Karandaschov’s story first came to light in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s now famous “secret” speech to the XXth Party Congress, in which he denounced Josef Stalin and his cult of personality. Khrushchev, as part of the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, ordered the removal of Stalin’s body from the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square, where the late dictator had been sharing space with Lenin, the founder of the Soviet State, and a wide variety of Polish hams and East German bratwurst not otherwise available to non-Party members. As soldiers moved Stalin’s body from the display case, the mustache fell from the dead dictator’s face and immediately ran from the room, bursting past the cordon of startled MGB guards. The mustache made its way to the British Embassy, where members of the Embassy staff positively identified it as V. N. Karandaschov, a long-time part of Stalin, from pictures in the embassy files. Karandaschov immediately asked for political asylum in Great Britain.
The British government tried to keep the defection a secret, but sources in Great Britain, including, quite possibly, the Soviet agent Kim Philby, tipped the Soviets of Karandaschov’s presence in the Embassy. The Soviets, fearful of what might prove an intelligence bonanza for the West, immediately demanded Karandaschov’s return to the Soviet authorities so they could prosecute him for what the Moscow town procurator called financial irregularities. Karandaschov, for his part, denied any involvement in criminal activity of any kind, saying that he was simply a low level functionary in Stalin’s government.
There is no doubt that Vasili Karandaschov and Josef Stalin were old and dear friends, Mr. Karandaschov being closer to Stalin than almost anyone else in his coterie. Karandaschov is visible in the first known picture of Stalin, the Tsarist police’s 1905 mug shot of the young Georgian revolutionary, and he is visible in photographs taken at Stalin’s funeral. He was the only known member of Stalin’s inner circle to survive from the beginning of the great dictator’s rule to the end, and he was probably the only member of that circle allowed to call Stalin Koba, his revolutionary nickname, well into the 1950’s. Many Russian exiles have speculated through the years that Karandaschov might have been a relative of Stalin’s; exiles often pointed out that Karandaschov bore a striking resemblance to Stalin’s mother’s mustache; no one, however, has ever proved that such a relationship existed.
Karandaschov was a jack of all political trades for Stalin, going to the nearest convenience store to buy the dictator’s cigarettes and lottery tickets, picking up Stalin’s kids at school and driving them home when the Soviet Leader was too busy shooting people to get them himself, and calling up anonymous Party members in the middle of the night and saying loathsome things about their mother’s borscht. No is certain why Stalin tolerated such behavior; he had other Bolshevik apparatchiks cut down for lesser acts of lese-majeste; but he kept Karandaschov around despite the mustache’s clear unsuitability for high political office—political reliability always mattered more to Stalin than competence, at least until the disasters of the Great Patriotic War compelled him to appoint people who knew what they were doing to high office. It may be that Stalin had no doubts about Karandaschov’s doglike loyalty to him, despite the animus felt towards the old Georgian mustache by such high ranking apparatchiks as Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police, and foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov. This loyalty to Karandaschov held firm even after a secret police investigation found that Karandaschov diverted funding meant for the construction of the Moscow subway in order to build an extravagant dacha for himself outside Moscow, a dacha with the largest collection of Count Basie records anywhere in the Soviet Union. The DGSE, the French intelligence service has in its possession some of the working documents of that investigation, passed to them by a high level defector in place in the 1960’s, including what would ordinarily have been a career ending film of Karandaschov doing the Lindy Hop at his dacha with a Outer Mongolian actress young enough to be his grand-daughter. Despite this, Stalin kept the mustache and Karandaschov hung on to Stalin with ever increasing devotion.
