On the 3rd of March 1953 the Soviet people were shocked to hear Moscow
radio speaking about ‘the disease of the Chairman of the Council of the
USSR Ministers and the Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU
comrade Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin’. The official statement said that
during the night of March 2 comrade Stalin was paralysed due to a
stroke. It was said that Stalin lost his speech and had difficulties in
Short as the communiqué was it contained two untrue statements.
First, it stated that Stalin became ill in his Moscow apartment. In
reality Stalin suffered the stroke when he was in his Kuntsevo
country-house which at that time was out of the boundary of Moscow.
Second, Stalin was paralysed on March 1 but not on March 2. Soon it
became clear that during two days the public was not informed about
Stalin’s disease. Though since March 3 the radio and press regularly
informed the public on Stalin’s health the official information was no
longer wholly trusted and rumours spread which contradicted official
The rumours became widespread after Stalin’s death. The author of this article who was 15 at that time and lived in Moscow well remembers people in streets speaking about ‘the murder of the leader who defended the interests of the workers’. Stalin’s son, Vassily, claimed that while people marched before Stalin’s coffin in the House of the Soviets an elderly crippled woman approached the Party leaders standing nearby and brandishing her walking stick shouted: ‘You are glad, scoundrels, that you have him killed! Be you damned!’
Vassily himself made similar accusations in public. At the end of March 1953 he was sacked from the armed forces. At the end of April 1953 he was arrested and he was kept in various prisons. He was in extremely poor health when he was finally liberated in April 1961. In March 1962 he died.
Despite the fact that many years have passed since then the circumstances of Stalin’s death continue to interest people in modern Russia. In the beginning of 2008 a historian Nikolai Dobryukha under a pen-name ‘Nikolai Nad’ published a book in which he analysed the draft notes of doctors who treated Stalin from March 2 until March 5. N. Dobryukha asserted that the medical experts came to a conclusion that Stalin was poisoned by some organic venomous substance which affected his blood circulation system, lymphatic vessels and brain. But as the doctors feared that they themselves might be accused of poisoning Stalin they did not state these facts in official communiqués while at the same time they resorted to anti-poison treatment. Nikolai Dobryukha claims that the origin of Stalin’s disease is still guarded as a secret, which will be revealed only in 2028.
What happened on March 1, 1953?
The answer to the question: ‘Who killed Stalin?’ seems to be simple enough. In Felix Chuev’s book ‘One hundred and forty talks with Molotov’ published in 1991 there was a statement of the former Soviet leader which was tape-recorded in the 1970s. Molotov related his conversation with Lavrenti Beria during the May Day celebrations in 1953. Beria who was the USSR Minister of Interior at that time bluntly explained to Molotov Stalin’s death: ‘I did away with him’. Commenting on Beria’s words to Chuev, Molotov noted: ‘It is quite feasible that he was responsible for his death’. It is also quite possible that Molotov was not the only person to whom Beria confided his secret.
Since Beria’s arrest on June 26 1953 there were many facts revealed which showed that he demonstrated his aversion to Stalin as soon as he became ill on March 1. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana stated that Beria almost did not conceal his joy when Stalin died. Later at the plenary session of the Central Committee of the CPSU of July 1953 many Soviet leaders spoke that after Stalin’s death Beria started to vilify the deceased Generalissimo. And yet the events of the first days of March 1953 do not allow us to consider that Beria was the only person responsible for Stalin’s death.
It is known that before March 1 Stalin was quite well. In the evening of February 28 he saw some films in his Kremlin apartment with a number of his colleagues. After that he invited four of them – George Malenkov, Lavrenti Beria, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin to his country-house for a late repast. The meal lasted until 4 o’clock March 1. At their departure the guests were reminded that they were invited to attend a dinner party at Stalin’s country-house next day together with other Party leaders. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and Stalin’s son Vassily were also invited to this party. The guards remembered that Stalin was in a jovial mood. Later the chief guard of the day I. V. Khrustalev told his colleagues that Stalin urged all the guards to go to take a rest. The guards later commented that such an order had no precedents.
From noon March 1 all through the day Svetlana and Vassily who were invited to their father for the Sunday dinner phoned the country-house but they received answers that Stalin did not yet leave the room where he spent the night. The same answers were received by other persons invited for the dinner.
Meanwhile at 10 A.M. Khrustalev finished his day’s term of duty as a chief guard and was replaced by Starostin for another 24 hours. Later Starostin as well as junior guards explained that usually Stalin himself summoned them or the servants and did not like being disturbed. Yet time went by and no call followed. The guards began to worry as the sun was going down. At 6.30 P.M. as the sun went down the guards saw that the light was switched on in Stalin’s room. They decided that soon Stalin would call service to bring him something to eat. But again there was no call.
