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In Print: sordid secrets of Soviet unions

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What do Congressman Mel Reynolds and Joseph Stalin have in common? A predilection for teenage girls, if you believe the state's attorney and a new book on the wives and mistresses of Soviet leaders. Kremlin Wives, by Russian poet and feminist Larissa Vasilieva, explores a topic taboo under despots like Stalin, when wives and lovers were best known for their anonymity.

Under the communist regime Vasilieva herself led an obscure life. As a member of the officially sanctioned writers' union she quietly churned out 20 books of poetry. Her work has been translated into nine languages. But she's become best known for her Kitty Kelly-esque account of the women behind Kremlin leaders. Since its explosive release two years ago, the book has sold 2.5 million copies. Demand was so high the book was hawked by the carton on Moscow street corners. Arcade Publishing in New York put out an English-language version this spring.

For three years Vasilieva pored over documents and letters and conducted interviews. In August 1991, in the wake of a failed coup, the KGB gave her unsupervised access to files of leaders' wives "arrested during the purges of the 1930s and 1940s," she writes. The sick and aged widow of Khrushchev gave her first interview ever to Vasilieva.

Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, is portrayed as a highly visible and outspoken partner and comrade of her husband's; theirs is not unlike the celebrated relationship of Bill and Hillary. Vasilieva portrays Krupskaya as a quasi-feminist, saying she was in fact "struggling for equal rights for women and men. Not equal possibilities." Vasilieva alleges that Krupskaya stood quietly by as Lenin became involved with Inessa Armand, a French-born Bolshevik.

Stalin abhorred emancipated women, Vasilieva writes, and as he turned 40 he married the teenage Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who may also have been his daughter. Fourteen years later she died from a mysterious gunshot wound; some believe she was murdered by her husband, but Vasilieva speculates that it was suicide.

These are but a handful of the skeletons Vasilieva rattles, but she insists that she didn't intend to write an expose. Instead she used the wives and mistresses to reveal the plight of women under the Soviet system. "All my life, I thought about women's fate in my country and everywhere," she says. "I decided to make research about women who were on the top of our society." No one had ever written about them before, she says. "If I had written a book about the common woman, no one would have read it. These women led their life like all women in the country. They were in prison, exile, and in the kitchen."

Vasilieva will speak Sunday at two Barnes & Noble stores: from 2 to 3 she'll be in Evanston, at 1701 Sherman (708-328-0883), and from 4 to 5 she'll be at 659 W. Diversey (871-9004).

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