors which Stalin's hard line produced first hand, Bibikov became convinced that Stalin's rule must be softened if further disaster was to be averted. His chance to speak out came eighteen months later, shortly before the birth of his second daughter, my mother, Lyudmila Borisovna Bibikova.
It was a long time ago, and it never happened.
In the first days of January 1934 Bibikov left his heavily pregnant wife at home and travelled with several senior factory managers by special train to Moscow to attend the Seventeenth All-Union Party Congress as an ex officio observer. Because he never discussed politics with Martha, she had no idea that her husband had determined on an act of defiance which was to cost him his life.
The meeting was billed as the 'Congress of Victors', a celebration of the victory of collectivization, the triumphant fulfilment of the first Five Year Plan and the consolidation of the Revolution. But despite the official encomiums to the success of the Party, there was widespread exhaustion among the rank and file. Bibikov, like many, felt strongly that the famine which still continued over much of southern Russia had to be brought to an end. The Five Year Plan had been fulfilled, but the men and women of the grass roots who were more managers than ideologues saw with their own eyes that the insane pace of change couldn't be sustained. Yet Stalin, the desk-bound firebrand, called for greater production, higher yields, and more vigour in pursuing collectivization despite its manifestly disastrous consequences.
There was no open dissent at the congress. But there was talk of easing Stalin out of the position of power he had forged from the hitherto insignificant post of General Secretary and replacing him with the more moderate Sergei Kirov. Kirov, the secretary of the Leningrad Party, was, at that point, still more than a match for Stalin. He was a Civil War hero, a former close ally of Lenin and the greatest orator the Party had seen since Trotsky.
Bibikov, along with many of his colleagues from the Ukraine, was encouraged by an apparent spirit of openness, a sense that there was to be a robust ideological debate among equals over the future of the great experiment they were building together, and they wholeheartedly backed Kirov's plan to slacken the pace. It proved to be a fatal mistake. In Stalin's already paranoid mind, Kirov's attempt to soften the punishing pace of collectivization was an unpardonable insult and challenge to his ideological leadership of the Revolution. Stalin did not forget who voted and how, though his revenge was four years in the making. Of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Congress, 1,108 were to die in the Purges. The conference ended with the now customary standing ovations and exhortations to even greater triumphs in the future. Bibikov stood and applauded Stalin and the Politburo with the rest. But the outcome was politically inconclusive. Kirov had refused openly to challenge Stalin. Yet it was equally clear that Stalin was not yet undisputed master of the Party. The supposedly open debate over the Party's future was not to be repeated until Mikhail Gorbachev's time, when dissent was to rip the Party apart for ever.
Bibikov's second daughter, Lyudmila, was born on 27 January 1934, just after her father's return from the Congress.
Though he named his elder daughter after Lenin, he pointedly did not name his second, as some sycophants were already beginning to do, Stalina.
* * *
The year passed in furious work on the factory, with no sign of the political apocalypse which Stalin was quietly plotting. But on the evening of 2 December 1934, Lenina remembers that her father came home from work in tears. He threw himself on to the leather sofa in the sitting room and stayed there motionless for a long time, his head in his hands.
Bibikov said quietly to his wife. 'We are lost.'
Lenina asked her mother what was wrong. Martha didn't answer and sent her to bed.
The previous night Sergei Kirov had been shot dead by a lone assassin in his office at the Party headquarters at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. 'We are lost,' Bibikov said as he wept for the death of a man he admired. But was he also weeping for himself? Weeping with anger for the mistake he had made in identifying himself too closely with the losing side? For all his cultivated proletarian bluffness, Bibikov must have been a political animal, a committee man, with a rising star's sense of the way the wind was blowing. As Bibikov lay on the sofa weeping for Kirov, he must have turned over those now-dangerous January conversations in his mind, wondering whether he had said too much.
And yet the hammer did not fall at once. Stalin, too, wept in public at Kirov's funeral, and acted as chief pallbearer, leading the nation in mourning. There was time enough to take revenge on the enemies in the heart of the Party which Stalin had identified at the congress.
On a local level, the Party machine continued to run smoothly. The KhTZ's production levels climbed to greater heights and the famine mercifully abated - if only because the millions of dead no longer needed to be fed. Bibikov, along with three other members of the KhTZ's management, was awarded the Order of Lenin, number 301, in a plush velvet box. It was a recognized prelude to greater things. In late 1935, the expected promotion came, to Provincial Party Secretary of the Chernigov region in the rolling farm country of the northern Ukraine. Bibikov was just thirty-two years old, well on his way to a high-flying future - perhaps membership of the Ukrainian or national Party Central Committee. Maybe higher still.