Only at 10.30 P.M. after some mail came from the CPSU Central Committee Starostin ordered another guard Lozgachev to carry the mail to Stalin’s room. Lozgachev found Stalin lying unconscious on the floor. At the table nearby there were a copy of ‘Pravda’, his glasses for reading and an open bottle of mineral water. It seemed that Stalin was reading and drinking mineral water before he fell on the floor. Lozgachev addressed Stalin. Without opening his eyes Stalin made some indistinguishable sounds.With the help of three other persons Lozgachev carried Stalin to the main room of the country-house. They put him on a sofa, covered him with a warm blanket and phoned the USSR Minister of State Security S.D. Ignatyev who was personally responsible for Stalin’s security. Later the guards said that they expected that the medical doctors would arrive almost immediately.
But Ignatyev did not call doctors but phoned the leading members of the Central Committee Presidium. Soon Malenkov, Beria, Khrushchev and Bulganin arrived to Stalin’s country-house. Later Khrushchev in his memoirs claimed that when they saw Stalin lying on a sofa Lavrenti Beria said to the guards: ‘Do not panic. Stalin is just fast asleep and there is no need to disturb him’. After that the Presidium members left the country-house.
According to the memoirs of the guards they still expected the soon arrival of medical doctors but they did not come until next day at 7 A.M.
These well known events make one wonder. Why did Beria and other Presidium members make a medical diagnosis about Stalin’s health though they knew next to nothing about medicine? Why did they ignore the guards’ words that Stalin was found lying on the floor and while being unconscious was carried to another room? It is obvious that such a behaviour regarding any living being demonstrates at least extreme callousness. It is clear that Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev and Bulganin prevented the rendering of medical assistance to an elderly person who was known to have problems with his health. In their public utterances all of them constantly glorified Stalin and spoke about his leading role in the public life of the USSR and world’s history. They constantly spoke about their devotion towards Stalin. Yet on that night the four leaders obviously did not do a thing to alleviate the sordid state of Stalin. On the contrary they let Stalin’s disease take its fatal course. And if it was so, why were Beria and others sure that Stalin’s illness might be fatal?
The explanations of the guards also seem strange. Why did they wait for so long before visiting Stalin’s room? From their own memoirs it is well known that Stalin was on friendly terms with them. Only when they began to behave noisily outside the country-house Stalin used to come up to the window and wag his finger calling them to order in a school-teacher’s manner. Yet according to their explanations it appears that on March 1 all of them suddenly were afraid to come to Stalin’s room without being called. Why none of them called the doctors the moment they found him on the floor? Why they did not call the doctors after the departure of Beria and others? Did Stalin really order the guards to take a rest on a fatal night of March 1 or it was a fantasy of Khrustalev who told the guards about such Stalin’s order? The last question could be answered by Khrustalev but he suddenly died three weeks after Stalin’s death. Despite the fact that Khrustalev was well known for his perfect health it was announced that he died of a heart failure.
It is obvious that the four Presidium members, the State Security minister Ignatyev as well as the guards acted in the face of a great emergency as if there was no emergency at all. It is also obvious that the passive behaviour of the guards was in accordance with the behaviour of the four Party leaders and minister Ignatyev. It is obvious that the four leaders committed a crime at least by interfering with medical assistance to Stalin. Though mystery still surrounds the March events of 1953 it is possible to suspect them of plotting to kill Stalin.
A look into the Soviet leadership
Yet one may ask: ‘Why did these four leaders want Stalin’s death?’ They occupied the highest positions in the Soviet hierarchy. George Malenkov was the Central Committee Secretary and the deputy of the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. He was the main Central Committee reporter at the XIXth Congress which took place less than half a year ago. L. Beria and N. Bulganin were also deputies of the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. Beria controlled the work of atomic industry. Bulganin was responsible for the work of the defence ministries. Stalin wholly trusted them in important practical business matters of the Soviet state. In February 1951 Stalin let all of the three sign different Government decrees instead of him by using the rubber stamp of his signature. N. S. Khrushchev was the Secretary of the Central Committee as well as the first Secretary of Moscow Party Committee. He also was one of the reporters at the XIXth CPSU Congress.
It is also true that all of them were criticised by Stalin at different times. At the end of the 1940s G. Malenkov was punished for supporting persons accused of criminal negligence in the production of military planes during the World War. L. Beria was criticised of promoting Party functionaries of the Mingrel nationality who were accused of criminal activities. (Beria belonged to the same ethnic group.) N. Khrushchev was criticised in Pravda for his attempts to liquidate the personal plots of collective farmers. There were occasions when J. Stalin was critical of N. Bulganin. Though all these events happened some years before the spring 1953 some historians claimed that Stalin remembered their past misdeeds and was eager to get rid of them. These historians asserted that the four leaders acted in self-defence fearing that the Generalissimo had prepared their arrests and executions.
