A small coterie of locals had coffee recently at the College of William and Mary’s bookstore on Merchants Square.
We were talking about some obscure historical events that occurred during the World War II. Unexpectedly, Shomer Zwelling, of Williamsburg, and Joshua Rubenstein, of Boston, appeared at the table and joined the conversation.
Zwelling is a museum consulting expert who was involved in planning and designing the Public Hospital exhibit for Colonial Williamsburg and later helped define the elements of the Holocaust story presented through the core exhibition area at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He wanted to introduce his childhood friend, Rubenstein, to our group.
According to his bio, Rubenstein has been involved with human rights and international affairs for more than 40 years. He is an independent scholar with particular expertise in Russian affairs and a longtime associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
Rubenstein wrote the biography of Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet journalist, novelist and poet. He is considered one of the most important Russian cultural figures of the 20th century. One of the few who survived Stalin’s purges.
According to Rubinstein, in spite of formidable odds, Ehrenburg retained a measure of personal integrity. He helped other writers, including Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak.
In his book, “Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg,” Rubenstein traces Ehrenburg’s career from his time as a young Bolshevik, then an anti-Communist; two decades later he was a spokesman for Stalin. Hitler called Ehrenburg his main enemy.
“I worked on ‘Tangled Loyalties’ … for 13 years. As I often like to say, I started under Brezhnev and finished under Yeltsin,” Rubenstein said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “Most everyone I spoke with in Moscow wondered about how Ehrenburg survived the Stalin years. … I was focused on the question of whether he survived morally and spiritually.”
Another major book by Rubenstein was “The Last Days of Stalin.” The introduction to the book notes, “In 1952, no one could foresee the end to Joseph Stalin’s murderous regime. He was poised to challenge the newly elected U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower with armed force, and was broadening a vicious campaign against Soviet Jews. Stalin’s sudden collapse and death in March 1953 was as dramatic and mysterious as his life.”
Rubenstein’s research on Soviet history has always focused on separating facts from myths. I asked how he secured data that was hidden for decades.
“I was able to pursue research in formerly closed archives in Moscow once Gorbachev initiated his policies of glasnost and perestroika,” he said.
Thus, Rubenstein could report that Stalin, during the night of March 1, 1953, after having a stroke and surrounded by the best personal security, laid for hours in his own urine because nobody dared disturb him. When a doctor was called, it wasn’t his personal physician, since he and many of his colleagues had been arrested as traitors in the “Doctor’s Plot.”
As many reviewers of Rubenstein book have pointed out, the last days of Stalin make a dramatic story and he tells it well. He devotes a large part of his book to analyzing what happened after Stalin’s death. To the astonishment of most Soviet-affairs experts, the Politburo members, who once worked hand-in-hand with Stalin, launched wide-ranging fundamental reforms, including attempts to improve relations with the West.
Considering that Rubenstein is the author of a mile-long list of books and scholarly articles on Russian history, I asked him how he sees Putin, in the framework of wider Russian history.
“In my view, it is too easy to understand Putin as just another authoritarian Russian leader, as if the country is doomed to be led by another strongman who has no regard for democratic values,” Rubenstein said. “But keep in mind that under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, Russia developed a free press, competitive elections, freedom of religion and open borders.”
Reversing it all wouldn’t be an easy task for anyone.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.