After the belching factory smokestacks and screeching rail junctions of Kharkov, Chernigov must have seemed like a step back into a slower, older Russia. The Chernigov Kremlin, with its medieval cathedrals, stands on the high bank of the sluggish River Desna. Wooded parkland comes right up to the centre of the city, and in summer the air is filled with pollen from poplar trees which line the streets. The squat, ornamented houses built by Chernigov's wealthy merchants still stand, and the place has retained an air of pre-revolutionary bourgeois respectability. The town has many great churches which somehow escaped the Bolsheviks' dynamite. Chernigov was too out-of-the-way, perhaps, to warrant a thorough purge of religious buildings, too far from the great industrial heartlands of the eastern Ukraine where the future of Socialism was being forged. It was a backwater, but Bibikov was sure that if he made a success of his new Party job he would not be tarrying long.
The Bibikovs lived the life of the privileged. Already the Spartan Party ethic of the early thirties was slackening. The élite quickly accrued perks which set them above their fellow citizens. Martha shopped at exclusive Party grocers', and Bibikov was entitled to holidays in specially built sanatoriums on the Black Sea. Every month, Bibikov would give Martha a little book of coupons for imported food, textiles and shoes from the
or 'Foreign Supply' shop. The family moved into a large four-room apartment with handsome furniture, confiscated from a wealthy merchant family for the use of Chernigov's new rulers. There, Varya scrubbed the Bibikovs' pans with brick dust until they shone.
Boris installed shelves right up to the high ceiling of his study and filled them with books which he read in his big leather armchair. On his way back from work he'd stop in to the local bookshop and buy children's books for the girls and ideological tomes for himself. When Martha shouted at Lenina she would tiptoe into Bibikov's study and climb into his lap, sobbing. 'Let's not complain about her,' he would say. 'Let's strengthen our Union instead.' It was a joking reference to the current Party-speak.
During their first winter in Chernigov the Bibikov girls wowed the town with their wrought-iron sled, made for them by their old neighbour in Kharkov, which drew crowds of envious children to behold this wonder under the steep earth ramparts of the Kremlin, perfect for tobogganing. In summer Martha made the girls fashionable white cloche hats, copied from Moscow fashion plates, and sewed them dresses from imported printed cotton. In keeping with her new status as an élite wife she began calling herself 'Mara' because she felt that 'Martha' sounded too peasant-like - an odd twist of social snobbery in the land of proletarian dictatorship. Bibikov was as much a workaholic as ever, but began to spend more time chatting - but not drinking - in his kitchen with Party comrades. He bought season tickets to the newly built theatre for Martha and Lenina, though he himself couldn't go because he worked until nine each night, by which time the play was already nearly over.
Lenina had never been so happy as during those days of her secret alliance with her beloved father. 'I see it now so clearly,' she told me, nearly a lifetime later. 'I see it like a dream. It's hard to believe it ever really happened.'
Bibikov even began to relax enough to philander - or at least, to philander more openly. Lenina remembers Martha screaming at him in the kitchen, berating him about his various mistresses. It was during this time, January 1936, when all Party members were required to renew their Party cards so that unworthy elements could be weeded out, that the portrait photo we have of him in his Party tunic was taken. Perhaps the hard-set face also shows a trace of smugness, of self-congratulation.
But behind the outward normality of Ukrainian small-town life, the country was drifting into madness. The NKVD, now under the leadership of the ruthless and sadistic Nikolai Yezhov, was preparing to unleash yet another civil war. This time it was not to be on the Whites or the peasants, but against the most insidious enemy of all, traitors within the Party itself.
Old Bolsheviks whose long standing and moral authority could challenge Stalin's position went first. Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, both members of Lenin's first Politburo, stood to attention at show trials in Moscow in August 1936 and confessed to being imperialist spies, while being hectored by the hysterical Prosecutor-General, Andrei Vyshinsky. 'Wreckers', or senior engineers blamed for sabotaging the industrialization drive, were also put on public trial. They confessed to being members of a counter-revolutionary organization determined to subvert the triumph of Socialism. Stalin's rival Lev Trotsky, the head of the alleged counterrevolutionary movement, had already fled into exile on the island of Buyukada, near Istanbul. The vocabulary and tactics of the coming Great Purge were being rehearsed and refined.