Secret lives of Kremlin wives: Andrew Higgins on the loneliness of women at the heart of Soviet power

LARISA VASILIEVA was already in bed when the phone rang in her flat off Leningradsky Prospekt. 'Good evening,' said a voice she had never heard before. 'We have made a decision on your question.' It was the KGB.

Her reaction? 'I was so excited, so happy.' She had been worried that they would never call.

It was August 1991 and everything was different, even a late-night telephone call from the KGB. A hardline putsch had just fizzled; the head of the KGB was under arrest; and one of his underlings was on the line offering secret files on the wives of past Kremlin leaders.

'I wanted to look at our history through these women. Each one is a mirror for her generation,' Mrs Vasilieva said. 'But they all lived inside the walls of the Kremlin. This is where the life of spiders began.' She was referring to the webs of intrigue in which they were caught.

'Stalin fixed their role - either stay in the kitchen or go to jail. This is why Raisa Gorbachev was disliked. She tried to be a First Lady. But there are no First Ladies here.' Mrs Vasilieva, poet, writer and feminist, first wrote to the KGB in 1990 asking for help. But only after the failed coup did she get any. She has now published the result, The Kremlin Wives, which is already a bestseller in Russia.

Along with Marxism, the Bolsheviks brought free love to Moscow. 'It was mainly the men who were interested. Women didn't like it,' said Mrs Vasilieva. The Bolsheviks believed people of the future must be free in every sense. 'Love was compared to a glass of water: drink and forget . . . Then they started to live inside the Kremlin wall.'

Lenin opposed the philosophy, saying it would undermine revolutionary discipline. None the less, he fell for one of its champions, a French-born Bolshevik, Inessa Armand. She was mostly interested in the theory, though, and it is still unclear whether she tested it on Lenin, already married to another formidable revolutionary, Nadezhda Krupskaya.

Mystery surrounds Stalin's private life. His first wife, a pious Georgian called Ekaterina Svanidze, died in 1907, three years after they were married. Mrs Vasilieva believes that Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, may have been his daughter, the result of an early illicit romance in Georgia. She 'committed suicide' in 1932 after her husband pelted her with a cigarette butt and coarse insults at a Kremlin dinner.

The KGB files are silent on such matters. Indeed, much of the book is based on the author's own interviews, research and guesswork. As the daughter of an engineer who helped design the T-34 tank, she grew up on the fringes of Kremlin society. 'At the time it seemed very dull. The boys spent their time drinking vodka. The girls looked for husbands and talked about clothes.'

The Kremlin's champion philanderer - also a champion killer - was Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's security chief. He practised not so much free love as rape. An official account estimates he had 760 mistresses. His wife, Nina, endured all in silence, alone and suffocated by security: bodyguards escorted her to the tennis court, drove her to the water fountain in between sets and cycled next to her around their dacha. She was miserable. But she went to her grave two years ago insisting Beria had been faithful. The girls he entertained late at night were, she insisted, special agents.

The Kremlin Wives produces three women who say Beria wanted far more than information. Tatiana Okunevskaya tells about a dinner with Beria at his mansion on the Moscow Ring Road. He doctored the wine. She took a sip, passed out, and woke up the following morning to find she had been raped. A young foreign languge teacher says she was stopped on the street and ordered to a dinner date with Beria. They ate; Beria got drunk and told her to write a note to her mother saying she would be back in the morning. She was then shown the bathroom, told to take a bath and led to Beria's bed. He slobbered over her trembling shoulder but, she says, stopped short of rape. A third woman was plucked from the Gulag after Beria heard of her beauty. Her original crime: a typing error which turned 'Stalingrad' into 'Stalinsnake'. Taken blindfolded to his dacha, she was released after Beria decided she was too thin and dirty.

Mrs Vasilieva gingerly sidesteps the romances of Leonid Brezhnev. His widow, Viktoria - still alive, but blind and confined to a modest apartment in the centre of Moscow - is 'such a poor creature'. When Brezhnev was in power, she spent much of her time cooking (Leonid particularly liked Ukrainian bortsch).

She never discussed politics, except to complain that Brezhnev's rank stopped her buying chickens in the market. While her husband planned the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, presided over a ruinous arms race and led the Soviet Union for 18 years of 'stagnation', Viktoria collected recipes. Three appear in the book - gooseberry jam, stuffed tomatoes and meatballs.

As communism entered terminal decline, disease closed in on the Kremlin. The last party leader before Mikhail Gorbachev was Konstantin Chernenko. His wife, Anna, a tractor technician, protested when he was chosen. His health, she said, would never stand the strain. (He died 13 months later.) When a special red telephone was installed in their bedroom, she kept it on her side of the bed. When it rang she would often refuse to wake him.

In Stalin's day, it was often the wives who suffered first. One of these was Yekaterina Kalinin, the wife of, Mikhail Kalinin. Her troubles, detailed in the KGB archives, began in 1938 when a friend stopped by her flat and muttered about Stalin. The friend was shot; Mrs Kalinin was packed off to Siberia, released in 1946 just in time to see her husband die.

The thickest file seen by Mrs Vasilieva concerns Polina Zhemuchuzhina, the Jewish wife of Stalin's Foreign Minister, Vyachaslav Molotov. She and her husband shared a Kremlin flat with the Stalins and were then next-door neighbours.

In 1948, after a reception for the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir, Mrs Molotov was branded a Zionist agent. She divorced her husband to try to protect him and moved in with her sister and brother. All three were put in prison. The sister died there. Through it all, Mrs Molotov worshipped Stalin. After her release from prison in 1953 she was taken to her ex-husband, in Beria's study. Her first words were: 'How is Comrade Stalin?' Told that he had just died, she fainted.

There was not such loyalty between the wives. When Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, his wife was on holiday in Czechoslovakia with Viktoria Brezhnev, spouse of her own husband's Brutus. Unclear about what had happened, they joked about Mrs Brezhnev now being able to pay the Khrushchevs back for all the dinners they had hosted. Then they got back to Moscow. She had become untouchable. 'All our friends flew away like birds,' remembers Khrushchev's daughter, Rada. 'All these Kremlin women were ruined,' said Mrs Vasilieva. 'They had everything. But nothing real of their own.'

(Photographs omitted)

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