Ordinary Stalinists (1945 – 53)


The Bushuevs returned to Perm from the ALZhIR labour camp in December 1945. Zinaida and her three children – Nelly, Angelina and their younger brother Slava – moved into a communal apartment on Soviet Street. They shared a room, 11 metres square, with Zinaida’s mother and her brother Tolia and his wife, who had two young children of their own. Zinaida slept with her three children in a single bed; Tolia and his wife in another bed with their baby daughter; and the grandmother slept with Tolia’s other child. ‘It was a nightmare, how we lived,’ recalls Angelina, who was then aged ten. ‘I don’t know how we managed to survive.’ When the Bushuevs came back from the labour camp all their possessions fitted into a single bag. ‘We had nothing,’ recalls Nelly, who was twelve, ‘only our bedding and the clothes we were wearing. My mother used to say: “I wonder if we’ll ever see the day when we each have a bed?”’ The housing block they lived in was totally run down. No repairs had been carried out since the beginning of the war. There was no water or electricity, the roof had fallen in, the sewage system had broken down, and vermin were everywhere.

Perm was a long way from the fighting, but although it was never bombed, it was, like many cities in the rear, in a terrible condition. The mass influx of evacuees from the war zone had placed enormous pressure on the city’s housing, food and fuel supplies. The main streets had been turned into allotments for growing vegetables. There were no cars in the city, just a few trucks around the factories. Many of the city’s wooden pavements, its benches, fences and most of its trees had disappeared, all chopped up for firewood.1

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union.* According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians); 18 million soldiers were wounded (though far less were recognized as such by the Soviet authorities); and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Three-quarters of the people killed were men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. By the end of the war, there were twice as many women as men in this age range, and in areas of heavy fighting, such as Stalingrad, Voronezh, Kursk and Krasnodar, the ratio was three to one. The imbalance was especially acute in rural areas, because so many peasant soldiers chose not to return to their villages, but settled in the towns, where the demand for factory labour promised jobs. There were villages where no soldiers came back from the war. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children and old men.2

The Bushuev ‘corner’ room in the communal apartment at 77 Soviet Street, Perm, 1946 – 8

The material devastation was unparalleled: 70,000 villages, 1,700 towns, 32,000 factories and 40,000 miles of railway track were destroyed. In areas occupied by the Germans half the housing stock was damaged or destroyed. In Moscow, which was not the worst affected, 90 per cent of the city’s buildings had no heating, and 48 per cent no running water or sewage systems, in 1945. In all, 20 million people were left homeless by the war. The Soviet authorities were very slow to respond to the urban housing crisis, which was exacerbated by the massive in-migration of people from the countryside as rural living standards steadily declined. As late as the 1950s, there were still millions of people living in the ruins of buildings, in basements, sheds or dug-outs in the ground.

Simonov, who became a Soviet deputy for the Smolensk region in 1947, received hundreds of appeals for help with housing from his constituents. One typical letter came from an officer and Party member who was demobilized in 1946. He was living in Kaluga with his family of six, including three young children and his elderly mother, in a small unheated basement room, where the roof leaked and water ran down the walls. They had been there since 1941, when their house in Smolensk had been bombed. For two years, the officer petitioned for new accommodation, but there was no reply from the Soviet authorities. With Simonov’s assistance the family was finally scheduled for rehousing in Smolensk, but because of bureaucratic delays the move was not completed until 1951.3

The Soviet economy emerged from the war in a catastrophic state. Two poor harvests, in 1945 and 1946, brought the country to the brink of famine with at least 100 million people suffering malnutrition. Between 1946 and 1948, an actual famine developed, and in the worst-affected areas, such as the Ukraine, some 2 million people died of starvation.4 The production of consumer goods had come to a virtual standstill in the war, when industry was geared towards the army’s needs. Despite the propaganda promises of a return to the good life, the military demands of the Cold War meant that for another decade the main priorities of Soviet industry would remain the production of steel and iron, energy and armaments. Basic household items were in short supply, especially in provincial towns like Perm, where everybody wore patched-up clothes and worn-out shoes.

Zinaida Bushueva found a job in the offices of a state insurance agency, but her ration was not adequate to feed the family, so she got a job for Nelly as an office messenger, which meant that they received a second ration card. Even so, the Bushuevs only had enough money for bread, soup and potatoes. They could not afford soap, which disappeared entirely from the state shops and could be purchased only in the countryside, where it was made and sold illegally by the peasants. They had only a single pair of shoes for the three children, so they took turns going to school. Zinaida’s salary was not enough to buy clothes for the children, so she made them clothes from rags she bought on the market. The children were embarrassed to go out. Angelina recalls an occasion when they were invited by an aunt to the theatre. It was a few years later, in 1950, when material conditions had improved somewhat and all the children had some clothes and shoes, but they still had feelings of embarrassment:

We could not go to the theatre, we were too ashamed. All I had to wear was a three-rouble pair of lace-up canvas sandals, which I wore throughout the year, and the cotton dress which my mother had made for me in 1946. We did not have the money to buy me a coat until 1957. It was a black woollen coat, very poorly made, which we purchased second-hand.5

In September 1945, a commission of the Central Committee was appointed to look into a series of large-scale strikes and demonstrations in the defence plants of the Urals and Siberia – just one of many workers’ protest movements at that time. The commission concluded that the main reason for the strikes was the chronic shortage of housing and consumer goods which affronted the workers’ dignity. Reporting on the strike by the 12,000 workers of Factory No. 174 in Omsk, the commission reported:

The workers and their families are in desperate need of clothes, shoes and linen. In 1945, the average worker received 0.38 items of clothing and 0.7 pairs of shoes. Because of the shortage of shoes and clothing, 450 children did not go to school in 1944, and this year there are about 1,300 children in this situation. Many workers have become so ragged that they cannot show themselves in public places. The workers’ families have no cutlery or kitchen utensils, spoons, cups, bowls; they do not have enough beds, stools, washbasins and other essential items. There are long delays in the distribution of rations, which are mostly surrogates. The workers receive barely any soap, salt or kerosene.6

