Richard Reese has published alternative history with HISTORICAL FEATHER recently, and other short stories in different genres with The Moon and Coffin Bell this year. He attends the Iowa Writers' Workshop annually to work with other writers and luminaires such as Richard Thomas and Eric Goodman, to name a few. He is married, have two boys and a beagle mix that watches him when he is writing.
One Stroke At a Time by Richard Reese
“Volodya, how are you feeling this morning?” Nadezhda Krupskaya gently asked her husband, newly transferred into his wheel chair. The late morning sunlight bathed the slight, withered figure in all its glory. Krupskaya bent closer to hear his whispered answer. As he was about to say something, Anya Karvina closed the screen door behind her, and set a tray with cold water and medicines next to her patient.
“I am fine, but wait for a moment, will you?” Vladimir Il’ych Lenin responded in his slurred speech to her question. Nurse Anya poured a glass from the ice pitcher, and moved closer to place it in Lenin’s good hand. Krupskaya watched the young woman with some suspicion, but said nothing while the ministrations to her husband went on their daily morning routine. A tiny paper cup with three pills was in Anya’s left hand while she steadied Lenin’s glass as he took two gulps. Then she took the water away, and placed the three pills in her patient’s hand and helped him put them in his mouth. Satisfied he swallowed them after another sip, the nurse bowed slightly to both and closed the screen door behind her. It had been some three months since he had a major stroke that left Vladimir Il’ych paralyzed on the right side, and almost aphasic until now. The early June 1923 morning was breezy; making the overhanging popular branches nearby sway lightly with speckles of sunshine coming through to blanket the porch as the hours passed.
Lenin turned his face toward Nadezhda to say something confidential. Coming from inside the Gorki dacha, both could hear dishes rattling as Anya Karvina put them away. Overhead, two starlings swooped, and chased one another; while Nikita the Aleut dozed a few feet away from Lenin, under the remaining porch shade to avoid the gathering warmth of late morning.
“Nadezhdakashka! I don’t trust Nurse Anya Karvina anymore. Every time I take her pills, I feel slightly worse than before. I should feel the same or even better. Perhaps she is using the wrong pills on me, or the ‘right ones’ to kill me gradually.”
“Why would she do either?”
“Because, ‘dorogaya lyubimaya zhena’, in the event of my untimely death, who will succeed me? Who best can advance the Revolyutsiya across the world? Stalin, or Trotsky?” Lenin then sipped more ice water while he waited for his wife’s reply.
“‘Konechko!’ Of course! Trotsky, my friend. Stalin is pedantic at best; totally self-absorbed personally. He would seize power for its own sake; use your name; and obliterate everything we worked all our lives for to be so he could be ‘Velikiy Vozhd’, or ‘Great Leader’, to fulfill his wildest dreams! Why do you even doubt, Volodya?”
“Because our General Secretary was most solicitous over my health after Zasulich took her pot shot at me in my office back in 1918! He has much to gain with my death. At least Stalin believes it so! I think Nurse Anya Karvina’s appearance at my bedside was not entirely of Yaakov Abramowitz’s doing as my physician. I want you, dearest lovely wife, to take to task for me and get rid of my nurse! I cannot believe that Doctor Abramowitz is any ally of Stalin’s to harm me.”
“Volodya! It will be done. I shall go and tell Nurse Anya to pack her things, and that I will take care of you from now on.” With that, she patted his left hand and rose from her chair to inform Lenin’s nurse that she must leave that very afternoon.
Lev Davidovich Trotsky stretched his arms out and cracked his knuckles to signal being bored with all the nattering of his colleagues in the Politburo. When Tomsky and Rykov sat together with Kamenev, like three old women casting their anxious glances in his direction, while huddling together for mutual protection. Trotsky merely smiled “Buddha-like” at them, and then at the rest sitting around the massive table.
“How goes it with Vladimir Il’ych?” one of them chimed in. Trotsky did not answer for a moment. The side door to the once ornate imperial conference room opened with a loud bang. Everyone looked at the source of this disruption. Josef Vissarionovich Stalin stood at the doorway, slowly swinging his head from side to side like some tyrannosaurus surveying a gaggle of plant eaters; deciding which one to attack for lunch. No one moved, except Trotsky. Stalin noticed that; and he made another mental note to his grudge collection that one day he would eliminate this Jew, just for the sheer pleasure of it.
“Ah! Our gifted ‘General Secretary’ has arrived. Josef Vissarionovich, did you arrange for tea to come right after your grand entrance?” Trotsky snide tone was not lost on his listeners. Stalin’s leonine eyes glittered with malevolence, and his slightly stiff smile fooled nobody. As he took his seat at the foot of this wooden playing field, Trotsky expected no answer from his enemy to the jibe.
