Dimitrov's odd habit: keeping a diary
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 August 2003)

The last time Georgi Dimitrov's name appeared in the international press, it was attached to one of the more farcical incidents of the post-Soviet period. Dimitrov (1882-1949) was the first Communist prime minister of Bulgaria, the man who brought Stalinist government, complete with the execution of irksome colleagues, to the Balkans. When he died, his body was pickled and put on show in the main square of Sofia, like Lenin's in Moscow. After the Communists fell in 1990, their successors removed the corpse from its display case and cremated it while demonstrators carried signs reading, "It stinks."

But Dimitrov's huge marble mausoleum remained intact, for the good reason that it appeared impregnable; built to last forever, it had walls 1.5 metres thick. Engineers finally tried to dynamite it in 1999, but their three explosions left the building standing while shattering many nearby windows. Their incompetence became a national joke, and thousands gathered in the square to heckle during the 10 days they took to dismantle it, piece by piece. The bureaucrat in charge became known as Gencho the Skilful.

Georgi Dimitrov was unusual among the puppet premiers Joseph Stalin put in place. Aside from intricate connections with the global network of Communist parties, he had (we now know) an odd habit for someone in his circumstances: He kept a diary. He made entries in German while he promoted revolution in Germany, in Russian while he served as general secretary of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, and in Bulgarian when he ran Bulgaria. He sadly lacked literary talent, and no one will read his journals for their narrative or descriptive qualities. But The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933-1949 (Yale University Press), edited by Ivo Banac and published this summer in the Annals of Communism series, turns out to be a valuable souvenir of the Stalinist period, which ended with Stalin's death just 50 years ago last March.

In power, Stalin almost never gave an interview and few who spoke with him in private, as Dimitrov often did, have left us an account of the way he talked and what he said. Dimitrov never dares to criticize Stalin, but even keeping a minimalist record must have been dangerous. Stalin's purges were eliminating many leading Communists, especially foreigners like himself -- and, in fact, many believe that his later brushes with Yugoslav-style independence provoked Stalin to have him murdered while he was being treated in a Russian hospital.

Milovan Djilas, who visited Moscow in the 1940s, recalled in his brilliant Conversations with Stalin (1962) that Dimitrov seemed burnt-out, pale, "prematurely old, almost crushed." Certainly, he lived in fear, like all of Stalin's associates. Still, the conversations he quotes seem authentic. And, of course, Stalin, not the author, emerges as this diary's principal character.

Stalin's non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, secretly dividing Poland between the two of them, helped to precipitate the Second World War. When it started, he was not displeased. "A war is on between two groups of capitalist countries," he said in September, 1939. "We see nothing wrong in their having a good hard fight and weakening each other. Hitler, without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system."

We learn that while Stalin destroyed many leading Communists, he contemplated destroying even more. In the 1930s, he spent much of his time discussing the prosecution of those he considered enemies, in particular secret followers of Leon Trotsky. Dimitrov sets down a typical Stalin conversation on Nov. 11, 1937: "We shall probably arrest Stasova, too. Turned out she's scum. Kirsanova is very closely involved with Yakovlev. She's scum ... Muntzenberg is a Trotskyite. If he comes here, we'll certainly arrest him. Try and lure him here." In fact, of these four, the first two were spared, Yakovlev was executed, and Muntzenberg, a German, was not lured to Russia but was apparently assassinated by Stalin's men in France in 1940.

In 1937, that same month, there was a luncheon for 26 senior officials after a parade. All those present listened carefully as Stalin outlined his plans for anyone who "by his deeds or his thoughts -- yes, his thoughts" undermines Soviet unity: "We will destroy every such enemy ... we will destroy all his kind, his family." This was greeted with shouts of praise.

There then followed a pointless argument, best explained by vodka consumption. Dimitrov said the Soviet Union's success was due to Stalin's greatness, whereas Stalin, in all modesty, said no, it was due to the "middle cadres." They argued the point, Stalin forcing poor Dimitrov to escalate the flattery, until a lesser commissar, a solid Stalin supporter, settled the matter: "What we have is a felicitous combination -- both the great leader and the middle cadres."

Dimitrov, who didn't live to see the irony, reported that those words came from Nikita Khrushchev, who, 19 years later, would denounce Stalin's crimes in a history-making speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party. But in 1937, he played toady and conciliator. He apparently satisfied even Stalin, because after Khrushchev spoke, everyone got up from lunch and went off happily to see a movie about Lenin.

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