Josef Stalin collapsed alone in the early morning of Mar. 1, 1953, after bidding a five a.m. farewell to his inner circle. The dictator’s cronies, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikolai Bulganin, had been forced to endure another long, liquor-soaked dinner with their leader and earlier, a movie (Stalin adored Hollywood films). A week later, on the evening of March 5, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana witnessed her father’s last moments as he lay struggling for breath at his dacha in a Moscow suburb. “He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all,” she wrote later. “The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed.” A few seconds later, Stalin was dead.
Stalin’s last gesture is telling: a threat from above called down on everyone at once, even, perhaps, on himself. The gesture’s power derives from its inscrutable willfulness: No one could predict where Stalin’s doom might land. Stalin’s effect on Soviet society was omnipresent and chilling. As Joshua Rubenstein makes clear in his new book The Last Days of Stalin, the Soviet dictator made sure that no one, not even the members of his Politburo (which he renamed the Presidium) was safe from execution or exile, the fates he had visited on millions of his subjects.
The first result of Stalin’s passing was unprecedented shock. The unthinkable had happened, the death of a man-god, “the greatest genius of world history” who had destroyed the Nazis and put Russia at the forefront of world history. A lethal crush of crowds took place in Trubnaya Square outside Moscow’s Hall of Columns, and hundreds of desperate mourners, hoping for a glimpse of Stalin’s coffin, were trampled in the melee. But mourning for Stalin was mixed with a bewildered exultation among his victims, including the Gulag’s prisoners, the peasantry that Stalin had robbed and starved into submission, and the Jews he had recently begun to persecute. The top ranks of the Party felt a strange joy; for a moment at least they could breathe. Standing with Khrushchev and Stalin’s children next to the dictator’s still-warm corpse, Beria, the hated former secret police chief who aimed to succeed Stalin as head of state, broke the silence by calling loudly to his driver, “Khrustalev, my car!”—a remark that entered Soviet legend.
Stalin’s henchmen started to jockey for position on the Kremlin’s chessboard, each trying to present himself as the dictator’s heir. With great slyness Khrushchev began to maneuver against Beria and another Presidium member, Malenkov, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in late March as the probable new Soviet chief. (Time called him “the Cossack with the shady past and forbidding presence who stepped from Stalin’s shadow into the role of No. 1.”) But Malenkov overreached when he crudely doctored a photograph from an official reception held in 1950. When the photo appeared in Pravda a few days after Stalin’s death, Malenkov had airbrushed out Andrei Gromyko, Bulganin, Anastas Mikoyan, Khrushchev, and Zhou Enlai, making it look as if he were standing alone with Stalin and Mao.
Khrushchev’s campaign for power was altogether more subtle. He literally caught his chief opponent Beria with his pants down. After Khrushchev engineered Beria’s arrest during a June 1953 Presidium meeting in the Kremlin, Beria’s military escort took his belt and popped off the buttons on his waistband so he would have to hold up his trousers with both hands, preventing him from making a run for it. The news of Beria’s downfall made the prisoners in the Gulag even more ecstatic than they had been four months earlier when Stalin died.
Rubenstein’s book briefly but vividly depicts Stalin’s anti-Semitic project in his last years. In one crucial respect Rubenstein alters our picture of the anti-Jewish campaign. People have long thought that in 1953 Stalin was planning to forcibly transfer Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan, the Siberian Jewish “homeland” developed in 1928, just as he had earlier transferred the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars, the Ingush, and other ethnic groups. Scholars have supposed that this massive deportation failed to occur only because Stalin died before he could make it happen. But Rubenstein finds no actual evidence of a plan to transfer the Jews. He argues that the anti-Semitic atmosphere was so intense in the months before Stalin’s death that many simply assumed such a project was in the works; the deportation swiftly became a worldwide rumor and within a few years would be reported in the Western press. Khrushchev later said that he himself had convinced Stalin not to deport the Jews, but he seems to have invented this story to give himself credit for undoing one of Stalin’s evil plots. The archives reveal no trace of any scheme for a large-scale transfer of Jews to Birobidzhan.
