Friday, 7 January 2011

The Death of Stalin: Natural Causes for Suspicion

On March 1st 1953 Joseph Stalin, absolute ruler of the Soviet Union for almost 30 years, invited his four closest underlings from the politburo to his dacha at Kunzevo for an evening of drinking and banter. The 74-year old seemed his usual self, old and careworn but still very much a man to be afraid of. His craggy face and white hair did little to offset the intense eyes that struck fear into the hearts of anyone who deared to get on the wrong side of the iron dictator. The party went on long into the night before breaking up in the small hours. The cronies shuffled off to their own accomodation and Stalin retired to his private quarters for a reclusive cocktail of sleep and brooding.

Nearly twenty-four hours passed before anyone dared to point out that Stalin had not emerged from his rooms. At first the bodyguards were unsure of what to do. Whether or not to disturb the great man could literally be a matter of life and death. It was not until the early morning of March 3rd that the soldiers decided that something was wrong and that they should do the unthinkable and enter Stalin's inner sanctum without his invitation. They went inside and found him comatose in a puddle of urine on his bedroom floor. The four followers quickly rushed back to the dacha to be at their stricken leader's side, overseeing his medical treatment whilst making plans in their minds for what might happen in the immediate future. Stalin slipped in and out of consciousness before finally, on March 4th, breathing his last. The most feared and tyrannnical ruler of the 20th Century, a man who made Adolf Hitler look like a saint in comparison, was no more.

Despite his advanced years, the sudden nature of Stalin's death has often been said to have involved some degree of foul play. This stems from the fact that so many people in the Soviet Union stood to benefit from the ending of his murderous reign. For some it would mean gaining political power, to others it would simply mean staying alive. It was almost impossible to stay on the right side of Stalin and even his most loyal followers would often find themselves staring down a gun barrel merely for being suspected of being up to no good. Even his own son Yakov was not good enough for him. When Yakov shot himself out of despair at his fathers poor treatment of him but survived, Stalin is reported to have quipped that his son "can't even shoot straight". The final humiliation of Stalin Jr. came after Yakov had been captured by the Germans whilst serving in the Red Army during World War II. The Nazis made an offer to return him in exchange for Friedrich Paulus, the German Field Marshal captured at Stalingrad. Stalin flatly declined the offer with the words "I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant", refusing so see his son as being in any way more important to him than all the other soldiers in German captivity. Yakov was so distraught when he heard the news of his abandonment that he flung himself into the electric fence at Sachsenhausen concentration camp and was burned to death.

So what is the truth behind the man of steel's undignified demise? Was it natural causes? Old age perhaps or maybe a stroke or a brain haemorrhage? Alternatively we could suspect that he was murdered. Perhaps an ambitious flunkie had slipped something into his vodka at the party to accelerate his end. To understand the intrigue the best place to start is with the four politburo members closest to Stalin's heart who attended his final boys' night in. They were:

Lavrentiy Beria: Interior Minister and head of the various State Security Services and secret police organisations, including the infamous NKVD (forerunner of the KGB).

Nikolai Bulganin: Minister of Defence.

Georgy Malenkov: Up-and-coming member of the Communist Party Secretariat and Stalin's preferred choice of successor.

Nikita Khrushchev: Head of the powerful Moscow city and regional party committees.

If you had to pick a potential culprit from this shady bunch then you would have to point the finger of blame squarely at Beria. Beria was perhaps the only person in the entire world that Stalin truly feared. As head of the secret service and secret police, it was Beria who effectively upheld the authority of Stalin's regime and was in control of a power base with the potential to rival that of Stalin himself. Beria also had reason to be afraid of Stalin because of this. He was concerned that Stalin may attempt yet another of his purges in order to deprive him of his power. To avoid this Beria would have had to act first. Beria himself even claimed to have poisoned Stalin, with Foreign Minister Molotov quoting him in his memoirs as saying "I took him out."

Despite Beria's own claim that he was the one responsible for killing Stalin one needs to take into account the sort of person that the spy chief was. From that one can deduce that he may have only claimed responsibilty in order to cement himself as leader and carve out a reputation as the man who toppled Stalin. Beria had a thinly disguised contempt for Stalin and, unlike Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov, was not upset when the dictator slipped into his short final ilness. As Stalin lay dying Beria would shock the others by berating and criticising him openly, only to revert straight back into being a toadying sycophant whenever the old man regained consciousness, feigning affection and kissing his ailing master's hand. When Stalin finally died, Beria left the others behind and headed straight back to Moscow, putting into motion his plan for power.

Unfortunately for Beria his strategy did not go nearly as well as he would have liked. His spiteful resentment of Stalin and undisguised relief at the dictators death had made his three colleagues realise that he was potentially even more dangerous than first thought and his immediate grab for power made it clear that he had to be stopped. Beria's major disadvantage was that he did not succeed Stalin to any of the major Communist Party leadership offices whereas Malenkov, as per Stalin's wish, immediately became leader of both the party and the government, with Khrushchev and Bulganin soon to follow in taking up their own top jobs. By June Beria had been arrested and publically denounced as a traitor. By the end of the year he had been secretly tried and executed.

In the end it was Khrushchev who was ultimately victorious in the complex squabble to replace Stalin. Within a few years he had outmanouvuered Malenkov and the rest of the competition to become undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, a post he held intil 1964. Unlike during the days of Stalin, however, Khrushchev's opponents mostly escaped with their lives. Khrushchev would go on to denounce the Stalin era and implement a program of "de-Stalinisation", addressing the more tyrannical aspects of his predecessor's reign. State terrorism for political gain, the favoured tactics of Beria's secret police, was formally ended and Stalin's hostile foreign policy towards the western powers was toned down in favour of what would go on to be called "peaceful co-existence".

Considering Khrushchev's wholesale denouncement of Stalin we should also ask if he, or indeed Malenkov or Bulganin, had a part to play in his death. The one thing that we know for sure is that the men did not send for medical help until a day after he was discovered on his bedroom floor. What reason would there be for not requesting help immediately? The fact there was a delay certainly suggests foul play. If the more moderate politburo members did not have a direct hand in Stalin's death then they may well have helped him along, ensuring that his barbaric regime could be brought to an end before the time came for them to inevitably fall foul of his raging paranoia, the same eventuality that Beria wished to avoid.

Perhaps both theories are correct in that Beria poisoned Stalin in order to usurp his power and create his own tyrannical police state, with others deliberatly leaving it too late to help the stricken leader in order not only to get rid of him but also to provide the grounds necessary to remove Beria and the threat that he posed. If such a battle of cunning did take place over Stalin's death then it was the more moderate contenders who succeeded and were subsequently able to implement reform and bring and end to most of Stalin's sadistic practices. On the other hand, had Beria's claim for power been successful, history might have taken a very very different course.

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