Emboldened by their wartime experience, people were no longer frightened to express their discontent. In 1945–6, alone, the NKVD of the Russian Republic received well over half a million letters from Soviet citizens, who wanted to complain about the situation in the country as a whole. One factory worker even gave his own name and address in his angry letter:

So this is what we have come to! This is what you call the state’s concern for the material needs of the working people in the Fourth Stalinist Five Year Plan! Now we understand why there are no meetings to discuss these concerns – they might turn into revolts and uprisings. The workers will all say: ‘What did we fight for?’7

At the end of the war people had been convinced that life in the Soviet Union would improve. According to the writer Ilia Ehrenburg:

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

The expectation of reform, the greater sense of independence, and the vision of a better life fostered by the encounter with Europe and with Western books and films all came together to create the stirrings of a new political community. People had been altered by the war; they lost some of their old fear and felt freer to talk. In veterans’ clubs and student meeting-places, in cafés and beer halls, people allowed themselves the kind of liberty they had first experienced in the war. Everybody spoke about the need to improve the standard of living. Even in the highest circles change was acknowledged as a political necessity. ‘Absolutely everyone says openly how they are discontented with life,’ one senior general told another in a private telephone conversation, which was taped by the NKVD in 1946. ‘It’s what everyone is saying everywhere.’ The Politburo member Anastas Mikoian believed, as he recalls in his memoirs, that with the ending of the war the country would return to something like the NEP of the 1920s.8

Anti-Stalinist opinions were seldom expressed openly, but they were a tacit element in the unofficial discourse uniting certain social, ethnic and occupational groups, prisoners and exiles, and sometimes even whole cities with reason to be hostile to the regime. In Leningrad the wartime experience of the siege fostered in the city’s population a strong anti-Moscow feeling, which was widely understood by Leningraders as a sign of their own civic independence and even opposition to the Kremlin. This dissent was subtly articulated in the folklore of the siege, in public monuments to its victims, in the city’s jargon, jokes and anecdotes.

Marianna Gordon was seventeen when she returned to Leningrad in 1945 from evacuation in Cheliabinsk. Her father had remained in Leningrad throughout the siege. He was a translator for Soviet trade delegations, an active theosophist, who had been imprisoned several times during the 1920s and 1930s. On her return, Marianna noticed that her father had become more open in voicing his dislike of the Stalinist regime. She recalls an incident in 1945 when her father made a comment which, even in the privacy of their home, he would never have allowed himself to make before the war:

The radio was on, my father was lying on the bed reading, and I was washing the floor. The singer [Iurii] Levitan came on the radio and sang the song that was then everywhere, ‘Glory to Comrade Stalin! Our Great Leader!’ Papa said: ‘Marianna, strangle that kleine Sachs!’* He was just asking me to switch off the radio, but I was completely taken aback. Until then I had more or less accepted the idea that comrade Stalin was the author of our victory, and although I had my doubts, I had always suppressed them. Papa’s words made me think more sceptically.9

Scepticism and dissent were particularly developed in the post-war student community, where open expressions of opposition were more common. The generation of students that had grown up during the war proved to be more independent in their thinking than the children who had come of age before 1941. Many of these young people had been exposed to the world of adults in the war, a time when criticisms of the regime were often heard. Their experience bred a special kind of independence and distance from Soviet propaganda and the conformist culture of the Komsomol, although most of them continued to believe in the Communist ideal. Valentina Aleksandrova, the daughter of a Bolshevik official arrested in 1938, describes this clash of values among her fellow students at the Polytechnic Institute in Leningrad, where she enrolled in 1947:

We were definitely patriotic in the spirit of those times: our Motherland was great, we had won the war; we thought of ourselves as the Young Guard and even formed a club by that name.* But we also reacted against what we saw as the corruption of society – the girl who studies badly but gets good grades because she’s the daughter of a model worker or an engineer, and so on. There were many things like that which we disliked: the compulsory lectures on the history of the Party; the teacher who made us write the number of our Komsomol membership on the cover of our exercise books; the lack of sincerity we sensed in the propaganda efforts to make us respond a certain way. To us, the Komsomol seemed a place for careerists, and we stayed away from it, forming our own circle at the institute, where we would meet to drink and discuss political ideas. If anyone had overheard our conversations, we would have been arrested, but our dangerous talk just united us more firmly. In our circle to be in opposition to the cult of Stalin was a mark of belonging. After a few drinks somebody might become very daring and sarcastically propose a toast: ‘To comrade Stalin!’ And we would all laugh.10

There were many such informal student groups. Most were small discussion circles where independent thinking was encouraged, along with the reading of a wider range of books than officially approved. But there were also more-political groups, usually watched by the NKVD, which espoused some form of Communist regeneration in reaction to what they saw as the domination of the Komsomol by ‘careerist elements’. Although these groups were small, rarely numbering more than a handful of students, the views they expressed were shared by many young people. In Cheliabinsk, for example, the NKVD uncovered a student circle which published its own almanac with mystical poetry and political articles calling for the restoration of the Leninist revolutionary spirit in the Komsomol. A report by a local Party commission in September 1946 found that many of these attitudes were broadly shared by the students of Cheliabinsk, who were just as alienated by the Komsomol, because it failed to address their interests in foreign literature, sexual matters and philosophy.11

