In Memoriam: The Bravest of Men

Kapler the Brave
Kapler the Brave

Alexei Kapler was the bravest of men.

How brave?

Put it this way: there are two kinds of brave:

  • Brave
  • Alexei Kapler brave.

Alexei Kapler was Alexei Kapler brave.

By profession, Kapler was a screenwriter, journalist, director, and actor. By avocation, he was an accomplished womanizer. One night, Kapler, a man of forty years, met a sixteen year old girl at a party. This young woman was intelligent, strong-willed, attractive, and sad. It was the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death. No one seemed to remember. Kapler was happy to listen, comfort, sympathize, and seduce.

Since his new conquest came from a sheltered background, Kapler decided to show her the wild side of life. He lent her forbidden adult books. He took her dancing, took her to see avaunt garde theater, and took her to meet outrageous people at outrageous parties. Kapler was a man of the world, witty, knowledgeable, a skilled raconteur. The young woman was swept off her feet by this urbane sophisticate. There were problems though: Kepler was married. And he was having an affair with a sixteen year old girl.

Hiding the affair from her family was a must. Hiding it from the girl’s father was especially important. Kapler was a smooth enough operator that he might have kept their affair secret from the girl’s father under normal circumstances. Unfortunately for him, this girl’s father had a particularly suspicious temperament. While something like this temperament is not unusual in any father of a sixteen year old girl, this father was different:

He could have phones tapped.

The Dashing Young Hero
The Dashing Young Supehero

Young Svetlana, for that was her name, was the daughter of one Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. Early in life, instead of becoming a priest like his mother wanted, Ioseb decided he wanted to be a superhero. So he adopted the name “Joe Steel” for his superhero persona. Steel became the local Caucasian Robin Hood, pulling off the largest gold robbery in Russian history. Then he spent the money on “liberating” the Russian people. Later in his career, Steel achieved some prominence as the humble secretary of a prominent Russian political party.

To his American fans, Ioseb was known as kindly Uncle Joe. To the Russians, he was known as Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was shown phone intercepts of calls between Svetlana and Kapler by the ever helpful NKVD. Enraged, he confronted Svetlana, revealing that he knew everything about the affair and demanded that she hand over all of her letters from Kapler. When Sventlana dramatically protested her love for Kapler. Stalin, as Svetlana later wrote in Twenty Letters To A Friend, was not pleased:

“Love!”, shrieked Stalin, “with hatred of the very word” and “for the first time in my life,” slapped [Svetlana] twice across the face.

Simon Sebag Montefiore picks up the story at this point in his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar:

Stalin gathered up the letters and took them to the dining room where he sat at the table where Churchill had dined—and, ignoring [World War II] altogether, started to read them. He did not appear [at work] that day.

When Svetlana came home from school, Stalin ripped up Kapler’s letters in front of her. As he savagely ridiculed Kapler, Svetlana fled the room in tears. Stalin and his daughter didn’t speak for months afterward. Even then, their relationship never recovered: Kapler had forever damaged the fragile bloodthirsty communist dictator-daughter bond.

Montefiore offers this analysis of the situation:

This is often presented as the height of Stalin’s brutality yet, even today, no parents would be delighted by the seduction (as he thought) of their schoolgirl daughters, especially by a married middle-aged playboy. Yet Stalin was a traditional Georgian steeped in nineteenth-century prudery and to this day, Georgian fathers are likely to resort to their shotguns at the least provocation. “Being a Georgian, he should have shot that ladies’ man,” says [Stalin’s nephew] Vladimir Redens. Long after she wrote her memoirs, Svetlana understood that “my father over-reacted”: he thought he was “protecting his daughter from a dirty older man”.

Kapler, not satisfied with the bravery he demonstrated by seducing the teenaged daughter of an evil totalitarian dictator, insisted on boasting about the affair to his friends. However, Alexei Kapler brave demanded more. Montefiore continues:

Dispatched to cover Stalingrad for Pravda, filing his “Letters of Lieutenant L from Stalingrad” in which he daringly paraded his affair with the words: “It’s probably snowing in Moscow. You can see the crenelated wall of the Kremlin from your window.”

So, even before Stalin confronted Svetlana, Kapler found himself staying at the Lubyanka. The Lubyanka has some charming fin de siècle architectural features:

The Lubyanka was originally built in 1898 as the Neo-Baroque headquarters of the All-Russia Insurance Company, noted for its beautiful parquet floors and pale green walls. Belying its massiveness, the edifice avoids an impression of heroic scale: isolated Palladian and Baroque details, such as the minute pediments over the corner bays and the central loggia, are lost in an endlessly-repeating classicizing palace facade, where three bands of cornices emphasize the horizontal lines. A clock is centered in the uppermost band of the facade.


