Today's death anniversary of Stalin is an anniversary that was celebrated in the Soviet Union in the most informal and sincere manner, typically in kitchens without any elaborate festivities or ceremonies. Over the years, numerous dissertations and books have been written about the tyrant's demise, and several famous thrillers, comedies, and plays have been created. A year after the death of the “moustachioed man”, the Soviet writer Ehrenburg published his novel “The Thaw,” which later became the symbol of an entire era. This marked the beginning of a period where millions of people experienced a sense of thaw and relief from the oppressive regime.
Despite the positive historical labels associated with that time, one crucial aspect often remains neglected - the 20th Congress of the CPSU, also known as the “Khrushchev” Congress, which occurred three years after the deliverance from the murderer. This congress was not the start of a swift transformation, but rather the consequence of a quick change that commenced as early as March 6th, and for those in power, on March 4th. At that time, despite Stalin being still alive, the newly established Bureau of the Presidium of the CPSU Central Committee was sacrilegiously dissolved.
The 20th Congress of the CPSU was not the start of a swift transformation, but rather the consequence of a quick change that commenced as early as March 6th
This leads to a more complicated question: How did the system, which was built through the use of force and aggression by legions of oprichniks, supported by thousands of meticulous clerks, decorated by world-famous directors, composers and writers and propped up by millions of loyal and resilient slaves, undergo such a drastic transformation by the end of the 1950s, despite its attempts to cover its facade with symbols such as rubies, red cloth, sickles, and hammers? In short, in 1952, the Soviet Union was grappling with the “final solution to the Jewish question” and had millions of gulag prisoners, but in 1956, the American troupe Porgy and Bess enjoyed a triumphant tour of Moscow and Leningrad, and three years later, Nikita Khrushchev met with Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra in the United States.
To be direct, this is the critical question of the day: why does a system that wields immense power and operates with ruthless cruelty start to unravel so effortlessly and quickly as soon as a single element is removed, regardless of its size or importance?
In a word: What will happen when Putin dies?
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As early as March 9th, 1953, during a commemorative rally, Beria refers to the peasantry without using the term “collective farm” and reminds the intelligentsia gathered in the square of their rights as specified in the Constitution. In a private conversation with Mikoyan, Beria confirms that he means what he said. Following the funeral, he returns Molotov's wife, who had been exiled. Meanwhile, Malenkov, speaking on behalf of the Central Committee, reprimands Pravda's chief editor Shepilov for printing Malenkov's speech in a larger type than that of Molotov and Beria. And at the conclusion of the meeting, the impossible is uttered: “In the future, we must not cite only one of the speakers at the commemorative rally. This is not only unfair, but it also smacks of a cult of personality. We believe it is necessary to put an end to the policy of the cult of personality!”
(Not even a week had passed since Stalin's death.)
Starting from March 20th, Stalin's name disappears from the headlines without any explanation. At the end of that month, a wide-ranging amnesty is declared, leading to the release of one million prisoners who had been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. (Although Beria's plan to release half a million “counterrevolutionaries” was not fully implemented, it was close.) On April 3, the Kremlin doctors are freed, and Central Committee members begin documenting Stalin's involvement in the repressions. Konstantin Simonov writes: “The documents were truthful and confirmed Stalin's pathological mental state.”
(Not even a month had passed since Stalin's death.)
By May 9th, Stalin had vanished from newspaper headlines and the celebratory demonstration proceeded without any portraits of the leaders. The publication of Stalin's collected works was also halted, with the volumes already printed were scattered in the printing press. Let's put on hold the well-known historical chronicle just to draw attention to the extremely rapid pace of events.
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What became of the most trusted companions of the dear and beloved Comrade Stalin? How had their Bolshevik ideals been altered since Matryona Butusova, the caretaker, reported to the on-duty secret police officers that Joseph Vissarionovich was lying on the floor, having “wetted himself”?
Naturally, there was no significant change in the situation of Stalin's closest associates, except for a sense of profound contentment. Konstantin Simonov's account of the March 5 gathering of the top Communist officials became a historical record: “I sensed that the individuals who emerged from the back room into the presidium, the former Politburo members, were carrying an undercurrent, not openly expressed, but detectable in their demeanor - a sense of relief.”
Beria, Malenkov, and other leaders who shouldered the burden of managing the economy after the war, and had a brain slightly larger than Voroshilov's acorn-sized one, were aware of the true condition of the empire. Despite appearing to gain more territory, recently acquiring an atomic bomb, and engaging in massive construction projects, such as the University, hotels, and Foreign Ministry buildings, which resembled the ziggurats of ancient Babylon, they knew the empire was struggling.
The system's downfall was caused by the very qualities that Stalin was praised for: his infallibility, imperial greatness, and genius played a cruel joke on it. Despite Stalin's accumulation of enormous gold reserves and construction of towering monuments to himself across the country, the worst famine in the country's history occurred in 1947, which is often overlooked today. There was red caviar in the Eliseev grocery store and sable fur coats in GUM, but millions of workers who received their salaries were unable to purchase basic necessities like flour, as it was unavailable in stores, and the peasants had no wages. The industry was burdened by militarism and senseless wars that continued beyond the defeat of Hitler.
Beria and Malenkov were fully aware of the dire state of the empire (recall the recent night meeting where Sechin, Miller, and Nabiullina had visibly distressed faces while the rest were asleep). They knew that the current situation was unsustainable, and the only thing that made them keep a poker face and kept them loyal to the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist cause was their intense fear and the knowledge that Stalin had a dossier on each of them, literally stored in his personal vault.