In 1945, Elena Shuvalova returned with her mother from evacuation to Leningrad and began her studies at the university. During the 1930s, the family had been exiled to Voronezh, as punishment for her father’s correspondence with his mother in Germany. Elena’s parents were divorced in 1939. The stigma of growing up in exile had left its mark on Elena, who became ‘withdrawn’ and ‘inwardly resistant’ to the Soviet system, in her own words. This internal resistance was reinforced by her mother, an artist who specialized in portraits of Stalin, whom she sardonically referred to as ‘the father of the nation’ when they were alone at home. Brought up by her mother ‘to believe in God and always speak the truth’, Elena felt increasingly estranged from the social milieu of the university, where she had to hide the truth about her past. Openness and plain speaking became synonymous for her with the assertion of her personality. She started up a discussion circle with her two most trusted friends, Natasha and Elena, who also had spoilt biographies. ‘The idea was to be entirely open with each other,’ she recalls. ‘We held our first session (zasedanie) in Elena’s room in the communal apartment. We discussed how to attract new members. We needed “our” sort of people – non-conformist types.’ The circle never developed, because Elena explained what she was doing to her grandfather, a former tsarist official, who took fright and made her stop. He revealed a family secret to discourage her from her activities: Elena’s parents had been punished in the 1930s, not just for their German connections but also for their involvement in a clandestine religious organization.12

Liudmila Eliashova enrolled as a student at Leningrad University in 1940, two years after the arrest and execution of her father, a veteran Bolshevik and well-known Leningrad neurologist. Evacuated with the university to Saratov in 1941, she returned with it to Leningrad in 1944 and graduated in 1946. By this time she had already formed dissenting views on the Stalinist regime. A major influence on her thinking was the rector of the university, the brilliant political economist Aleksandr Voznesensky, who rescued many children of the ‘enemies of the people’ by getting them admitted to the university. Morally courageous and humane, charismatic and handsome, Voznesensky was ‘my ideal Soviet man’, recalls Liudmila. ‘I even wrote to him to tell him so. To some extent he took the place of my father, who had been my ideal man.’ Voznesensky’s lectures introduced Liudmila to Marx, whose early works, in particular, became her gospel and the basis of her moral opposition to the Stalinist regime. ‘Marx was a great humanist,’ reflects Liudmila.

After I had listened to Voznesensky’s lectures and read Marx’s works, I began to understand that true socialism, the Communist idea, was not at all what we had under Stalin. Our task was to return to the true socialist society, in which people like my father would never have been arrested.

Instead of a picture of Stalin, Liudmila kept a portrait of Marx among her things. Every day she would cross herself before it and say, as if in prayer: ‘Karl Marx, teach me how to live!’ Together with some friends from the university, she formed a Marxist study group, which met once a week in the Public Library. As in the underground revolutionary circles of the nineteenth century, friendships in the study group were made and broken on the basis of political principles. Liudmila remembers a typical incident:

One day in the Public Library, a few of us were standing on the staircase, talking. Somebody said: ‘Why has there been such a long delay in the convocation of the Nineteenth Party Congress? Surely it is an infringement of the Party rules!’ Since the Eighteenth Party Congress [in 1939] well over five years had gone by [the Nineteenth Congress was not convened until 1952] and this seemed to us to be against the principles of Party democracy [which had called for a Congress every year between 1917 and 1925 and would guarantee one every five years between 1956 and 1986]. Then this girl said: ‘Stalin must know best!’ I looked at her and thought: ‘That’s it!’ For me she ceased to exist as a human being.*

The group began to read beyond the literature they were offered in classes. Not unlike the later dissidents, they were trying to discern a ‘moral code’, as Liudmila puts it, ‘by which we might live more honestly, without dissimulation, in a society whose basic principles negated any moral code’.

From Marx we learned about Dante, whose motto he quotes: ‘Follow your own path and let the others talk.’ We often discussed this and came to the conclusion that, though it is impossible to ignore the opinions of others completely, one should generally try to follow one’s own path, without compromising one’s principles or conforming to the crowd.13

Stalin was quick to rule out any idea of political reform. In his first major speech of the post-war era, on 9 February 1946, he made it clear that there would be no relaxation of the Soviet system. Speaking against the backdrop of mounting Cold War tensions, Stalin called for renewed discipline and sacrifices on the part of the Soviet people to recover from the damage of the war and prepare for the next global conflict, which the capitalist system was bound to bring about (‘as long as capitalism exists there will be wars and the Soviet Union must be prepared’). Stalin ordered his subordinates to deliver ‘a strong blow’ against any talk of democracy, even before such talk had become widespread. Censorship was tightened, particularly in regard to memoirs of the war, in which the collective experience tended to prompt ideas of reform.14 The NKVD was strengthened and reorganized as two separate bureaucracies in March 1946: the MVD was henceforth to control domestic security and the Gulag system; while the MGB (the forerunner of the KGB) was placed in charge of counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence, although since the regime’s enemies were ipso facto ‘foreign spies’, the MGB’s mandate spilled over into the surveillance of the domestic scene as well. The post-war years saw no return to the level of the terror of the 1930s, but every year several tens of thousands of people – many of them Jews and other nationalities accused of siding with the West in the Cold War – were arrested and convicted by the courts for ‘counterrevolutionary’ activities.15

Immediately after the end of the war, Stalin launched a new purge of the army and the Party leadership, where rival power-centres, formed by groups perceived as ‘liberal’ reformers, had emerged as a challenge to his personal authority. Stalin’s first priority was to cut down the top army leaders, who enjoyed enormous popularity as a result of the victory of 1945 and, in the case of Marshal Zhukov, had become the focus of the people’s hopes for reform.* The MGB began to monitor the telephone conversations of senior military commanders. A file was kept on Zhukov, whose grandeur had reached intolerable proportions. As the military administrator of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany, Zhukov had given a press conference in Berlin, at which he claimed the lion’s share of the credit for the Soviet victory. Denounced by Stalin for his boastfulness, Zhukov was recalled to Moscow, summoned before the Military Council and condemned by Politburo members as a Bonapartist threat to the Soviet state (all but one of the generals at the meeting spoke up in defence of the marshal). On Stalin’s orders, Zhukov was demoted to commander of the Odessa Military District; he was later sent to an obscure posting in the Urals (it could have been much worse, for there were rumours that Zhukov had been plotting a military coup against Stalin). Zhukov’s name vanished from the Soviet press. He was written out of Soviet accounts of the Great Patriotic War, which portrayed Stalin as the sole architect of victory. Other popular military heroes shared a similar fate: Marshal Antonov, the former Chief of Staff, was exiled to the command of the Transcaucasian Military District; the names of Rokossovsky, Konev, Voronov, Vatutin and many others were erased from the public record of the war; and several senior commanders were executed or imprisoned on trumped-up treason charges between 1946 and 1948.16