Stalin’s enemies claim that the Generalissimo used to kill his closest friends and assistants all of a sudden. Such a notion became widespread since Khrushchev’s speech at the closed session of the XXth Congress of the CPSU. In this report Stalin was pretty much vilified. Afterwards during Gorbachev’s perestroika Stalin was depicted as a veritable monster capable of extreme perfidy and evil. Therefore people believed that Stalin used to arrest and shoot his colleagues at a short notice. On December 2008 the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences History Institute A. Sakharov claimed in the televised programme that Stalin killed all his closest supporters. Contrary to this lie, most of those who became Stalin’s supporters in the 1920s and 1930s (Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Beria) continued to be the Central Committee Presidium members in March 1953.
Though Stalin was reluctant to make swift changes in the composition of the leading body of the CPSU, ever since his speech at the XIIth Communist Party Congress (1923) he time and again spoke about the need to prepare new leaders. As the time went by Stalin had on many occasions commented on the growing need to bring about changes in the composition of the Party leadership at different levels. The contradictory role of the Party leadership increased with the development of the Soviet society. While objectively the leading functionaries of the Communist party played important parts in building and consolidating of the socialist order many of them subjectively did not correspond to the rapid social and economic changes of Soviet society.
While most of the Party officials who came to power after 1917 lacked higher education and experience of practical work at modern enterprises the fast growing Soviet society demanded people at the helm who were better educated and better versed in modern technologies. Stalin declared that mastering modern technologies by Bolsheviks is an absolute necessity.
Besides a large number of Party and state officials grew accustomed to their undisputed and unchanged status of high administrators. They surrounded themselves by cliques composed of persons devoted to them.
Many of the Party secretaries and other officials became more interested in the perpetuation of their positions than in solving the domestic and international problems of the USSR. They ignored their low professional competence and exaggerated their successes. They censured initiatives of the better educated and professional communists whose ranks became larger as the number of fast growing educational establishments and industrial enterprises increased. Though official Soviet propaganda hailed the ‘monolithic unity’ of the Communist party after the defeat of all the opposition groups it hardly reflected reality. Some of the Party officials feuded with their colleagues in order to consolidate and increase their personal power. As the international situation aggravated and the menace of the new world war became imminent these negative aspects of the Soviet leadership on all levels became especially acute.
Many leaders had but a very primitive understanding of Marxism. Speaking at the XVIIth Congress of the Communist Party (1934), Stalin pointed out that ‘the enemies of the Party, all sort of opportunists, nationalistic deviationists were defeated. Yet the remnants of their ideologies are still alive in the minds of some Party members’. Stalin said that ‘the development of consciousness sometimes lag behind the economic development’. Besides, Stalin remarked on the negative influence of ‘the capitalist surrounding’ of the USSR.
He said: ‘One should also mention that the theoretical level of the majority of our Party members is not so high. We should mention also the weak ideological work of the Party bodies as well as the fact that they are overburdened by purely practical work which prevents them to fill their theoretical knowledge. Taking all this into account you may understand why there is such a confusion in the minds of some Party members about Leninism. Time and again this confusion penetrates to our press and it helps to revive the remnants of ideologies of the defeated anti-Leninist groups’.
Stalin and his supporters considered that the only way to curb the dangerous process of turning the Party and the country into battlegrounds of different clans led by ambitious leaders and influenced by anti-Leninist ideologies is to perform profound political reforms. In order to do this Stalin in 1934 proposed to draft the new USSR Constitution which should reflect the profound social and economic transformations of the Soviet society during 17 years of its existence.
Reflecting the realities of the first years of the Soviet history (strong positions of bourgeoisie, especially among peasants, not so strong position of urban working class) the Constitutions of 1918 and 1924 established unequal elections of deputies: urban communities elected five times more deputies than the rural communities. Besides, former capitalists, land-owners, civilian and police servants of the tsarist regime, priests of all confessions and those who used hired labour were not allowed to vote. Those who participated in elections voted in open assemblies for or against candidates for the deputies of district Soviets. Then the deputies of the district Soviets elected in open sessions deputies of the regional Soviets. They in turn elected republican Soviets. And at the last stage there were elections of the USSR Congress of deputies.