No tea cart appeared.
Turning his attention to the rest of the Politburo, Trotsky reported in a matter of fact tone that Lenin was “slightly better” according to his doctor. Everyone knew that Vladimir Il’ych would never recover, much less resume his rightful place as master of the Revolution, and the newly-founded Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republics. Trotsky and Stalin knew much more.
As things stood, Lenin would die sooner or later. Trotsky hoped his friend and mentor would place the mantel of succession over his shoulders. Stalin had other ideas about the Leninist formula of “who-whom” for power grabbing and ruling in the Kremlin and Communist Russia beyond. He plotted to murder the old cripple and next Lenin’s Jewish fool successfully; then out-maneuver all rivals in this room for supreme power.
Trotsky suspected Stalin as much. Stalin suspected Trotsky knew as much.
“Comrade Kamenev, to answer your inquiry. Comrade Lenin is very much here with us. I get telephone instructions from Gorki daily. Maybe by this fall Vladimir Il’ych will be able to resume his chair in both place and authority.” Not if my agent keeps administering her pills for the bastard to choke down! Stalin thought to himself, while showing an impassive face at Trotsky’s nonsensical prediction.
Trotsky picked up a slender folder in front of him. Before saying anything further, the rest of the Politburo did the same with theirs. General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered them the day before, and one of his flunkies made certain that the twelve-man group had theirs to peruse before this meeting.
The People’s Commissar for Foreign Relations Georgy Vasilovich Chicherin prepared an outline of progress made among certain Western powers, and their usefulness to the bankrupt Russian state. Suave and erudite in his own way regarding world and worldly affairs, Chicherin was appreciated by Trotsky also for his acumen in the murky mists of post-Bolshevik politics. Stalin despised him, and felt inferior in Chicherin’s presence. But his dossier on the man included the latter’s predilection for fine things, and one other inclination. Young men. And Stalin ensured that among Chicherin’s fancies, one or two of them reported back to their paymaster on these trysts.
“Comrade Politburo Members,” Chicherin coughed, and reached for some water in front of him. “Pardon me.” Taking a sip, he began his report that most of his listeners carefully read beforehand. “The Germans want even closer ties with our Government. In discreet conversations with certain circles responsible for the defense of the Soviet Union, there is a willingness on the part of Berlin to provide industrial and engineering resources to us in exchange for natural resources and labor we can provide. With your permission, Comrades, I believe we can negotiate terms most beneficial to both countries.”
“What does this mean for our economy, Comrade Chicherin?” Tomsky asked.
“Massive capital expenditures in our direction. Plus, the latest in designs and machinery to bolster our own production of badly needed goods for the Soviet peoples.” As Chicherin looked around the table, he caught Trotsky’s slight nod toward the People’s Commissar for the Army Nikolai Krylenko. Finishing his report, Chicherin sat down as Krylenko rose to speak.
“Comrades, the German military is most interested in joint developments of weaponry. The last war demonstrated two new technologies that both sides did not have at hand: The airplane and the armored tank. While the decadent tsarist butcher sacrificed millions before German machine guns and artillery, the Germans fought for control over their skies almost with considerable success. The appearance of tanks by the British in 1917 helped break the stalemate in the trenches a little. Our German contacts want to use our space and terrain in exchange for sharing these weapons’ engineering and manufacturing. This is an opportunity for us in many ways.” Pausing for effect, Krylenko poured some water from a standing carafe, and then resumed his speech. “We will learn much from the Germans. We may be able to infiltrate through these advisers and trainers into the German highest military circles to our advantage.”
“Just a minute,” Stalin purred. “This mouse has many holes to hide from a hungry cat!”
“Comrade Stalin,” Krylenko retorted softly. “What does that mean?”
“Simply this. While we seek spies in their tents, they will have opportunities to plant the same in our tent. That is what I mean. We are weak. Very weak. The Civil War was costly to us in ways that another generation will pay dearly in their living standard, much less growth in population. And to trade iron and oil for sewing machines and telephones is not my idea of your ‘opportunity for us’ as stated here.”
The silence in the room was deafening. A mantel clock ticked away the seconds loud enough for those closest to hear. As Krylenko was about to take up Stalin’s cudgel, Trotsky intervened. He saw this as another chance to tweak his enemy’s nose.