The communist facade, with its emphasis on patriotism, imperialism, and militarism, was all for show to the average citizen. When Stalin passed away (he himself had a very cynical attitude to all these little sickles and hammers), the unimpassioned Suslov took over, quoting Lenin to justify any decision (presumably, he was the only one who had actually read all of the volumes written by the bloodthirsty scribbler). Regardless of how much they swore on those red volumes, for the last eight years they saw the only way for the system to survive in ending the wars, downsizing the military and even the Interior Ministry, and returning the money to the collective farms. Beria and Malenkov even considered abolishing the collective farm system itself, which ultimately cost them dearly. Their primal instinct for self-preservation compelled them to immediately put on the brakes following Stalin's funeral.
But the survival of the system inevitably turned into its transformation, just as the survival of the dinosaur had transformed it into a bird.
The survival of the system inevitably turned into its transformation, just as the survival of the dinosaur had transformed it into a bird
As Dmitri Nazarov, a prominent actor who was fired from the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, says about the Z-crowd, such as Shakhnazarov and even Solovyov, whom he personally knows: they won't pass even a simple polygraph test with their hysterical support for the war. In 1953, Stalin's death was such a polygraph test for the entire Soviet elite. Only a single cog fell out of the mighty and invincible system.
Much has been written about the power struggles and intrigues of that period. The team was losing its members one by one, but it was all an internal matter that could no longer impede the steady movement of the system towards a more peaceful, liberal, safer, and marginally more prosperous future. Regardless of the personal preferences of the strict Molotov, the anxious Khrushchev, and the ultimately powerless Beria, the events of March 5 set off a chain reaction that was beyond their control.
The removal of Beria, the downfall of Malenkov, the ascent of Khrushchev, who triumphantly secured his power at the 20th Party Congress, and the punishment of the “anti-party group” and Shepilov, who had made a fatal mistake of joining it, can be seen as a reaction and a return to conservative positions by the party apparatus, rather than a “thaw.” It is noteworthy that unlike the execution of Lavrenty Palych and a few of his accomplices, no one else in the upper echelons of the party was imprisoned, even briefly.
During a recent zoom conversation, a Russian academic (who cannot be named due to The Insider being labeled as an “undesirable organization” and a “foreign agent” in Russia, making it dangerous for everybody to speak to us) provided a brief overview of the power shift that occurred at the time:
“During Stalin's final years, the Communist Party was no longer in control of the government. The Soviet Union had a principle of departmentalism, where the ministries were responsible for executing political decisions and had their own verticals of power. The large enterprises, particularly defense enterprises, were independent of local party leaders and had their own heads in Moscow, receiving centralized resources. Malenkov and Beria, who were the creators of this system, played important roles in the Soviet military-industrial complex and territorial administration, leaving the Party leadership on the sidelines. Khrushchev had to play a subordinate role in this triumvirate. However, after Beria's removal, it became clear that the Party apparatus could be an important support for Khrushchev. In Yury Aksyutin's well-known book, there is an episode where Malenkov attempted to limit the privileges of the Party apparatus, while Khrushchev argued that it was crucial for the system to continue, earning applause. Real control of the Communist Party was later restored over the “siloviki” and the armed forces.
In the thirties, the Great Terror dealt a severe blow to the party apparatus. During the war the apparatus was largely subordinated to the military leaders, and this continued after the war. When Khrushchev, ex officio, found himself head of the party, he understood that the party apparatchiks could be used as his supporters.”
But, as they say, it was already a “different country.” The execution of Beria was the final act of extrajudicial punishment, carried out in the style of Stalin's grandeur. Following this, there was no longer a fear of being executed or sent to Kolyma even if one had fallen out of favor with party leaders. Discussions and differing opinions were allowed in economic meetings and institutions. Malenkov was accused of having right-wing tendencies but was not executed like Bukharin. Even after the failed anti-Khrushchev coup, he was only demoted to the directorship of a thermal power plant. Suslov skillfully portrayed the liberalization as a return to Leninist principles, but the “shalt not kill” policy is certainly not a Leninist norm, for God's sake.
Later, Tvardovsky had the opportunity to publish Solzhenitsyn in a large print run of 121,900 copies, which would later be reprinted in Roman-Gazeta in almost a million copies and almost receive the prestigious Lenin Prize. Jazz dancing thrived in youth cafes, a scantily clad heroine danced the twist in the Prisoner of the Caucasus movie, and neither Vysotsky nor Okudzhava received any punishment for their “underground” tape recordings. On the contrary, their officially released records ended up selling everywhere, and some of their songs even became the title tracks of popular Soviet films. Strangely; strangely, many authors, such as Galich, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn, and others, were punished during the Brezhnev era by being banished to the safe haven of the Free World.
Strangely, many authors, such as Galich, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn, and others, were punished during the Brezhnev era by being banished to the safe haven of the Free World
Occasionally, the dragon would awaken and emit sulfurous smoke, causing innocent people to be caught up in political campaigns, resulting in political prisoners and numerous other frightening events. However, it was no longer accurate to compare that country to its state in 1918, 1929, or 1937.
Despite the continued presence of the communist system and imperial mindset, that massive block of ice had started moving towards the shore.
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Neither Comrade Lysenko nor the Kovalchuk brothers are able to override the laws of physics and chemistry. Even with a nuclear football or a fecal collection briefcase, the laws of thermodynamics cannot be altered by Stalin or Putin. As discovered by bourgeois scientists Cheyne and Stokes, if a system regularly produces suspicious wheezes, its downfall is inevitable, no matter what trinkets and colored glass you adorn it with.
And after our “March 5th” that lies in the future everything will happen even faster. And, as Koba used to say, “better and merrier.”