One important spur for Stalin’s anti-Semitic phase was Golda Meir’s visit to Moscow in September 1948. (Before 1948, Stalin was not notably anti-Semitic; although he had ordered the deaths of Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky, all of them Jewish, one of his closest advisers to the end, the thuggish Lazar Kaganovich, was a Jew.) Meir, then still named Golda Meyerson, was the new Jewish state’s diplomatic representative. When she visited Moscow’s Choral Synagogue on the High Holidays, thousands of Russian Jews crowded rapturously around her, an event that must have shaken Stalin. Here was evidence that Soviet Jews, as Rubenstein puts it, “remained Jews with longings and dreams that extended beyond the physical and spiritual borders of the Soviet state.” Stalin had allowed the newly Communist state of Czechoslovakia to ship arms to an embattled Haganah earlier in 1948 and so had played a major, perhaps even decisive, role in the birth of Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize Israel, which Stalin viewed as a future Socialist ally. But when Stalin saw the kind of devotion that Meir inspired he began to turn against the Jews.
Stalin had always been suspicious of Soviet citizens whose homelands lay outside the USSR; he had already persecuted the nation’s Koreans, Poles, and Greeks. With the founding of Israel, Jews too had become foreigners, and their loyalty was now suspect. Most Soviet Jews had relatives in either Israel or America. With their close ties to the outside world, to a mind like Stalin’s they were clearly a potential Fifth Column.
Even before Meir’s visit Stalin was worried about Jewish support for the emerging state of Israel. In January 1948 he ordered the murder of the Yiddish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee created during the war. He began to eliminate Yiddish publications and theaters and started arresting Jewish cultural figures by the hundreds. 1949 saw Stalin’s campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” i.e., Jews. He was laying the foundations of official Soviet anti-Semitism, which would survive until the collapse of the USSR four decades later. “Intellectuals with Jewish names are subject to moral lynching. … Groups of students rummage through the works of Jewish professors, eavesdrop on private conversations, whisper in corners. … Jews no longer receive an education, are no longer accepted at university or for graduate study.” Scientist Olga Freidenberg wrote these words in her diary in 1949. Later generations of Soviet Jews would recognize Freidenberg’s description all too well.
On Jan. 13, 1953, Tass, the Soviet news agency, dropped a bombshell. They announced in Pravda that “a terrorist group of doctors” had been killing important public figures by sabotaging their medical treatment. Nine doctors had confessed; six of them were Jewish. Pravda accused the doctors of being in cahoots with an “international Jewish bourgeois nationalist organization,” the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and with the “Jewish bourgeois nationalist” Mikhoels. A months-long harassment campaign began against Russian Jews, ending only with Stalin’s death. Gangs of schoolchildren hounded their Jewish classmates; irate citizens demanded that Jews be fired from their jobs, expelled from Moscow, and punished for their supposed avoidance of the front during World War II. In fact, Jews had served in disproportionately large numbers on the front lines, but mere facts carried no weight against such popular expressions of Jew hatred. Traditional Russian anti-Semitism vastly accelerated the momentum of the Doctors’ Plot. “It was like hell in the hospitals,” wrote the regime’s propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg in his memoirs. Patients refused to take medicine from Jewish doctors, afraid that they would be poisoned.
The New York Times treated the Doctors’ Plot as an obvious falsehood. Stalin was “taking one more leaf out of Hitler’s book,” a Times editorial asserted. But the Times in another article also suggested that “there actually have been some kind of conspiracy and the Kremlin may have got wind of it.” In the case of Stalin’s 1937 massacre of 30,000 Red Army officers accused of working for Germany, Times readers were reminded, the charges “may have had some basis in fact.” This was dangerous equivocation. The Times was giving credence, even if limited, to Stalinist conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, Western Communist parties predictably toed the line, taking Stalin’s side against the doctors.
The most intriguing part of The Last Days of Stalin deals with the aftermath of Stalin’s death. Within a few weeks the Kremlin undertook a stunning “peace offensive,” proposing a new round of talks to end the Korean War. Malenkov proclaimed in a speech the Soviet Union’s “policy … of prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition of two different systems, capitalist and socialist.” The Soviets made conciliatory moves in Germany and at the United Nations. The Doctors’ Plot, the Kremlin announced to widespread public confusion, was an error; there had been no such conspiracy. Mikhoels was rehabilitated, and a million prisoners were released from the Gulag. Ehrenburg, on May Day 1953, wrote that “now is the time for dialogue,” for a “truce” in the Cold War.