“Comrade Stalin, you do have a point. However, iron in an undug Ukrainian mine and Baku oil left in the ground are practically worthless to us. I believe we can use sewing machines and telephones from Germany, too. But what Comrade Nikolai Krylenko is suggesting, is that tanks and airplanes are future weapons that can prevent wars between powers with equal strengths. On the other hand, if the Germans go elsewhere, say with Poland, then we will have nothing while two enemy states share strengths against us in a future war! Certainly, the disastrous campaign in Poland of late should prove something. The Allies have tanks and planes they could cut across prostrate Germany if they chose, to bring to bear on the Red Army at the outskirts of Warsaw. We were faced with a new war within a war. The choice that Comrade Lenin and I made was forced on us. Retreat or perish! We retreated to avoid perishing. And we returned to the real business at hand. This is why all of us are sitting in the Kremlin instead of rotting in our graves. We need the Germans and they need us. For some time to come. This is an opportunity we must seize, and at the same time be very cautious that the Germans can create opportunities to make Russia theirs one day. Their generals remember victories in Russia, too. We must learn what we can, and make their weapons ours.”
Krylenko sat down. Stalin prepared his pipe, while using the motions to digest what both men finished saying. “Comrades Trotsky and Krylenko, this makes good sense. What will we tell Comrade Lenin of these ideas and notions, and when?”
“Soon, very soon, Comrade Stalin.” Turning to Chicherin, Trotsky directed him to continue the talks and move forward to the next step. Under the guise of trade representatives, the Germans should send delegations to Moscow to meet with their “counterparts” to find sites and resources for exchanges which must help the fledgling revolutionary state strengthen for the uncertain times ahead.
Nadezhda Krupskaya put down the telephone. Lev Davidovich is coming tomorrow, she thought to herself. Volodya will be pleased to see him, so long as he comes without that viper Stalin! Even if that fellow is out of sight here, he is not out of presence somehow. With Nurse Anya replaced by Volodya’s sister, I wonder what that Georgian will do next to threaten us, or worse…. When Anna Ilyinichna Yelizarova-Ulyanova appeared silently next to her, for a moment until she became aware of her sister-in law standing quietly, Nadezhda was startled out of her reverie.
The 1921 Roadster chugged to a stop in front of the dacha’s porch. Its passenger did not wait for the driver to open his door. After all, this was the “Worker’s Society” where chauffeurs were capitalist hangovers from a bygone era. Lev Trotsky pressed down the creases on his bourgeois slacks, and then straightened up just in time to see Krupskaya smiling with her left-hand shading much of her face from the bright late June sun. Nikita yelped a greeting when the screen door opened just a crack for her to bolt at a friendly body to jump all over.
“Lev Davidovich,” Nadezhda cried out. “Volodya will be so happy to see you!” Then she went down the three steps and pushed Nikita aside to give Trotsky a warm hung. Looking into his eyes, hers sparkled in joy and with relief now that the “locomotive of the Revolution” stood in front of her with a broad smile on his face.
“Nadezhda, how are you? How goes it with Volodya?” Trotsky whispered in her ear before they separated.
“Volodya is Volodya! The stroke which left his right side nearly paralyzed is not really getting better. At least his mind is as sharp as ever! Thank God!”
“’Thank God?’ That is a curious expression coming from you, Nadezhda. You were never a Believer before. Why now?” Trotsky said with a smile.
“It’s because Volodya still has his spirit. He could have died then and there. Only 52, and to have an old man’s ailment so soon…” Her voice trailed off. Trotsky took her by the hand and both went to the porch steps. When they barely reached the top stair, sounds of muffled swearing and something banging against something else, came from inside. Nikita ran up the porch and began whining to add her chorus to the racket. Then the screen door burst open. Nikita jumped out of the way barely. Lenin came out in his wheelchair red faced as his attendant bore the brunt of more complaints and curses in muffled order.
“Volodya! Grisha!” Krupskaya shouted. “What is going on here with the both of you?”
Lenin looked around angrily, and then saw Trotsky next to his wife. He began calming down. Trying to smile, the right side of his face slightly droopy, the Great Leader of the Worker’s Revolution transformed his mood almost instantly from petulance to happiness, like a child seeing his best friend come to play.
With a slurring of speech hardly noticeable, Vladimir Il’ych greeted Lev Davidovich. “’Bozhe moi!’ You are heere at laastt, Leev Daavidovich.” Stopping to catch his breath, Lenin saw Trotsky close the short distance between them and bend over to give him a hug, and touch cheek to cheek.
“Volodya. Volodya. You are looking much better,” Trotsky lied as he saw how pale Lenin really looked, and smelled a stale odor of sickness and dried urine from his wasted frame. Krupskaya looked over the side of Lenin’s head and saw the sorrow in Trotsky’s eyes even though his voice conveyed boisterousness and good cheer.