The Lubyanka is also one of the great scenes of mass murder in history, up there with Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, Srebrenicia, or the forests of Rwanda. People went inside and never came out. Kapler went inside, found himself convicted of being a “British spy”, and disappeared into the GULAG. That’s the kind of risk you run when you’re Alexei Kapler brave.

Kapler was lucky: he survived Stalin. After his release from the GULAG, Kapler lived to see the age of 75, dying on September 11, 1979.

Svetlana “Lana” Iosifovna Stalin Morozov Zhdanov Alliluyeva Peters died on November 22, 2011 at Richland Center, Wisconsin. She was 85.

38 thoughts on “In Memoriam: The Bravest of Men”

  1. “Brave” is a strange choice of word; “reckless” would be more appropriate, in my view.

    Svetlana Allilueva: recently I was reading T.C. Boyle, “The women”, a masterly written novel about F.L. Wright and his wives. In the last chapters appears Svetlana Allilueva – who came to Taliesin and married Wes Peters, Wright’s apprentice and “right hand”; she couldn’t bear the cult-like life there for long, though: it was too familiar and at the same time – farcical.

  2. “Brave” is a strange choice of word;

    One could merely call him Russian, or perhaps Russian with unhinged balls.

  3. Of the 20 million or so Stalin killed I could excuse this one ;-)

    Joe Steel – you gave it away ;-)

    Tatyana – I would not even use reckless – but suicidal.

  4. Why wasn’t he killed? Was Stalin afraid he’d make his daughter hate him? Millions died for no reason at all, and Stalin felt norhing about it, but this guy, who gave Stalin good, solid reason to want to kill him, walked out of the Lubyanka alive? I knew this story, and I am struck again by weird it is. Agreed with the others: Not brave, crazy.

  5. @Lexington few men regard themselves as villains in their heart. And those that do tend to be loners. Rest assured that the greatest villains in history, who perpetrated their villainy through the power of a larger organization (countries, empires, mobs, etc.), never regarded themselves as such. In every case I’m certain they thought they were merely prioritizing the needs of people and interests they cared about over others (their tribe, the greater good of all mankind, etc.) Thus then the crimes of Stalin can be categorized in the classic “breaking a few eggs to make an omelet” fashion. People had to die to further Stalin’s political goals which in turn furthered the interests of Soviet Russia and/or international communism. However, no such excuse applies when it comes to liquidating one’s daughter’s suitor. Perhaps one could stretch the truth and say that reducing stress on the leader of the USSR serves the larger goals (much in the same way as being well fed and living in some degree of luxury might be claimed to do so), but that might have been a bit too much of a stretch even for old hard-hearted Joe.

  6. Killing his daughter’s lover would have been kind. Leaving Kapler alive and suffering in a gulag punished both the daughter and her lover.

  7. Besides, why this in memoriam is to Kapler, and not to Svetlana Allilueva? he’s but a footnote on her life, one of millions of regime propagandists who deemed themselves indestructible and above mere plebs only to find out otherwise.

  8. Stalin often arrested without killing the spouses and lovers of the people closest to him while signing mass death warrants.

    Molotov, for example, was reunited with his wife (who was incidentally, a fanatical Stalinist) immediately after Stalin’s death. Kapler, if I recall correctly, was not the only one of his daughter’s men to be sent into the Gulag and Stalin had most of his daughter’s maternal relatives arrested or deported to Siberia as well.

  9. I admit to similar bafflement as to a)his survival instead of immediate liquidation, and b) why he was not sent to one of the more notorious islands in the chain where survival was all but impossible; Kolyma coming to mind.

    I have 3 daughters. I am known to have been more than passing intimidating to their young male contemporaries [and a couple of older males who came sniffing around]. The Dragoon saber hanging from the mantlepiece may have had something to do with that. That, and the badge I wore for 28 years. But I have absolutely nothing on intimidation compared with Iosif Vissarionovich.

    Brave? That implies at least some examination of the situation and a studied decision that it was worth it. I have seen nothing to indicate that Svetlana Allilueva was all that charming, intelligent, desirable, seductive, or attractive as to be worth the risk. This was either a purely foolhardy act of deliberate self-destruction that pushes the envelope of comprehension, or he was incapable of passing the McNaughton tests.

    Subotai Bahadur

  10. Subotai – Plus your mentioning – while gesturing towards the saber – “I’ve been to prison once – it won’t bother me going back!”

  11. Zen,
    plus he did the same to relatives of his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze.
    As to the second’s wife family – he was punishing them for his wife suicide (she couldn’t live with him anymore and chose to end her life by her own hand rather than being forced by him).

