Oni: Stalin's Polish Puppets by Teresa Torańska (Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska) - review by Adam Zamoyski

Adam Zamoyski

He Danced with Molotov

Oni: Stalin's Polish Puppets


Collins Harvill 384pp £14.00 order from our bookshop

Anyone who believes that Gorbachov’s reforms can really change any thing would do well to ponder the contents of this book. Communism, according to Stefan Staszewski, is

‘the rule of the minority over the majority. The restructuring of society against the wishes of the population. Absolute intolerance towards other social and political conceptions. Finally, communism means depriving people of their fundamental civil liberties and of the freedom to decide their own fate.’

And he should know what he is talking about: a member of the Party from the age of fourteen, highly regarded in Moscow until 1936, when he was sentenced to eight years hard labour in the Kolyma camps, he became one of Stalin’s most zealous satraps in Poland, ruthlessly imposing the loathed regime on his unfortunate countrymen until he was himself expelled from the Party in 1968, ostensibly for being Jewish.

Staszewski is one of five old communists sought out in the early 1980s by the journalist Teresa Toranska, who published the resulting interviews under the aptly faceless title Oni – Them. ‘We’ re the survivors – the people Stalin didn’t manage to kill off in time,’ explains Roman Werfel, leading ideologist of the Party in the post-war years. These men and women are indeed the beached flotsam of history. They were traitors prepared to cede Polish territory and kill any number of Polish people when Stalin demanded it, carrying out his wishes with indecent zeal. Despised by their countrymen, spat out by their Party, they live in privileged retirement in Warsaw, unable to see the enormity of their actions or to accept responsibility for the misery they caused.

Toranska is a brilliant interviewer, subtle yet hard-hitting. Her victims all begin with a self-assurance bordering on chutzpah, congratulating themselves on having played a part in the great historical process. Toranska’s acerbic comments and searching questions meet with petulance at first, but this soon gives way to a more defensive response. As she quizzes them about touchy subjects, their resentments beg in to surface. Out comes the dirty washing, and with it the tortuous justifications. Official phrases occasionally give way to a genuine cri de coeur – ‘you wouldn’t have asked those questions then!’; ‘don’t you realise, we had to!’  Gradually, the process of trying to explain or justify stirs the doubts lurking in what with other people would be called their consciences, and then they really start talking.

What emerges is both fascinating and terrifying. The most eager to talk is Staszewski, one-time chief of propaganda and Warsaw Party boss, who launches into a lecture on the nature and workings of communism. His accounts of the dirty deals between nervous, sweating men whose very names spelt fear to millions, yet who were never free of fear themselves, lay bare not so much the corridors as the latrines of power. His erstwhile colleague, Jakub Berman, once the most powerful and still the most deeply loathed, provides the most interesting copy. His arguments and excuses reveal the full dishonesty, opportunism and political depravity inherent in the system. He is a mine of information and anecdote on key events and figures of the Soviet world, and some of his observations have the power of aphorism. He is the most intelligent of the interviewees, yet it is a sterile intelligence, blinkered by bigotry and deformed by intellectual dishonesty.

One thing that emerges from all these interviews is the extent to which Soviet political life is a series of improvisations, a sort of deeply unfunny Yes, Minister. Indeed, much of the material in this book belongs to the realm of black farce. Berman, who waxes lyrical about Stalin, tells of cosy evenings at the Kremlin, when, after a copious and bibulous dinner, Stalin would put on records, encouraging the others to dance. Berman tells Toranska of a dance he had with Molotov:

Surely you mean with Mrs Molotov?’

‘No, she wasn’t there; she was in a labour camp. I danced with Molotov- I think it was a waltz, or at any rate something very simple, because l don’t know the faintest thing about dancing, so I just moved my feet in rhythm.’

As the woman?

‘Yes, Molotov led; l wouldn’t have known how. Actually, he wasn’t a bad dancer…’

What about Stalin – whom did he dance with?’

‘Oh, no, Stalin didn’t dance. Stalin wound the gramophone, considering it to be his duty as a citizen. He never left it. He would just put on records and watch.’

He watched you?’

‘Yes, he watched us dance.’

So you enjoyed yourselves?’

‘Yes, it was pleasant, but with an Inner tension.’

You didn’t have fun really?’

‘Stalin really had fun. For us these dancing sessions were a good opportunity to whisper to each other things that couldn’t be said out loud. That was when Molotov warned me about being infiltrated by various hostile organisations.’

Was it a threat?’

‘No it was called a friendly warning…’

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