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Stalin down, Khrushchev up

During the Korean War, Stalin intensified industrialization, with wages for the average Soviet worker 20 to 40 percent less in purchasing power than it had been in 1928. Industrialization was intensified also in the Soviet bloc nations, where agriculture was being collectivized, the middle classes were being diminished, and indoctrination in the schools was creating estrangement between parents and their children.

Stalin was attempting greater control over the Communist movement, and some the Soviet bloc nations who had joined the Communists to fight against fascism were now being purged or executed. Among them was the Hungarians communist leader Lazlo Rajk in October 1949. In Czechoslovakia in 1952, Rudolf Slansky and others were accused of being Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionists. They stood trial. Slansky made a false confession and he and nine others – seven of whom were Jews like Slansky – were executed. By January 1949 the First Secretary of Poland's Communist Party, Wladyslaw Gomułka, was relieved of his government posts, and in November he was kicked out of the Party. In July 1951 he was imprisoned.

Stalin was still afraid of influence from the West, and a crackdown in the Soviet Union against bourgeois culture was in full swing. Composers, artists, writers and poets were attacked for lacking a proletarian outlook. Ideologically, Stalin opposed anti-Semitism, but he was annoyed by the admiration of many Soviet Jews involved in the creation of Israel in 1948. "Rootless cosmopolitan" was one of the charges thrown at Jews and others. To be a cosmopolitan was to be an admirer of the capitalist West.

Stalin's leading underling in his cultural war had been Andrei Zhdanov, and he had died in 1948 with doctors suspected of having caused his death (the Doctors' Plot). In January 1953 nine doctors were arrested and charged with having poisoned Zhdanov and with having tried to poison others. The doctors, most of them Jews, were accused of being paid by US and British intelligence agents and of serving the interests of international Jewry.

Stalin flashback

Stalin was the son of a drunken shoe cobbler. He told his mother: "Mummy, don't cry or I'll cry too." But writes Stalin's biographer, Simone Sebag Montefiore, his mother believed she had to beat little Josef to "govern her unruly treasure." she told Stalin in her later years that it did him no harm. And Stalin in his later years admitted that he wept a lot during his "terrible childhood."

Stalin's intelligence made him an aggressive leader among boys bigger than he. He was a good pupil and frequently talked about books. When he was thirteen he got his hands on Darwin's Origin of Species, and his mother discovered him staying up all night reading it, and he told his mother: "I loved the book so much, Mummy, that I couldn't stop reading it." Soon after, while talking to friends, Josef said that God didn't exist. That if God did, "He would have made the world more just." By the age of nineteen, according to Montefiore, Josef was an ideological Marxist. He believed in the class struggle and that the revolutionary proletariat had a mission to liberate humanity and bring the world happiness.

Eventually he was exiled to Siberia, but he was able to walk away from exile and return to Georgia's largest city and capital, Tiflis. With the Bolsheviks he was on the editorial board for the Party's newspaper Pravda (Truth).

Stalin Dies

Stalin died in March 1953. Succeeding him as premier was Georgi Malenkov, who had been deputy premier, Stalin's aid, a member of the Communist Party's Politburo. (Since 1952 the Politburo was called the Presidium. In practice it was the Soviet Union's leading political body.) With Malenkov on the Presidium were nine other members, one of whom was Lavrenty Beria, head of intelligence and the state police. Another Presidium member was Nikita Khrushchev.

Publicly the new leadership displayed loyalty to the great fallen leader, Stalin. Privately there was criticism. There was talk of producing more consumer goods. Nikita Khrushchev blamed Stalin for having launched the Cold War before there had been a substantial recovery from World War II. He condemned Stalin for the blockade that inspired the Berlin airlift and for having underestimated US resolve (Berlin 1961, by Frederick Kempe, p 10).

Beria was apprantly interested in passing blame for some of his own actions to Stalin. Beria described the Doctors' Plot instigated by Stalin as a hoax. Beria advocated reducing the severity of penalties for minor crimes, reforms that would eliminate "inadmissible" police methods, and he spoke of protecting the rights of citizens guaranteed under the Soviet Union's Constitution. There was talk of women married to foreigners being allowed to leave the Soviet Union to join their husbands. And there was talk of making life easier for people in the satellite nations.

