It is difficult to interpret the life and times of Joseph Stalin (1878?–1953) according to Euro- Atlantic world values. After the staged showdown in the wake of victory in the World War, the remarks of leading political figures at the XIXth Party Congress organised in October 1952 gave the impression that there would be an easing in political tension within the country. In fact, behind the scenes, precisely the opposite was happening. Stalin, by that time physically and mentally seriously ill but tenaciously clinging to power, planned several large-scale lawsuits reminiscent of the purging show-trials of the 1930s. After shoring up his power by getting even with his internal circle, he then made preparations to make an armed assault on his former ally the United States of America. Thus the XIXth Party Congress was a game of bluff designed to distract attention from his plans while recruiting younger and more loyal figures in order to get rid of his old leaders. Barely six months after the Congress, Stalin died in peculiar circumstances, from a brain haemorrhage. Contrary to public belief, he was still dying when his entourage relieved him of all his important duties.
The Continental climate often surprised foreigners visiting Moscow, and the autumn of 1952 was one of those occasions. Instead of the predicted “Indian Summer”, the visitors and reporters who had gathered in Moscow from all over the world on 5 October were greeted by cold and frost. The inclement weather though was the last thing on the minds of those who expected to bear witness to an historic and epoch-making meeting. Late that afternoon, in the presence of Joseph Stalin, the XIXth Bolshevik Party Congress opened in the Kremlin.
One of the Soviet dictator’s aims during the Congress was to dispel circulating rumours of his declining health.1
The circumstances of how Stalin convened the Congress, the first in 12 years, also raised questions. Even Central Committee members could not understand why they waited for 12 years, since Bolshevik Party rules ordered the ruling authorities to convene the Congress every three years. Previous delays in the organisation of major rulings or important state conferences were by months or at most a year. Of course, daring to ask Stalin why he had neglected his flock for so many years was out of the question for the Central Committee, a mix of party workers, top officials in the administration, and high ranking officers of the army or internal ministry. In addition, since the last plenum convention in February 1947 when Stalin resigned as head of the military, he had refused to be present at all or deliver speeches to his subordinates. By doing so, he was letting Party underlings know that he was no longer interested in formalities in contrast to before when he was careful to have the most important rules ratified by the Central Committee. The XIXth Party Congress though cannot be judged merely on the basis of the two bulky volumes of minutes and records. The undercurrents of the Stalin epoch must also be taken into account. Renowned New York Times Moscow correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury believed it was a clever tactical measure, and that Stalin’s convening of the long awaited Congress was actually a cover for opening several new fronts at the same time. A few hours before Pravda announced the convening of the Congress, the leaders of the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee, who had been in prison for years and exposed to excruciating torture and interminable court procedures, were executed in strictest secrecy. Around the same time Tsu en Lai, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, arrived in the Soviet capital at the invitation of Stalin. In the presence of the two politicians’ advisors, hours of consultation and discussion with the North Korean leaders took place on whether it was worth continuing the war on the Korean peninsula. No conclusive decisions were reached, but the talks dominated the major western news wires for days. Meanwhile, stories, albeit unverifiable ones, were circulating that in the most remote corners of the Soviet empire there were signs of unrest due to the stringency measures being imposed there. Rumours in the small international colony in Moscow were doing the rounds claiming that arrests in the city were being stepped up. The prisons were full to bursting and newer barracks were being erected in concentration camps, diplomats stationed in the capital reported. According to Soviet citizens in clandestine contact with foreigners, many non- Russian ethnic youths were being deported to distant desolate regions. All the signs seemed to point to a looming scenario that resembled the scale of mass executions carried out before the war.2
News of cases of persecution mainly of Soviet fugitives and Baltic and Ukrainian resistance fighters also filtered out beyond the Iron Curtain. I have heard numerous stories which could be included in novels by Abdurahman Avtorhanov, the writer who would later produce a book on the last phase of the dictator’s life. According to him the leaders of the Bolshevik Party put enormous pressure on Stalin in the summer of 1952 to convene the XIXth Congress. The onetime Chechnic Party member was of the opinion that the ageing and increasingly desperate Party members of the Generalissimus came to the conclusion that if they do not try to restrain Stalin then they would be swept away along with him by the inevitable social upheaval. Hence, to take a stand against Stalin they deemed it necessary to organise the national Bolshevik Congress in order to legitimise their will with the delegates.3
However, Avtorhanov’s supposition is wrong on several counts. In a system based on autocracy and retaliation nobody apart from Joseph Stalin could make a decision on convening a Party Congress. When Avtorhanov was writing his book he could not have known that Stalin was already making plans for the XIXth Party Congress at the beginning of 1941. In the course of the German attack on the Soviet Union, however, the Soviet leadership was restructured.
