Autumn 1999 (7.3)

Stalin's Personality Cult
Three Times I Changed My Mind

by Vagif Samadoghlu

Other articles by the same author

Samad Vurgun Poet and Playwright - 90th Jubilee (1906-1956)
The Sixties: A Roadmap to Independence
Vagif Samadoghlu (1939- ) [pronounced VAH-gif sa-MAD-o-glu], is the son of the famous Azerbaijani poet Samad Vurghun [pronounced vur-GOON], and grew up himself to be an important poet and playwright. Here he explains how his views toward Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, shifted
dramatically throughout his life, from hatred - to infatuation - and then back to utter contempt again.

I changed my mind about Stalin three times in my lifetime. As a child, Stalin was my "No. 1 Enemy". The reason was simple. I adored my father, Samad Vurgun, who was one of the most beloved poets in Azerbaijan at the time. I thought he was the greatest man in the world, but I looked around and could tell that Stalin commanded even more devotion from the people than my father did. That's why I hated Stalin. I prayed to God every day that he would die.

Photo: The demolition of the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral by Stalin in 1937. The Bulbul School of Music now occupies the site which is not far from City Hall. Photo: National Archives

It's important to understand that in the East, poets are often elevated to a level more usually bestowed to movie stars. Whenever my father entered a room, everyone would stand up to show their respect. My father was also head of the Writer's Union and a member of the Soviet Parliament representing Azerbaijan in Moscow.

I soon began to realize that I was wrong about Stalin, and I gradually became infatuated with him. The first time I saw him was in 1951. My father had taken me to a New Year's Eve celebration in Georgievski Hall at the Kremlin in Moscow. I was 12 at the time. Pioneer children from all of the socialist countries, about 100 kids, were at the party.

I remember I was dancing a waltz with a Pioneer girl from
East Germany and wearing my red Pioneer tie-she wore a blue one.

Suddenly, somebody shouted: "Stop, stop!" and the music stopped. Stalin walked into the hall wearing a white uniform. I was shocked when I saw him-he was so short. I had pictured him to be a large charismatic figure who could hardly fit through the door. After all, that's the way all his statues looked. I had never seen him before, as we didn't get TV in Baku until five years later.

He waved at us and that was our signal to let our voices ring out in unison: "Long live Stalin!" One girl fainted from excitement. I think she was from China or Korea. From Azerbaijan there were only two of us-me and Sevda Ibrahimova, Mirza Ibrahimov's daughter. Both of our fathers were members of the Supreme Soviet, and both were writers.

Photo: Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. Photo: National Archives.

At the party, we were loaded down with so many gifts we could hardly carry them. There were toys and jars full with sweets. I think there was caviar, too. Each child's gift weighed six or seven kilos.

Hero Worship
My father had had an interesting encounter with Stalin in 1936. It was during the celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Founding of the Soviet Union, and my father had been invited to the Kremlin to recite a poem he had written in Stalin's honor. Of course, Stalin was there. When my father finished, Stalin addressed him from the audience while my father was still at the podium.

"Samad is your first name and Vurgun, the last. Am I right?" he asked.

"No, Comrade Stalin," my father replied. "Vurgun is my nickname."

"What does it mean?"

"A person in love," my father replied.

"With a girl?" Stalin pursued.

"No," he said, "with his Motherland."

A recording of this conversation still exists today at the Vurgun Home Museum in Baku. The truth is that Father had adopted that nickname after falling in love with a girl, after the relationship had ended. So my father had downright lied to Stalin. But it seemed that Stalin was quite satisfied with his answer.

The following day, Stalin was given a list of names of Azerbaijanis who were to be honored with national prizes. My father had expected to receive the "Order of the Red Labor Banner". But he couldn't find his name on the list. Stalin had crossed it out. Instead, Vurgun was slated to win the far more prestigious prize of "Lenin's Order".

But even my father couldn't manage to stay in Stalin's favor his whole lifetime. We later discovered that plans had been made for his arrest because of some conflicts he had had with Stalin's right-hand man in Azerbaijan, Mir Jafar Bagirov (First Secretary of the Party). Fortunately Stalin died in 1953, and Bagirov was arrested before the plan to exile my father could be carried out.

It wasn't only the Soviet people who adored Stalin. Many progressive people of the West-such as Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), French writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944) and Irish writer George William Russell (1867-1935)-revered Stalin, too. Some Americans did, too.