The draft of the ‘Stalin’s Constitution’ established direct, equal and secret voting at all levels of the Soviets. At the same time Stalin and his supporters in the Politbureau (Molotov, Voroshilov and Kaganovich) demanded that there be several candidates for each vacancy of a deputy. These reforms were opposed by some of those who occupied strategically important positions in the ruling hierarchy of the USSR. These anti-Stalinist sentiments were welcomed by the members of the defeated oppositions. From abroad Leon Trotsky addressed leading Party functionaries calling them to get rid of Stalin and his supporters. He urged the creation of an underground Party which would overthrow Stalin.
At the same time M. Ryutin who was a former supporter of Bukharin organised a clandestine ‘Union of Marxists-Leninists’. Their widely spread ‘Platform’ demanded the overthrow of Stalin and his supporters and radical change of political course.
Stalin’s constitutional reform was also opposed by many of those who not long ago actively attacked Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and others. As it is well demonstrated in Yuri Zhukov’s book Inoi Stalin (see ‘The Quest for the Truth About Stalin’ RD, September 2006), the political reform fostered by Stalin and his supporters was opposed by those Party members who were afraid of losing their posts. One of the leading figures of this opposition was the Secretary of the USSR Central Executive Committee of the Soviets A. Yenukidze.
These events also stimulated plots of the leading figures in the Red Army (see ‘The Tukhachevsky Conspiracy’, RD, September 2007). The military conspirators led by Marshal Tukhachevsky got in touch with a number of leading Party functionaries. At the same time the chief of People’s Commissariat of Domestic Affairs H. Yagoda who was a long-time supporter of Bukharin kept close contacts with M. Tukhachevsky and A. Yenukidze.
The assassination of S. Kirov, a close supporter of Stalin, was one of the consequences of these conspiracies. However, the investigation of this murder organised by Yagoda led away from finding those who were the masterminds of the crime.
As the work on the USSR Constitution culminated in its adoption on December the 5th, 1936 and the time for elections on the new principles approached, the clandestine activities of those opposing the Stalin Constitution increased. The intensity of the behind-the-scenes struggle was demonstrated by the suicide of Politbureau member G. Ordzhonikidze caught up between his loyalty to Stalin and his connections with a number of anti-Stalin conspirators. This happened just on the eve of the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in February 1937.
At this plenary meeting Stalin outlined the character of the political crisis of the Communist Party and offered a set of measures to stop its development. Stalin warned about the danger of the Party losing contact with people’s masses. He compared the Party with Antaeus from ancient Greek mythology who was invincible so long as he remained in contact with his mother Earth. As soon as Hercules lifted Antaeus from the earth, he became weak and was strangled by Hercules. Stalin said that Bolsheviks are invincible as long as they keep in touch with the working masses. It is interesting that Stalin put these words also at the end of ‘The Short Course of the Communist Party History’ published in 1938. It sounded as an ominous prophetic warning for the USSR Communist party which as the later events showed remained unheeded.
In his speeches at the plenary meetings Stalin exposed the clans surrounding many of the leading figures of the Party, their dishonest reports full of falsifications. He criticised reprisals against rank and file members who criticised Party leaders.
Again Stalin spoke about the divorce from Marxist-Leninist ideology of many Party functionaries. Stalin doubted that they are real Marxists. He said: ‘I do not know whether many members of the Central Committee share Marxist ideas. Do many secretaries of the regional Party committees understand Marxism?’ Stalin said: ‘The old slogan of mastering technologies should be supplemented by the slogan of mastering Bolshevism, by the slogan of political education of commanding personnel’. He urged ‘to uplift the ideological level and political awareness of the commanding personnel’. He stated: ‘If we manage to prepare our Party personnel ideologically on all levels from top to bottom and consolidate their political consciousness so that they would be able to understand domestic and international situation, if we manage to turn them into quite mature Leninists and Marxists capable of solving the problems of leading our country without serious mistakes, we would have solved nine out of ten of our current tasks’.
Stalin outlined a radical programme of transformations in the Party leadership. Expressing his dissatisfaction with the low ideological and political level of Party functionaries Stalin suggested that all of them should attend special education courses. According to Stalin’s plan the education courses should be attended by all of the 102 thousand secretaries of primary party cells, all of the 3500 secretaries of district party committees, over 200 secretaries of city party committees, over 100 secretaries of regional and republican committees. The education should last from 4 to 8 months. Before they went to the educational courses the secretaries should suggest two deputies one of which would be chosen by the higher Party bodies to replace the present secretary during his studies. Later these deputies should also attend such courses.
At the same time Stalin considered that there should be made a choice between the present secretaries and their deputies. Some of the deputies may eventually replace those who were present secretaries. He declared: ‘We have tens of thousands of talented people. It is necessary to search for them and promote them in time before they start to rot at old places’.
