Modern history

Chapter 23

THE DEATH OF STALIN

For the last twelve hours the lack of oxygen became acute. His face and lips blackened as he suffered slow strangulation. The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed to be the very last moment, he opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry, and full of fear of death . . .

—Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, describing her father’s final moments1

IF, IN THE 1930S, many Soviet prisoners believed the Gulag was a great mistake, a vast error which had somehow been hidden from the kind gaze of Comrade Stalin, by the 1950s few harbored such illusions. The attitude, remembered one camp doctor, was straightforward: “The vast majority knew and understood what the man was made of. They understood that he was a tyrant, that he held a great country under the tip of his finger, and that the fate of every prisoner was somehow linked to the fate of Stalin.” 2

Throughout the last years of his life, political prisoners hoped and prayed for Stalin’s demise, discussing his death constantly, if subtly, so as not to attract the attention of informers. People would sigh and say, “Ah, Georgians live a long time,” which managed to convey a wish for his death without actually committing treason. Even when he grew sick, they were still cautious. Maya Ulyanovskaya heard the news of what was to be his final illness from a woman she knew to be an informer. She responded carefully: “So? Anyone can get sick. His doctors are good, they will cure him.”3

When his death was finally announced, on March 5, 1953, some maintained their caution. In Mordovia, the politicals studiously hid their excitement, which they feared might earn them a second sentence.4 In Kolyma, women “diligently wailed for the deceased.”5In one Vorkuta lagpunkt, Pavel Negretov heard the announcement read aloud in the camp dining hall. Neither the commander who read out the notice of death, nor any of the prisoners, said a word. “The news was greeted with a tomb-like silence. Nobody said a thing.”6

In a Norilsk lagpunkt, prisoners assembled in the courtyard, and solemnly heard the news of the death of the “great leader of the Soviet people and of free human beings everywhere.” A long pause followed. Then a prisoner raised his hand: “Citizen Commander, my wife sent me some money, it’s in my account. I have no use for it here, so I would like to spend it on a bouquet for our beloved leader. Can I do that?” 7

But others openly rejoiced. In Steplag, there were wild cries and yells of celebration. In Vyatlag, prisoners threw their caps in the air and shouted “Hurrah!”8 On the streets of Magadan, one prisoner greeted another: “I wish you great joy on this day of resurrection!” 9 He was not the only one overwhelmed by religious sentiment: “There was a light frost, and it was very, very quiet. Soon the sky would be turning blue. Yuri Nikolaevich held up his arms and with passion declared, ‘To Holy Russia let the cocks crow! Soon it will be daylight in Holy Russia!’” 10

Whatever they felt, and whether they dared to show their feelings or not, most prisoners and exiles were immediately convinced that things would change. In exile in Karaganda, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg heard the news, began to tremble, and put her hands over her face so that her suspicious workmates could not see her joy. “It’s now or never. Everything’s got to change. Now or never.”11

In another Vorkuta lagpunkt, Bernhard Roeder heard the announcement on the camp radio while putting on his mining gear:

There were exchanges of furtive glances, hatred flaring up triumphantly, words stealthily whispered, excited movement—soon the hall was empty. Everyone rushed to pass on the good news . . . No work was done in Vorkuta that day. People stood together in groups, chatting excitedly . . . we heard the guards on the watchtowers phoning one another agitatedly, and, soon afterwards, the first drunks brawling.12

Among the camp administrators, the confusion was profound. Olga Vasileeva, then working in the Gulag headquarters in Moscow, remembers weeping openly: “I cried and pretty much everyone cried, women and men too, they openly cried.”13 Just like millions of their countrymen, the Gulag’s employees were crying not only for their dead leader, but also out of fear for themselves and their careers. Khrushchev himself wrote later that “I wasn’t just weeping for Stalin. I was terribly worried about the future of the country. I already sensed that Beria would start bossing everyone around and that this could be the beginning of the end.” 14

By “the end,” of course, he meant the end for himself: surely the death of Stalin would bring on a new round of bloodletting. Fearing the same, many Gulag bigwigs reportedly had heart attacks, bouts of high blood pressure, and severe cases of fever and flu. Their distress, and their state of complete emotional confusion, had made them genuinely ill. They were literally sick with fear.15

If prison guards were confused, the new occupants of the Kremlin were not much clearer about what lay in the future. As Khrushchev had feared, Beria, who was barely able to contain his glee at the sight of Stalin’s corpse, did indeed take power, and began making changes with astonishing speed. On March 6, before Stalin had even been buried, Beria announced a reorganization of the secret police. He instructed its boss to hand over responsibility for the Gulag to the Ministry of Justice, keeping only the special camps for politicals within the jurisdiction of the MVD. He transferred many of the Gulag’s enterprises over to other ministries, whether forestry, mining, or manufacturing.16 On March 12, Beria also aborted more than twenty of the Gulag’s flagship projects, on the grounds that they did not “meet the needs of the national economy.” Work on the Great Turkmen Canal ground to a halt, as did work on the Volga–Ural Canal, the Volga–Baltic Canal, the dam on the lower Don, the port at Donetsk, and the tunnel to Sakhalin. The Road of Death, the Salekhard–Igarka Railway, was abandoned too, never to be finished.17