As difficult as it is to comprehend today, many people living in the Soviet Union absolutely worshipped Stalin despite the fact that millions lost their lives because of him. They saw him as their protector. It's only natural that every human being has an intense need to feel secure. But those who understood Stalin's true nature-usually those who were more urbanized-either became victims of his repressive leadership and were killed or exiled, or they learned to keep silent.

Stalin is Dead
I was 14 years old when Stalin died on March 3, 1953. I remember I was at home and had been awakened by the neighbor's radio announcing that Stalin had died. I jumped up and ran to my father and told him that Stalin was dead. He shouted at me: "Shut up. That's impossible." Then he turned on the radio and heard it for himself. He looked at me with tears in his eyes.

Almost everyone felt lost; nobody knew what would happen next. Everybody was in shock--like a child who has lost his parents in New York City. It was terrible. We had believed the ideology of the Soviet Empire, which declared: "Lenin has not died and Stalin will not die. He is eternal."

When I went to school that day, I soon discovered that classes had been canceled. Our teachers encouraged us not to come the next few days. They said that the U.S. might bomb our country now that Stalin had died. Everybody was crying.

One of my teachers, Anna Yakovlevna, hugged me and said: "Do you know, Vagifchik ["-chik" is a Russian suffix added to names to show endearment], Prokofiev also died today." My teacher was crying because of Prokofiev, not Stalin. Prokofiev was a giant in music. It was his fate to have died on the same day as Stalin. Only 10 to 15 people attended his funeral.

I remember another incident that happened that day. As I was getting my coat from the cloakroom to go home, I was standing behind a Russian girl named Sveta. Other children were pushing me from behind and I accidentally bumped into her. She must have thought that I was trying to hug her or something. She turned around and said: "What are you doing, you bum?" I snapped back at her: "Shut up, stupid. Stalin is dead." It was so spontaneous-but it sounds funny now.

Chaos at the Funeral
My sister Aybaniz and my father immediately boarded the train for the 36-hour ride to Moscow for Stalin's funeral on March 6. Four million people gathered in Red Square. Far too many were gathered in one place and, as a result, hundreds of people were crushed to death. My sister, who was standing in front of the "Kollony Zal" (Hall of Pillars) of the Kremlin, says she can still hear the sound of bones cracking.

There are rumors that Beria organized the demonstration in such a way that these things could happen. He was no newcomer to mass events, as he had overseen many other demonstrations and holidays in Red Square. Prior to the gathering of Stalin's funeral in that square, not even a single fly had ever been injured, so why weren't they able to organize this function without incident?
Of course, immediately after Stalin's death, Khrushchev started an anti-Stalin campaign in 1956 to dismantle Stalin's personality cult. I was still a devoted follower and was so upset that I could have killed Khrushchev. I didn't understand what he was trying to do.

Change of Heart
After Stalin died, I started changing my mind about him again. It started around 1956, when I was about 18 years old and had begun to write poetry. I soon realized that I couldn't write the way I wanted to. The day I took up my pen, I discovered that I was a slave. We weren't allowed to write anything that was pessimistic or depressing. The Soviet man was always supposed to be depicted as optimistic, full of energy and eager to struggle and build the future.

After the events in Hungary in 1956, when Soviet troops took control of the government, we understood the reality of our situation. At the time, we weren't thinking of independence, but we were hoping for more liberalism and leniency in Moscow's policies towards us. Hungary and other Eastern European countries were more independent than we were. We figured if they had been treated so cruelly, what could we expect since we were one of the republics inside that vast empire? When the troops entered Hungary, we imagined our fate. Later, in 1968, the events in Czechoslovakia convinced me that the Soviet system would never give us independence.

In Moscow, dissident literature began developing during those years as it also did in Baku. We started listening to foreign radio stations. The "Khrushchev Thaw" awakened us from a very deep sleep. And as I matured I never changed my mind about Stalin again.

Where did Stalin go wrong? I have always said that God's function is to
protect people as a group, not as individuals. On the other hand, a leader's responsibility is to protect individuals, not the group. God has given a certain period of life to every single person but has given eternity to humankind. A good leader would think not of Azerbaijan, not of Azerbaijanis, but rather about the welfare of a single Azerbaijani. He would think of making an Azerbaijani strong, smart, educated and cultured. In turn, that's when the country will grow strong. If the individual is strong and genuine, that's what will make the country true and strong as well.

Vagif Samadoghlu's poems and essays have appeared in various issues since 1996. Check the SEARCH engine.

From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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