Stalin spoke also about the need to choose new high Party leaders among those who would attend ‘The conference on the problems of domestic and international politics’. He said: ‘We, members of the Politbureau are already old people. Soon we shall leave the public scene. This is a law of nature. We want to prepare a number of people able to replace us’. Stalin underlined that these changes corresponded to the USSR Constitution adopted on the 5th of December 1936.
But Stalin’s initiative was answered by a stepping up of the conspiratorial activities of those who wanted to consolidate their personal power positions. Tukhachevsky and others planned to perform a coup d'etat on the 1st of May 1937. This plan was postponed and in the middle of May Tukhachevsky was demoted from his post of the first deputy of Defence People’s Commissar. By the end of May he and his collaborators were arrested. By that time Yagoda was also arrested.
Commenting on the plot of Tukhachevsky at the session of the Red Army Council Stalin urged to limit the number of those arrested, not involving even those who got into conspiratorial activities through intimidation by their superiors. But a new People’s Commissar of Domestic Affairs N. Yezhov presented for the June 1937 Plenary meeting of the Central Committee evidence about the involvement of some of the members of the Central Committee in anti-Government conspiracies. While the Central Committee was in session a group of its members conducted a clandestine meeting during which they decided to stop reprisals in their midst. Only one of the participants of this meeting the Secretary of the Moscow regional Soviet Philatov informed Stalin about this new clandestine action. This demonstrated to Stalin that lack of genuine Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee members had led some of them to defend the exposed anti-Government conspirators.
But at the same time a greater number of the leading Party functionaries tried to use the exposure of Tukhachevsky, Yagoda and others in order to call for much broader reprisals. They asserted that in many provinces and republics there existed underground plots aiming at the overthrow of Soviet power. They insisted that the plotters would try to use the coming elections to the Supreme Soviet in order to elect counterrevolutionary deputies. By the end of June the Secretary of the Western Siberian Party Committee R. I. Eikhe presented Stalin and others with his plan to perform measures in order to prevent the victory of counter-revolution at the 1937 election. He demanded the execution of approximately 10,000 people whom he considered to be enemies of the Soviet power. According to Eikhe’s proposals he as the regional secretary should play the decisive role in establishing the crime and determine the punishment during these reprisals.
The example of Eikhe was followed by the first Secretary of Moscow party committee N. Khrushchev. Practically all regional and republican secretaries demanded the same right to decide who should be subjected to reprisals. All of a sudden Stalin and his supporters found that they were in the minority. Under the strong political pressure of members of the Central Committee, Stalin and his supporters let N. Yezhov with the aid of Eikhe, Khrushchev and others launch reprisals on a broader scale.
Many regional secretaries used the reprisals to do away with their potential competitors for their jobs. Soon their example was followed by many participants of conflicts in many enterprises and other human groups. Plant and farm managers, engineers, professors accused their colleagues of sabotage and anti-government activities. Historically this was not unusual for the country which was living through the period of rapid social transformations and under the stress of the coming world war.
Yet Stalin and his supporters hoped that the new election system would be launched into action and it would be used as an effective way to normalise the situation. They believed that the new election system would stop pseudo-Marxist and pseudo-Leninist careerists, bureaucrats and incompetent persons from grabbing power. However by that time Stalin lost the majority in the Politbureau. The former Supreme Soviet President Anatolii Lukyanov not long ago recalled his private talk with Anastas Mikoyan who was a Politbureau member at that time. According to Mikoyan, at the October 1937 Plenary meeting of the Central Committee Stalin, Molotov and others suggested a draft of a voting ballot for the coming elections. The draft was made so that there would be several candidates for each deputy’s vacancy. However, as Mikoyan stated Stalin and his supporters were vigorously opposed in their plan for elections with several candidates. ‘Stalin was defeated’, – concluded Mikoyan. (Yuri Zhukov in his book corroborates this assertion.)
Though the words about the need ‘to strike out names of other candidates and to leave ONLY THE NAME OF ONE CANDIDATE’ remained on copies of all ballots for all the elections which were carried out in the USSR until its end in 1991, the stipulation did not make sense since there was but one candidate on any ballot.
Meanwhile as the reprisals urged by Eikhe, Khrushchev and others continued many of those who were responsible for them became their victims as they were accused by their personal enemies of plotting against the Soviet state. Such was the fate of Eikhe and others who demanded mass arrests and executions. Only by the end of 1938 with the demotion of Yezhov the mass reprisals stopped.