In the years immediately after the end of the war, the leadership’s priorities were fundamentally changed by the expansion and construction of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, coordinating post-war reconstruction works, and last but not least, the early manoeuvres in the Cold War. Furthermore, the party leader appeared increasingly burdened by the onerous tasks and became physically run down, which led him to spend more and more time, sometimes even half a year, away from Moscow. The once tenacious Georgian, who simmered with energy, was ready to procrastinate on any task not considered urgent.
Another reason for the postponement of the Congress was the dictator’s decision to commission officials to work out a new Bolshevik Party programme and regulations. His plan was to have the documents presented ceremoniously as the showpiece of the opening session. It would be announced that the All Nations State of the Soviet Union had finally been realised. His “message” would be that although the class struggle had not ended, it had become more concerted, and that the earlier decades of Sturm und Drang were finished. This idea was behind the change in the name of the Party. By discarding the Bolshevik name – which occurred in the autumn of 1952 – Stalin intended to demonstrate an assertive move away from the symbolism of heroic Leninism.4
The task of preparing the Party programme was appointed to the Soviet dictator’s general deputy and chief ideologist Andrei Zhdanov. It appears from the abundant archive material left by Zhdanov that the draft prepared by the group under his direction had gone as far as the final wording stage. In a Central Committee meeting in February 1947 – after clearing it first of course with Stalin – Zhdanov announced that the date of the XIXth Congress would be either at the end of 1947 or at the beginning of 1948.5
Apart from the usual phraseology and quotations from the works of Lenin and Stalin the Party programme writers worked out the details of a social safety-net.
The draft document set out a plan for the next 20–30 years. Those families living in run-down tenement flats in tiny rooms with other families, sharing kitchens and bathrooms would be provided with self-contained flats and a motor vehicle.6
Access to public utility services would also be a basic right of citizens. The draft also declared that people would be able to receive their rations of meat, dairy products and bread free of charge from the state distributors.
At the same time, shop shelves across the country were utterly bereft of anything to actually buy according to reports sent to Stalin’s secretariat from the regions. The rouble was constantly being devalued and years after the war, many millions of people were still forced to live in holes dug out from the ground or in clay houses, barracks or workers’ hostels. The deprivation and sheer exasperation of the masses were also contributing to increasing crime figures.7
The document never was incorporated into any resolution during the Soviet dictator’s life. Delegates at the XIXth Party Congress referred only to Stalin’s work The Economic Problems of Socialism in the Soviet Union as the main source of the Party programme. The ideologist behind the discarded concept, Andrei Zhdanov, was sidelined from politics for four years, and due to overwork and alcoholism, died relatively young. Zhdanov was given a proper funeral with state trimmings but his co-workers – including those who participated in the preparation of the Congress – were dismissed, and in some cases even imprisoned.
Stalin was quick to redistribute the vacant positions among representatives of the so- called “invisible power”. Georgi Malenkov became the second most important figure of the Party and was tasked with organising the republic and regional Party meetings as well as the election of deputies. Most of those that would be elected were forty and fifty year-olds who rose to prominence during the Great Terror, and were keen to get close to their beloved Stalin who had once flattered them with his attention.
After months and then years of anticipation, Malenkov declared that preparations for the Party Congress could at last begin.8 In August 1952, after more than ten years of recess, the members of the Central Committee were able to cross the threshold of the Kremlin. The Congress delegates were then brought to Moscow in September where instructors of the Malenkov circle busied themselves in small groups to prepare for the Congress.
