On 31 October 1961, a small but symbolic event took place in Moscow. The embalmed body of former Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was re-interred behind the Kremlin Wall. It was a symptomatic relegation for the man once known as the Great Leader who, for the eight years since his death, had lain on public display alongside Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state. The man who ordered that Stalin be reburied under several layers of concrete, was his successor and former protégé, Nikita Khrushchev.
But no amount of concrete can keep down the ghost of Joseph Stalin.
Fifty years on, few speak of Khrushchev (pictured). But Stalin’s shadow still looms large over Russian society. A poll run in April this year, by the VTsIOM (All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion), found much support for Stalin, the man who ‘received the country with a wooden plough, and left it with a nuclear missile shield’.
In 2009, a new plaque was unveiled at a Moscow metro station that included a line from the former Soviet national anthem: ‘Stalin brought us up to be loyal to people, inspired us to labour and feats’. Imagine today seeing a quote from Hitler in the Berlin underground?
It gets worse – in July 2011, a new statue of Stalin was unveiled in the Russian town of Penza, 390 miles southeast of Moscow. Sixty years ago, Khrushchev went to great pains to have two Stalin statues removed from the same town.
Putin and Medvedev – who won the war?
Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose grandfather, a cook who worked for both Lenin and Stalin, is often seen as someone who identifies with the nationalist strengths of the past. A former KGB officer, Putin as a boy had a poster of ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, on his bedroom wall. Speaking in 2009, Putin talked of the ‘unacceptable price’ of Soviet success but asserted that ‘others cannot be allowed to impose a feeling of guilt on us’. Of Stalin’s role during the Second World War, Putin has said, ‘Whatever anyone may say, victory [in World War Two] was achieved. Even when we consider the losses, nobody can now throw stones at those who planned and led this victory.’
But President Dmitry Medvedev pointedly diminished the role of the Soviet leadership during the war, ‘The Great Patriotic War was won by our people, not by Stalin or even the generals.’
On his video blog, Medvedev added, ‘Even now we can hear voices saying that those innumerable victims were justified by some supreme goals of the state. I am convinced that no development of a country, no success or ambitions can be achieved through human grief and losses. Nothing can be valued above human life, and there is no excuse for repression.’
Surely, it’s only the old timers that hanker for the old days of Communist rule? A new school teaching manual, published by a state-sponsored educational publisher, argues that given the historical context of the time and the threat to the revolution, Stalin acted ‘entirely rationally’.
Perhaps it is too easy for us in the West to criticise and even ridicule this train of thought, but whatever stretch of imagination one uses, it’s hard to find how the extermination of at least 25 million civilians can in any way be described as rational. In Germany ‘Hitler’ is a dirty word; no one, apart from a few oddball neo-Nazis, are going to wax lyrical on how Hitler got the roads fixed. But in Russia, a large element equates Stalin with a sense of order and power and, disturbingly, of pride.
And all this despite Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to discredit his former boss.
Death of a Tyrant
Even from his coffin, Stalin still managed to kill his own people. Despite his tyranny, the news of his death, on 5 March 1953, was received with a public outpouring of grief. His body lay in state and such was the mass of mourners scrabbling to pay their last respects, over five hundred people died in the crush.
The Politburo had already decided that when the time came, the Father of the Nation would be embalmed and laid alongside Lenin who had died in January 1924. In November 1953, with the job completed, Stalin was removed from his casket and laid in a glass-top coffin and placed alongside the body of Lenin inside the newly-renamed Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum.
Khrushchev then emerged as the new leader. A Ukrainian peasant by origin, impulsive, rotund, by turn vindictive and charming, his ‘socialism with a human face’ was a different type of approach to that of his predecessor.
On 25 February 1956, at the end of the eleven-day Soviet Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev delivered a ‘secret speech‘ to a closed session of party leaders. Over four hours he denounced Stalin’s methods, his abuse of power, and criticized the regime built on ‘suspicion, fear and terror’.
Khrushchev, aware of the impact his words were having, described how Stalin had chosen ‘the path of repression and physical annihilation.’
Khrushchev described the ‘deathly hush’ that followed his speech as his pale-faced audience absorbed the heretical attack on the ultimate Bolshevik deity. Many cried. Some of those present reputably suffered heart attacks in the weeks that followed, some committed suicide. ‘De-Stalinization’ had started.
The text of Khrushchev’s speech, although secret and not officially made public in the Soviet Union until 1988, soon spread across Russia and abroad, causing shock that the great man’s name should be so besmirched but also relief that, through Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the tyranny that had overshadowed the Soviet Union for so long was now something of the past.
It was a brave thing to do, to stand up to Stalin – even a dead Stalin. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, called Khrushchev a ‘moral man’.
The ‘Khrushchev Thaw’
Khrushchev pressed on – cities named after Stalin reverted back to their original names – most controversially, Stalingrad, hero city of the Great Patriotic War, had its name changed to Volgograd, in 1961. (There is a still a sizeable minority that want it renamed Stalingrad).
De-Stalinization went hand-in-hand with ‘Khrushchev’s Thaw’, which saw a degree of liberalisation within the arts – composers, artists and poets, previously banned, were welcomed back into the fold of Soviet society. Khrushchev personally authorised the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with its depiction of Stalin’s Gulags.
Tens of thousands of gulag inmates were released and thousands who had fallen to Stalin’s executioners were posthumously rehabilitated.
During the Twenty-Second Party Congress in October 1961, delegates heard from an elderly Bolshevik, Dora Lazurkina, ‘My heart is always full of Lenin. Comrades, I could survive the most difficult moments only because I carried Lenin in my heart, and always consulted him on what to do. Yesterday I consulted him… and he said: “It is unpleasant to be next to Stalin, who did so much harm to the party.”’
It was an effective piece of staged theatre. Khrushchev responded by decreeing, ‘The further retention in the mausoleum of the sarcophagus with the bier of J. V. Stalin shall be recognized as inappropriate since the serious violations by Stalin of Lenin’s precepts, abuse of power, mass repressions against honourable Soviet people and other activities… make it impossible to leave the bier with his body in the mausoleum of V. I. Lenin.’
And so in the dark hours of 31 October 1961, the dead dictator was removed from the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum. There was no solemnity, no ceremony, no speeches, just a few workmen doing a matter-of-fact task – by moonlight. The not-so Great Man was reburied behind the Kremlin Walls. A few weeks later, a granite stone marked the grave with the inscription, ‘J. V. STALIN 1879-1953’. Nine years later, the grave was topped off with a small bust. He was in good company – some four hundred Bolshevik luminaries populate this plot of dead famous Soviets.
In 1964, Khrushchev was finally disposed. But it was a mark of how far Khrushchev had changed the political climate that his own downfall merely resulted in him being pensioned off. Gone were the days when a sacking was often accompanied by a bullet in the back of the head.
The Name of Russia
In December 2008, an astonishing fifty million Russians, a third of the population, voted in a televised and online national poll to find the nation’s favourite and most revered historical figures. The poll, The Name of Russia, whittled down a list of five hundred names to a shortlist of twelve. At one point, with Stalin romping ahead, the television producers had to urge the population to vote for someone else. In the end, Stalin came third – behind a medieval warrior and a Tsarist prime minister. No one believed that Stalin didn’t really come first.
Meanwhile, the name of Nikita Khrushchev, Gorbachev’s ‘moral man’ who had done so much to dismantle the cult of Stalin and to do away with the worst excesses of Stalin’s tyranny, had failed to even make the Top Twelve.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, The Black Maria, set in 1930s Moscow, is now available.