BOOK REVIEW / Wives' tales of caviar and labour camps: 'Kremlin Wives' - Larissa Vasilieva Tr. Cathy Porter: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
NADEZHDA Alliluyeva was 16 when she married Stalin. Fourteen years later she shot herself. It was the act of a desperate woman who suspected her husband was also her father. Stalin didn't attend her funeral.

This is just one of many chilling anecdotes in a fascinating book. Arrest, rape and death were the fate of the Kremlin wife who stepped out of line. The fate of the Kremlin wife who kept her nose in her kitchen and stirred the borscht was, unfortunately, the same.

Being married to a Soviet bigwig meant that at any moment you might trade nannies and caviar for a labour camp, the execution of your children and denunciation by your nearest and dearest.

Unsurprisingly Kremlin Wives sold out in Russia. All the time the Kremlin was shrouded in secrecy, so too were its privileged First Ladies - from Nadezhda Krupskaya, short-sighted ideologue and wife of Lenin, to the fashionable, couture-clad Raisa Gorbachev. But what was their role? Were they advising on Moscow matters or simply rearing children down at the dacha?

Larissa Vasilieva consulted memoirs, archives, KGB files and gossips. She met survivors like Maria Vasilevna, Marshall Budyonny's third wife (the first committed suicide, the second was broken by her experience in the camps); Nina Teimurazovna, wife of Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin's secret police; and Victoria Petrovna, better known as Mrs Brezhnev.

Vasilieva has been called Russia's Kitty Kelley. But what shocks in Kremlin Wives is less the scandalmongering than the sheer effectiveness of Stalin's purges, the strain of the terror.

Even men like Molotov, Stalin's number two, allowed his beloved Jewish wife Paulina Semyonovna to languish in prison, afraid his interference would damn her for ever.

If Kremlin wives became shadows of their husbands, content to stay at home whipping up cherry pies - Mrs Brezhnev's gooseberry jam recipe features in the book - things began rather differently. It was Lenin's wife who outlawed religious education in schools and banned books. A 'gentle' woman who 'loved children', she regarded murdering the royal family as 'unquestionably correct'.

Bolsheviks like Inessa Armand (possibly Lenin's lover) and the auburn-haired beauty Larissa Reisner (who inspired Lara in Dr Zhivago) favoured fine clothes, free love and poetry. Their exploits were daring, their behaviour flamboyant. Reisner fought on the front line, appropriated the clothes of the gentry and invited her enemies to parties where she had them arrested.

Such women were barely tolerated by Stalin. His own wife incurred his wrath by daring to criticise him. And he apparently took special pleasure in dealing with his enemies' 'dangerous' wives. On his order, Trotsky's sister, Olga Kameneva, was shot in the head in the Orlov Central Prison yard.

Kremlin Wives makes grim, disturbing reading. But it's blackly comic too. Beria's wife, for instance, denies her notoriously depraved husband raped scores of young girls. Despite the evidence she insists Beria's '760 mistresses' were actually secret agents he was debriefing.

A woman recalls being sent to a camp for a typing error. She wrote Stalingad (Stalin swine) instead of Stalingrad. Even the interrogator was exasperated, asking: 'Why didn't you leave out the 'g'? That would have made it Stalinrad (Stalin happy), and everything would be OK.' Intelligently written, Kremlin Wives is a salute to the humanity which can survive inhumanity.