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Special Collections and University Archives

Lunch with Stalin

By Jay N. Darling
Alma Mater: A Publication of Beloit College. 1959 -- 1960, pp. 3 -- 6.

Faces of Russia

When “Ding” Darling, world-famous Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist, was in Beloit last June for the 60th Reunion of his class of 1899, he entertained a luncheon group with an account of a luncheon he had with Josef Stalin many years before. Later he was persuaded to write out the account, which is herewith published. This incident did not appear in “Ding Goes to Russia” published in 1932 (McGraw Hill Book Co.) but the sketches by “Ding” which illustrate this article are from that book, used here with permission of the publisher.

If a Beloit alumnus has taken advantage of his opportunity to thrust a knife between the ribs of Joseph Stalin while at lunch in Novorossiisk in 1931, there might be a valid excuse for writing the story for the College archives. Since he failed to utilize that opportunity there seems to be little justification for the story except that some of the incidents of that meeting may help to explain the strange characteristics and some of the problems of that notorious Dictator of the U.S.S.R.

By chance, the dining-room steward of a French liner crossing from Cherbourg to New York placed Colonel Hugh Cooper, a family hydraulic engineer, and me, at the same table.  Some years earlier the Colonel and I had had a somewhat quarrelsome acquaintance over the ecological consequences of the Keokuk Dam, across the Mississippi River, of which Colonel Cooper was at that time designer and builder. The Colonel was now in charge of construction of the monstrous hydroelectric dam across the Dneiper River at Zaporozhe for the Soviet government and was just returning home after one of his periodic visits to Russia.  Time had erased all memory of our former differences, and he greeted me with a hearty “Too bad we aren’t on our way east instead of west. I’ve got an invitation for you.”

The invitation was to me, from Joseph Stalin, to visit Russia.  It seems that Cooper on one of his business trips has shown Stalin one of my cartoons clipped from the New York Tribune.  Stalin had been greatly pleased and had exclaimed: “Ah, I see I have at least one friend in America. Tell him to come to Russia as my guest. I would like to meet a friendly American.”

That was in 1930. The Soviet Government had just finished their first Five-Year-Plan, which was much in the news, and I of course was curious to go, but Cooper explained that Stalin was an extremely busy man, and his invitation probably was a good deal like saying “Come up to dinner sometime.” Nevertheless, if I would care to go to Russia he, Colonel Cooper (then known in Russia as Stalin’s pet American), would be glad to take me with him on his next trip. He assured me there would be no trouble getting me past the air-tight border and that he could arrange it so I could see anything I wanted to see and go wherever I might choose inside Russia, but he would advise not to bet too heavily on the chance of meeting Stalin.

A month later we were on our way together and at the heavily guarded Russian border were transferred to Stalin’s luxuriously equipped private car.  The pantry was extravagantly supplied and the galley manned by a famous Russian chef and two assistants. As long as I travelled in Cooper’s company, and until I left his headquarters at the Dneiper Dam, royalty was never better served. I shared, with him, formal lunches with the Soviet Commissars, box seats at the Russian Ballet, theatres, a private automobile with driver, breakfast in our rooms, and even rubber stoppers for the bathtubs (the only ones I saw in Russia)—but no Joseph Stalin.

No wonder Colonel Cooper had highly exaggerated ideas about Russia’s progress. It was only when I started out on my own that I met Russia’s pattern of life like bumping into a door in the dark.  My pocketful of Cooper’s sealed documents and permits didn’t help much because they were in English and no one could read them. Wow! A few little slices from rings of German bologna and a couple of cartons or American cigarettes which I had taken with me helped me out of many a tight place, much more effectually than all the credentials Colonel Cooper had assured me were all I needed to get me anywhere or anything in Russia.

I had worked my painful way from the Black Sea across the Caucasus and well up the Volga River when a delayed penciled telegraphic message reached me from Cooper. “Meet me at Novorossiisk August 3 for possible meeting with Chief.”

And that’s how it happened that I got to meet Joseph Stalin. That august Dictator was on a two weeks’ vacation at Novorossiisk, an inconspicuous Georgian village on the shore of the Black Sea, where he had once had his home.  Colonel Cooper and I had our breakfast at the village inn and at about nice o’clock were at the unguarded gate to the plain two-story frame house, with outdoor plumbing, which we figured would have rented for about $35 a month, or less, at home. There was evidence on every hand that Stalin had lived a very simple life in his earlier years. As we opened the gate, a rumpled yardman, in typical Russian smock, boots and cap, gestured toward Stalin, who was sitting in a wooden kitchen chair in the shade of a large sycamore tree in the side yard, his lap full of papers and reading matter.

As he rose to greet Cooper, I got my first big surprise. Stalin and Cooper were just about the same size, a stocky “five-by-five”, but as is so frequently the case with men of stubby stature their backs were straight as ramrods. There was no bowing from the waist, no bending of the knee, no subservience or ceremony on the part of either in their approach to each other. Instead there was a double explosion of mixed Russian and English howdy-do’s and vigorous, almost gay, shaking of hands.

More kitchen chairs were brought out of the house, and Stalin, eagerly leaning toward Cooper, asked, almost breathlessly, in what was evidently a well-rehearsed phrase: “Did you read my speech?”

“What speech?” asked Cooper, with an eagerness that matched Stalin’s.

“My speech to the Third Internationale,” said Stalin. “I sent you a copy of your Berlin office.”

