Born 26 February 1896, Andrei Zhdanov was typical of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle – mendacious, ruthless, indifferent to the fortunes of the ordinary citizen, but, answerable only to Stalin, utterly fearful lest he should ever fall out of favour. For this, in common with all members of the sycophant Politburo, Zhdanov put the interests of Stalin ahead of all else.
The Yugoslav writer, Milovan Djilas, described Zhdanov as ‘rather short, with a brownish clipped moustache, a high forehead, pointed noise and a sickly, red face’.
The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’
Speaking at the inaugural Union of Writers Congress in 1934, Zhdanov emphasised the need for Soviet writing to adhere to the strict guidelines of socialist realism, a form of realist art that depicted Stalin’s Soviet Union in a positive, utopian manner. From this, and under Stalin’s guidance, Zhdanov formulated a policy for the straitjacketing of the arts within the Soviet Union. The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’ dictated that all forms of cultural expression, from science and philosophy to music and cinema, had to strictly adhere to state control and reject all forms of Western influence or ‘cosmopolitanism’.
The hornets’ nest in Leningrad
Zhdanov was promoted as head of the Leningrad Party following the assassination of his predecessor, Sergei Kirov on 1 December 1934. His first task in the city was to root out deviationists and potential troublemakers, and ensure that the city was unbending in its loyalty to Stalin. The Polish-born journalist and writer, Isaac Deutscher, described Zhdanov as a ‘capable, and ruthless man… Stalin could rely upon him to destroy the hornets’ nest in Leningrad.’
During the war, Zhdanov led the civil defence of Leningrad throughout its 900-day siege in partnership, at least for the first few months, with the city’s military commander, Kliment Voroshilov.
Following the war, Zhdanov enjoyed the height of his power and, tipped to be Stalin’s successor, was known as ‘Stalin’s firm favourite‘. His very success and eminence may have prompted the beginnings of his downfall – Stalin was never one to forgive another’s fame if it threatened his own.
Post-war, Zhdanov renewed his attack on the artistic community. The composer, Dmitry Shostakovich, who had enjoyed a period of state acceptance during the siege of Leningrad, was particularly targeted; as was Anna Akhamtova, Russia’s leading poet, whom Zhdanov described as a ‘whore and a nun’ and a ‘slimy literary rogue’.
An alcoholic, Zhdanov suffered a number of heart attacks and in July 1948, was relieved from his duties to give him time to recuperate. But by then his star had fallen and, due to his continual drinking, had fallen out of Stalin’s favour. This in itself may have contributed to his drinking. He died, aged 52, on 31 August 1948. The circumstances surrounding his death have been shrouded in mystery, and although Zhdanov probably did die of another heart attack, rumours persisted that he had outlived his usefulness and that Stalin had had a hand in his demise.
His death salvaged his reputation and immediately he became an icon of Soviet worship. Towns and streets throughout the Soviet Union were renamed in Zhdanov’s honour. The Ukrainian town of Mariupol, Zhdanov’s place of birth, was renamed Zhdanov, returning to its original name in 1989.
In 1952, four years after Zhdanov’s death, Stalin launched his purge against doctors, the Doctors’ Plot, accusing leading physicians of malpractice. Zhdanov, it was claimed, was victim to one such incident of medical foul play.
Following his death, Zhdanov’s former Leningrad associates and supporters were targeted in another of Stalin’s purges. Harbouring a lifelong dislike of the city, Stalin purged over 2,000 of the city leaders, artists, writers and intelligentsia in what became known as the ‘Leningrad Affair’.
Andrei Zhdanov’s son, Yuri, married Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, in 1949 but the marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Even Yuri Zhdanov, Stalin’s former son-in-law, had to write a letter of self-criticism, begging forgiveness for his supposed professional misdeeds, and published for all to see in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda.
Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press.
See also Stalin: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and The Russian Revolution: History In An Hour both available as downloadable audio.
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a dramatic tale set in Stalinist Russia, is now available.