The Kremlin’s liberalizing mood excited much interest in the West but some suspicion too. Was it some sort of trick? Churchill called for the Western powers to reach an agreement with the Soviets, and Eisenhower made a speech suggestively titled “A Chance for Peace,” though its effect was damaged a few days later by the sabre-rattling of his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles had long opposed George F. Kennan’s policy of containment and thought that pressure against Russia should be stepped up to “force a collapse of the Kremlin regime,” as he proclaimed at a National Security Council meeting. Eisenhower was wary of Dulles’ activism. In “A Chance for Peace” he had, unrealistically, asked the Russians to allow Eastern Europeans “the free choice of their own form of government,” but when push came to shove the United States kept its distance from the June 1953 workers’ revolt in East Berlin. Like Russia, America was afraid of sparking another worldwide conflict and so refrained from challenging Soviet dominion over its satellites.
The Soviet peace moves were not a strategy to catch the West off guard, as Dulles and other hard-liners feared. Nor was the Kremlin about to transform Communism into liberal democracy. Instead the months after Stalin’s death were part of what Isaiah Berlin called the “artificial dialectic.” After Stalin’s stifling rule, the Kremlin needed to ease up; the pressure to obey had become unbearable, and the Doctors’ Plot had introduced a new level of fear and social schism. The regime’s prison-camp system was both unprofitable and demoralizing, and dread of the Party’s power had led to social paralysis. “While a large scale terror ensures widespread obedience and the execution of orders,” Berlin wrote, “it is possible to frighten people too much: If kept up, violent repression ends by leaving people totally unnerved and numb.” And so Khrushchev, who by 1955 had become undisputed head of the USSR, zig-zagged between permissiveness and oppression. The pattern would continue until the end of the 1980s, when Gorbachev finally zagged too far toward liberalism and the Soviet order fell to ruin.
“It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love,” wrote Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, “so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.” It was no accident, Freud continued, that “the dream of a Germanic world dominion called for anti-Semitism as its complement, and it is intelligible that the attempt to establish a new, Communist civilization in Russia should find its psychological support in the persecution of the bourgeois.”
Freud was wrong to think that both Hitler and Stalin relied on hatred for an external enemy to bind together the masses. The Germans basked in the love of their führer, and the love was made solid by their revulsion for the Jew, the universal source of evil. But Stalinist Russia was bound together by fear rather than love. Anyone could become a class enemy. The middle peasant, a worthy Communist, could at any moment be deemed a rich peasant or kulak, a bourgeois parasite to be shot or deported. The specter of disloyalty hovered constantly and more intensely the higher one rose in the Party’s ranks. Stalin’s idea of political action, as historian Robert Service has remarked, seems to have consisted in the unmasking of conspiracy at home and abroad.
Stalin himself was, of course, the ultimate betrayer, constantly doing in his followers at every level. Mikoyan remembered that when he and other Politburo members burst into Stalin’s dacha a few days after the German invasion, the Soviet dictator seemed to think that they were there to arrest him. Stalin had reason to be insecure, and not just because he had utterly misread Hitler’s intentions. (Stalin had made the mistake of putting himself in Hitler’s place, he later muttered; he would have relied on a secure eastern border with his ally and trading partner, the Soviet Union, in order to make war on England and secure his gains in Western Europe.) Lenin’s supposed testament—which was probably a fake engineered by Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, but thought by Stalin and the other Soviet leaders to be authentic—called for the removal of Stalin as general secretary. The testament was Stalin’s albatross as long as he lived: Lenin, the ultimate Bolshevik authority, had apparently wanted to discard him.
Hitler’s absolute devotion to annihilating the Jews served no practical purpose, and his plan for German colonies in the East was an absurd fantasy. Hitler may have been insane, but Stalin surely was not. This is why the world Stalin built survived his death, whereas Hitler’s did not. Hitler’s crime against the Jews still seems incomprehensible to us, while Stalin’s state terrorism with its millions of victims, starved and shot to death or left to languish in labor camps, is all too understandable. Stalin needed terror to master a country brutalized by his program of factory building and collectivism, which made Russia into a major industrial power in a single decade, 1928-1938. Stalin made war on his own nation; Hitler, though he was responsible for millions of German deaths, turned his aggression outward.
As Stephen Kotkin has shown in his superb recent biography, Stalin thrived because his personality fit perfectly with the paranoid mindset of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks tried to overthrow foreign governments, and so the rest of the world did not trust them; to Lenin this meant that the world was trying to overthrow Bolshevism. Stalin institutionalized Lenin’s paranoia and made it a basic tool of the state. Stalin, a lifelong bookworm, had carefully studied Machiavelli’s The Prince, but he far outstripped Machiavelli in his championing of fear as the primary instrument of statecraft. In the end fear would devour its practitioners, making everyone its victim, including even “the leader of all nations, master of all sciences, Father of the Soviet people, the great and beloved Stalin.”