Karandaschov’s fall came, as it did with so many members of the Stalinist Old Guard, with Stalin’s death in 1953. Without the great man to serve, monsters like Kaganovich, Molotov, Beria, and Karandaschov had no focus for their slavish mentalities and Khrushchev easily shoved them aside in his drive for supreme power. Khrushchev forced Karandaschov out of all his positions and even confiscated his Count Basie records, sending them to Novosibirsk, where with some imagination and a good agent they became the headliners at the newly built Trump Siberia Hotel and Casino. Without Stalin to protect him, Karandaschov lost nearly everything, eking out a miserable existence sweeping the floor at the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum and providing the occasional hair for the mausoleum’s professional staff when Lenin’s beard started to look especially scruffy. Khrushchev’s plan to remove Stalin’s body and bury it was simply the last straw for Karandaschov, the final humiliation in a long line of humiliations. Karandaschov had had enough, and he fled into the night.
Karandaschov spent most of that night at the British Embassy justifying his decision to defect to a man he believed to be the MI-6 station chief, but who was in reality a vacationing Franciscan from Liverpool, who spoke neither Russian nor Georgian, but who had spent a lifetime listening to confessions and so knew how to nod sagely and occasionally emit small grunts that could mean I see, go on, is that so, or you are standing with your left foot in my waffles, you clumsy oaf. Karandaschov poured out all of his resentments at the way the world had changed since his beloved Josef Vissarionovich passed away, his statement being secretly recorded by an obscure Embassy official named George Martin, who later went on to become the Beatles’ producer; in fact, if you play “Back in the USSR” backwards, you can hear parts of Karandaschov’s extraordinary confession, especially the parts about how much he loved his collection of Count Basie records and, in what proved a revelation of historic proportions, acknowledged that Stalin was a secret admirer of Artie Shaw’s, although he didn’t really like Shaw’s rendition of “Begin the Beguine;” it was too bourgeois, Stalin thought.
Karandaschov denied any part in Stalin’s crimes, claiming that he too was one of the great dictator’s victims and that the only way he could hide from Stalin was to stay right under Stalin’s nose and hope that nobody, especially Stalin, noticed that he was there. There is some evidence for this interpretation; there is archival film footage of Stalin absentmindedly stroking his mustache at the Yalta Conference, but many historians say that it is simply not possible to prove Karandaschov’s protestations of innocence from such thin evidence, and that even in the lack of direct evidence there is simply no way Karandaschov could have survived for all those years under Stalin’s nose without having some knowledge of what kind of man he was and the myriad crimes he committed.
In any case, the Eden government did not grant Karandaschov the political asylum he wanted so badly. The Soviet authorities produced photographs of Stalin and Karandaschov in uniform together in World War II and claimed that the agreement that repatriated Soviet POWs’ to the Rodina after the war applied to Karandaschov as well. The grounds were legally flimsy at best, but the Eden government, broken by the Suez disaster, acceded to the Soviet demand. By the time the Foreign Office told the Embassy to hand Karandaschov over to the Soviets, the would be defector was gone. The old Georgian revolutionary, who had survived all the political twists and turns of Stalin’s rule, suspected the British would betray him, and he vanished, leaving, to paraphrase Shakespeare, not a wracked behind for the KGB to kick.
No one knew where the old mustache had gone to; the last positive sighting of him was in Paris in 1965, where he appeared as a merkin in a revue at Les Folies Bergere. The surreptitious photograph of him taken there reveals a mustache wearied by life and age, and simply going through the motions along with the rest of the merkins. He vanished again the day the photograph appeared in Paris-Match, disappearing completely this time. He may still be alive; Karandaschov ate yogurt constantly and he came from long lived stock—both his parents lived well into their nineties; but the actuarial tables suggest that he has already long past the normal life expectancy for mustaches, most of which do not survive more than an hour or so after the alarm clock goes off. How he died or when or where he died is not known; no one knows whether the KGB finally caught up with him or whether he simply went to sleep one day and never woke up again will always be a mystery. The Soviet archives do not yield any information on the subject, but who can tell if there are not archives within archives, archives that hide the darkest and most shameful secrets of all? Until these archives are open, there is no way to know the true fate of the Georgian shepherd boy who became Stalin’s mustache.