The intrigues around P. K. Ponomarenko
Though the tragic events of 1937-38 resulted in many innocent victims at the same time many of the intriguing and career-minded leaders of political cliques lost their jobs being either sent to camps or executed. The new vacancies were filled by younger persons with a higher education and good experience of work at the modern enterprises. Together with the higher education they received a better knowledge of Marxism-Leninism which was an obligatory discipline in Soviet higher educational establishments. Stalin personally made appointments of many such persons to high posts. Yet at the highest level – that of Politbureau – there were no persons with higher education. That is why before the War Stalin promoted two such persons – G. Malenkov and N. Voznesensky to the Politbureau as alternate members and made them full members after the War.
Yet Stalin made a mistake by pointing out in the audience of his Politbureau colleagues that professional economist Voznesensky might later replace him at the post of the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. This immediately caused Malenkov with the support of Beria to organise an intrigue against Voznesensky. Using true facts which exposed Voznesenky’s falsifications in economic reports Malenkov, Beria and others accused him of anti-Soviet activities. Voznesensky was arrested and later shot.
Still Stalin did not forsake his plans to bring about changes in the highest leadership of the USSR. He was aware that his statement about the divorce of high Party functionaries from Marxism-Leninism made in 1934 and in 1937 had become more valid. There is no doubt that members of the Politbureau proved their worth as good practical organisers especially during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the post-war restoration of the Soviet economy. There is no doubt that L. Beria proved himself to be an able organiser of the Soviet atomic industry which was able to produce the first Soviet atomic bomb to counter the American nuclear weapon monopoly. There are many examples of the efficient management activities of Malenkov, Khrushchev and Bulganin. However their constant involvement in personal feuds and intrigues demonstrated their alienation from Communist morals and Communist ideology, despite the fact that they couched their non-Marxism and pseudo-Leninism with Marxist-Leninist phraseology. The ignoring of scientific communism by the leading figures of the USSR led to its replacement with ‘narrow-minded practicism’ which was attacked by Stalin in his work ‘Foundations of Leninism’ published widely since 1924.
Talking to an economist D. Shepilov J. Stalin pointed out: ‘Either we shall reorganise our society on a scientific basis, or we shall perish!’ This is why he participated most actively in the work on the textbook on political economy in 1951-1952. The outcome of these efforts was his book ‘The Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’.
As it was recorded by Molotov, when Stalin read parts of the book to his colleagues he was aware that their hollow praises demonstrated their poor understanding of Marxism-Leninism. These reading sessions once again proved to Stalin that the Party leading figures do not care a bit about scientific Communism and relied on pragmatic day-to-day improvisations. Stalin knew that de-ideologisation may provoke the spread of anti-Communist bourgeois ideology.
According to Molotov, in the end of 1952 Stalin wrote the second part of ‘Economic Problems’ and gave to Molotov a copy of it to read. Yet, as recognised later by Molotov, the text disappeared after Stalin’s death. Its disappearance was but another eloquent evidence of the fact that Stalin’s heirs did not care about the theoretical works of Stalin nor about Communist theory.
Being well aware of the alienation of his colleagues from the Communist theory and suspecting that such an attitude might lead to an open divorce with Marxism-Leninism, Stalin wanted to perform gradual changes in the composition of the Party leadership. In order to do this Stalin suggested the creation of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU which would be larger than the previously existing Politbureau. The Presidium numbered 25 members and 11 alternate members instead of 11 Politbureau members. He suggested candidates which included persons with higher education and good experience of work which demanded such an education. He insisted on including to the Presidium Rumyantsev, Chesnokov and Yudin who were doctors of philosophy and noted specialists of Marxist-Leninist theory. These changes were brought about during the XIXth Congress of the CPSU in October 1952.
At the October (1952) Plenary meeting of the Central Committee Stalin criticised Molotov and Mikoyan for their liberalism regarding the West but did not make any critical remarks about other veteran members of the Politbureau. Yet commenting on the resignations of a number of Politbureau members from the posts of minister in 1949 Stalin said that they were relieved in order to be replaced by ‘younger and more energetic persons’. Before the appointments of the Politbureau veterans to the posts of deputies of the Chairman of the USSR Ministers was considered that they received higher posts in order to control other ministers. Since not only Molotov and Mikoyan, but also Beria, Malenkov and Bulganin became deputies of the Chairman of the USSR Ministers in 1949 all of them might come to the conclusion that Stalin implied that they were no longer young and energetic enough to fulfil the Government duties. It was a grave warning to them.
By the very end of his speech Stalin announced that he also was getting old, that it is difficult for him to fulfil the duties of the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. He said that it was time for him to retire. The statement caused unanimous protests of those present. Stalin waved his hand in an abject manner and added nothing. Yet when the resolution on the election of the Presidium and the Secretariat of the CPSU Central Committee was printed Stalin was not named as the Secretary General but just as one of the Central Committee Secretaries.
