On March 5, 2016, on the 63th anniversary of Stalin’s death, a poster on a bus stop in Moscow: “This one has burst, that one will burst too.” » Photo : openrussia.ru

On March 5, 2016, on the 63th anniversary of Stalin’s death, a poster on a bus stop in Moscow: “This one has burst, that one will burst too.” » Photo : openrussia.ru

“And yet, what would become of a despotically governed country if a tyrant above all laws had to fear daggers? A horrible alternative, and one that is sufficient in itself to show what it is like to have institutions where crime is brought in as the balance of power.”
— Germaine de Staël1

If it is true that history does not repeat itself, we nevertheless sometimes hear surprising echoes between eras. For those who have studied the fascinating period at the end of Stalin’s reign2, analogies with the situation in Russia today are obvious.

On learning of Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, President Eisenhower was outraged to learn about his intelligence services’ lack of preparedness: “I know that since 1946 all the so-called experts have been talking about what was going to happen when Stalin died and what policy we should adopt on this occasion. Well, Stalin is dead. And no matter how much we look around, no matter how much we search in the files, we don’t have a plan. We are not even sure what difference his death makes3.” If Putin were to leave this world these days, our politicians would more than likely say similar things. That is why it is necessary to begin to elaborate without delay a program for the post-Putin era.

Stalin’s death came at a time when the crisis in relations with the West appeared to be at its peak. At the same time, the regime had clearly embarked on a new increase in repression in the wake of the “doctors’ plot”.

In 1950, Stalin was convinced of the weakness of the United States because they had “swallowed” without flinching the communist takeover of China in September 1949. He believed that the correlation of forces was changing in favor of the USSR. On August 23, 1950, commenting on the consequences of the Korean War, he wrote to Gottwald, the head of the Czechoslovak communist party: “…It is clear that the United States is now turning away from Europe and concentrating on the Far East. Is this to our advantage in terms of the world balance of power? It goes without saying. Suppose the United States gets bogged down in the Far East and drags China into the struggle for Korean freedom and its own independence — what will happen? First of all, America, like any other country, will not be able to defeat China, which has a large, ready-made armed forces. America will exhaust itself in this war. It will be unable to wage the Third World War. This will be postponed for a while, which will give us the necessary time to strengthen socialism in Europe…”4. Thus, the acquisition by the USSR of the atomic bomb in 1949, the success of communism in China that same year, the initial American setbacks during the Korean War, considerably emboldened Stalin. On January 8, 1951, a conference of heads of communist parties and armed forces of the entire communist bloc was held in Moscow where Stalin announced to the Ministers of Defense of the People’s Democracies his intention to militarily occupy all of Europe, “the Korean War having shown the military weakness of the United States”5. He contended that “the Americans had to be swept out of Europe before their military and political power was consolidated”6. On the eve of the 19th Congress in October 1952, Stalin published The Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, where he announced the end of a unipolar world dominated by the West: “The most important economic consequence of the Second World War is the disappearance of the unified world market… We now have two opposing world markets.” He also denied the existence of Western solidarity. European countries would necessarily confront the United States; Germany and Japan would recover just as Germany had following the First World War. This question of Western solidarity became the subject of lively discussions between the Politburo and Stalin, which is attested to in the Memoirs of Sergo Beria: “The Korean War had taught Stalin nothing: he continued to rely on the dissensions between the democracies (my father said it was an obsession with him). From that war he got the impression that the United States was the only country capable of fighting, and the others merely remained on the sidelines — nothing could make him change this belief, not even the numerous reports written for him by my father and the military, which mentioned the contribution of NATO allies”7. Stalin was convinced that a war with the West was inevitable, imminent, and that the USSR would be able to win it (hence his insistence on questioning Western solidarity). “In 1952, the whole country was on the war footing. The objectives of the Central Committee were perfectly clear: we were preparing for a Third World War, and it would be a nuclear war. All the resources of the country were mobilized,”8 recalls Sergo Beria. Before his appalled colleagues, Stalin advocated the return to a barter economy: “an incredible leftist deviation,” said Mikoyan. Stalin had become increasingly disconnected from reality, and with increasingly crazy initiatives: one day he would order to lower the price of cars to 3,000 rubles so that they were within the reach of all Soviet citizen9; the next day he would order the increased production of helicopters in order to catch up with the Americans. The managers of the moribund economy did not know what to invent to avoid the whims of the Leader.

Stalin became so paranoid that he sometimes left the room where the Politburo was assembled and eavesdropped. He never drank wine without having it tasted beforehand by his guests10. Receiving Chou Enlai on September 19, 1952, Stalin told him, revealing his concerns of the moment: “It is necessary to remember that the Americans and the English will try to infiltrate their agents in the Chinese state apparatus. Whether they are Americans or French, it does not matter. They will try to subvert, to rot you from the inside, and they may even resort to poisoning.” In the upper echelons of the Party, one began to wonder if Stalin had lost his mind. The apparatchik Shepilov remembers: “At the time of the mind-boggling affair of the doctors [the famous ‘doctors’ plot’], the terrible doubts about Stalin’s mental health that had been repressed at the time [at the 19th Congress in October 1952] returned to me from the depths of my conscience… Stalin was convinced that there was nothing around him but plots, intrigues, preparation of attacks”11.