Two weeks later, Beria wrote a memo to the Presidium of the Central Committee, outlining the state of the labor camps with astonishing clarity. He informed them that there were 2,526,402 inmates, of whom only 221,435 were actually “dangerous state criminals,” and he argued in favor of releasing many of those remaining:

Among the prisoners, 438,788 are women, of which 6,286 are pregnant and 35,505 are accompanied by children under the age of two. Many women have children under the age of ten, who are being raised by relatives or in children’s homes.

Among the prisoners, 238,000 are elderly—men and women above fifty years of age—and 31,181 are juveniles below the age of eighteen, mostly sentenced for petty theft and hooliganism.

About 198,000 prisoners living in camps suffer from serious, incurable illnesses, and are completely incapable of work.

It is well known that prisoners in camps . . . leave their relatives and intimates in very difficult situations, frequently breaking up their families, with seriously negative effects, lasting for the rest of their lives.18

On these humane-sounding grounds, Beria requested that an amnesty be extended to all prisoners with sentences of five years or less, to all pregnant women, to all women with young children, and to everyone under eighteen—a million people in all. The amnesty was announced on March 27. Releases began immediately.19

A week later, on April 4, Beria also called off the investigation into the Doctors’ Plot. This was the first of the changes visible to the general public. The announcement appeared, again, in Pravda: “The persons accused of incorrect conduct of the investigation have been arrested and brought to criminal responsibility.”20

The implications were clear: Stalinist justice had been found wanting. Secretly, Beria made other changes as well. He forbade all secret police cadres from using physical force against arrestees—effectively ending torture.21 He attempted to liberalize policy toward western Ukraine, the Baltic States, even East Germany, reversing the policies of Sovietization and Russification which, in the case of Ukraine, had been put in place by Nikita Khrushchev himself.22 As far as the Gulag was concerned, on June 16 he laid all of his cards on the table, openly declaring his intention to “liquidate the system of forced labor, on the grounds of economic ineffectiveness and lack of perspective.”23

To this day, Beria’s motives for making these rapid changes remain mysterious. Some have tried to paint him as a secret liberal, chafing under the Stalinist system, longing for reform. His party colleagues suspected he was trying to garner more power for the secret police, at the expense of the Communist Party itself: ridding the MVD of the cumbersome, expensive burden of the camps was simply a way of strengthening the institution. Beria also might have been trying to make himself popular among the general public as well as among the many former secret police who would now return from distant camps. In the late 1940s, he had made a practice of re-hiring such ex-prisoners—virtually guaranteeing their loyalty. But the most likely explanation for Beria’s behavior lies in his superior knowledge: perhaps more than anyone else in the USSR, Beria really did know how uneconomic the camps were, and how innocent most of the prisoners were. After all, he had been supervising the former, and arresting the latter, for much of the previous decade.24

Whatever his motives, Beria moved too quickly. His reforms disturbed and unsettled his colleagues. Khrushchev—whom Beria vastly underestimated—was the most shaken, possibly because Khrushchev may have helped organize the investigations into the Doctors’ Plot in the first place, possibly because of his strong feelings about Ukraine. Khrushchev may also have feared that he would sooner or later figure on Beria’s new list of enemies. Slowly, through use of an intensive whispering campaign, he turned the other Party leaders against Beria. By the end of June, he had won them all over. At a Party meeting, he surrounded the building with loyal troops. The surprise succeeded. Shocked, stuttering, and stammering, the man who had been the second most powerful person in the USSR was arrested and removed to prison.

Beria would remain in prison for the few months left of his life. Like Yagoda and Yezhov before him, he occupied himself by writing letters, pleading for mercy. His trial was held in December. Whether he was executed then or earlier is unknown—but by the end of 1953 he was dead. 25

The Soviet Union’s leaders abandoned some of Beria’s policies as quickly as they had been adopted. But neither Khrushchev nor anyone else ever revived the large Gulag construction projects. Nor did they reverse Beria’s amnesty. The releases continued—proof that doubts about the Gulag’s efficiency had not been limited to Beria, disgraced though he might be. The new Soviet leadership knew perfectly well that the camps were a drag on the economy, just as they knew that millions of the prisoners in them were innocent. The clock was now ticking: the Gulag’s era was coming to an end.

