I knew him, Horatio

Russell Baker

June 20, 1991|By Russell Baker | Russell Baker,New York Times.

THE ASSOCIATED Press reports that a man known only as Rashid, who looked like Stalin, died the other day at age 92 in Krasnodar. So closely did Rashid resemble the Soviet dictator, the Associated Press reports, that he was employed to sit in for Stalin at meetings and banquets.

I knew Rashid slightly, and rather liked him, for despite his astounding resemblance to the murderous dictator one could not help noticing that he was decidedly timid.

I once discussed this with him. It was at the Potsdam conference, where Stalin met with President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee in 1945. Our chat occurred when we had both excused ourselves from a banquet long enough to duck into the men's room for a smoke.

Winston Churchill, you recall, had lost his office just before Potsdam and been replaced by Clement Attlee. Attlee was apparently one of those killjoys who always say "Yes" when asked if they'd mind your having a smoke, for at their first meeting Attlee blew up when Stalin lit a cigarette. Amazingly, Stalin had apologized.

That night when I saw Stalin, obviously dying for a smoke, leave the banquet table to avoid offending Attlee, I realized he was a fake. The real Stalin would have buried Attlee in a coffin of smoke.

"Despite your incredible resemblance to the leader and savior of the great Soviet people," I mused aloud as we blew smoke rings at washroom mirrors, "there is a gentleness in your character for which one is quite unprepared."

These words were really spoken to myself, of course, since I assumed he knew no English and my knowledge of Russian did not extend beyond Borrah Minevitch and the Harmonica Rascals. Imagine my surprise then when he said: "I just can't master Stalin's famous hooded look of murderous cunning which makes him such a favorite with your American tabloid color writers.

"I've worked on it with the best directors of the Moscow Art Theater, but it just doesn't come off."

"The look's not hooded enough," I said.

"The hooding is all right. It's the cunning that doesn't work," he said. "They say I'm not getting the murderous quality into the cunning."

He seemed worried, and who wouldn't be? I wouldn't have wanted to be in his shoes after a bad review of his "Stalin" got back to Stalin.

"Oh, Stalin's not finicky about the credibility of the show," he said. "As long as he doesn't have to sit through these endless meetings and these awful banquets with everybody toasting everybody else to exhaustion and smashing the best crystal in the fireplace, Stalin is happy.

"Right now, for instance, I'll bet he's tucked in with a bottle of champagne and a stack of his favorite Vera Lynn records on the phonograph and is rolling on the floor with laughter every time he thinks of me having to spend hours dining with that awful Englishman."

I suggested we ought to speak discreetly about our great British ally Mister Attlee since the washroom mirrors were undoubtedly bugged. "Oh, you gullible Americans," he laughed. "You fell for it!"

"Fell?" My cheeks must have turned crimson, for I didn't fancy having the red-white-and-blue mocked by some commie, no matter how much he looked like a Stalin with a heart of gold.

"The man is one of British Intelligence's shabbier creations," said Rashid, smiling at me with his hooded look of innocent good fellowship.

"Imagine them sending over an Attlee look-alike who can't stand tobacco. Even down home in Krasnodar everybody knows poor Attlee has spent his life in fetid rooms packed with pipe smokers puffing away while plotting to afflict the world with humanitary socialist goodness."

So Attlee's hatred of banquets was as deep as Stalin's, was it? Or maybe Attlee had learned Stalin planned to pull the old look-alike-diner trick and was showing that two could play that game. The fake Attlee did, however, look like the real thing.

"I will say this for the British: At least they make the effort," said Rashid the fake Stalin. "Whereas you Americans don't even try."

His knowing smile was heartbreaking. I thought I had immersed myself so deeply in the character that no one would notice I bore not the slightest physical resemblance to Harry Truman.

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