By David Michael Newstead.
Paul M. Levitt’s novel Stalin’s Barber is a social examination of the Soviet Union that opens a window onto the lives of its numerous and diverse characters. But each of these plots are anchored by the story of one man who eventually holds a razor to the throat of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Avraham Bahar is a Jew who leaves Albania in search of a better life in Communist Russia. But the paradise he has heard about is soon revealed to be a myth created by Soviet propaganda. In the earliest part of the novel, he is an eyewitness to famine in Ukraine and this portrait only grows darker and more complex as he moves eastward. Avraham and the other characters are threatened by government surveillance, widespread distrust, and the fear of being denounced as a traitor for any and all reasons. Throughout the course of the story, the reader peers into history through the lens of a Soviet typist, humble peasants, artists, mental patients, a religious believer, petty bureaucrats, secret agents, homosexuals, prison laborers, and a simple barber as the web of family and friendships entraps everyone in their associations with incriminating loved ones. In fact, sometimes the only crime is familiarity and in that environment no one is capable of being innocent.
The main character, Avraham Bahar, is an expert in his craft and overtime becomes the personal barber to Joseph Stalin. In that position, he can see the craters on Stalin’s face and smell the harshness of his breath, knowing that any nick or cut or misspoken comment could cost him his life. But as Avraham diligently works to trim and shave his all important customer, he’s left to wonder: what happened to Stalin’s last barber? And is the man that sits in front of him really Joseph Stalin or one of his many body doubles?
Strangest of all, Levitt’s novel draws attention to real intrigues that took place and often consumed the lives of Soviet citizens during that period. Stalin was a deeply paranoid man, fearful of plots against him. At home, he smoked and drank too much, played billiards, and loved Charlie Chaplin films. But he also forbid carpeting in his residences, because it prevented him from hearing people’s footsteps, especially a would-be assassin. His life was framed by a kind of unceasing belief that threats against him were around every corner. As such, arrests and purges were a ubiquitous occurrence. Millions were sent off to forced labor camps to die.
Tied to that paranoia, the Soviets did, in fact, deploy at least four men simultaneously to pretend to be Joseph Stalin, attend official functions, and, of course, to disrupt the effectiveness of assassination attempts. Although these body doubles never met one another, some of them are known to have trained under actor Alexei Dikiy, the man who played the role of Stalin in Soviet films (also sent to a forced labor camp). Among these four, only one ever went public about his experience in 2008 after decades of silence and after the expressed approval of the Russian government. His name was Felix Dadaev. He was a juggler, an actor, and an illusionist whose greatest performance began in 1943 when the NKVD Secret Police recruited him because of his strong resemblance to Stalin. Although he was only in his early twenties, the native of Dagestan took on the sixty-year-old leader’s precise characteristics under the watchful eye of the state security apparatus. This meant make-up, dying his hair, and learning the movements and minuet details of appearing to be Joseph Stalin. Felix would continue this work until the Soviet leader’s death in 1953. But during that long time span, he only met Stalin once in the early 1950’s. It was brief. The man said nothing and Stalin nodded to him. The end. Such limited recognition hides the fact that Felix had acted the part for years at great personal risk. He was a body double during the height of the Second World War. Furthermore, his family in Grozny had been told that Felix was killed by the German Army in the early 1940’s, and thereafter his entire life revolved around living in Stalin’s shadow.
If Levitt’s novel is about anything, it is about people living in the shadow of a dictatorship and the fear that can overwhelm their day-to-day existence. By showing the experiences of a common barber, Levitt offers a kind of unedited and conversational access to a tyrant who, in the course of a haircut, speaks freely, vents about his life, and asks about the barber’s family. Along the way, each characters’ actions highlight a different aspect of Soviet society, but in most cases, we’re reminded of the central fact that anyone who is in favor with a dictator eventually falls out of favor.
Another real-life example unfortunately reiterates this point. Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini was known for being clean-shaven and in the early years of his reign starting in 1922, he would pick up barbers at random to prevent any pattern from being established that could compromise his personal security and lead to assassination attempts (Note: there were numerous assassination attempts against Mussolini over the years). By 1939, however, Mussolini decided to select someone to be his regular and trusted barber. Luigi Galbani was a young Italian, skilled in his trade, and came from a prominent business family that owned much of Italy’s cheese industry (Gruppo Galbani still has a large presence in Italy’s cheese industry). Regardless of that status, Luigi was tested for the job by being forced to shave Mussolini at gunpoint. While those tensions naturally eased overtime, the barber was still a fly on the wall to war and world politics in the 1930’s and 1940’s, much like the main character in Levitt’s novel. And just as the novel aspires to reveal personal traits about Joseph Stalin, the barber Luigi was given private access to the man who ruled Italy. The most revealing of which, Luigi later told people, was that he overheard a phone conversation concerning Mussolini’s secret order authorizing the execution of his own son and his first wife, Ida Dalser, who Mussolini had married in 1914 and never officially divorced. Both had fallen out of favor and were killed by lethal injection.
While Stalin’s Barber serves as an interesting work of fiction, its real value is as a humanized portrayal of history that draws family members and friendships from what might otherwise be an impersonal ledger of atrocities. Stalin’s rule was so brutal and the statistics about his crimes are so vast that telling the story of an individual man among the millions who suffered can be a difficult feat. Paul M. Levitt does it successfully.