The great day finally arrived on 5 October when several hundred delegates mesmerised by the physical presence of power hailed with thunderous applause the great dictator glaring impassively down at them. After months of waiting, however, some of the delegates began to wonder: “Why hasn’t there been a decision yet? We have been summoned to the Kremlin, haven’t we? He probably has become tired. He no longer looks his usual self.”
Their infatuation with Stalin, however, overcame such doubts. The majority of the attendees had never seen the “Master” at such close range, and for many their sight was blurred by tears of awe. Mass psychosis – and of course fear – meant the audience did not stop cheering but the subject of their adoration did not return in kind. Breaking the custom of previous meetings, Stalin declined to even have himself photographed with delegates, and abruptly left the auditorium.
Aleksei Surkov, a poet who had dedicated many fawning verses to Stalin over the years described the mood of delegates to me some time afterwards:
We thought that this would be the Congress of Victors. But there were so many problems. Towards the end of the meeting, we began to realise something was definitely wrong. The first plenum of the newly elected Central Committee confirmed our doubts. We did not dare admit that in fact we were leaving the CongressofLosers.Ifyouquoteme,writethisinsmalllettersonly.Ifhehad lived on, many of us would have lost our lives as a result of his crazy plans. It became obvious that we were being used by him as a trigger for both an external and internal war. It would have been almost impossible to get away without him breaking our necks as he did to many of my friends before the war. Because of a moment of ineptness he was again vested with immense power.
The poet also recalled the dictator walking unsteadily up to the podium as if he were afraid that someone would trip him. He greeted the auditorium briefly in his strong Georgian accent. He only seemed to rouse himself when he spoke about peace and the solidarity of people. One Party grandee, Dimitri Shepilov, remembered the meeting in the same way.
You could not detect from his face what his feelings were. Sometimes he stood on one leg then on the other. He fiddled with his moustache or stroked his jaw. He raised his hand a few times as if he wanted to start his speech, but that only increased the ovation from the auditorium tenfold.
Dimitri Shelepin‘s memoir includes similar accounts:
Just as on other occasions, he spoke in expressionless and low tones … I have had opportunities to listen to numerous Russian and international heads of communist movements but none sounded so cold and impassive as Stalin (at this meeting).9
It was a clear sign of Stalin’s contempt for those present that he made his speech only at the end of the Congress on 14 October 1952. He ignored the late afternoon opening session even though everyone was looking for him. When he finally entered the auditorium and sat down, he disregarded the seating order. Delegates would later remark how strange it was that with his conspicuous absence from the earlier meetings, the Master was wilfully ignoring the top leaders as well. When he did appear he chose an out of the way place close to the speaker’s podium where he sat down with his notebook and huge pen.
With his hearing failing with age, Stalin had to bend forward to hear the speeches, placing the palm of his hand to his ear. Sitting next to him as always on such occasions and watching over him with the devotion of a faithful dog, was Lazar Kaganovich of the Political Committee. Stalin gave him an encouraging wave at the same time as, unbeknownst to Kaganovich, he was collecting incriminating evidence on Kaganovich’s Zionist contacts. Stalin had picked him out, the only Jewish member of his inner circle at that time, as one of the main victims-to-be in a new round of purges. This did not stop him, however, appointing Kaganovich to deliver the lecture on the future programme of the Soviet state…10
To foreign observers the Soviet dictator was giving out mixed signals. At different times he would appear dejected, then suddenly energised. When he went on stage he walked up and down amidst the beautiful flowers and red drapes of the backdrop. When he noticed that the heads of the European Communist Parties, among them Maurice Thorez from France, the Czechoslovak Klement Gottwald and Dolores Ibarruri from Spain, were seated far away on the periphery of the auditorium, he shook his head in irritation. He then summoned them on stage and led them one by one to the presidential top table and with movements revealing his age dragged extra seats for them to sit on.11 Stalin’s erratic behaviour was applauded nonetheless by the relentlessly enthusiastic delegates. More than a decade later, the anti-Tito Yugoslav Pero Popivoda who represented the emigrant community during the Congress, recounted how Stalin took great care to count the chairs behind the presidential table in the manner of a concerned host. Then motioning to the seated entourage not to follow him, he went off stage to fetch more seats.