Stalin also turned against the Party leadership of Leningrad, a city with a strong sense of independence from Moscow and a vibrant literary culture rooted in the European values of the nineteenth century, which made it a stronghold of the intelligentsia’s reform hopes. Leningrad’s Party leaders were neither liberals nor democrats: they were technocrats who believed in the rationalization of the Soviet system. During the war, a number of them had risen to senior positions in Moscow, largely due to the powerful patronage of Andrei Zhdanov, the former Party boss of Leningrad. In the post-war years, Zhdanov was in charge of the Party apparatus and oversaw ideological matters as well as foreign policy. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1948, the Politburo contained a disproportionate number of Leningraders, including two, Nikolai Voznesensky and Aleksei Kuznetsov, who were widely seen as potential successors to Stalin. Like his brother Aleksandr, Rector of Leningrad University, Nikolai Voznesensky was a political economist. He was young, dynamic and good-looking. As the Director of Gosplan, Voznesensky had been the mastermind behind the planning of the Soviet war economy. After 1945, he looked for ways to rationalize the reconstruction of Soviet industry, embracing many ideas from the NEP,* which had done so much to revitalize the country after the destruction of the Civil War. Kuznetsov was the Central Committee secretary in charge of security affairs, but he was better known as a military hero from the siege of Leningrad, which was the main reason for his popularity in Leningrad, as well as a source of constant irritation to Stalin.

In 1949, Stalin sent Grigorii Malenkov, the head of the Party Secretariat and a bitter enemy of Voznesensky and Kuznetsov, to inspect the work of the Leningrad Party organization. The pretext of Malenkov’s visit was to investigate allegations of fixed elections by the district Party committees, but his real purpose was to break the city’s power-base. The first target was the Museum of the Defence of Leningrad, whose exposition presented the history of the siege as a collective act of heroism by the city’s people largely independent of the Party’s leadership. The Museum was closed down and its leaders arrested. The Museum’s invaluable depository of personal documents and recollections was destroyed, as if to erase all memory of the city’s independence and bravery. Then, in August 1949, Kuznetsov and Voznesensky were arrested, along with several other independent-minded Leningrad officials, including the rector of the university, in what became known as the ‘Leningrad Affair’. Accused of various trumped-up charges, from spying for Britain to debauchery, Voznesensky and the others were found guilty in a secret trial and shot on the same day in October 1950.

The post-war political clampdown was matched by a return to the austerity of the planned economy. As Stalin warned in his 9 February 1946 speech, there could be no relaxation in a situation of international tension. A new Five Year Plan was introduced that year. Huge building projects were drawn up for the restoration of the country’s infrastructure. The fantastic targets set for industrial production could only be fulfilled by a workforce of Stakhanovites. Soviet propaganda cajoled the population to brace itself for one more period of sacrifice, sweetening its message with the usual promise that hard work would be rewarded with cheap consumer goods. However, for most of the population, there was little reason for faith in such promises. Rising prices on the few available basic household goods were deflating real wages. To deal with the problem of inflation the regime introduced a currency reform in 1947, exchanging old for new money at a rate of ten to one, which drastically reduced the spending power of the rural population, in particular. It wiped out peasant savings from the market sale of garden vegetables and handicrafts during the war, when there had been a relaxation of restrictions against petty trade.17

Forced labour played an increasingly important part in the post-war Soviet economy, according to a policy dictated by Stalin and his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisers. With the ending of the war the pool of unpaid labour available for exploitation by the state grew enormously. Apart from Gulag prisoners and labour army conscripts, there were 2 million German POWs, and about another million from other Axis nationalities, who were mostly used for timber-felling, mining and construction, although those with skills were employed occasionally in Soviet industry. In some factories German POWs were so integral to production that detention camps were built on the factory grounds and officials tried to block the prisoners’ repatriation to Germany. The Gulag population also grew, despite the release of many prisoners in the amnesty of 1945; the camps took in well over a million new prisoners between 1945 and 1950, largely as a result of the mass arrest of ‘nationalists’ (Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians) in territories captured or reoccupied by the Red Army but never really reconciled to Soviet power. The Gulag system expanded into a vast industrial empire, with 67 camp complexes, 10,000 individual camps and 1,700 colonies, employing a captive labour force of 2.4 million people by 1949 (compared with 1.7 million before the war). Overall, it is estimated that conscript labourers represented between 16 and 18 per cent of the Soviet industrial workforce between 1945 and 1948. They were especially important in the mining of precious metals in cold and remote regions where free labour was very expensive, if not impossible, to employ (hence their contribution to the Soviet economy was even more significant than the figures would suggest). Slave labour also made up the workforce in the big construction projects of the late 1940s which came to symbolize, officially at least, the post-war confidence and achievements of the Soviet system: the Volga–Don Canal; the Kuibyshev hydro-electric station; the Baikal-Amur and Arctic railways; the extensions to the Moscow Metro; and the Moscow University ensemble on the Lenin Hills, one of seven wedding-cake like structures (‘Stalin’s cathedrals’) in the ostentatious ‘Soviet Empire’ style which shot up around the capital in these years.18