While all three caught up on news from Moscow or Gorki, Lenin’s faithful bodyguard Grisha came back with a pitcher of iced tea and some sugar cookies that Katya the Cook prepared for this visit. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, a blue jay shrieked his welcome during an early pause in the conversation below.
“What really is happening in the Politburo?” Lenin scrawled with his left hand on a tablet Krupskaya placed with a writing board on his lap. Trotsky read the tortured scrawl, frowned, and then answered Lenin’s question.
“Volodya, Stalin is frightening even stalwarts like Kamenev and Tomsky. Every time we sit down to thrash out state business on this or that, when Koba is present and even says nothing at first, both men glance in his direction as if seeking permission to breathe, much less say something. Krylenko caught me later after the meeting on our contacts with the German military about an exchange program operating on our soil, and he was very disturbed when Stalin looked at him with those yellow eyes while Nikolai went on with his report.”
“Whhatt do youu think should bee donne about Kooba?” Lenin stammered. Krupskaya took a handkerchief from her summer dress pocket and patiently wiped some drool from Lenin’s right corner of his mouth when he stopped speaking.
Trotsky mulled over this very same question long before Lenin finally raised it. There was only one answer.
“Volodya,” Trotsky said in a low voice that only Lenin and Krupskaya heard, other than Nikita whose ears twitched in anticipation of what came next. “We must eliminate Koba carefully and permanently. And at some time in the near future. His reach is growing into strangling the Politburo for his own purposes.”
“When?” Nadezhda said with a touch of steel in her tone.
“Before anything happens here or in Moscow,” was Trotsky’s reply.
“Whhaat maakkes youu soo cerrttain?” Lenin slurred with more agitation.
“Because a little bird told me that your former Nurse Anya was tampering with your medications. Tell me if you are not feeling better now that she and her pill box are gone from here?” Krupskaya nodded in agreement with Trotsky’s estimate on her husband’s slight improvement from before.
“I cannot say for certain, but I believe if you died here in Gorki, Stalin would strike, and strike fast to make a bid for your authority. I care and fear for our comrades in the Politburo; and, of course, my life as well. And think what might happen to Nadezhda in the event you are dead! No, Volodya, I am asking for your support on this. Stalin must die instead, if the Revolution we fought and won is not to decay into a dictatorship, or autocracy for Stalin!”
“I maadde a Tesstaamentt alllrreeaadyy!” Lenin struggled to communicate. “Shhee hass itt for youu too loookk ovver andd aapprovve!” With that Vladimir Il’ych sank deeper into the wheelchair. His face flushed, and tiny beads of sweat appearing as he tried to take more breaths and calm down. Krupskaya rose and went into the dacha. Trotsky and Lenin looked at one another in the ensuing silence. Again, that blue jay shrieked. Perhaps out of curiosity at what might be on that paper Krupskaya was fetching from their bedroom.
Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili paced back and forth in his tiny office, like the proverbial lion in a cage he was often compared. Felix Dzerzhinsky watched Stalin with deep interest at moments like this. As head of the GPU which replaced the CHEKA of Civil War times, the Polish-Half Jew was the most feared man in the country. Tens of thousands of “counter-revolutionaries” were shot day and night at his behest. Even Vladimir Il’ych Lenin himself was cautious around “Iron Felix” whenever they met.
Not so Josef Vissarionovich. He preferred the company of men like Dzerzhinsky, and his successors like Genrikh Yagoda and Lavrentiy Beria. Stalin was no stranger to murder. During the years between 1905 and 1917, “Koba” shot and killed bank guards, petty noblemen, tsarist officials, and “Whites” with impunity. No. Stalin never shrank from causing death to others.
Lenin was at the top of his list. Killing Vladimir Il’ych had to be done discreetly, and with no hint of tracks leading back to Stalin. Until “Nurse Anya” was removed from Lenin’s bedside and disposing to that stroke-ridden idiot tiny douses of strychnine, Stalin’s brilliant scheme came to an ignoble end when that bitch with two legs fired Anya some three weeks ago. This is why he was pacing in consternation before his alter ego in death-dealing.
“Felix,” Stalin stopped his pacing to ask. “How would you kill Volodya, if you had the chance?”
Dzerzhinsky merely smiled a cold smile at his interrogator. Then unwinding one crossed leg over the other, he answered. “With a pillow. Why your agent simply did not smother him is beyond me! And speaking of ‘agents’, you better have me erase her just in case she gets ideas, or talks to people who she should not.”
“I agree, but carefully. If she ‘disappears’, questions and suspicions will rise up like stinky shit. I cannot be traced to her ‘erased’ as you put it.”
