XV. Victory was an ambiguous concept, that Stalin always had trouble dealing with. He had been successful before: he had managed to escape deportation to Siberia for a second time, by becoming an informer and betraying his comrades; he had been part of the efficient Communist takeover of power in Russia, and the absolute destruction of the only liberal regime the country had ever known; he had triumphed in internal party squabbles, by sending untold numbers to atrocious deaths, and had become undisputed leader of one of the most powerful states on Earth. Yet, he didn’t consider himself a man of success, and the years after 1943, full of accolades and accomplishments, were some of the hardest in his contradictory life.
While the Nazi and Japanese empires shrunk slowly in their respective, unstoppable agonies, the leaders of the new Allied Powers met in a series of conferences, in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, to design the new world that would result from the eventual defeat of the enemy. These high-level talks were tough challenges for Stalin, as the Western leaders Churchill and, particularly, Roosevelt were more than willing to recognise the Soviet contribution to the war by surrendering much of Europe to the advancing Red Army; and Stalin was faced with the complicated task of rebuffing these generous offers without triggering even better revised proposals.
At that point, the Red Army had become the biggest problem for Stalin’s strategy of minimizing Soviet gains: confounding his expectations, the Soviet troops quickly pushed the Axis out of the Soviet borders, and then kept advancing in all directions, in what looked like a reverse flood to the earlier Fascist wave. Stalin tried to slow the campaign by ordering an unnecessary thrust southwards to the Balkans, against the advice of the Soviet chiefs of staff; and the thrust turned into a complete success, and the Communist takeover of the Balkans, even as the much reduced divisions on Poland kept advancing towards Berlin, smashing the German defenses without a second thought.
Easter Europe was already a Soviet playground; Roosevelt and Churchill had accepted the facts on the ground, and Stalin eventually did so too. There came the day when the news came that Berlin had fallen to the Red Army, Hitler had killed himself. The war was over, and the Soviet Union had won, absolutely.
XVI. In 1945, Stalin was a frail man nearing his seventh decade. He was tired, and frustrated: his continued efforts over the last four years had only served to strengthen the Soviet Union and, indeed, to turn it into one of two untouchable superpowers, with much control over the newly created United Nations and a whole bloc of “satellite” countries where Soviet divisions and local communists were working to ensure a full, speedy sovietization. Despite the great purges, and the famines, the disastrous collectivization process, the alliance with the Fascist powers that had given them the head-start in the recently finished war, the imprisonment and murder of just about every kind of citizen, the international terrorism that had killed Trotsky, the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and many others, despite the Katyn massacre, the Soviet Union thrived. Indeed, he wondered whether the whole world had grown convinced that there was “something great and bold,” as Bukharin put it, about such a naked display of nefariousness.
Stalin knew he was running out of energy. For the first time in a decade, he found serious opposition in a key issue, when the Politburo in full balked at his plans to stop the Soviet nuclear drive by eliminating the Nazi scientists in charge of the project. For a while, he toyed with the idea of launching another great purge, including a large element of boldness in it, and replace the entire Politburo with more pliant lackeys. However, he already had the top boot-lickers of the state in the Politburo: any change wouldn’t necessarily be for the best, and would very likely be for worse, given that the creation of the Soviet Nuclear Bomb was the one project that had achieved genuine, widespread support among all the Soviet society. Besides, he just couldn’t be bothered with conspirations and hushed instructions, and the prospect of dealing with some more back-stabbing in the Kremlin bored him to no end. And there was also the issue in question: the Americans already had the bomb, which meant that the British would soon have it. If the Soviet Union didn’t make one for itself quick, there was a real danger that the new American president, or the next one, would gamble on a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union – after all, the period of good relations between both countries had been short-lived, and was already turning into what some smart-asses called a “Cold War,” particularly due to the emergence of copy-cat revolutionary Communist movements all over the world. Hard as he thought, Stalin couldn’t see any moral improvement in letting the U.S. exterminate several Soviet cities, over having the Soviet state doing the extermination by itself. A nuclear balance, even if risky, would surely be healthier, and more comfortable for the few years that Stalin had left.
Stalin started to spend a long time watching cinema and visiting his dachas outside of Moscow. He saw his favorite movie – Boys’ Town, an American 1938 movie starring Spencer Tracy – over twenty times. That movie was about a priest who rehabilitates juvenile delinquents, and most of it is set in a kind of re-education camp, and Stalin also enjoyed Soviet movies about camps, which he found quaint and straight to the point; he loved Jolly Fellows, a 1934 Soviet movie about a local Jewish jazzman, Leonid Utyosov: a true rarity. He had a fondness for comedy, mostly international since Soviet comedy films were scarce, and spent some time trying to get a few decent local comedies shot for the benefit of the masses. His efforts were vain, and the results dispiriting.