The post-war years saw a gradual merging between the Gulag and civilian economies. Every year about half a million Gulag labourers were contracted out to the civilian sector, mostly in construction, or wherever the civilian ministries complained of labour shortages; about the same number of free labourers, mostly specialists, were paid to work in Gulag industries. The Gulag system was increasingly compelled to resort to material incentives to motivate even its forced labourers. The population of the camps had become more unruly and difficult to control. With the amnesty of about a million prisoners in 1945, mainly criminals, who had their sentences either reduced or annulled, the camps were left with a high proportion of ‘politicals’ – not the intellectual types who filled the camps in the 1930s but strong young men who had fought as soldiers in the war, foreign POWs, Ukrainian and Baltic ‘nationalists’ – who were hostile to the Soviet regime and not afraid of violence. Without a system of rewards, these prisoners simply refused to meet the set targets. The cost of guarding the prisoners was also becoming astronomical. By 1953, the MVD was employing a quarter of a million guards within its camps, spending twice as much on the upkeep of the Gulag than it received in revenue from its output. Several senior MVD officials were seriously questioning the effectiveness of using forced labour at all. There were even mooted plans, supported by Beria and Malenkov, to dismantle sections of the Gulag and convert the prisoners into partially civilian workers, but since Stalin was a firm supporter of the Gulag system, none of these ideas was seriously proposed.19

The Norilsk complex is a good example of the post-war convergence between the Gulag and civilian economies. Its population tripled, from 100,000 to nearly 300,000 prisoners between 1945 and 1952. Most of the new arrivals were Soviet POWs who had passed through the ‘filtration camps’ (where ‘collaborators with the enemy’ were weeded out by interrogation) on their return from Europe and the former zones of Nazi occupation; or soldiers and civilians who were rounded up as ‘nationalists’ from the Baltic region and Ukraine. But there was also a steady increase in the number of free labourers, who represented about one-third of the total workforce by 1949, if one includes prisoners who remained (or were made to remain) on paid contracts in the Norilsk complex after their release. Finally, there was a large contingent of Komsomol enthusiasts who came to Norilsk as volunteers; and relatives of prisoners who came to be united with their families.20

Lev Netto was born in 1925 to an Estonian family of Communists that had come to Moscow in 1917. His father was a member of the Latvian Rifle Brigade that played a vital role in Lenin’s seizure of power; his mother, who became an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, named Lev after Trotsky, who was her hero. In 1943, Lev was mobilized by the Red Army and assigned to a special NKVD unit of partisans which was sent to fight behind the German lines in Estonia. Captured by the enemy in 1944, Lev was imprisoned in Dvinsk in Latvia and then sent to a POW camp near Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. In April 1945, the POWs were forced by the Germans to march west. Lev and a few of the other prisoners ran away from the convoy and were liberated by US troops. Lev spent two months in a camp run by the Americans. Despite their attempts to persuade him not to return to his native land, he went back to the Soviet Union in May 1945. He was twenty years old and wanted to study at a university. When Lev reached the Soviet border, he was sent to a filtration camp and then put back into the Red Army. For the next three years Lev served as an ordinary soldier in the newly occupied territories of western Ukraine. In April 1948, he was arrested in Rovno, charged with spying for the USA and, after weeks of torture by his NKVD interrogators, accused of having betrayed his partisan brigade to the Germans during the war. Threatened with the arrest of his parents, Lev signed a full confession to his crimes, and was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labour followed by five years of exile in Norilsk.21

Maria Drozdova was sent to Norilsk after being arrested in Berlin by the Red Army in April 1945. Four years earlier, when she was seventeen, Maria had been captured by the Germans in Krasnoe Selo, near Leningrad, the town she lived in with her parents. She was taken by the German army to Estonia, where she worked as a nurse in a field hospital, and then to Berlin, where she was employed as a servant in the house of a senior Nazi official. Maria resisted several attempts by the Germans to recruit her as a spy – she was beaten by them many times – but her wounds were not enough to persuade the Soviet military tribunal which sentenced her to ten years in Norilsk for ‘treason against the Motherland’.22

The precious metals of Norilsk played an important role in Stalin’s thinking about the post-war reconstruction of the Soviet economy. To stimulate the Norilsk labour force the camp administration made increasing use of work credits and monetary rewards. By 1952, money wages had become the norm for the majority of Norilsk prisoners, who each earned on average 225 roubles a month, about one-third the normal rate of pay for civilian workers, although in Norilsk food and housing were ‘free of charge’. Many of the voluntary workers received special (‘northern’) rates of pay which were far higher than they could have earned outside the Gulag system.23 A strange hybrid system was evolving in Norilsk: a prison system where the prisoners were paid. But no amount of pay could make up for the loss of dignity and the inhumane conditions in which they were forced to live and work. It was only a matter of time before they rebelled.


The post-war years witnessed the consolidation of a new type of educated Soviet ‘middle class’. From 1945 to 1950, the number of students in universities and higher schools doubled, giving rise to a young professional class of technicians and managers who would become the leading functionaries and beneficiaries of the Soviet system over the next few decades. This new elite was different from the Soviet cadres of the 1930s: its members were better educated, less ideological in outlook and more stable. Their professional qualifications not only assured them senior positions in the Soviet system, but virtually guaranteed them immunity from demotion on account of class or ideological impurity. Professional capacity began to take the place of proletarian values in the ruling principles of the Soviet elite.