“Leave her to me.” With that Dzerzhinsky moved on to the next item for this meeting. “You know that Lev Davidovich is paying a little visit to Gorki, and not just to renew old friendships?”
“Da! I know. So, what?” Stalin remarked.
“Well, according to one of my sources, Vladimir Il’ych has an interesting document that mentions your name, among other things. Are you curious, Josef Vissarionovich, as to what this ‘document’ is, and your piece in it?”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea what is in it, Felix. But why don’t you tell me?” Stalin purred back.
“To be blunt, Lenin designates Trotsky to succeed him. Furthermore, you are to be stripped of rank and removed from the Party upon Lenin’s demise. I believe that Comrade Politburo Member Zinoviev is the co-executor with Krupskaya of this ‘bourzhhooaya’ piece of paper!”
Stalin glared at the framed photograph of Lenin on the wall staring back at him with mild disgust. It was no secret that Vladimir Il’ych loathed the Georgian in his Party and State. Named as “Commissar for Nationalities”, and politely deferred to as an “expert on nationalities” now included in the sprawling Soviet Union, Stalin’s pretentious pamphlets and pronouncements were held up to ridicule in private by his colleagues; and, of course, to the much more erudite Lenin. Stalin’s grasp of Marxism was somewhat sound, for a beginner. What Stalin did make of Lenin’s brilliant thought pieces like STATE AND REVOLUTION, or WHAT IS TO BE DONE? would have impressed Lenin if he bothered to hear his views. While Josef Vissarionovich was no “Lev Davidovich Bronshteyn” like Trotsky to Lenin, he was smart enough to manipulate ideas and propaganda more with men like himself.
Ah! Lev Trotsky, Stalin often thought about his real nemesis. Now there’s a man needing killing. Always looking at me like I am scum! I have to give this Zhid credit though. He made the Red Army what is was to win the Civil War. Not that he is a genius in war, Jews never are. But this Zhid picked the right generals to do what needed to be done! When I eliminate Trotsky, I eliminate all opposition with one stroke! No one can stop me. No one will stop me! Even my ‘friend’ over there. Felix is a policeman. I need a good policeman for what I must do. Then we shall see…. Stalin’s train of thought stopped when his eye caught Dzerzhinsky standing up and moving to the door.
“Felix, can you arrange for a pillow later?”
“Comrade Stalin, are you troubled by insomnia? Or, is your concern for Vladimir Il’ych’s not being already in his eternal rest?” The ice-cold eyes held no mirth when the GPU man spoke with words tinged by a touch of sardonic wit.
Stalin let Dzerzhinsky have his little private joke.
Trotsky saw to it that his driver had adequate quarters for the night at Lenin’s dacha after all four ate together at table. Vladimir Il’ych seemed to perk up since Lev Davidovich came to visit. He had good color, and ate more than usual. When Krupskaya was busy making up the rooms for Trotsky and his driver, Lenin gestured at a cabinet for Trotsky to attend. Inside was a bottle of vodka and several small glasses. The bottle and three appeared on a settee table, while Lenin struggled to maneuver his wheel chair with one good arm and leg. When Krupskaya appeared, she gave a small frown of disapproval at the vodka, and then broke into a smile seeing her husband and their best friend chatting amicably, while neither man noticing at first, she was standing nearby.
“Volodya! Lev Davidovich! What are you boys up to?” She said lightly laughing at their embarrassed faces when they looked up at the same time.
“Noothiing, myy deear!” Vladimir Il’ych said. The vodka had not taken hold of his speech, yet. Trotsky merely smiled at her when she took a place next to their friend.
Trotsky leaned over and gave a peck on her cheek. “You are wonders,” he complimented Krupskaya.
“Tosh! I am an old housewife. No use to anyone but my Volodya these days!” She responded.
“Be that as it may, Nadezhda, you are still the mainstay of our friend here, and of Russia.” Then Trotsky poured her a glass and refilled both for a toast.
“May Vladimir Il’ych Lenin regain his strength, and go from strength to strength for his work, and all glory to the Soviet State and People!” All three glasses were raised in unison, and as Krupskaya and Trotsky threw back their heads to swallow, Lenin held his a second longer, and then swallowed his slowly. That being done, all three laughed and Krupskaya poured another round.
Then they got down to serious business.
“I waant Joosef Visssiarronovichh gone,” Lenin slurred. “But how?”
Krupskaya looked at Trotsky with an inquiring look for his answer.