Politics didn’t stop while Stalin enjoyed himself. By 1948, the Communist Bloc had been fully formed, and included such exotic additions as Albania, a majority Muslim country; and North Korea, ruled by a sort of madman who spent much of the last war in Soviet territory, intent on staying well clear of the Japanese army occupying his country. Stalin didn’t care: he had left such faraway concerns to the care of several Poliburo members who strove for influence like a pack of wild, bespectacled dogs fighting for a single bone. His only interest on issues like the civil war raging in Greece or the Vietnamese war against the French colonial troops was a factor of Kremlin squabbles: if they motivated such and such ministry to bicker and face off with opposing plans, he watched the dispute in search for humorous moments.
Stalin did retain a taste for bureaucratic jokes. Thus, at first he thought that the decision by the Yugoslavian dictator to break away from the Communist Bloc was some sort of prank. In fact, he had always thought that the Yugoslavian’s dictator nickname, “Tito”, was mildly laughable, and fitter for a clown or an entertainer. A professional ballroom dancer, maybe. But no: “Tito” was serious about the separation, he was told. Perhaps they should do something about it.
The Yugoslavian “crisis” refocused Stalin on high politics: he ordered reports about the situation in other European satellite states, and found to his satisfaction that the situation was uniformly bad.
Where the Communists didn’t rule – France, Italy, Greece – they were popular and taken as effective. The British government had actually given Stalin a Sword of Honour to commemorate the Stalingrad battle of all things, in a sign of understanding towards the Soviet pact with Hitler that led to the invasion of Poland, a British ally that was now an unhappy Soviet fiefdom. The Labour Party had won the first post-war elections in Britain, kicking Churchill off his seat, and several Labour figures had visited Moscow to deliver speeches in which they hinted, with delicious British understatement, that the victory of Socialism, in whichever shape, was inevitable.
Such enthusiasm for the cause was lacking in most Eastern European countries. The Yugoslavs had broken away, and there was talk of restlessness in Hungary and Romania. The Communist bloc appeared to be slowly, satisfyingly crumbling, at least on the European side of things. At the same time, the situation in China was, maddeningly, quite the opposite, and the local Communists led by Mao Zedong were defeating the U.S.-supported Nationalist Party. In 1949, the Communist victory in China was complete and the Chinese Nationalist government took refuge in the island of Taiwan, a former Japanese colony. Stalin saw some possibilities for mischief there: the Americans were pining for a fight against the rising Red tide, and the North Koreans, in plain ignorance of emerging Cold War conventions, were pining for a chance to occupy South Korea.
Stalin gave the green light, and the North Koreans invaded in 1950, taking everyone by surprise. The coup was completed soon thereafter, when Stalin ordered the Soviet representative in the U.N. Security Council to abstain from attending the meeting where the crisis was discussed: that left the way open for the Americans to secure a favorable vote and send U.N. troops – mostly Americans – to defend South Korea.
Throughout 1951, Stalin observed the events in the Korean peninsula with great interest: for a while, he despaired of the Americans’ ability to stop the quick North Korean advance, but then the Americans completely reversed the trend, with an audacious landing in the western coast that allowed them to retake Seoul and, in a matter of days, the North Korean capital Pyongyang. At that point, Stalin attended several Politburo frenzied meetings, where anxious hardliners called for a Soviet intervention on behalf of the North Koreans, seeking to avoid the complete collapse of the Soviet client. Stalin flatly refused to act.
“I’ll take all the blame,” he repeated, with half a smile.
Eventually it was the Chinese who intervened for their own reasons, causing Stalin some disappointment, even as he took all the credit for his remarkable sang-froid: after all, the Communist bloc would fight for Korea, to the last Chinese. For several months, the Korean war proved entertaining, as the Chinese pulled the U.N. troops back towards Seoul, and then took the South Korean capital again – for just a brief time, before the Americans counter-attacked and the front stabilized around the 1950 border.
Stalin had hoped for a stiff beating and swift disappearance of the annoying North Korean regime. Instead of that, he had secured its survival behind a wall of Chinese bodies. Once again, things had not gone according to the plan, and his foray into international politics had proved useless at best.With a heavy heart, he went back to the one proven scheme that had never failed: a new purge was needed.
XVII. Stalin was energized by the realisation that it had been a long time since the last purge, what with the world war and Nazi invasion, and the Soviet people were growing complacent on the inability of the state to murder them and make their lives miserable. He understood that a political purge would not do: it wouldn’t be the first; it would appear a matter of routine. It had to be something conceptually different, worse, so he came to the idea of an ethnic purge.