    In 1941 Kapler was awarded Stalin’s Award (Сталинская Премия) – the highest award in the state; he probably believe himself to be bulletproof – and possibly a good candidate for Stalin’s daughter hand.
    I was just reading memoirs of Kapler’s co-author and co-recipient of the Award, for the communist-propagandist’ movies (“Lenin in October”, “Lenin in 1918”), film director Mikhail Romm. He touches on the subject of Kapler – and shares anecdotes how he was working all night in the movie archives, erasing with technicians mention of the Kapler’s credits from the beginning of the film…

  12. Great post.

    With all respect to Tatyana, who corrected the notion that the T-34 was designed by an American (just the chassis), Stalin was not Jewish, he was Georgian. Though if you ask any of Mikhail Saakashvili’s cheerleaders in the West, and they’ll tell you Stalin was a Russian chauvinist/imperialist who happened to have been born in Gori. Nevermind he killed just as many Russians as any other nationality of the USSR if not more.

    See this exchange, in which a fanatically pro-Saakashvili Englishman gets taken to school:

    and this smart a@@ ditty about our new NATO funded jihadi freedom fighters headed to Syria:

    Peace out.

  13. Perhaps Tatyana was thinking of some of Stalin’s henchmen, some of whom were of Jewish extraction, but the worst was still fellow Georgian Lavrenty Berea, the only one who got killed in a post-Stalin purge after his patron’s death in 1953. Berea was like Uday and Qusay, pulling women off the streets of Moscow and raping them.

  14. @Mr. X:

    Tatyana was not referring to Tovarich Stalin. She was referring to Tovarich Kapler, who was Jewish, not Great Russian as “Chuck” implied in the comment preceding hers.

  15. Bill Brandt Says @
    November 29th, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    You have a good point there. But I tended to go with the classic lines; “Son, I have a shotgun, a shovel, and 5 acres in back. Do not trifle with me.”.

    Small war story.

    Once my youngest daughter was grounded, yet we were supposed to meet some people in Colorado Springs one night; which involves a twisty drive through the mountains. Left said daughter at home, with instructions to stay there alone. Weather closed in and made the trip far dicier than it was worth, so we turned around and came home.

    We pulled up moments after boyfriend had arrived. In sheer panic the daughter sent him out the back door to run away. Where we lived at the time, leaving the back way in the dark, at a run was almost as hazardous as standing fast. Almost.

    Back porch makes a sharp right angle turn. He did not make it. Over the functionally invisible black metal railing and down about 4 feet to the brick patio. Took off running across the back yard and tried to clear the back fence. Which had two strands of barbed wire at the top to keep the cattle out. Did not make that either from the scraps of cloth on the barbs. Immediately on the far side of the fence was an irrigation lateral. Apparently did not make that either. That left a field to cross to get to the next dirt road.

    It was dark. It was very dark. The field is planted with Christmas trees, and they were just above crotch height. And he was running.

    I was later given to understand that he had no desire to ever return to our house.

    Sometimes a reputation is enough.

    Subotai Bahadur

  16. Subotai Bahadur Says:
    November 29th, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Small war story.

    Once my youngest daughter was grounded, yet we were supposed to meet some people in Colorado Springs one night; which involves a twisty drive through the mountains. Left said daughter at home, with instructions to stay there alone. Weather closed in and made the trip far dicier than it was worth, so we turned around and came home…..

    I was laughing out loud reading that! I am sure he was afraid to show his face….

  17. Kapler most likely wasn’t’ actually brave Instead, he was most likely hypomanic owing to his recent successes and was in an emotional state where he could not rationally assess the possible negative outcomes of his actions. This is the modern version of the classical hubris borne of success that so worried the greeks.

  18. Joseph – excellent piece – I had to forward it to friends.

    One minor note:

    Your passage, The Lubyanka is also one of the great scenes of mass murder in history, up there with Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, Srebrenicia, or the forests of Rwanda. People went inside and never came out. Kapler went inside, found himself convicted of being a “British spy”, and disappeared into the GULAG.

    My best mental image of the Lubyanka was from reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic The Gulag Archipelago many years ago. He talked of the Stalin-era ‘Black Marias” – secret police vehicles – that would pick people up for the Lubyanka – never to be seen again.

    While I have no doubt many thousands were executed here, even 10s of thousands – to compare it to Cambodia or Auschwitz?

    Then I suppose mass indiscriminate murder has no “outrage” dial turned into numbers.

    As an aside I was in St Petersburg a few years ago and we went by the old KGB headquarters there. Like the Lubyanka it was a huge building taking up a city block and still looked foreboding.