“The best way is to make it legal and swift,” Trotsky posited. “Josef Vissiaronovich is very clever, and exceedingly dangerous to you, Volodya, and to myself. He doesn’t give a damn about Nadezhda, one way or the other. But he might have her killed later, if it suits his purposes.”
“What do you mean by ‘legal and swift’, then?” Krupskaya asked. Lenin pushed the wheel chair a little closer to keep the talk at a lower tone and away from innocent ears.
“I can gather enough votes in the Politburo to purge Stalin of his membership. That would be easy enough. The ‘swift’ piece must be final and irrevocable. He has Dzerzhinsky on a short leash as his attack dog. So, finding someone in the GPU to finish off Stalin is not feasible. And Josef Vissarionovich is himself a deadly man to cross. Death lives in those eyes of his. Death sits on his shoulders. Death is on his breath. We must be careful.”
“Sooo, yoou haave noo idea whaaat to dooo?” Lenin whispered.
Trotsky looked into Lenin’s eyes and saw the old canny expression there whenever he would puzzle over a complicated part of Marxist theory. Lenin returned the look. Krupskaya saw they were talking in another way, and she remained silent with her hands on her lap.
Then Trotsky leaned back and forward on the settee. A look of satisfaction slowly grew over his features.
“The Politburo can issue a death warrant that not even Dzerzhinsky dares neglect or oppose! I will meet with Zinoviev, Kamen, Tomsky, Rykov, and Krylenko to get their votes for purge and warrant. Stalin has allies of his own, of course. And we must deal with them individually beforehand. We need two more votes to form a majority, and then the Politburo will act.”
Krupskaya looked at Lenin in growing alarm, and he at Trotsky. This idea was insane at best, she thought almost out loud. Lev Davidovich is relying on slender reeds for such a plan, and facing alone a marauding lion with his jackals who would dearly to devour him and crunch his bones!
Almost as if Lenin could read her mind, he whispered louder his fear and disbelief at both of them.
“Leev Daavidoovich, thiss iss inssanee! Thee Poolitburo iss unrelliabllee! Fiind annotherr waay! Yoou must!” With that Lenin sank back into the wheel chair, and motioned for a refill.
Trotsky was prepared for Lenin’s rejection. He had to give this ploy a chance. When they calmed down, he revealed the other ace up his sleeve.
During the Civil War Trotsky met, and made many friends who fought for the Reds against the Whites; and even the troublesome Greens, mostly from the Ukrainian peasantry. A French Communist, who spoke some passable Russian learned at the Sorbonne in his studies of Russian classical literature, and who spent one or two summers at the University of St Petersburg before the War, came to Trotsky’s attention on several occasions on the rolling train at the time which served as his headquarters. The young man was good with pistols and knives; and had numerous opportunities to demonstrate his skills against enemies of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Once, when Trotsky was walking around while his cavalry detrained for fresh water and provisions, a crazed man lunged towards the Organizer of the Red Army. There seemed to be no one or nothing between the would-be killer and his target. At the last minute, a young man among the few soldiers responsible for handling communications and other logistics, burst out from his comrades with a revolver in hand. Two shots followed instantaneously. Trotsky looked around bewildered, while things unfolded in slow motion. When he broke his trance, one man was dead some feet away; and another was panting and shouting at him. On that day, Lev Davidovich never forgot this French-accented soldier who saved his life. Over the years they corresponded. Trotsky from Moscow, the young man living in Paris.
He owed his life to this man. He now needed a favor from this man. He knew that this man would be glad to save Trotsky from another killer. He knew he could depend on one Lazare Krivine-Mandel to come to Moscow when asked.
Lazare Krivine-Mandel was also a Jew.
Two days later Trotsky and his driver left Gorki for Moscow. Lenin gave his blessing, as did Krupskaya.
When July rolled around to add its sweltering heat in Moscow, Trotsky sat on a bench not far from the crenelated Kremlin south wall. Watching old ladies sweeping the streets and gutters around Red Square, or flocks of pigeons bursting into the air and then as quickly set down to coo and peck, Trotsky pretended to read a book while he waited for someone. The Great Clock Tower tolled the noon hour. Not a breath of wind touched the listless trees and their drooping leaves. The overhead sky was brassy white and cloudless.
A typical hot day in the capital of the Soviet state.
A youngish man in summer whites that looked a bit natty approached Trotsky’s bench. Asking if he had a light from the man sitting with a book on his lap, the gesture of retrieving and lighting a match between two smokers seemed common place. When the older man invited the younger to sit down, no one paid any attention.