Those close to the dictator gave up trying to reason with him. Mikoyan says that when he tried to draw Stalin’s attention to the shortages in the country, Beria and Malenkov would step on his foot under the table, signaling him that he should keep quiet. “What’s the use?” they would say. “It only irritates him. He’ll pick on one and then the other. You have to tell him what he wants to hear, make him believe that everything is alright and not spoil the dinner.”12 Despite his failing health Stalin held on to the reins of power, as Khrushchev confirmed: “Stalin ruled alone, bypassing the Central Committee, and the Politburo had hardly any other use than to put its stamp of approval under the decisions of the Guide.”13 The bodyguard Lozgachev once caught a startling scene: Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev and Bulganin, standing in a row before Stalin, belly forward, receiving a vehement dressing down from the exasperated old dictator. After their departure Stalin said to Lozgachev: “I tell them to do one thing, they do the opposite. I have to reprimand them…“14 Stalin was especially concerned about the evolution of the State Security, which he found too soft in the hunt for infiltrated enemies. He lectured his chief Ignatiev: “Do you want to be more humane than Lenin who ordered Dzerzhinsky to defenestrate Savinkov? Dzerzhinsky was not like you, he did not shirk from doing the dirty work. You look like butlers in white gloves. If you want to be Chekists, take off your white gloves. Chekists are peasants, not barons.”15

Stalin’s bellicose plans worried the members of the Politburo, who were aware of the risks of a nuclear war and convinced that the impending threat of a conflict would provide Stalin with the pretext for an extensive purge. “None of the members of the Politburo […] wanted a war. To carry out this enterprise, Stalin needed to be absolutely sure of his back, which put the members of the Politburo in a precarious position. I frequently heard the four of them (Bulganin, Khrushchev, Malenkov and my father) discuss how to prevent this war at all costs,” recalled Sergo Beria16. Thus, a “party of peace” had crystallized, that secrety countered Stalin. As in domestic politics, the confrontation between Stalin and the Politburo was linked to a real issue. This “peace party” tried to establish contacts with the West and to lay the first foundations for the post-Stalin era. This is why, seen from the outside, the USSR seemed at that time to blow hot and cold.

The similarities with today’s Russia are striking. We have, as in 1952, an aging dictator who is convinced that no potential successor will be able to live up to him. Like Stalin, Putin fears that his heirs will flinch before the West. Putin could utter the same remark about his collaborators that Stalin (December 1, 1952) made to his colleagues during a meeting of the Presidium [an enlarged body that replaced the Politburo since October 1952]: “You are blind kittens, after me you will lose the country because you are not able to unmask the enemies”17. The two despots have striven to make decisions that would have irreversible effects, to the great horror of their tetanized courtiers. Both see in war a way to perpetuate their power. Both try to lock their subjects in a forteress under siege, demonstrating that the whole world is united against Moscow. Let’s listen to Putin on March 17, 2022: “The collective West is trying to divide our society by speculating on military losses, on the socio-economic consequences of sanctions, to provoke a civil confrontation in Russia; by using its fifth column, it is trying to achieve its goal. And this goal, as I have already said, is the destruction of Russia.” Finally, both dictators have dreamed of autarky. Stalin’s opus, The Economic Problems of Socialism, implies that soon the Soviet bloc will no longer need imports from the West. Putin believes he has already won: “The Russian economy will certainly adapt to the new realities. We will strengthen our technological and scientific sovereignty, we will devote additional resources to supporting agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure and housing construction…” Like Stalin in 1952, Putin in 2022 is convinced that the time is right to risk the great confrontation with the West, and for similar reasons: America is preoccupied with its conflict with China, it cannot rely on its insecure European allies that lack military clout. Like Stalin in 1952, who proposed raising taxes on the peasantry to finance his war effort, Putin considers that the impressive decline in the standard of living of the Russians can only benefit them because it will detach them from the harmful influence of the West: as he contended in the same speech, “I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, our cohesion, and our ability to meet all challenges.” In his mind, as in Stalin’s, war is associated with a great purge. For the enemies surrounding Russia “will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on the national traitors, on those who earn money here in our country but live there, and ‘live’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but by their thoughts, by their slave consciousness. […] But all people, especially the Russian people, are capable of distinguishing true patriots from bastards and traitors, and simply spit them out, as one spits out a gnat that has accidentally slipped into the mouth.” Both dictators give priority to the control of the organs of State Security, firing their bosses at will. Basically, they both want to get rid of the men who know them too well.

