Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How Russia Moved on after the Death of Its Great Dictator

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How Russia Moved on after the Death of Its Great Dictator

Article excerpt


THE LAST DAYS OF STALIN by Joshua Rubenstein (Yale, PS25) THE death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in March 1953 was a seismic event. "All Russia wept," wrote poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. "And so did I. We wept sincerely, tears of grief and perhaps also of fear for the future." Two generations had been brainwashed to think of Stalin as their saviour; now he was gone.

For his successors, however, Stalin's death provided an opportunity: to reverse his more draconian domestic policies; to introduce political and economic reforms across the Eastern Bloc; and to offer an olive branch to the West that, had it been accepted, might have reduced East/West tensions, relaxed the arms race, reunited Germany and even ended the Cold War. A lot was at stake.

The most chilling revelation in this excellent book is that, before his death, Stalin was considering the mass deportation of Russia's 2.5 million Jews to Siberia. While acknowledging there is no documentary proof, Rubenstein argues that Stalin's "anti-semitic campaign was gathering such momentum in the press and in the mood of the population that it could well have been intended to reach some kind of monstrous development".

What is not in doubt is that Stalin's demise saved Jewish lives. Similarly fortunate were out-of-favour cronies such as Molotov and Voroshilov, who would almost certainly have been executed had Stalin lived longer. But not all senior Russian leaders prospered: Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's blood-soaked security chief, was arrested and executed after false accusations by Nikita Khrushchev that he favoured the unification of a neutral Germany. In reality he was a dangerous political rival and had to be removed. The Communist Party, writes Rubenstein, offered up Beria "as a sacrificial lamb to atone for sins it refused to acknowledge".

The olive branch offered to the West was in the form of a statement by Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's nominal successor, that there was no reason why the capitalist and socialist systems could not co-exist peacefully. …

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