Trotsky put the book aside. The other man reached into his coat pocket, fumbling about for a second, and then pulled out a travel guide booklet entitled “MOSCOW AND RUSSIA”. One of the old women street sweepers came by their gutter, and slowly moved her broom back and forth. While both men chatted about sites to see from the travelogue, the old lady finished her tiny stretch of street, and pulled her small bucket cart to the next few meters to sweep ahead. When she was out of their earshot, the young man asked a question that had nothing to do with Muscovite landmarks to visit.
“Lev Davidovich, why did you send for me in the way you did?”
“Lazare, I have need of your services. But, first a question for you. Where did you learn the fine arts of pistols and knives? Once you saved my life during the War. I never asked then when I should have, just to thank you all the more, and satisfy my curiosity.”
“It is simple, Lev Davidovich. I grew up in Paris. Not one of the better arrondissements. The Fourth, where many Jews have lived long before the Revolution. The streets can give one an education worthy of the Sorbonne, my friend. Why do you care?”
Trotsky shifted his body to face Lazare Krivine-Mandel. “Because what I have in mind is for you to save another life, or two.”
“Who are you speaking of? The potential killer, or their victims?”
“Three individuals. The first must die so that the other two won’t have to.”
“Who, where, and when?” Krivine-Mandel asked.
“Not ‘why?’ my friend?” Trotsky responded.
“It is enough that you ask. I don’t need your reasons, unless you feel compelled to say so,” the young French Jew said.
“You will be rewarded handsomely, I promise. Name your price. The danger to you is extremely great. So, whatever funds you wish, I can advance all of part to your bank, either in France or Switzerland, or anywhere you designate.”
Lazare Krivine-Mandel stood up and flattened the creases on his pants before resuming his seat. “I will take one Franc for the killer’s life. For the two lives I can save from killing the first, whatever you value them to be, I will accept. Fair enough?”
Trotsky was surprised at this answer. Looking at his friend more closely, perhaps he shouldn’t have been. Lazare Krivine-Mandel was slender and quite handsome. It was rumored that he was a superb lover both to men and women. Trotsky knew of one liaison his friend had with another boy back in 1920. While the Reds at that time didn’t particularly care about homosexuality with other things more important to do, the lovers never faced a firing squad like they would now. Trotsky learned of this story by accident when Lazare’s commanding officer opened a court martial against Lazare. The “Red Carnot” intervened, and the matter was dropped. As far as Trotsky was concerned, this repaid his debt to the young man sitting right next to him.
Before Lev Davidovich gave his answer, a flashback came to him. Standing on a railroad platform in some tiny town outside of Mogilev, Trotsky was walking the boards to get the kinks out of his legs. A man dressed in mufti approached him. Trotsky thought nothing of it at first. As the stranger came closer, he pulled out a knife and began running toward him. From somewhere a shot rang out, and the would-be assassin fell to the ground. Half of his head was gone. A stripling it seemed, saw what was happening and pulled his revolver. When the body was examined, a card was found that was frequently used by the Whites as a pass between lines. Trotsky thanked his savior, and offered him a staff position once he found out this man was French and well-educated to boot. His being a Jew meant nothing at the time to Trotsky. Jews who chose Marx and Revolution were legion in numbers and fervor to overthrow the tsar. One Jew, more or less, would make no difference to Trotsky; himself a “fallen away” Jew by the name of Bronshteyn.
“Lev Davidovich. Lev Davidovich. Are you alright?” Lazare asked while his eyes searched Trotsky’s face.
“I am sorry. A memory came to mind. Anyway, I believe the real life you will save is beyond price. The other I can offer what I think it really is worth. One ruble!”
“What kind of sophistry is this, my friend? Whose life is so priceless, while the other is worth a mere ruble?”
“Vladimir Il’ych Lenin’s,” was the reply.
Krivine-Mandel blanched at first, then his face took on a slow reddening out of anger. “Who would try and kill Lenin?” He asked coldly.
Trotsky murmured the name.
“And who is the second life to be saved?”
“Mine,” came back the answer.
“I shall take one franc for Stalin. Nothing for Lenin’s. And one ruble for yours. Agreed?”
Trotsky stared at Lazare in disbelief. No doubt a patriot for the Revolution, and loyal beyond measure to Lenin! Trotsky thought in astonishment. But to accept almost nothing in money for Lenin’s life! Absurd! I don’t give a damn about mine, but I cannot let him do this for literally nothing, and at the same time risk his life for everything!
“Lazare, let me ask you is there anyone you would accept payment for, instead of yourself?”
“Oui! My parents. They are still in Paris with nothing but hardship and loss to bear. My older brother Marcel was killed at Verdun, and my sister Sarah is all they have left to care for them. I am always on the move, mon ami, and send what I can to them… from my work.”
