Stalin and Urine

In his new novel, The Festival of Ignorance, Milan Kundera has a character named Charles tell a story about one of Stalin’s closest comrades, Mikhail Kalinin, whose name was later bequeathed to the Prussian city of Königsberg (famous for the Bridge Problem devised by Immanuel Kant, who lived there in what were surely happier times).

“To this day all of Russia recalls a great ceremony to inaugurate an opera house in some city in Ukraine, during which Kalinin was giving a long, solemn speech. He had to break off every two minutes and, each time, as he left the rostrum, the orchestra would strike up some folk music, and lovely blond Ukrainian ballerinas would leap onto the stage and begin dancing. Each time he returned to the dais Kalinin was greeted with great applause; when he left again, the applause was still louder, to greet the advent of the blond ballerinas——and as his goings and comings grew more frequent, the applause grew longer and stronger, more heartfelt, so that the official celebration s=was transformed into a joyful mad orgiastic riot whose like the Soviet state had never seen or known.

“But alas, between times when Kalinin was back in the little group of his comrades, no one was interested in applauding his urine. Stalin would recite his anecdotes, and Kalinin was too disciplined to gather the courage to annoy him by his goings and comings from the toilet. The more so since, as he talked, Stalin would fix his gaze on Kalinin’s face growing paler and paler and tensing into a grimace. That would incite Stalin to slow his storytelling further, to insert new descriptions and digressions, and to drag out the climax till suddenly the contorted face before him would relax, the grimace vanished, the expression grew calm, and the head was wreathed in an aureole of peace; only then, knowing that Kalinin had once again lost his great struggle, Stalin would move swiftly to the denouement, rise from the table and, with a bright, friendly smile, bring the meeting to an end. All the other men would stand too, and stare cruelly at their comrade, who positioned himself behind the table, or behind a chair, to hide his wet trousers.”

from The Festival of Ignorance by Milan Kundera, pp 26-27

I was taken by Kundera’s descriptions of Stalin, here and throughout the novel, that I checked a new biography of the dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk to find out if this or any of the other anecdotes Kundera offers are true. I didn’t find the answer to that particular question (although Khlevniuk’s book is excellent—I was riveted for three or four days), but I did come across this story about some of Stalin’s final hours:

The bodyguard entered Stalin’s apartments with the packet of mail and started looking for him. After walking through several rooms, he finally found the vozhd [Вождь; Russian for “Leader”] in the small dining room. The sight must have been extremely disturbing. Stalin was lying helpless on the floor, which was wet beneath him. This last point is important not for reasons of schadenfreude or as an evocative detail but because it affected subsequent events. It appeared to the bodyguard that Stalin was unable to speak, but he did make a small hand gesture, beckoning him to approach. The bodyguard summoned his colleagues, who helped him lift Stalin onto the couch. They then rushed to telephone their immediate superior, State Security Minister Semen Ignatiev. According to the bodyguards’ later accounts, Ignatiev refused to make any decisions and told them to call members of the top leadership: Beria and Malenkov.

Perhaps out of fear, or perhaps out of unspoken ambivalence toward his recovery, Stalin’s comrades rejected the idea that they were facing a medical emergency. After Malenkov and Beria checked on the vozhd and found him sleeping, they proceeded to dismiss what the bodyguards had told them about his symptoms. Had he really had some sort of fit? The bodyguards were not doctors. Their imaginations could have been playing tricks on them. His colleagues probably also remembered that Stalin had recently accused his own doctors of being murderers. Who would take responsibility for call a doctor (or summoning a murderer, as the vozhd might see it) unless he were absolutely sure one was needed? A simple need for emergency medical care was transformed into a multidimensional political problem.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg V Khlevniuk


  1. You sometimes think that all these nihilists and atheists know – they just know – that in the battle between nature and the will, nature always comes out on top – in the same way that every gambler secretly knows that the house always, in the end, holds all the cards.

