Joshua Rubenstein has penned a compact, chilling account of the demise of the Russian tyrant.
The Last Days of Stalin by Joshua Rubenstein. Yale University Press, 288 pages, $35.
By Harvey Blume
If you were high up in the Nazi hierarchy, and weren’t caught with a bomb in your briefcase, you had less to fear from an audience with the Fuhrer than Stalin’s peers, after World War II, always had to fear from dinner, followed by a regimen of vodkas, with Comrade Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev, veteran of many of these dread soirees, noted that: “After a meeting with Stalin no one ever knew if he would return home alive.” The public may have thought of Stalin’s dinner guests and drinking partners as his “comrades-in-arms.” Khrushchev, however, knew he and the others more closely resembled prisoners, “potential victims as long as he remained in charge.”
In his compact, chilling account, Rubenstein shows that as he approached death on March 1, 1953 Stalin’s paranoia, always pronounced, became boundless. A Dr. Myasnikov who treated Stalin during that period recorded in a memoir (suppressed by the KGB), that Stalin had lost the power to “discern good from bad, useful from harmful, the permitted from the prohibited, a friend from an enemy. . . Stalin’s cruelty and paranoia, his fear of enemies, his losing the ability to soberly assess people and events, as well as his extreme stubbornness were all in large part the result of arteriosclerosis of the arteries in his brain.”
Myasnikov concluded that: “In essence a sick man ruled the state.”
During the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin’s paranoia had considerable utility, and some grounding in fact. He did, in fact, face rivals for supreme control — other old Bolsheviks with their own views about the Soviet state. Stalin’s purges demolished them. Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev were executed in 1936, Nikola Bukharin in 1938. That left Trotsky, once Lenin’s closest comrade and, according to the disputed document known as Lenin’s Testament, Lenin’s choice to succeed him. Stalin deported Trotsky in 1929, and had him murdered in Mexico City in 1940.
This left Stalin facing his most serious opponent, Adolf Hitler. With regard to Hitler, it might be argued that Stalin’s paranoia failed him. It seems he trusted that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the division of Poland that followed, would satisfy Hitler, and protect the Soviet Union from a Nazi onslaught. When, after routing French and British forces, the Blitzkrieg turned toward the East, Stalin’s unprepared armies offered little resistance.
Here, I’d like to interpolate a counter-historical question: If Trotsky, rather than Stalin, had won the struggle for supreme power after Lenin died, would history have been different. If so, how?
In his previous book, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life (2011) Rubenstein stubbornly refused to make a case for Trotsky’s greater humanism. He quoted Trotsky to the effect that: “In the last analysis, the party is always right. . . no one can be right against the party. . . since history has not created any other way to determine the correct position.”
Trotsky, then, was not committed on principle, to less brutality than his leader, Lenin, or his nemesis, Stalin: they were all three of them Bolshevik to the core.
Still, individuals count in history, and there are counter-historical possibilities Rubenstein does not take up. I submit, for example that Trotsky would have been less abysmally ignorant than Stalin, and would never have been gulled into trusting the sanctity of a pact with Hitler. Under Trotsky, the Soviet Union would have committed itself more fully to what has been called the dress rehearsal for World War II, the Spanish Civil War.
A Third International led by Trotsky, rather than Stalin, would hardly have commanded communist parties to attack Europe’s widely supported socialist parties because they consisted of “social fascists.” This, of course, had the worst consequences in Germany, where a combination of socialist and communist parties might have stopped Hitler from taking power.
That said, this counterhistory lacks a key element of plausibility to start with: Trotsky, as a Jew, had little chance of assuming control in the Soviet Union. Lenin was expressly against anti-Semitism. But it took full possession of Stalin when both Bolshevik and Nazi rivals were beaten. In his last years, Stalin’s paranoia needed Jews to fully express itself
Rubenstein suggests that the full-flowering of Stalin’s latent anti-Semitism was prompted by Golda Meir’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1948, when she was greeted by Soviet Jews jubilant about the existence of the new state of Israel.
Yes, the Soviet Union had voted for the creation of the state of Israel. But that was in order to challenge England’s imperial hold on the Middle East. The enthusiasm for Golda Meir gave Stalin second thoughts. What if every Jew was a budding Zionist, and Zionism, as Stalin construed it by then, was nothing but an arm of American imperialism? The only solution then, was to crush the Jews.
And so Stalin set about suppressing most everything expressly Jewish — the Jewish anti-fascist committee, for example, which had been formed to rally Soviet Jews against the Nazis; everything Yiddish; and finally, in the great pogrom Stalin was contemplating, Jewish doctors. In the imagination of the General Secretary, Jewish doctors only pretended to heal; their task when assigned to Soviet officials was to poison and to kill.
When Stalin was found by his maid: “He was unconscious, his clothes drenched with urine. He could barely move his limbs. When he tried to speak, he made only a strange buzzing sound.” His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, wrote: “He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were point to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.”
There are fine things in this book besides its depiction of the death of Stalin. Rubenstein chronicles the efforts of both sides in the Cold War thereafter to arrive at some accord. Hesitant gestures from one side were met with the same from the other. The United States had its hardliners, the Soviets theirs. And so it went, as per Rubenstein, until the advent of Gorbachev.
Be that as it may, there is nothing better in this book than Rubenstein’s account of Stalin’s demise. Nor does Rubenstein, who has served as Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International, hide his own detestation of Stalin “and the murderous gang” around him. Stalin’s “demise,” he writes, “marked the passing of a nightmare.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.