The creation of this professional class was a conscious policy of the Stalinist regime, which recognized the need for a larger and more reliable stratum of engineers, administrators and managers, both to compete with the capitalist economies and to stabilize the Soviet system by providing it with a more solid social base. The regime needed the support of a loyal middle class, if it was not to be overwhelmed by broader social pressures for political reform after 1945; and the most direct means of winning that loyalty was to cater to people’s bourgeois aspirations. This new Soviet bourgeoisie was rewarded with secure and well-paid jobs, private apartments and the domestic pleasures of a comfortable home. There were few consumer goods to meet their aspirations in the immediate post-war years, but, as in the 1930s, there were plenty of promises of ‘the good life’. Soviet propaganda, films and fiction conjured up an image of the personal and material happiness that lay ahead for those who studied hard and worked diligently. In post-war films and fiction, personal enrichment was promoted as a just reward for industry and loyalty; the pursuit of private happiness, domesticity and material goods was represented as a newly positive (‘Soviet’) value.24

The expansion of the higher education system was the key to the creation of this middle class. By the early 1950s, there were 1.7 million students in Soviet universities, and well over 2 million students in the higher technical schools and colleges.25 The student population was basically a mix of children from intelligentsia families, a larger share of children from the existing Soviet elite and a sizeable proportion of young men from humble backgrounds who had risen through the ranks of the army in the war and were now given favoured access to higher education. Promoted to the managerial and technical elite, they owed their success, not to their class origins or political zealotry, as did the vydvizhentsy of the 1930s, but rather to their training in Soviet schools and universities. Their identification with the system was closely linked to their professional identity. As engineers and technicians, managers and planners, whose careers were defined by the aim of ensuring that the Soviet system worked effectively, they readily accepted the rationality of the planned economy and society, even if politically, or because of their family’s repression, they had reasons to oppose the Stalinist regime.

To succeed on this career path people had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime. As an engineer explained in 1950,

To advance on the job, one needs to be energetic and persistent, one must be able to keep one’s mouth shut and to wear a mask… If one can manage to shout, ‘Long Live Stalin!’… and sing the popular song, ‘I know of no other country in which a man breathes so freely’, then one will succeed.

According to a group of émigrés interviewed at this time, the most common type of Soviet functionary was no longer the Communist believer and enthusiast of the 1930s, but the careerist who might not believe in the Party or its goals but carried out its orders nonetheless.26 Through these ordinary Stalinists, the millions of technocrats and petty functionaries who did its bidding, the regime was routinized, its practices bureaucratized, and the revolutionary impulses that had led to the Terror gradually transformed into the stable culture of a loyal professional elite.

Dissimulation had always been a necessary survival skill in Soviet Russia, but in the post-war years, when the requirements of class and political commitment became secondary to the outward display of conformity, the art of wearing masks was perfected. Czesłw Miłosz, who had lived under the post-war Communist system in Poland, thought that people had become so practised at acting in public that it began to seem natural:

After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic… Acting on a comparable scale has not occurred often in the history of the human race.27

Few people lost themselves entirely in their public role. A split identity was probably more representative of the Soviet mentality. Like an actor with an eye to his performance, most citizens remained acutely conscious of the difference between their private and their public selves and they had many ways to keep the two identities apart, from strategies to suppress potentially dangerous thoughts and impulses to methods for resolving the moral dilemmas that nagged at their consciences.

The young professional class of the late 1940s and early 1950s faced new dilemmas compared to those their parents faced in the 1930s. In many cases burdened with a spoilt biography they had inherited from their parents, they were forced to find a way through the system, in which few of them (in contrast to their parents) actually believed – a complex strategic game involving dissimulation (and self-deception), conformism and moral compromise. The first moral choice that many people faced on their career path was whether to declare the arrest of their relatives in the questionnaire (anketa) they were required to fill out on entering a job or university. To reveal a spoilt biography was to run the risk of rejection; but to conceal it could potentially entail even more serious consequences, if the truth was discovered by the authorities.

Irina Aleksandrova concealed the arrest of her father when she enrolled as a student in the Economics Department at the Polytechnic Institute in Leningrad in 1946. However, in her second year, she revealed the truth in another questionnaire which the students were required to fill out before going on a study trip. Irina thought that ‘times had changed, they had become more free’, and that ‘there was no longer any shame in coming from a family of enemies of the people’, although, looking back on these events, she thinks that she was influenced by the liberal hopes of friends whose families had never been repressed. When it received her second questionnaire, the Komsomol at the institute organized a ‘purge meeting’ of all the students in Irina’s year at which she was made to answer hostile questions about why she had ‘concealed her social origins’. The leaders of the Komsomol accused Irina of behaving ‘shamefully’, in an ‘anti-Soviet manner’, just as her father, an ‘enemy of the people’, had behaved. The meeting passed a resolution to recommend the expulsion of Irina from the institute. Irina was rescued by one of the lecturers, the vice-director of the department, who had himself been arrested during the industrial purges of the early 1930s and had recently returned from fighting at the front. ‘Back then, the moral tone of the institute was still dominated by the soldiers who had returned from the front,’ recalls Irina. ‘They would not tolerate the restoration of the culture of the purge, and they kept a firm grip on the faculties and dormitories to ensure that student activists did not bully others like myself.’ The lecturer made sure that Irina was not expelled – he even got her reinstated to the study trip – and she graduated from the institute with honours. But in 1949 the lecturer was himself dismissed in a general purge of the institute connected with the Leningrad Affair.28

Many people thought it was ‘the honest thing to do’ to declare the arrest of their parents in the questionnaire. Brought up in the Soviet way, in the belief that private life should be open to public scrutiny, they felt that the most important thing was to live in truth. Others thought that denying their parents’ arrest was tantamount to betraying them for egotistical reasons; conversely to accept the inheritance of their parents’ spoilt biography was in some way to keep faith with them. Inna Gaister enrolled as a student at Moscow University in 1944. She always wrote the truth about the arrest of her parents because she was afraid that if she wrote some half-truth, or a lie, she would be getting dangerously close to renouncing them.