What lessons from the 1952-3 precedent are relevant today? Stalin and Putin have another trait in common: sadism. They revel in making people suffer, in humiliating and trampling on their loved ones. Stalin loved to arrest the wives of his collaborators. He forced Molotov to listen to the recordings of his wife’s colleagues, who reported that they had been having orgies with his wife (confessions were extracted under torture). He made fun with Khrushchev by forcing him to dance or by making him sit on his chair hat had been surreptitiously covered with tomatoes. We have recently seen how Putin publicly treated the head of foreign intelligence. We know that he lashes out at his subordinates at their slightest failure. So we can consider it a certainty that there is a tremendous potential for hatred of the dictator in the circle of close and less close subordinates. In the USSR, de-Stalinization exploded in the days following his death. It began at the top, but was soon joined by an irresistible and spontaneous movement from below, which resulted in the Gulag uprising of 1953-4. The West underestimated this force and failed to use it to bring about a clean break with the communist regime, which would have been possible in the spring of 1953. Today we must take this hidden pressure into account. We must capitalize on the disaffection of the elites with their leader and encourage them to take action by giving them hope that their contribution to the end of the regime can exempt them from having to account later for the crimes committed under Putin. The sanctions are stirring a huge discontent among the masses that can easily turn against the regime, as soon as cracks are perceived. As Russia has been kept closed for months under a heavy, tight lid, one can imagine the violence with which de-putinization will erupt throughout the country the moment the lid is half-opened. The West will have to help this movement from below to reinforce the de-putinization from above, instead of frightening the regime’s successors into putting the brakes on. NATO countries will be in a good position to do so, because the gradual lifting of sanctions will encourage steps toward the emancipation of society.

This policy can be pursued provided that the West has a clear strategy for the long term and does not allow itself to be misled by Potemkin concessions hastily adopted by the successors. Industrial circles linked to Russian business and their networks of influence will mount a well-orchestrated campaign in the West for the immediate lifting of sanctions, especially if Ukraine obtains “peace” at the price of a more “moderate” amputation of its territory than expected. Let us remember that the tragic events we are experiencing today have a distant cause: due to Western leniency, decommunization was not carried out to the end in the Yeltsin years. To avoid future recurrences, sanctions must remain in place until the autocratic matrix of Russian power has been dismantled. The West’s great mistake in 1993 was to support Yeltsin in his confrontation with the parliament. Democratic leaders did not understand that the Russian rulers took advantage of the defeat of the Duma to re-establish autocratic power camouflaged under the institution of the president. It is therefore advisable that post-Putin Russia adopt a two-chamber parliamentary system, with the role of the president reduced to ceremonial functions. This reform must be complemented by the abolition of censorship, the end of brainwashing by television freed from state control, the expulsion of the siloviki from the state apparatus, the dismantling of the military-industrial complex, the separation of church and state, the independence of the judiciary; and, last but not least, decentralization and a return to true federalism. In foreign policy, the criterion for de-putinization (and thus for the lifting of sanctions) must be the return of all territories stolen by Russia during the 2000s. Autocracy feeds on Russian chauvinism. As long as imperial aspirations are alive, there is a risk of a return to despotism. However, it is to be hoped that the experience of the Russians after February 24, 2022, when the outburst of rabid imperialism was closely followed by an economic cataclysm, will make them understand deep down that interdependence among nations exists and is a good thing. This hard lesson should encourage them to abandon their dreams of domination and to return to Europe, starting by modestly building a European country domestically, instead of trying to destroy Europe in their neighbors.

  1. G. de Staël, Dix années d’exil, Paris, 1821, p.331-332 ; édition critique par Simone Balayé et Mariella Vianello Bonifacio, Fayard, 1996, p. 299. 

  2. See Françoise Thom, Beria, le Janus du Kremlin, Cerf, 2013. 

  3. K. Larres, K. Osgood (éd), The Cold War after Stalin’s death, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, p. 80. 

  4. Nikita Petrov, Po scenario Stalina: rol’ organov NKVD-MGB SSSR v sovetizacii stran central’noj i vostočnoj Evropy 1945-1953 gg., Moskva Rosspen, 2011, p. 230-231. 

  5. V.K. Kaplan, Dans les archives du Comité central, Albin Michel, 1978, p. 165. 

  6. Quoted in R. Levy, Ana Pauker, University of California Press, 2001, p. 197. 

  7. Sergo Beria, Beria mon père, Plon Critérion, 1999, p. 316. 

  8. Sergo Beria, op. cit., p. 324 

  9. Sergo Beria, op. cit., p. 330 

  10. A.S. Jakovlev, Cel’ žizni, Moscou, 1987, p. 375. 

  11. D. Šepilov, Neprimknuvšii, Moskva, Vagrius, 2001, p. 228 

  12. A.I. Mikojan, Tak bylo, Moscou, 1999, p. 354. 

  13. Khrouchtchev, Souvenirs, 1971 p. 263. 

  14. See A. T. Rybin, in : Molodaja gvardia, n°11, 2001, p. 52 

  15. J. Brent, V. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime, Londres, 2003, p. 218-219. 

  16. Sergo Beria, Beria mon père, Plon Critérion 1999, p. 316. 

  17. G.V. Kostyrčenko, Tajnaja politika Stalina, Moscou, 2001, p. 657. 

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