Josef Stalin collapsed alone in the early morning of Feb. 29, 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.
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