  19. Dan, then how about this: it’s a photograph of Svetlana and Lavrenty Beria at his dacha(summer house). Later, years after her mother’s burial, in that same house Svetlana was browsing foreign magazines (not available in open retail) and came across an article about her mother suicide. She had a nervous breakdown: at the time she was told her mother died of infectious decease.
    Then, after her 2 first marriages [1)to classmate of her brother – which Stalin ended by fiat: sent his assistant to pick her up after classes in University and drove her to municipal clerk where she was forced to sign decree of divorce) and 2)arranged by Stalin – to son of Zhdanov, member of Politburo – also short-lived] she had a fling with Sergey Beria, son of the monster.

  20. Chris:
    wait till you hear of her consequent marriage to an Indian communist; he was fatally ill and came to USSR for a cure. They met in a hospital, fell in love, he died. She claimed he left a will, requesting her to accompany his ashes to India; Kosygin gave her an exit visa; she left for Deli. There she lived for about half a year till (after under-the-table communications with Americans) she appeared with suitcases at the door of American Embassy and asked for political asylum.

    Now it looks more like a Bollywood movie, isn’t it?

  21. Tatyana – from what I read of her last night (in the link I left) she later went back to the USSR and denounced the USA.

    Then came back, of course.

    According to the article then President Johnson allowed her in but wanted it to be discreet – trying to get some cooperation with the Russians over Vietnam – of course when she arrived discretion went out the door and it was front page news for weeks.

    I remember those times.

    It was the most publicized defection since Rudolph Nureyev in 1961.

    Lana seemed a bit mercurial to say the least, but given the way she grew up…

  22. Bill – yes, exactly, the way she grew up it could be worse.
    Imagine being a daughter of an absolute dictator – and in addition to grow up without a mother.

    In some Russian articles I googled (one – an interview with her when she was back to USSR, another – excerpts from a documentary about her) there are two things that I’d take with more than a grain of salt:
    1) they say her marriage to Wes Peters was dissolved when she ran out of money (that she earned with her book of memoirs – some sources claim it was $1.5mln, other – $2.5mln)
    2) the journalist says when she returned to Tbilisi an old woman she demonstrated very unpleasant sides of character: prohibited her children and even the nephew to marry their choices for a partner (which they ignored, and she stopped talking to them till the rest of her life), behaved as if she was entitled to a last word in all matters towards the staff of Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia and was enraged when they didn’t follow her orders, etc etc

  23. Tatyana – in reading the obit from the UK’s Independent I thought it so ironic that here was a woman who, for a few years, was on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and to die – virtually forgotten – in a small Wisconsin town – her story in its breadth is almost in scope with Dr Zhivago.

    The things she witnessed…and to believe as a child your mother died of natural causes and to discover she committed suicide because of her father?

    I think I will order her first book – out of print but available on Amazon – highly reviewed…

    By now the money made by her books had gone. She moved from place to place, alighting finally on Richland Center, a town of 4,000 souls 50 miles west of Madison, the state’s capital. There she lived in a one-bedroom apartment, surrounded by photos of Olga and passing her time reading, sewing and listening to America’s serious-minded public radio. But, she told The Wisconsin State-Journal 18 months before her death, “Wherever I go, here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever. Australia. Some island. I always will be a political prisoner of my father’s name.”

  24. Bill, consider also this interesting bit.

    This is what she wrote about life in Taliesin:

    “This hierarchical system was appalling: the widow at the top, then the board of directors (a formality); then her own close inner circle, making all the real decisions; then working architects – the real working horses; at the bottom, students who paid high sums to be admitted, only to be sent the next day to work in the kitchen to peel potatoes….. Mrs. Wright’s word was law. She had to be adored and worshipped and flattered as often as possible; flowers send by mail and presented by hand she enjoyed and encouraged. She gave advice to the architects, guided a drama circle, a dance group and a choir, counseling on private lives and relationships, expecting everyone to make personal confessions to her. She was a ‘spiritual leader’ and self-appointed minister, preaching on Sunday mornings on matters of God and man, when everyone was supposed to be in her large living room”

  25. Bill:
    see also. There are beautiful photos of S.A. (during the period of her life in Princeton) in the middle of the article @link.

    JF – apologies for hugging the thread and for a tangent.

  26. @Tatyana:

    All is well. If the thread veered off topic and started dissecting the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team in the forthcoming National Basketball Association season, then I’d have to cut it short. There’s only one answer to that question anyway.

  27. Joseph –

    I am known for slightly veering off topic – your post was so fascinating on so many levels – Kaplan, Lana (who I didn’t even realize had died before this)…If you feel I am veering too much please let me know – but to me a good blog is like having a good dinner conversation – and I was interested in hearing about this subject from a Russian (Tatyana – I assume you are from Russia and not Luxemburg? ;-) )

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