    It is at that point that the Catholic Church really is the only game in town – it doesn’t try to console the will with fictions but, accepting the inevitability of nature, it says that the will can still turn this final hand against death into more than a push – you can turn this high stakes gamble into a garden variety gambol – this desperate game into child’s play – this funeral wreath into a victory laurel.

    What’s more, even the suffering involved becomes a moment of supreme exaltation. There’s only one hitch. You have to accept your nature, accept that your will is not superior to your nature, and that, paradoxically, your nature itself is the winning card, in the end – God didn’t die for the state; he didn’t die for the proletariat; he died for each and every individual who belongs to the human race. He died so that human nature could triumph over the ironclad will of death.

    You would hope that poor Uncle Joe, if he learned nothing in seminary, he at least learned – or remembered – that salient fact about the Incarnation, even as his incontinence offered him a final sign that his will was not the first principle of existence…

    St. Joseph, Pray for Us!


    • Quin Finnegan says

      So well said. As always, Joseph!

    • Quin Finnegan says

      But just in case a skeptical reader happens along and thinks that maybe all this is a little too well said (gamble to gambol and whatnot) … what exactly do you mean by nature? And how exactly does the Church accept its inevitability?

      And if “the will can still turn this final hand against death into more than a push”, how can it also be true that “paradoxically, your nature itself is the winning card”?

      Is it possible that in this paradox, “nature” and “will” have become equivalent, and being equivalent, might also be equivocal?

      • Big Jon Bully says

        Yeah, what is “nature” and what is “natural” and what is the “will”; what is the “heart” truly refer to in the gospel sense. Still, I like JOB’s eloquence and see more than a grain of spiritual reality there.

        Great post.

      • By nature – I suppose I mean it is man’s nature to die what St. Augustine calls the “first death” – and has been destined since the fall of Adam to die the “second death” – but that with Christ, while we will all still die the first death (except the Blessed Virgin, who was assumed into heaven, body and soul), our own human nature, if it is united through grace with Christ will not be touched by the second death.

        In Christ, man has been able to alter his destiny. Nature and will are very much wrapped up in that. Perhaps I haven’t been completely clear in exactly how, but I don’t think nature and will are equivalent – that’s what you made clear in the anecdote of Stalin – what is illustrated in the via negativa that is Stalin’s death (and all our deaths – but especially those positivists who are forced to confront their lifelong serial solipsism when they realize that, yes, they too are made not of adamant but of that same organic matter that eventually serves as carpet to the forests of the world.) We can maintain our organic composure for only so long before things begin to break down.

        My late mother in law, when she began experiencing this breakdown (cancer) noted that it was God’s way of letting us accept in small ways the eventual conclusion to our earthly pilgrimage.

        Stalin et al can will all they want – but it doesn’t change the nature of things. The nature of man is to die – but his destiny is determined by that same will which can be his downfall. I sometimes think that God chose the Hebrews exactly because they were a stiffnecked people – who wants a bunch of noodles as one’s representatives on earth? No, we want holiness to be a matter of the will, lest we become automatons for God.

        Now, whether the will submits to the truths of what Nietzsche called the “slave religion” of Christ or seeks to create the lumionous fictions that keep the dim halls of Vallhalla half-lit and half in shadow… that is the question on which the will and man’s nature (which besides being carbon-based is also free to choose, free to love or hate, obey or rebel, etc.) turns.

        It seems to me that the paradox is just this: that God so loved the world that he sent his only son as one of us in all things but sin. He came on our terms. He “condescended” – to use the first and truest sense of that word.

        Weird, if you think about it.

    • Big Jon Bully says

      It’s a scandal, really, that we have nothing solid in ourselves except for what can burn in hell for time without end (even though Screwtape has researchers working on the problem and a breakthrough is right around the corner), only Nietzsche’s abyss. Maybe like quantum physics with its bosons and pentaquarks. Turtles all the way down.

      Brilliant, thanks again.

  2. Big Jon Bully says

    You know that you’ve arrived as a tyrant when people are afraid of you on your death bed.

  3. Big Jon Bully says
  4. Louise Orrock says

    That’s a witty title.

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