Only vanity could induce the world's most infamous paranoid to trust the world's most notorious liar...
During the early hours of June 22, 1941, a Kremlin orderly stands trembling outside the door of Joseph Stalin's personal apartments. The orderly juts out his bony chest and pastes a few strands of hair across his damp forehead. He whispers a forbidden prayer and begins to tap lightly on the unwelcoming black door. "Excuse me, Comrade Stalin? Comrade Stalin?" Hearing no reply, he's about to knock again when the huge door swings open. There stands Joseph Stalin. The man of steel is wearing a silk maroon dressing gown and a white towel wrapped around his head. His face is slathered with a thick, green mud mask that covers all but his tar pool eyes and his vast moustache that, like Russia itself, hogs every centimeter of the available real estate.
"What is it?" Stalin demands. "Why are you disturbing me at this hour?"
"I'm extremely sorry Comrade Stalin," the terrified orderly manages to say. "It's an urgent telegram."
Stalin eyes the envelope as though it was a long-dead mouse discovered under the couch.
"What new atrocity is this?" he growls as he snatches it from the orderly's hand. Stalin tears it open and withdraws into his apartment. The orderly remains standing at the threshold, unsure if he should follow him inside.
"Who dares send this?" Stalin mutters.
The orderly realizes that The Great Man is addressing him and steps lively into the apartment.
"Who?" Stalin repeats in a harsh voice.
"It has been sent by General Topolev" the orderly replies. "It was received just five minutes ago."
Stalin strokes his moustache and inadvertently transfers traces of the green mud mask to his thumb and forefinger. The orderly notices the green stain and then averts his eyes. Stalin lets out a short, laughing grunt.
"You wonder about my green face, no comrade?"
"Well, I was," he begins but changes course and concludes with, "This is not my concern, Comrade Stalin."
Ignoring his answer, Stalin announces, "Tomorrow, I'm sitting for a new portrait of myself. I must look my best."
Feeling compelled, the orderly asks, "Another portrait, Comrade Stalin?" Afraid his words may be misconstrued, he adds," I hope my interruption will not affect the outcome of this important new work."
Stalin is still oblivious to the orderly and continues, "I have commissioned this new portrait of myself to replace the Hammer and Sickle as the great symbol of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
The orderly's alarm is sounded by the tiny flinch of his left cheek.
"You see," Stalin, explains, "I feel the current symbol is hindering our efforts to recruit the foreign proletariant. I think they see the hammer and sickle and conclude that communism is nothing but a lot of hard work. I think my face will be more inspirational, don't you agree, Comrade..." Stalin has forgotten his name again though he had now served over a year as his overnight orderly.
"I am Comrade Petrovitch," he offers, as if apologizing that Stalin could never remember his name.
"Yes, you are Petrovitch." Stalin confirms. He then abandons the conversation and turns his attention to the telegram. "Now, let's see what General Topolev is crying about." As he reads, his eyes narrow into angry, black gashes. "This is traitorous!" he roars.
Petrovitch knows the fate of messengers who deliver bad news, and takes a backward step towards the door. Stalin spies his retreat and freezes him in place.
"Where are you going?" he asks in a tone that could be mistaken for friendly. "Are you a grape fallen from Topolev's vine?"
Petrovitch shakes his head 'No' with such enthusiasm sweat flies from his forehead. He feels as if he's underwater and talking a gulp of air, asks if Comrade Stalin wishes to dictate a reply to the general's telegram.
Stalin examines the orderly as if for the first time, attempting to ferret out his true loyalties. Satisfied, he stiffens his bearing and begins dictating a response.
"General Topolev, your report of an imminent German invasion is erroneous to the point of hysteria. STOP."
Petrovich has just now recovered his wits and is fumbling for his dictation pad as Stalin begins his second sentence.
"The German troops you observe near our border are there with my permission. STOP. Reich Chancellor Hitler has requested these troops be allowed to occupy this position to keep them out of range of enemy bomber attacks. STOP."
The frantic orderly's scribbling has caught up with Stalin's dictation and he takes his first breath since it began.
"Hitler", Stalin goes on, "has reaffirmed his promise that our two countries will remain allies as ratified by our non-aggression pact of 1939. STOP." Stalin now focuses his bottomless stare on Petrovitch as if he was the telegram's recipient.
"General Topoluv, those who pass rumors of a German invasion have either fallen victim to enemy disinformation or they are traitors. FINAL STOP."
Petrovitch holds the pad for Stalin and the dictator gouges out his initials almost forcing it from the orderly's clutches. In the next moment Stalin's fierce anger evaporates as he catches his reflection in a silver vanity mirror atop his superb French Empire writing desk -- both no doubt acquired for a song at the Romanoff 'Estate sale'. He raises his hand and caresses the crusty surface of the green mud mask as if it were the tender skin of a child's face.
"Yes," he declares in a distant voice, "The mask is ready to be removed," Stalin wraps a gentle arm around Petrovitch's shoulders and guides him out the door. Then, before he closes it, he raises his glance to the orderly. Anger has refilled his eyes.
"Comrade Petrovitch, if General Topolev sends anymore reports that the Germans are invading our Motherland, I order you to tell him to shoot himself before I do."
"Yes Comrade Stalin, I will."
"And Petrovitch, do not disturb me again for any reason. You know I have a very important day tomorrow. I need uninterrupted sleep."
After the door slams shut, Petrovitch scurries down the stone hallway and disappears into the shadows.
When Stalin awakes from his beauty sleep, 4,000,000 German troops have already pierced the Russian frontier along a 2300-kilometer front.
-- Barry Udoff
Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-04-25