“Oh that”, said Cooper. “Yes, of course I read it.”

“Vell, vat did you teenk off eet?”

Cooper: “I thought it was the goddamdest nonsense I ever read.”

I, sitting as inconspicuously as possible and trying to look like a private secretary to Colonel Cooper, waited for Stalin to explode.  It was very quiet for several minutes while Mr. Stalin’s lips moved and he fingered his pocket dictionary.  He evidently hadn’t got the drift of Cooper’s remark, and after a few moments of visible pondering, he turned to his interpreter for clarification. Then, looking Cooper straight in the eye for a moment or two, he straightened himself in his chair, threw back his head, his enormous mouth opened wide, and he let out a loud whoop of laughter that must have rippled the water of the Black Sea. There wasn’t a sign of offense or embarrassment on either side as Cooper stoutly picked to pieces the Stalin speech and what he called the crazy philosophies of Marx and Lenin. Stalin listened intently, as though he was greatly interested in Cooper’s criticism.

I later learned from Cooper that he had never spoken with Stalin other than in the frankest of terms, and demanded, in return, the same unvarnished facts in all his dealings with Stalin.

The rest of the forenoon was spent over blueprints, specifications and building plans for the Big Dam, occasionally punctuated by an “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you!” from Cooper, and Stalin always friendly but vigorous in his own contentions. The debate continued until about noon when there came from the side door of the house a typical squat Slavish type of middle-aged woman, barefooted, in knee-length faded blue cotton skirt, sleeveless shirtwaist (not too clean), and the top of her head wrapped in a babushka (faded red bandana). Arms folded across her bosom, she came to a halt and with no gesture of obeisance or by-your-leave, she barked a couple of words at Stalin, from half way across the lawn.

After a brief staccato exchange, Stalin turned to us and said, “Ve haff lunch now”, and with that he picked up his own kitchen chair and that of Colonel Cooper, and started toward a rather crude picnic sort of table—two planks supported by two wooden sawhorses that stood under a shade tree in the back yard. On the far end of that rough plank picnic table stood a large white crockery pitcher. The weight of the pitcher held one corner of a soiled cotton tablecloth, most of which had blown to the ground.

Stalin’s first instinct, evidently, had been to pick up the tablecloth and spread it on the table, but after a disparaging glance he threw it down and with his two chairs under his arms walked back to the other end of the table and motioning to the rest of us said, “Ve eat here”, and sat down.

Stalin had put Colonel Cooper’s chair next to his own at the lower end of the table and with a wave of a hand to the rest of us to be seated he returned his attention to Cooper, completely oblivious of what looked like insubordination in the kitchen, and the strange lack of orderly progress toward lunch.

Sitting there at the crude picnic table if the notorious Dictator, who, according to reports, enforced his autocratic authority by unlimited mass murder, it seemed to me quite impossible that he could be the same person who now sat there unmoved while rebellion and inefficiency bedeviled his own vacation household.  At the moment it seemed necessary to rearrange the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which up to this time had represented the figure of Joseph Stalin. My conclusion, if any, was that this crude and utterly informal pattern of living reflected the habits which had characterized most of the years of Stalin’s life. He saw nothing unusual about it and while on vacation he had dropped back into the old habits into which he had been born.

I am sure that Mr. Stalin was not even aware of the lapse of time before the ill-tempered housemaid again emerged from the kitchen door, her stubby arms loaded with crockery dishes, a large loaf of black bread under one arm and a huge white soup tureen full of steaming borsch with dumplings, precariously held by two hands full of knives, forks, and spoons. He was so engrossed in his discussion with Cooper that he did not at first notice when the scowling waitress plunked down the dishes and food on the end of the table farthest from Stalin and his guests. Having laid down all their burdens and taken from her pocket various table accessories, she folded her arms across her ample bosom, took a few steps to the rear and defiantly faced our host. It was impossible for us to tell from the exchange of Russian phrases between Stalin and his housekeeper the meaning of all this interchange of sharp retorts except that from Stalin’s gestures it was easy to understand that he was trying to persuade her to bring the lunch down to our end of the table. The word “Americana”, with which Stalin tried to soften the unsympathetic heart of the obdurate housekeeper, was having no effect at all.

Colonel Cooper, thinking that this discussion had gone about far enough, leaned over to Stalin and broke in with “What’s the matter with that old gal?”

The great Stalin, hard-boiled Dictator of all Russia, spread out his two hands in a mild gesture of despair and, shrugging his shoulders, said, “She doesn’t care who I am, or who you are, even if you are Americans; she doesn’t want to be a cook or a waitress or a housekeeper and her husband doesn’t want to be a servant. She wants to go to a University.”

Russian covered wagon

Stalin, to Cooper:--“That’s the trouble with Russia. Everybody wants to go to a University and nobody wants to work.”

With that pungent revelation, which I considered a mouthful from the swarthy hammer-and-sickle Dictator, Joseph Stalin got up from his chair and with the help of all of us brought the lunch down to our end of the table. Amplified by the addition of some of Stalin’s private stock of fresh caviar and vodka, the lunch proved very successful.

Late that night I caught a hard car train thirty hours late, for Stalingrad, and Colonel Cooper left for Zaporozhe. We were to meet later in Moscow and compare notes on the strange contradictions lurking in the personality of Stalin the Dictator and the peasant-born Stalin on vacation in his native Georgian village.