I was very frightened of that… I was afraid that if I lied about my parents, I would be somehow letting go of them… By stating openly that I was the daughter of an enemy of the people, I felt that I protected myself from being put under pressure to renounce my father, which seemed to me a very bad thing to do, even though I knew that he was dead.29

Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947

Some people chose to hide their spoilt biography in order not to jeopardize their career. There were many ways to justify this action in their mind: that their parents were not really ‘enemies of the people’ and that they were therefore not concealing any crime; that their parents would have wanted them to get on in society; or that such concealment was the only way to become honest Soviet citizens. Thus Leonid Makhnach, in his application to the Moscow Film School in 1949, wrote that his father Vladimir (who had been arrested and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labour camp in 1941) had simply ‘vanished without trace’ during the war.30 And Vladimir Vlasov swapped his real name (Zikkel) for the surname of his aunt, Olga Vlasova, who had brought him up in her home in Leningrad after the arrest of his parents. Vladimir found a job in a secret military installation in 1948. He recalls:

I always wrote the same thing on every questionnaire. My older sister helped me make a crib sheet I could consult so that I was sure to give the same answer every time. I always put down the same false place and date of birth, and always wrote that I had lost my parents at an early age. ‘I have no information about my father,’ I would add. As for my mother, I always gave the [false] name Nina Ippolitovna. I invented the story that she had won three medals in the war, and that she had never been married. I allowed her a lover called Boris Stepanovich, who had come to Russia from Paris, though I was too little to remember much about him, except that he was some sort of artist and did many sketches of my mother. I kept up this fiction until 1980, when I finally killed off my mother. By then, she had reached the age of eighty-six.31

Only in the Soviet Union, the most bureaucratic and yet absurdly inefficient country in the world, was it possible to keep such lies going for so long.

For those who wanted to leave their past behind, there was bound to be a change in their relation to parents who had been repressed. As Inna Gaister feared, it was always a temptation to let go of such parents. Angelina Bushueva became an active member of the Komsomol in Perm. She had already joined the Pioneers in the ALZhIR labour camp, from which she had returned with her mother and her sister in 1946. More than anything, she wanted recognition as ‘an equal Soviet citizen’, to enjoy the same rights as other citizens and overcome the stigma of her parentage. At the Pedagogical Institute in Perm, where she enrolled as a student in 1951, Angelina soon became the secretary of the Komsomol. She loved Stalin. She refused to believe that he had been responsible for the arrest of her father, in 1937, or for the destruction of her family, following the arrest of her mother in 1938. Because her mother took a different view – a view that was still dangerous to hold in the early 1950s – the family never talked about the past. Angelina tried not to think about her father. Only by denying him could she move on and pursue a career in a factory in Perm. She certainly never talked about him to her husband, a Communist official in the factory:

Nelly and Angelina Bushueva, 1953

In my family we used to say: ‘The more you know – the quicker you grow old!’ Or: ‘The less you know – the easier to live!’ I never talked to anyone about my father – not until I retired from the factory and collected my pension in 1991.32

Leonid Saltykov was born in 1927 to the family of a priest, who was arrested in 1937. As the eldest of five children, Leonid felt responsible for his mother, a postal worker who did not earn enough to support the family. Although he was a bright boy, he finished only four classes before he was expelled from school, because of his spoilt biography. After several casual jobs, he managed to enrol in a factory school by hiding the arrest of his father. He wanted to become an engineer, to prove himself as a ‘first-class Soviet citizen’, as he recalls, by doing well in a profession highly valued by the regime. In 1944, Leonid got a job as an electrical engineer in a munitions factory in Cheliabinsk. In the evenings he studied at a technical college. On all the forms he wrote that his father had died in 1942: it suggested that he had been killed during the war. ‘Nobody would check up on a date like that,’ reasoned Leonid.

I stuck to this version of events for many years – right up until 1958, when I became the head of the special sector in the ‘secret group’ of operations in the munitions factory. Then I felt that I should put the record straight… I was afraid that in this ‘secret group’ they would check my story and that, when they found out that I had been lying, they would accuse me of being a spy.

Leonid in 1944

Leonid only found out what had happened to his father in 1963 (he had been shot in 1938). Until then, he continued to deny all knowledge about his fate. ‘My only interest was to climb the career ladder,’ he admits, ‘and to do that I had to keep the secret of my past… The truth about my father’s arrest would have blackened my reputation and ruined my career.’ In 1965, Leonid joined the Party. He became the secretary of the Party Committee in the factory where he worked, effectively the leader of 1,500 Communists. He was an ardent Stalinist, grieved when Stalin died and kept his picture on his desk until his retirement in 1993. Leonid did not believe that Stalin was responsible for the arrest of his father (a view he still holds today). On the contrary, he was grateful to Stalin for the opportunity to rise from a humble background, the son of a village priest, and become a senior factory boss.33

Breaking from the past for career purposes damaged many family relationships. In 1946, Iurii Streletsky graduated with top marks from high school in Tbilisi. He wanted to return to Leningrad, where he had grown up, to study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute, but he was rejected when he admitted on his application that his parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people’. Iurii managed to find part-time work in various factories in Leningrad, which enabled him to sit in as an external student on the evening classes at the institute, although he could not take the final examinations or receive certification. In 1948, he was employed unofficially as a technical designer at the main Party press in Leningrad, just when the press was introducing new technology from Germany. Iurii played a vital role in setting up the new machinery, but as an unofficial employee, he received no reward or recognition for his achievement. In fact, as soon as the new printing works was up and running, he was dismissed because of the arrest of his father, which he had recorded in a questionnaire. For the next three years Iurii held a series of casual jobs. In 1951, his mother returned from exile in Kazakhstan to Leningrad. Deeply damaged by her husband’s death and by years of exile, she could not find a job and lived very poorly on her own. Iurii did not visit her, or even try to help her financially. His own bitter experiences had made him selfish, as he confesses in an interview.

I became an egotist, and my feelings towards others, even towards my own mother, hardened. I put her out of my mind and forgot about her, because I saw her as a burden which I could do without. It is shameful to admit, but it is true.

