On March 5, 1953, Soviet Union leader Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1878-1953) died at the age of seventy-four after suffering a massive stroke several days earlier. On March 1, he was found incapacitated on the floor of his dacha, unable to speak or move. The man who had sent thousands of people to their deaths, came face to face with father time but could not escape his fate. Upon hearing that Stalin had died, Soviet citizens felt relieved even if they could not publicly express their feelings. For thirty years Stalin served as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and during that time, held the Soviet Union firmly in his grip. But as he advanced in age, his own mortality became a reality as a series of health events took place before the final emergency that left him at death’s door. But what really happened during the days Stalin clung to life? And what was the fallout from his death behind the scenes? Joshua Rubenstein re-examines the final days of the Soviet leader to assess what really did happen behind the Iron Curtain. And the result is a thorough and pleasing discussion of Stalin’s terror, his demise and the dysfunction left in his wake.
Physically, Stalin was not an imposing figure, standing between 5’5″ and 5’6″ in height. And cosmetically, he was not easy on the eyes. Yet he controlled the Soviet Union and struck fear in the hearts of those around him and those who stood in front of him. Rubenstein goes deeper into Stalin’s menacing presence by revisiting the words of former First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) who worked directly under Stalin:
“As Khrushchev once admitted, after a meeting with Stalin no one ever knew if he would return home alive. To the public, they were his “comrades-in-arms.” In reality, they were potential victims as long as he remained in charge.”
Make no mistake, Stalin struck fear in the hearts of everyone, regardless of position or even family relation. But to understand how his death changed history, the author revisits the dark side of the late leader, paying close attention to the rise in anti-Semitism within the Soviet Union that gave way to persecution and ugly acts of violence against Russian Jews. As I read the book, I had to conclude that Stalin and his henchmen were just as bad if not worse that the perpetrators of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. The author does clear up an important question regarding any plans by Stalin to deport Soviet Jews. If he did have any plans in mind, they went with him to the grave. There was no joy to be found within the Soviet Union, only suspicion and fear. Ironically that system of fear prevented him from being helped at the time he needed it the most with everyone afraid to enter his private room. But by the time someone did, it was too late.
After Stalin is pronounced dead, the Soviet Union found itself in a weird place. His death inevitably created a power vacuum, but the first step was to put forth a united front to the prying eyes of western nations. But the reality was that the removal of Stalin presented opportunities for subordinates to rise in the ranks. And that struggle is included in the story as well. As the story progresses, another villain emerges in the form of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953) the director of the Soviet secret police and the man who carried out Stalin’s darkest orders. Following Stalin’s death, officials saw an opportunity for the party to reform its image by reinstating personal freedoms and commuting prison sentences. The latter of the two had adverse effects that officials somehow failed to anticipate and correct. But they were willing to accept the minor losses to accomplish the main goal. Beria had the unfortunate luck of being unpopular and a relic of what had become the “Stalin era”. He meets his fate in the book and some would say rightfully so. But Rubenstein has another take on it which sums up the Soviet Union in the wake of the leader’s death:
“The party had carried out a political exorcism, offering up Beria as a sacrificial lamb to atone for the sins it refused to acknowledge.”
In Washington, there is confusion about how Stalin’s death will affect American and Soviet relations. But no one knew how to manage the situation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) enters the story and his administration aided by former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) is forced to confront the Soviet issue and the increasingly powerful People’s Republic of China and the Korean War. The White House eventually settled on a course of action, but the main action was taking place within the Soviet Union as Stalin’s former underlings were confronted with the reality that the party had to continue with new leadership. There were winners and losers and the Soviet Union kept moving forward until its dissolution in December 1991. When the hammer and sickle came down for the last time, it signaled the end of an era. But the ghost of Joseph Stalin will remain with us as a reminder of the dangers of tyranny and paranoia. The final curtain call in the life of Joseph Stalin was a sad affair but the comeuppance from years of deadly policy and brutality that knew no bounds. This is a fascinating and valuable look at his final days and the impact his death had across the world.