History remembers autocrats mostly for their conquests, slaughters, purges, inquisitions, persecutions, re-education camps, and collections of severed limbs. But I wonder about their off-duty diversions. Did Napoleon like to whistle in the morning? How much yak meat could Genghis Khan consume at a sitting? Did a day of impaling affect Vlad’s libido that night? Who was a better ballroom dancer: Pol Pot or Idi Amin?
Still, if pressed, I’d have to say that my first choice in the “What was he really like?” survey remains Josef Stalin. Even Hitler, on the top of so many fiends’ lists, privately called Stalin “one of the most extraordinary figures in world history.”[i]
So, with that settled, we have to ask: how did the Soviet strongman relieve the pressures of mass purges and forced collectivization?
He might start with dinner at his favorite Moscow restaurant (“Prague”) enjoyed with his favorite Georgian wine (Kinzmarauli). But what next?
Here, we can be almost certain that the evening would include a screening of the film he never seemed to tire of—the 1938 musical-comedy, Volga-Volga, a film so pleasing to Stalin that he watched it over 100 times and even sent a gift copy to President Franklin Roosevelt. What was the charm? Continue reading