Beria is quoted by historian Frederick Kempe: "All we need is a peaceful Germany. Whether it is socialist or not isn't important to us." Kempe describes Beria as wanting to negotiate financial compensation from the West for the Soviet Union agreeing to a neutral and unified Germany. Kempe writes that other members of the Presidium ignored Beria's call to abandon East Germany but they did want the regime there to stop trying to collective agriculture and to stop large-scale public arrests.

Attitudes of the ten Presidium members toward East Germany changed in June 1953, following an uprising in East Berlin. Construction workers there rebelled against an increased workload, and its spread, an estimated 400,000 workers taking to the streets in the four days that followed the work stoppage. The unrest spread from Berlin to more than 400 cities, towns and villages across East Germany. Presidium members were stunned and didn't want the rebellion in East Germany to encourage rebellion in other Communist-dominated (called "captive nations" in the US). The Presidium chose hostility toward the rebellion, and Beria went along. They sent Soviet tank units stationed in Germany to confront the strikers. The rebellion was crushed and 21 or 187 were killed, depending on the source. Obedience returned to East Germany's workforce. Anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and a prisoners' strike in Siberia were also squelched.

In the wake of the 1953 crisis, confict intensified between members of the Presidium. Most of them feared Beria – who had the nation's police apparatus behind him, and Khrushchev was convinced that Beria was making a grab for power. Khrushchev, writes Kempe, "argued that Beria had been willing to abandon socialism altogether in a Germany that had been conquered at such great Soviet human cost during World War II." (Kempe, p 23). Khrushchev won help from the World War II hero, General Zhukov, now Deputy Defense Minister. Beria and six of his associates were arrested on June 28. Beria was charged with having attempted to seize power. He had a reputation as an aggressive womanizer, and his political opponents were now charging him with having raped girls and other crimes. Khrushchev succeeded in putting the MVD under Party control. Beria was shot. In the years to come, Beria's wife and son and some others would try to defend what they believed to be his good name.

Khrushchev's "Secret Speech"

Beria's files revealed Malenkov's involvement in what was described (at least within the Presidium) as Stalin's crimes, and, in February 1954, Khrushchev replaced Malenkov in the seat of honor at Presidium meetings. Khrushchev's influence continued to increase, winning the allegiance of local Communist Party leaders. And Khrushchev's nominee became head of the security agency called the KGB.

By the end of 1955, thousands of political prisoners had returned home, and they had been describing their experiences of the Gulag labor camps, with Khrushchev believing, or at least hoping, that the decline of Stalinism would inspire a greater loyalty among the Soviet masses.

Khrushchev spoke to other Presidium members about his intention to speak at the upcoming 20th Party Congress about Stalin's crimes. Molotov and Malenkov were opposed to him doing so and managed to persuade him to make his remarks in a closed session of the Congress (guests and members of the press excluded). On 25 February 1956 in the early morning hours, Khrushchev began his four-hour speech saying that the Party's Central Committee had a new impermissibility: that of transforming a leader into a man who "supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything and is infallible in his behavior." He said that despite Stalin's ostensible support for the ideals of Communism he had fostered a leadership personality cult. He spoke of Stalin often having chosen "the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the Party or the Soviet Government."

It was called a "Secret Speech," but copies of the speech became widely distributed, including in the US media. Mikhail Gorbachev, then twenty-four and a Party member was to remember some of his young comrades in his district excited by the speech and others either defending Stalin or seeing little point in digging up the past. Khrushchev was condemned by the People's Republic of China and Communist Albania as a revisionist, as having deviated from the path of Lenin and Stalin.

In Stalin's homeland, Georgia (a Soviet Republic), many saw Khrushchev's speech as a national insult. In March 1956 in Georgia, rallies to mark the third anniversary of Stalin's death evolved into an uncontrollable mass demonstration that included calls for governmental change in Moscow. The Soviet Army responded and there was bloodshed in the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

CONTINUE READING: The Eisenhower and the Cold War, 1953-54

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