An ethnic purge had a key advantage: foreigners had to care about it, after the recent Nazi butchery and the Soviet misbehavior with non-compliant Caucasian minorities during the war had lowered the standards for shock. And there was a perfect victim for the new purge: a group that was influential, well-known, recently targeted by similar atrocities, and key for the Soviet economy (so the effects of the purge would be even more acute). A group that was well accustomed to purges.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had provided the perfect excuse: Stalin hadn’t opposed it, out of disinterest for the whole matter, but then it looked as if Israel was becoming an American ally, and Israel’s enemies – that is, the entire group of Arab states – good Soviet friends. Stalin reasoned that such conditionals had to ensure acceptance on the part of the Politburo, no matter how reluctant or qualified: surely they couldn’t put their narrow preferences for not purging such or such ethnic group ahead of Soviet interests.
And so Stalin started his last purge: the purge of the Jews.
Stalin’s idea took everyone by surprise and, by the time a significant group of Politburo worthies had started to organise opposition to the purge, it already had some bureaucratic momentum and a catchy slogan: it wasn’t simply an anti-Jewish drive, one more pogrom in the long Russian history of abuse: it was a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”
Many in the Politburo, including heavyweights like Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov and Bulganin, expressed open dismay: the Soviet Union was a nuclear superpower now, able to appoint pro-consuls all over the world and coerce dozens of countries with just a warning. It was a well-respected country with a dignity to defend, and Stalin’s latest excursion into chaos was inappropiate for such a lofty status; actually, it was more like a 1930s leftover: like one the political brawls that Stalin had used to clear the way, with the enthusiastic help of then young proteges with little to lose (then), like Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov and Bulganin.
Elevated views of the Soviet station in the world were one factor behind high-level opposition to the purge; another factor was of a more down-to-earth nature: the Politburo naysayers were married to Jews, or had Jews among their most trusted aides, or depended on Jewish doctors to stay somewhat healthy, or had been informed that many of the Soviet top scientists, including most of those involved in the all-important nuclear program, were Jews. Or, in same cases, were included in all of the above categories. Thus, the Politburo started to work, in secret, in a plan to get rid of the aged, troublesome revolutionary hero who just couldn’t stay put.
Weeks of subterranean political struggle followed, and Stalin came up with another idea to smooth the acceptance of the purge: the “Doctors’ Plot,” where he presented forged evidence that many of those beloved Soviet-Jewish doctors, including Stalin’s own physicians, had been murdering key Soviet and allied officials to further the interests of Israel and, by extension, the U.S.
The concept of a medical plot was arresting, if absurd. It had its own power, and served to cause some weakening of the emerging anti-Stalin coalition. Some victims were handed for public opprobium, to Stalin’s satisfaction: on December 3, 1952, a committee for the defense of the Rosenbergs – a couple of Soviet spies, of Jewish extraction, caught in the U.S. after they had obtained valuable information on the U.S. nuclear program – was formed in France, following instructions of the local communist party; the same day, Rudolf Slansky and ten other former leaders of the Czech Communist Party were executed in Prague after a trial plagued with the grossest kind of anti-Semitic innuendo.
However, the Politburo had resolved to minimize damage: it was fine to kill Slansky and other foreign communists on trumped-up charges, but not to go down the same dangerous road in the Kremlin. One month later, the Truth newspaper published an article under the toxic headline “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians,” and the Politburo put in motion its plan to poison Stalin.
The poisoning plan had the best quality of all successful plots, including the one that had eliminated Trotsky: it was simple. Nothing fancy was attempted. Beria picked warfarin, a powerful rat poison that inhibits coagulation of the blood and tends to bring about cerebral hemorrhage, a perfectly reasonable affection for a seventy-four year old man. Plus, warfarin is flavorless, and was easily administrated without Stalin’s noticing anything at all. Even as hundreds of Jews of all walks of Soviet life were arrested and sent to camps during February, 1953, Stalin was heavily dosed with the knowledge all of the members of the Politburo standing committee.
On March 1, Stalin suffered his first stroke after a heavy dinner with his secret murderers. He remained in his room for the next three days, as carefully selected non-Jewish doctors shuffled in and out without much purpose. Khruschev and the rest barely survived the uncertainty: consumed by excitement and fear, they eventually agreed to send in Beria, Stalin’s fellow Georgian.
As he entered Stalin’s room, alone, Beria saw something was wrong: the old man was breathing almost normally, and even showed some signs of consciousness. Beria had been efficiently trained, and he quickly dropped to his knees and kissed his master’s hand. Stalin tried to say something in Georgian (“you dirty old monster”) but failed to complete the sentence. He was very weak, and fell unconscious again, so Beria immediately stood and spat – on the carpet next to the bed, carefully avoiding the bed itself.
Something had to be done to end that long, terrifying agony. So Beria grabbed a large pillow and covered Stalin’s face, pushing with all his strength. As he suffocated, Stalin recovered consciousness for the briefest of moments, and understood that it was Beria himself who was killing him – him, the greatest leader in Soviet history, was being murdered by a fellow Politburo member, in the Kremlin! And Beria would surely get away with it! Stalin died quietly, in the sweet certainty that his work had been completed.