Perhaps taking their cue from the rumors emanating from Moscow, the Gulag’s administrators and guards adjusted to the new situation too. Once they got over their fears and their illnesses, many guards changed their behavior almost overnight, relaxing the rules even before they had been ordered to do so. One of the commanders of Alexander Dolgun’s Kolyma lagpunkt began shaking prisoners’ hands and calling them “comrade” as soon as news broke of Stalin’s illness, even before the dictator had been officially declared dead.26 “The camp regime weakened, became more human,” recalled one prisoner.27 Another put it somewhat differently: “The guards didn’t show the sort of patriotism they had shown when Stalin was alive.”28 Prisoners who refused to do a particularly strenuous, unpleasant, or unfair task were no longer punished. Prisoners who refused to work on Sundays were no longer punished.29 Spontaneous protests broke out—and the protesters were not punished, either, as Barbara Armonas remembered:

Somehow this amnesty changed the basic discipline of the camp . . . One day we came from the fields in a rainstorm; we were completely soaked. The administration sent us to the baths without letting us first go to our rooms. We disliked this for we wanted to be able to exchange our wet clothing for dry things. The long line of prisoners began to protest by screaming and shouting insults, calling the administration “chekists” and “fascists.” Then we simply refused to move. Neither persuasion nor threats had any effect. After an hour of silent battle the administration gave in and we went to our rooms to pick up dry clothes.30

The change affected the prisons too. During the months following Stalin’s death, Susanna Pechora was in a solitary prison cell, undergoing a second interrogation: as a Jewish “counter-revolutionary,” she had been recalled to Moscow from her camp in connection with the Doctors’ Plot. Then, quite suddenly, her investigation stopped. Her interrogator summoned her to a meeting. “You understand, I am not guilty of wronging you, I never beat you, I haven’t hurt you,” he told her. He sent her to a new cell, and there, for the first time, she heard one of the women speaking of Stalin’s death. “What’s happened?” she asked. Her cell mates fell silent: since everyone knew Stalin had died, they assumed she must be an informer who was trying to gauge their opinions. It took her a whole day to convince them of her genuine ignorance. After that, recalled Pechora, the situation began to change dramatically.

The guards were afraid of us, we did what we wanted, we shouted during exercise periods, made speeches, crawled through windows. We would refuse to stand up when they came into our cells and told us not to lie on our beds. We would have been shot for doing such things half a year earlier. 31

Not everything changed. Leonid Trus was also under interrogation in March 1953. While Stalin’s death may have saved him from execution, he still received a twenty-five-year sentence. One of his cell mates got ten years for saying something untactful about Stalin’s death.32 Nor was everybody freed. The amnesty had been limited, after all, to the very young, the very old, women with children, and prisoners with sentences of five years or less. Overwhelmingly, those with short sentences were criminal prisoners, or politicals with unusually thin cases. That still left well over a million prisoners in the Gulag, including hundreds of thousands of politicals with long sentences.

In some camps, those due to be released were showered with gifts, attention, and letters to take back to friends and families.33 Just as often, terrible rivalries broke out between prisoners who were due to be released and those who were not. Forty years later, one prisoner who was not released in the initial amnesty still recalled it bitterly as an “amnesty for pickpockets,” a freedom for petty thieves: “the criminals were happy, they were all freed.”34 In one camp, a gang of women prisoners with long sentences beat up a woman with a short sentence, out of spite. Those due to be released also provoked anger, holding themselves apart, looking down on the other “criminals” who would remain behind.35

Other kinds of violence broke out as well. Some with long sentences approached camp doctors, demanding to be given the coveted “invalid” certificate which would mandate their immediate release. Doctors who refused were threatened or beaten. In Pechorlag, there were six such incidents: doctors were “systematically terrorized,” beaten, even knifed. In Yuzhkuzbasslag, four prisoners threatened the camp doctor with death. In other camps, the number of prisoners released as “invalids” exceeded the number of invalids previously recorded in the camps.36

But one particular group of prisoners, in one particular set of camps, experienced quite a different set of emotions. The prisoners of the “special camps” were indeed a special case: overwhelmingly, their inmates had ten-, fifteen-, or twenty-five-year sentences, and no hope of release under Beria’s amnesty. Only minor changes had been made to their regime in the first few months following Stalin’s death. Prisoners were now allowed to receive packages, for example, but only one per year. Grudgingly, the administration allowed camp soccer teams to play against one another. But they still wore numbered uniforms, the windows of their barracks were still barred, and the barracks remained locked at night. All contact with the outside world was kept to a minimum.37

It was a recipe for rebellion. By 1953, the inhabitants of the special camps had been kept separate from criminal and “ordinary” prisoners since 1948, more than five years. Left to themselves, they had evolved systems of internal organization and resistance which had no parallel in the earlier years of the Gulag. For years, they had been on the brink of organized uprising, plotting and planning, restrained only by the hope that Stalin’s death would bring their release. When Stalin’s death changed nothing, hope vanished— and was replaced by anger.

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