By Daniel Thwaites
Remember how up till a few years ago there was a worldwide revolutionary struggle afoot for the liberation of the working class? Where did that go? For 72 years, from 1917 to 1989, the Bolsheviks told the world that the rule of the proletariat was historically inevitable, and men of enormous learning and industry across the globe accepted the challenge and ordered their lives with religious zeal to be part of the coming of a secular kingdom.
How strange then that an interest in the old Soviet Union seems already to be a matter for antiquarians? The empire was such a vivid presence in the life of the 1970s. I would imagine that those who were adults in the 70s feel this even more acutely.
In the social circles I was most commonly exposed to, although the official idea was that Jamaica was 'non-aligned', it was also clear that if given the choice, we were supposed to prefer the Soviet Union and her proxy in Cuba to the United States. It amazes me, in retrospect, how imperfect and unsatisfactory an assessment of the world's situation that was.
Of course, the cold war of the bipolar world was only cold between the large powers. It was intensely hot in Kingston! Listen to Supercat:
"Weh dem deh when Kingston run hot?
When de politics fliction drop?
When de bomb ah drop pon housetop?
An' every morning ah dead man on spot?
An' de yute dem go school through shot?
Mek mi tell yuh dem bend down flat.
An' school book it deh pon dem back.
Jamaica underwent, without naming it that, a civil war. But that's not really what I'm talking about today.
Josef Stalin is in a select group whose decisions caused grief to other human beings on an almost unimaginable scale. Hitler, Leopold II, Pol Pot, and, on some interpretations, President Harry Truman (for his decision to use atomic weaponry on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) belong in this category. A few of Comrade Stalin's antics have been in the news recently, like little postcard reminders from the lost empire.
Historian Lev Lurie presented his theory, at the University of Maryland's Historical Clinicopathological Conference a few months ago, that Vladimir Lenin's death was murder. Lenin's official cause of death in January 1924 was a massive stroke. However, he reportedly had some serious seizures before his death, and seizures are quite unusual in a stroke patient. They are, though, common for someone who has been poisoned. By official order, Lenin's tissue was never tested for poison.
Stalin had certainly thought about killing Lenin. Back in 1923, he had informed the Communist Party that Lenin had had enough and wanted to go:
"On Saturday, March 17th, in the strictest secrecy Comrade Krupskaya told me of 'Vladimir Ilyich's request to Stalin', namely that I, Stalin, should take the responsibility for finding and administering to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide."
Stalin said he felt it impossible to do this.
"I do not have the strength to carry out Ilyich's request and I have to decline this mission, however humane and necessary it might be, and I therefore report this to the members of the Politburo."
Upon Lenin's death and Stalin's complete ascendancy, Stalin hounded Leon Trotsky, his nearest rival, out of the Communist Party and eventually into exile. Most of Trotsky's family, and all his children, were killed. However, his grandson, Esteban Volkov, survived and for a while lived with Trotsky outside Mexico City. It was understood that Stalin would try everything to have him killed.
Out of luck
Volkov recently gave an interview to the Guardian recalling that every morning Trotsky would say, "Natasha, they have given us one more day of life." He had survived one assassination attempt in May 1940. But by August of the same year, Trotsky's luck ran out when Ramón Mercader planted an ice pick (like the sort used by mountaineers to scale the Alps) in his head. He survived for a day.
I find it fascinating that in Jamaica, on the other side of the world from the Soviet Union, nationalist aspirations were clothed in the rhetorical mumbo-jumbo of dark Eastern European barbarism, which in turn galvanised reactionary forces such that children ducked bullets on their way to school. How far away it all seems? And yet the results are evident on the streets all over Kingston that we were the cockroach that should have (and could have) found the leadership to avoid that particular fowl fight.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in Westchester and Bronx counties in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.