18 September 2023
Martin Dewhirst reviews The Last Days of Stalin by Joshua Rubenstein, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016/2017, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-300-22884-7 (pbk).
Now is just the right time to read (or re-read) this excellent paperback – and for at least three good reasons. First, it is concise and extremely well and clearly written, as well as surprisingly topical.
Secondly, Stalin is much more popular in Russia today than when this book was first published. I’m reluctant to quote any figures, even from polls recently conducted by the more or less independent Levada Center, but just imagine if, in about 1975, Hitler had still been regarded as an acceptable politician by more than 1% of the adult population of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany! In today’s Russia, that percentage is, to put it mildly, well into two digits. How is this possible?! After all, Stalin was responsible for even more millions of premature deaths of Soviet adults and children than was Hitler of Germans, if only because the former had been in power for so much longer.
And thirdly, we might currently (or is this wishful thinking?) be living through the last few weeks or months of President Putin, who, like Stalin, is obviously physically, mentally and psychologically challenged (see, for instance, pp. 49 and 97). Rubenstein shows clearly how unprepared the USSR and the rest of the world were for Stalin’s death. Given the development of modern weaponry, is the Russian Federation today even more dangerous and aggressive than the USSR was in early 1953? Can we learn anything from 70 years ago to make it more likely that Putin’s successor(s) is (are) less of a danger to peace and to the rest of the world than he is?
Naturally, the title of this book shouldn’t be taken verbatim. It covers not just a few days, but the period from October 1952 to December 1953, when Lavrenty Beria, a security professional and secret policeman, was shot dead by Major General Pavel Batitsky and six other military men (see pp. 225-6). Can we expect dissension/tension between the Russian military and the Russian security services if Putin’s desperate attempts to maintain Moscow’s control over Ukraine prove to be in vain? (See p. 207.)
Most Western politicians and experts on contemporary Russia are very pessimistic about the chances of a more accommodating and liberal Russia emerging after Putin leaves the Kremlin for the last time. So were many (apparently most) of their colleagues after Stalin died in 1953. Klaus Mehnert, one of the very best German Sovietologists, ‘like so many others, believed that without Stalin the situation inside the Soviet Union and its relations with other states could grow more strained and dangerous’ (p.24). In the USA, as Rubenstein writes, ‘Foster Dulles, Vice President Richard Nixon, and Eisenhower himself all assumed “that the situation might very well be worse after Stalin’s death”. This would be, in fact, a common reaction to Stalin’s death, including inside the Soviet Union’ (p. 21).
‘The physicist Andrei Sakharov also remembered those March  days with vivid emotion. “People feared the situation would deteriorate – but how could it get any worse? Some, including those who harbored no illusions about Stalin and the regime, worried about a general collapse, internecine strife, another wave of mass repressions, even Civil War.”’ (p. 129.) ‘Within hours [of Stalin’s demise] Eisenhower chaired a meeting of the National Security Council where he sought advice from senior officials. No one anticipated that Stalin’s heirs might be easier to negotiate with. Vice President Richard Nixon […] saw the need to caution Congress that “Stalin’s successor might very well prove more difficult to deal with than Stalin himself.”’ (p. 152.) ‘Inspired by a well-placed source, Newsweek reported that the White House “considers [Malenkov] to be just as tough as Stalin, more suspicious, and probably even harder to deal with”’. (p. 152.) Under Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith (who had recently been the U.S. ambassador in the USSR) said at a meeting, ‘“We do not have an exploitable situation, and it would be wrong for us to expect anything in the way of change of any significance.” Stalin died later that night and still the United States had no contingency plan for what to do.’ (pp. 154-5.) (The mood in at least some of the labour camps was much more optimistic – see pp. 217-20.)
Something similar to these Western views on Stalin’s death at the time seems to be the majority ‘take’ of most Western and Russian experts today on the prospects for Russia(ns) after Putin finally leaves the stage. I can well imagine that the immediate future of his country, once he has gone, will be even nastier than it is today, but for how long? Will Patrushev become the post-Putin equivalent of Beria?! If so, how long will he last? (See p. 206.) Will Russians start to discuss whether Putin has done as much harm to Russia as to Ukraine? Will a sort of neo-Khrushchevian figure appear in a few years’ time? Should or should not some Western politicians rush to meet Putin’s successor, despite what a few ill-advised people did in 2000-01? (See p. 247.)
Destalinisation began almost immediately after the alleged Great Leader passed away, initially led by the ominous Beria. But who predicted then that there would be some more partial and jerky, but very significant, developments leading to the Communist Party’s 20th Congress three years later and many strong attacks on Stalin’s ‘personality cult’? (Admittedly, that was followed by the Soviet-led invasion and decades-long occupation of Hungary just a few months later.) I sense that Putinism will end quite quickly and not make a comeback in the weird way that Stalinism has. One of Rubenstein’s conclusions deserves to be quoted here. ‘It is doubtful that a murderous gang ever exercised greater power in the course of modern history than Stalin and the men he had personally assembled’ (p. 104). Putin seems to have little sympathy for the millions of people whose lives were cut short or otherwise ruined by Stalin and refuses to admit that Stalin was, undoubtedly, a monstrous disaster for Russia. Will Putin be remembered in a similar way? And how much, if at all, can ‘the West’ influence the outcome, for better or for worse?