“What kind of ‘work’ do you engage in?” Trotsky knew the answer to this before even asking it.
“The kind where my skills with pistols, knives and the garrote come handy, and for a very high fee.”
“Then it is settled. Give me an address where to wire one franc and one ruble. No arguments, please,” Trotsky retorted. Lazare Krivine-Mandel gave Trotsky a postal address in Barcelona. As the sun began to slip towards late afternoon, both men rose from the bench, and strolled over to a small soup kitchen to finish their conversation.
Krupskaya watched Lenin as he fell asleep in their bed. A window was left open to let in a slight breeze after a long day of stifling heat. She watched the curtains rise and fall gently with each breath of cooling night air. How long can my Volodya live? Why, Oh God, should such a man who cares for all those no one else ever cared about be stricken? Krupskaya was enough of an agnostic to doubt that any god would speak to her, and answer this question. But in her mind, it was worth asking, just to keep the doubts alive under the circumstances.
Sasha entered the sick room silently. Trotsky vouched for him. Krupskaya was at ease when Sasha fed her husband, prepared his sponge baths, cleaned him up after a bowel or bladder movement, and always had a faint smile when she expressed her gratitude. He was not really a nurse, but an aide who learned bedside care in two wars. If Sasha was good enough for Lev Davidovich, he was good enough for her and Vladimir Il’ych. Now, as the kerosene lamp burned low, Sasha applied cold compresses on Lenin’s forehead. While his patient mumbled or slurred his appreciation, Nadezhda said nothing. She stroked her best friend’s hand and sat until the lamp eventually went out. Sasha left long ago. She paid no attention to his departure. Neither did he take offense.
The next morning, Lenin had labored breath. This was not uncommon with stroke patients of his magnitude. Sasha lifted his ward from the bed, and placed him in the wheel chair at the corner. When Krupskaya came in to look on her Volodya, she saw hot compresses being applied to his chest, and Sasha moving about to keep his patient comfortable.
“Sasha,” Nadezhda asked. “When did Volodya have this attack?”
“Sometime before dawn, Madame. I came in to check on him, and saw he was struggling to catch his breath. I know what to do, Madame. Please, leave him to me for now. But, if it would make you feel better, fetch his doctor.” With that, the attendant replaced one pack with another. Krupskaya left the room and called Trotsky to report that their friend was in distress.
Lev Davidovich promised to come over as soon as possible to offer his assistance. “Nadezhda, I have one piece of business to attend to. Once it is finished, I will be in Gorki before supper. Did you call Volodya’s physician in the meantime?”
“Yes. He will be over immediately. I told him that Sasha was applying hot packs, and he said that was good to help Volodya breathe. So, I am sitting here with Sasha and bringing hot water and fresh packs when he wants them. Please, come as soon as you can. Volodya wants to speak with you now, should he succumb tonight or tomorrow. Please hurry!”
Trotsky said he would, and then put the receiver in its cradle. Then he looked directly at the man sitting across from him in his office. “Lazare. Come. I think your services will be needed in the next few hours.”
Trotsky and Krivine-Mandel headed for the roadster and its driver outside.
In the next half hour, events would be set in motion that would change the course of Soviet history.
Josef Vissarionovich twitched in his bed. When a clock somewhere struck three in the morning, he woke with a start. The room was completely dark. The air heavy, despite open French windows to let in some relief from the stifling July night. He thought he heard a soft click coming from the hallway leading to his bedroom. Leaning over to touch a revolver under the pillow and thinking of taking it in hand, Stalin was surprised when a brilliant flash of light exploded in his eyes. When he looked at the source, Josef Vissarionovich saw a slender man dressed in black leaning against the door frame. Before Stalin could move or say something, the unexpected visitor wordlessly lifted a pistol with a strange sleeve wrapped around its long barrel.
It was the last thing Stalin saw.
The pistol coughed twice. Josef Vissarionovich felt two hammer blows hit his chest. He fell back against the pillow, trying to scream and breathe at the same time. Overhead, before his eyes the cream-colored ceiling rapidly turned to umber brown, then swiftly black. In that instant, he now knew what lay beyond this life.
Lazare quickly retreated down the dark hallway. Outside Stalin’s apartments lay the body guard Dzerzhinsky posted. His face already mottled in yellow-blue blotches from being garroted earlier. Stepping around the dead man, Krivine-Mandel walked briskly around the corner, and two blocks over to a silent roadster waiting on a side street near Red Square. With a nod to the driver, he got in and the car started and slowly pulled away.
Lev Davidovich Trotsky smiled to himself, as he and his passenger sped toward Gorki.