It was not announced officially that by the end of 1952 Stalin made a draft of a proposal to replace himself at the post of the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers by Panteleimon Kondratyevich Ponomarenko who at that time was a member of the Presidium and Secretariat of the Central Committee as well as a deputy of the Chairman of the USSR Council of ministers.
Unlike most of the Politbureau veterans Ponomarenko had a higher education and came to occupy Party posts only in 1937. Since June 1938 Ponomarenko became the first secretary of the Central Committee of Byelorussia. Overcoming the opposition of Khrushchev and Beria Stalin insisted on appointing Ponomarenko in 1942 as the chief of the Partisan Movement headquarters. Stalin did it taking into account the fact that the partisan movement developed most effectively in Byelorussia. Despite Nazi terror (every fourth inhabitant of the republic was killed by occupants), about 60% of the Byelorussian land was controlled by partisans.
Though time and again Ponomarenko’s proposals were attacked by Khrushchev, Beria and Malenkov, Stalin always supported the Byelorussian leader and since 1948 suggested that he be made the Secretary of the Central Committee and the USSR Minister.
Any decisions in the higher echelons of the Party demanded a vote by making signatures of the leading figures. Anatolii Lukyanov who at a certain stage of his career was responsible for the Central Committee archives well remembers having seen the paper on the appointment of Ponomarenko. It had Stalin’s signature as well as signatures of almost all Presidium and Secretariat members. But there were no signatures of Malenkov, Beria, Khrushchev and Bulganin. These were the persons who shared with Stalin his last supper of the night from February 28 to March 1.
It is noteworthy that none of the participants of Stalin’s last supper left any serious memoirs about what they talked about. Even the voluble Khrushchev mentioned only what was drunk at the party. He said that it was extremely light Georgian wine. Khrushchev recorded that during the departure Stalin in a joking way lightly poked him in the ribs.
Yet the very fact of this late night conversation was extraordinary event as there was no obvious reason for this meeting since all of its participants intended to meet again at Stalin’s country-house in the second half of the next day.
There was also no ordinary reason for convening the dinner party on March 1. For the first time since Stalin’s birthday which had been celebrated on December 21, 1952 it should be attended not only by the Presidium members but also by Stalin’s son Vassily and daughter Svetlana. Yet it is known that apart from being Sunday there was nothing special about March the 1st to bring together such a company. It is possible to suggest that Stalin wanted to announce then something which was important not only for political leaders but also for the members of his family.
It is quite possible that Stalin was to declare his resignation from one or all Government posts. Perhaps Stalin did not want to retire from public life but he wanted to get rid of tiresome routine matters while concentrating on theoretical work and general political guidance. Later the leaders of China and Vietnam acted in such a way.
Yet officially Stalin’s resignation might have been made only at the next session of the USSR Supreme Soviet which generally took place at the beginning of the year. Prior to this session a Plenary Meeting of the CPSU Central Committee might be convened. It is known that two previous USSR Supreme Soviet sessions took place in the first days of March (from 6 to 12 March 1951 and from 5 to 8 March 1952). It is quite possible to suppose that the session of the USSR Supreme Soviet and the Central Committee Plenary meeting at which Stalin was to submit his resignation might take place during a week after March 1.
Perhaps during the late night supper of February 28 – March 1 Malenkov and his colleagues tried to make their last efforts to convince Stalin not to resign and not to make Ponomarenko the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. As we know by the end of this party Stalin was in a good mood and it might mean that he did not concede to his colleagues’ pleadings.
But perhaps they were not very categorical in their opposition to Stalin’s plans. Perhaps they knew something which let them be sure that Stalin’s plans were doomed and Ponomarenko would never replace Stalin as the Soviet Government Chief. It seems that the death of Khrustalev extinguished a possibility to learn the truth of what happened after the departure of Stalin’s guests. According to Nikolai Dobryukha the bottle with mineral water opened by Stalin disappeared and it was impossible to learn what it really contained.
As it is well known Stalin was yet alive when the joint session of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, the Council of the USSR Ministers and the CPSU Central Committee was convened on March 5. The joint session appointed George Malenkov to be the Chairman of the Council of USSR Ministers. The session appointed four First Deputies of Malenkov. They were L. Beria, V. Molotov, N. Bulganin and L. Kaganovich. Almost all the members of the Central Committee Presidium who were nominated by Stalin at the XIXth CPSU Congress were expelled from it with the exception of Pervukhin and Saburov.