Malenkov who coordinated the meeting in the background found out that Popivoda had written his speech in Russian, but did not dare to decide whether it should be given in Russian or not. On hearing of the matter, Stalin got up and without paying attention to the speaker at that moment walked across the stage to where the guests were seated.
“What’s the matter, Comrade Popivoda?” he asked the handsome Montenegrin officer.
Popivoda was flattered by the fanciful idea that the lord of the Kremlin might think of him as the prospective leader of a future Stalin-ruled Yugoslavia.
“We Bolsheviks do not know impossible situations“, said Stalin jokingly then, suddenly becoming serious, continued: “Can you give the beginning of your speech in Serbian? Then you can continue in Russian. But the closing part should be in Serbian, since they will be listening to it from your homeland.12 People may think that this guy lives in Moscow, Russia, and has forgotten his mother tongue. Wait another year for this to happen…”13
Months before the Congress, Stalin decided he had no intention of bothering with his own speech.14 He had to give someone the job of delivering the long report though. The older members of his circle who were informed about his intentions tried to talk him out of it, probably suspecting the dictator was trying to test their loyalty to him.15 However, this time he appeared determined. Unsurprisingly, his choice would be Malenkov who had grown in prominence and was rumoured to be the anointed one, the tsar who would eventually be given the sceptre by Stalin.
The other three Congress speakers did not provoke any debate because everyone took it for granted that Stalin considered Nikita Khrushchev, Maxim Saburov and Lazar Kaganovich as the most suitable to give the short speeches. Khrushchev, suffering from a high fever at the time, read a speech prepared for him by his co-workers, while Kaganovich, once regarded by the political elite as a silver-tongued orator, put his notes down and recited by heart a rousing eulogy on Stalin. Saburov, meanwhile, had a reputation as an apolitical intellectual technocrat and was not even a member of the Central Committee. In his first important official performance, he proceeded to read out the indexes16 of the Five Year Plan which had been kept secret until then.
The practice of juggling with numbers and going into dense detail about economic issues was considered a diverting tactic in Bolshevik Party meetings. Georgi Malenkov’s speech was packed with barely digestible numbers, while passages on foreign affairs, building the Party or ideological issues took a back seat. The workaholic “heir-in-waiting” had collected and collated statistical data from the mountains of paper stacked on his desk and incorporated them into his text.
The first version of his speech, however, which was kept in the Party archives is actually rhetorically strong. It is unusual in that it contains criticisms about agricultural matters. Malenkov placed so called “land mines” in his speech by cautiously referring to the supply of wheat which was problematic at the time. Stalin, who censored all texts beforehand, took exception. He made fundamental corrections to the text, weeded out the over-critical sentences, and replaced them with suggestions that the Soviet leaders consider the welfare of the population above all, and that in fact huge successes had been achieved.17
The passages however, where Malenkov deliberately intended to be vague were left untouched by Stalin. He claimed that in the following years there would be a significant reduction in the heavy industry sphere serving the defence industry complex, or as it was known then, the “A sector”, not in absolute numbers but proportionately. Investments in the food and light industries (the “B sector”) would increase.18
However, Soviet budgets which were made public never actually reflected the real situation on the ground. Sensitive sections covering defence expenditure were hidden in other columns or were not included at all in the state budget. Shortly before the XIXth Party Congress, Stalin ordered the building of new airports near Moscow and other large cities in European Russia which would serve military planes and jet fighters. He also put aside large budgets for setting up a rocket shield to protect the Soviet capital as well as a Soviet nuclear arsenal including the hydrogen bomb. The Malenkov programme leaving the country’s financial capacities out of consideration was doomed to fail.19
The euphoria of potential global victory and domination appeared to carry Stalin on a course of preparation for war. Incredible as it seems, he also planned to create one hundred divisions of jet bombers. In readiness for a possible clash with the US, he proposed to set these up in the Pacific Ocean regions facing Alaska, Canada and California. As early as 1940 he had instructed aircraft designers to work out a plan for an aircraft fleet of Soviet heavy bombers which could target the Atlantic coast of the US. By doing so, he contradicted his earlier stance on defence development which he had summarised as “cut your coat according to your cloth”.
