At the end of last year, BBC 2’s “Timewatch” series screened a programme on the life and times of Nikolai Bukharin, a leading Bolshevik revolutionary and a central figure in the early Soviet state—in Lenin’s words “the favourite of us all”. 1988 marked both the fiftieth anniversary of his execution after a Stalinist show-trial and the final triumph of Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina, to secure his re-admission to party membership after decades of campaigning. Indeed, official Soviet archives were opened to the programme ‘Makers, an indication that Bukharin is no longer an “unperson” but has been restored to a legitimate position in Soviet history.
Anna Larina, now in her seventies, featured prominently in the programme. More than twenty-five years Bukharin’s junior, she herself spent twenty years in the Gulag following his death. Her baby son was taken from her and she did not see him again until he was twenty-one. Yet, like Nadezhda Mandelshtam, she memorized her husband’s last declaration and carried it in her head for half a century to finally bequeath it to the generation of glasnost and perestroika as she had promised Bukharin shortly before his arrest.
Significantly, neither in this programme nor in a detailed interview in the Soviet magazine, Ogonyok, did Larina give any hint about her Jewishness. Her father, Yuri Latin, was a leading Soviet economist and was associated with Bukharin. But he was also a prime mover in supporting the establishment of a Jewish republic in the Crimea in the 1920s. As the chairman of OZET (the society to settle the Jews on the land), he was a devout believer in the Bolshevik experiment and the final assimilation of the Jews. Although he opposed the attempt to establish an autonomous Jewish region in Birobidzhan, he believed in a territorial solution to the Jewish Problem within the Soviet Union albeit as a transient stage: “we do not believe that every people must exist forever as a national unit; we believe that ultimately all peoples will be fused together in one people.”
Larin presumably applied this approach to his daughter’s education. Yet he himself was brought up in a traditional Jewish household. His father, Solomon Zalman Lurye, was a Kazyonny ravvin”—a government rabbi—as well as a keen Zionist and Hebrew poet. Yet Lam in was known to be an opponent of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish Communists, and intervened to secure the release of several individual Zionists including Dan Pines, a leader of the Hechalutz movement, from Siberian exile.
Lain was deeply involved in the official struggle against anti-Semitism in the late twenties and probably influenced Bukharin’s involvement. Little has been recorded about Bukharin’s position on the Jewish question even though he was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism. Significantly, his two articles on anti-Semitism in Pravda in 1927 were contained within the general struggle against racism.
Bukharin believed in a slower, gradualist path to socialism and was tolerant of intellectual diversity within the party. Despite the fact that Bukharin and Trotsky were fierce ideological rivals following the death of Lenin, he opposed the demonization of Trotsky and a private correspondence opened between the two men in early 1926. It was at a time when Bukharin’s opponents, the troika of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, were victims of a whispering campaign—probably instigated by Stalin—which continually referred to their Jewish origin. Trotsky privately asked Bukharin to investigate these anti-Semitic calumnies against the left opposition which contained a large number of Jews within its ranks.
Yet as Professor Alec Nove pointed out during the programme, Bukharin was “a revolutionary romantic . . . given to utopian dreams” who supported the Terror during the revolution itself but who subsequently advocated the use of discussion as a means of persuasion once Soviet power had been established.
His break with Stalin came with the liquidation of the kulaks who had pro-fitted under Bukharin’s economic policies. The film showed harrowing scenes of starvation and famine. Three million perished as a result of Stalin’s forced collectivization. Larina remarked that Bukharin “used to go to the Crimea and see the starving children with swollen tummies. He came to my father to relate it all and burst out crying—it was a terrible episode.” Yet Bukharin did not speak out publicly—he was still the committed Communist, the loyal Party member.
Bukharin was arrested in February 1937 and spent a year in prison where he was tortured to elicit a confession to a whole range of crimes including the attempted murder of Lenin and working for the Gestapo. During the trial itself, Bukharin displayed both a philosophical acceptance of his fate to save his wife and child and an intellectual defiance of his accusers which many historians have since noted.
In the secret appeal to “the new, young and honest generation of party leaders” which his wife eventually relayed, Bukharin remarked: “I am convinced that the filter of history will inevitably cleanse the dust from my head—I have never been a traitor.”
In February 1988, Gorbachev declared that the trial had been rigged and the evidence falsified. Today, Bukharin’s ideas are reputed to have heavily influenced the present Soviet leader. The programme commented that Gorbachev is the first intellectual in the Politburo, since Bukharin, to encourage appeals to the educated section of the populace and to believe that they have a common enemy—a centralized state apparatus. In more than one sense, the past relates to the present. Anna Larina’s fifty-year campaign to rehabilitate her husband in the eyes of the world has clearly had important consequences.
Jewish Quarterly Spring 1989