The decision was also announced that N. S. Khrushchev would be relieved of his duties as the Moscow Party organisation secretary ‘in order to concentrate on his work on the Central Committee’. In September of the same year Khrushchev took up a newly created post of the First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee.
According to the decision of March 5 the Presidium consisted of 10 members and 4 alternate members. P. K. Ponomarenko was demoted from a full member to an alternate member of the Presidium. Simultaneously Ponomarenko was expelled from the Secretariat of the CPSU Central Committee.
On March 15 there opened a one-day session of the USSR Supreme Soviet. Among other things it was announced that a new ministry of culture was established. Ponomarenko became its chief thus turning into a minister subject to Malenkov, Beria, Bulganin and others. But soon he was relieved of his ministerial duties and was sent to Alma Ata where he was chosen as the first secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist party. Later Ponomarenko was sent to various diplomatic posts outside the USSR. The story of his ‘near appointment’ became a closely guarded secret and then was forgotten.
The fact about the decision to appoint Ponomarenko to the post of the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers was for the first time made public in the magazine Molodaya Guardia (‘Young Guard’) in April 1988. The magazine published the interview with the former Ambassador to India I. A. Benediktov who was the USSR Minister of Agriculture in Stalin’s time. Underlining the qualities which Stalin praised in public figures, Benediktov told the correspondent Listov: ‘Perhaps Stalin took into account that Ponomarenko was not among his closest associates and held his own views. Stalin also was aware that Ponomarenko never tried to shift responsibility to other people. The document on the appointment of P. K. Ponomarenko was signed by several members of the Politbureau (Benediktov meant ‘Presidium members’ since the Politbureau was already abolished by that time). Only the death of Stalin prevented the implementation of his will’.
On 11th June 2004 Anatolii Lukyanov wrote again about it in Pravda. He stated: ‘The decision about the appointment of Ponomarenko as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers was agreed upon by the majority of the members of the Party leadership of that time. Only the unexpected death of Stalin prevented to implement his will’.
Unfortunately Anatolii Lukyanov did not mention in this article that Malenkov, Beria, Khrushchev and Bulganin failed to set their signatures to the decree about Ponomarenko. Lukyanov told me the story while we worked on a joint article for ‘Pravda’ which was published in July
2008. Lukyanov told me also that not long ago officials from Byelorussia wanted to obtain the copy of this document, but they were told that the document was not found.
On March 9 1953 Stalin’s funeral took place at the Moscow Red Square. The funeral meeting was opened by N. S. Khrushchev. The speakers were G.M. Malenkov, L. P. Beria and V. M. Molotov. All the speakers spoke of their deep sorrow on the occasion of Stalin’s death and about their intentions to continue Stalin’s deeds.
The events which took place soon after Stalin’s death proved that his misgivings about the pseudo-Marxism of his colleagues were well-founded. Though the discussion of the July (1953) Plenary Meeting of the CPSU Central Committee dedicated to the arrest of L. Beria failed to reveal all the facts about him, there was enough said which showed that he had prepared to perform many anti-socialist acts. Beria was in favour of the liquidation of the German Democratic Republic disregarding its role in the system of world socialism. He was ready to come to terms with bourgeois nationalists in the Baltic republics and Western Ukraine. Yet only in the 1990s with the publication of the memoirs by his son it became known that Beria planned to perform bourgeois ‘perestroika’ along the lines which were later followed by Gorbachev and others. Beria’s son who did not conceal his anti-Soviet views was sure that his father had planned to do away with socialism already in 1953.
Malenkov’s demise in 1955 was also followed by his being accused of gross ideological and political mistakes which smacked of bourgeois liberalism. There were sufficient grounds to criticise Malenkov’s policy of disregarding the primary importance of heavy industry and populist perorations about the liquidation of deficiencies in consumers’ goods.
Khrushchev’s fall in October 1964 was followed by the criticism of his ideological mistakes especially that of ‘voluntarism’. This criticism was just but insufficient as during the eleven post-Stalin years Khrushchev dealt many blows to world Socialism and Communist ideology. In his public pronouncements and his deeds Khrushchev became a predecessor of Gorbachev and other destroyers of the USSR.
In his destructive work Khrushchev got help from Nikolai Bulganin who was the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers from 1955 to 1958.
It shows that all the four persons who were present at the last supper of Stalin later contributed to the revision of Marxism-Leninism and corruption of the Soviet society.
The anti-Stalinist course taken by the CPSU leadership after the XX
Party Congress eventually paved the way for the collapse of socialism
and restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and a number of
European countries as well as to the destruction of the USSR. There are
grounds to suppose that the first steps towards these tragedies were
made by ambitious Soviet politicians in the first days of March 1953.
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