The Last Days of Stalin review: Dictator at the end of the line [more here on the book] He beat the Whites and the Nazis. He liquidated his enemies and condemned millions to starvation. But the end came amazingly peacefully for Joseph Stalin
No [Hitler-like] dramas accompanied Joseph Stalin’s death. The Soviet dictator still retained his power and popularity as the leader of a nuclear superstate. The socialist [if one still wishes to call it that] society he was instrumental in creating had fought off the Nazi onslaught and was to persist for four more decades. Conspiracy theories about Stalin’s death are legion, but the simple truth is that he suffered a stroke on March 2nd, 1953, aged 73, and died three days later.
Joshua Rubenstein’s account of Stalin’s death and the responses to it is very well done. There were no surviving witnesses to interview, so Rubenstein [website here] makes good use of memoirs and of documentation that has become available since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. But the most authentic memoir is the one written by Stalin’s estranged daughter Svetlana, after she emigrated to the United States in the 1960s [more here and here]…
Like others before him, the author suggests that Stalin’s death prevented a renewal of the purges that tore through Soviet society in the 1930s, when millions of people were imprisoned and hundreds of thousands executed for alleged political crimes. But Rubenstein presents no compelling evidence of Stalin’s intention to rekindle such persecution.
The one episode that could be cited in support of that intention was the anti-Zionist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s. When Israel was established in 1948, the Soviet Union was one of its biggest supporters. Relations quickly soured when this led to an upsurge of support for Zionism among Soviet Jews. Stalin turned against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee that had been established during the war.
A key committee figure was theatre director Solomon Mikhoels, who was surreptitiously assassinated in 1948. This barbarous act may have been prompted by intelligence reports that Zionists were seeking to influence Stalin through Svetlana and her Jewish intellectual husband.
Rubenstein quotes Stalin as saying that “every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence”. But an alternative translation is “every Jew-Nationalist is an agent of American intelligence”. He had his prejudices, but he was not generally anti-Semitic. Even at the height of the anti-Zionist campaign, he was surrounded by Jewish officials, or male officials married to Jews, and he continued to fete Jewish writers and artists such as Ilya Ehrenburg.
The anti-Zionist campaign took another menacing turn in 1952, when a number of prominent medics were arrested on charges of plotting to murder members of the Soviet leadership. Among the arrests were a core group of 17 Jewish doctors. According to a Pravda article, the draft of which Stalin hand-corrected, the doctors had been recruited by a Jewish bourgeois nationalist organisation led by Mikhoels.
The supposition is often made that the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” was a prelude to the planned mass deportation of Soviet Jews, triggering a renewal of a Great Terror in which Stalin would vanquish all his remaining enemies. Rubenstein, an expert on Stalin and the Jews, devotes an entire chapter to this topic.
He concludes that while there is no evidence of an incipient mass deportation, the anti-Semitic campaign was “gathering such momentum in the press and in the mood of the population that it could well have been intended to reach some kind of monstrous conclusion”. However, such speculation is contradicted by testimony that Stalin called off the campaign against the doctors shortly before he died…
[Reviewer] Geoffrey Roberts [website here] is professor of history at University College Cork. His latest book is Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov
More here on the Vozhd (“Pole-Slayer” amongst other things).