1 Even in the Soviet Union with its vast information gap, news spread widely. Yuri Trifonov, a successful writer at the time, wrote the following to his cousin, a survivor of the Gulag who was convicted of crimes against public morality and who had now left Siberia without permission to travel to the capital: “The Master is slowly losing control (…). He is simply sick and getting weaker day by day. The upper regions are faced with uncertainty (…). The old Guy was formerly like a skewer on which you can place your shashlik. The skewer is now bent. In fact it is cracked. And the taste of the shashlik isn’t the same…”. Михаил Демин: Таежный бродяга. New York, 1986, pp. 123–124.
2 Harrison E. Salisbury: A Journey for Our Times. New York, 1983, pp. 418–419.
3 А. Авторханов: Загадка смерти Сталина – Заговор Берия. Frankfurt/Main, 1981, pp. 126–142.
4 This is when the word “bolshevik” was left out of numerous titles of books.The state Party Bolshevik monthly journal intending to be a theoretical publication became Kommunist. The publication appeared under this name until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
5 Following this Zhdanov raised the necessity of convening the next Party Congress. Stalin however, placed the proposition ad acta. А. А. Данилов– А. А. Пыжиков: Рождениесверхдержавы. Moscow, 2001, pp. 223–224.
6 The free car buying coupon seems to have been taken from the propaganda of the Nazi German people’s car. The self-contained flats were intended for families. The co-tenancy rooms for millions of single people following the war in the Soviet Union was a great prospect.
7 The important details in the outline of the draft programme: РГАСПИ, fond 17. op.125. d. 476.
8 Ю. Н. Жуков: Тайны Кремля. Сталин Молотов Берия Маленков. Moscow, 2000, pp. 567, 569–570.
9 Дмитрий Шепилов: Непримкнувший. Moscow, 2001, pp. 222–223.
10 Лазарь Каганович: Памятные записки. Moscow, 1996, pp. 495–496.
11 Дмитрий Шепилов: Op. cit., p. 221.
12 Stalin was referring to the anti-Tito radio station which had been set up by the Soviet authorities.
13 Сто сорок бесед с Молотовым. Из дневника Ф. Чуева. Moscow, 1991, pp. 118–119.
14 “We have to give preference to young people (…). I am of the opinion that after seventy years of age leaders should give up with being directly in charge. They can still be advisors but not big chiefs”, explained Stalin to members of the Political Committee. Лазарь Каганович: Op. cit., p. 498.
15 Анастас Микоян: Так было Размышления о минувшем. Moscow,1999, p. 569.
16 The politician was Malenkov’s man and the latter in his unsuccessful tug of war with Krushchev fell out of favour together with him in the summer of 1957. Stalin had a soft spot for Saburov. He even overlooked the scandal connected with his name which was one of the moral scandals of the age. When the politician returned to his home, a “riverbank house” for the Soviet elite, he found his daughter-in-law in his bed with his body guard. Shouting inordinately with disgust and threatening him the man was so terrified that he jumped out of the window and died.
17 РГАСПИ, fond 592. op. 1. d. 6.
18 Г. Маленков: Отчетный доклад XIX съезду партии о работе Центрального Комитета ВКП (б). Moscow, 1952, pp. 38–42, 51–54.
19 ГригорийКосунько: Секретнаязона. Исповедьгенеральногоконструктора. Moscow, 1996, pp. 186-290. Ю. Н. Жуков: Op. cit., pp. 486–487. А. А. Данилов– А. А. Пыжиков: Рождение сверхдержавы. СССР в первые послевоенные годы. Op. cit., pp. 92–94, 99–104, 238.