In 1953, Iurii applied for a job as a senior technician at the Pulkovo Observatory. This time he did not declare his spoilt biography – he wrote down that his parents were both dead – and as a result he got the job.34

Some young people were so desperate to make a career for themselves that they became informers for the NKVD. The security organs recruited many of its informers from children of ‘enemies of the people’. They knew that they were vulnerable and that many of them had a strong desire to prove themselves as worthy Soviet citizens.

Tatiana Elagina was born in Leningrad in 1926 to a family of merchants that had been very wealthy before 1917. The Elagins were exiled to Kazakhstan in 1935 following the murder of Kirov. In 1945, Tatiana applied to study mathematics at Moscow University. Although she had top grades, she was rejected on the basis of her ‘alien social origins’. So she enrolled instead at the Moscow Electromechanical Institute for Transport Engineers, where the demand for able students meant that less attention was paid to her family background. Studying in Moscow was the fulfilment of Tatiana’s dreams. But shortly after she began her studies, the institute announced a general purge to remove ‘social undesirables’. Tatiana fled to Leningrad, where she joined the Institute of Electrical Engineering: the authorities there were glad to have a student with such high grades apply and turned a blind eye to her spoilt biography. But in her final year, when the students were involved in ‘secret’ work at power stations, the weeding-out of unreliables was intensified. She was picked to write reports on her classmates:

They said there was nothing shameful about this, and somehow I managed to convince myself that they were right. They told me that if I heard the students saying something negative about the institute, or complaining about anything, even if it was in a private conversation among themselves, I was to report it immediately, making sure that the people I reported did not know.

Tatiana did her best to report as little as she could: she passed on rumours she had heard without mentioning specific names. But there was growing pressure on her to provide more-concrete information, not least because, if she refused, she might be sent to work, as others from the year before had been, in the remote regions of the Arctic North by the Ministry of Electric Power, which had first call on the graduates of the institute. Before she took her last exams, Tatiana submitted a report that led to the arrest of three students. She got a prestigious job in Moscow in the Trust of Hydro-electricity.35

Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. She was born in 1930 into a Belorussian peasant family that was repressed as ‘kulaks’ during the collectivization of agriculture. The family house and farm were destroyed. Valentina’s father was sent into exile, leaving her mother to survive with their two young daughters in a shack she built from the rubble of their house. Banned from school as a ‘kulak’ daughter, Valentina spent her childhood working with her mother in various low-paid jobs, before moving to Irkutsk and then to Abakan, in the Altai region of Siberia. In Abakan she and her mother were reunited with Valentina’s father. Sick and broken from his years in the labour camps, he found a job as the caretaker in a school, where Valentina’s mother worked as a cleaner. Valentina only started attending classes when she was thirteen. Until then she could not read, as she recalls:

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

At school Valentina suffered acutely from the stigma of her ‘kulak’ origins. She became increasingly ashamed of her parents’ poverty, of their Belorussian background and their ignorance (they were illiterate and could not speak Russian). Determined to liberate herself by studying hard, Valentina joined the Pioneers and then the Komsomol. Only that path ‘offered hope of an escape from the poverty and hunger in which I had grown up’, she explains. Valentina grew up to believe that Stalin was ‘the greatest human being in the whole of history’. She totally accepted the Party’s propaganda about ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’. She even wanted to become a lawyer so that she could help the government to hunt them down. ‘Like Stalin,’ she recalls, ‘I was not at all sorry for people who were sent to the Gulag.’

In 1948, when she was eighteen, Valentina ran away from home. She enrolled at a college for accountants and then took a job as a trainee accountant at a naval base on the island of Sakhalin, where she received the higher rates of pay and food rations reserved for special military personnel. Valentina married a naval officer. She became a trusted member of the naval base, where she worked in the staff building, with special access to the files of all the personnel. In this capacity she was recruited by the MVD to inform on the wives of other naval officers. Her task was to strike up friendships with these women and report to her controller on their private lives and opinions:

In some cases I would approach the women and ask them to make something I could buy: many women spent their spare time sewing and knitting. In others I would befriend the women and get myself invited to their place for tea. Or I would visit them at work. My controller gave me money for these ‘commissions’ (I still have lots of items, mainly coats and pullovers, which my ‘clients’ made for me). He also gave me money to buy a cake for tea, or some other offering so that I could make that first contact and win the women’s trust. The main thing was to make a connection. It was really easy. There was just one rule: you had to be alone with somebody before striking up a conversation about something important. Only then would they speak freely.

Valentina worked as an informer for several years. She wrote dozens of reports on people who were subsequently arrested. She was well paid – well enough to send large sums of money to her aged parents and to buy a house in Abakan, where she retired with her husband in 1959 (at the age of thirty-nine). During interviews she still insists that she was forced to work against her will. She sees herself as a victim of repression too:

It was impossible to refuse, they knew everything about my parents and their kulak origins… I knew that they had imprisoned my father and I was afraid that they would imprison me… Besides, my husband might have suffered, if I had refused to cooperate.

Valentina Kropotina and her husband, Viktor, 1952

On the other hand, Valentina insists that the people she denounced were truly enemies of the people, ‘proven spies’. She feels no remorse for what she did. Indeed, she is proud of the honours she received for what she calls her work in ‘counter-espionage’.36


Simonov’s career rose to new heights after 1945. The writer returned from the war with a chestful of medals for his reports from the battlefields. Now a trusted Party member in Stalin’s inner circle of favoured intellectuals, Simonov was put in charge of a small delegation of influential journalists sent by the Kremlin to the USA in May 1946, when the world stood on the brink of the Cold War. Briefed in the Kremlin by Molotov, the Foreign Minister, Simonov was charged by Stalin with persuading the Americans that the Soviet Union did not want a war. The trip gave Simonov his first real taste of governmental privilege. He was shocked by the huge advance that he received for the trip; perhaps he was even unnerved by the disparity between his situation and what he knew of the conditions of ordinary Soviet people, but, if so, the feeling was momentary. Simonov revelled in the pleasures of the West. In the USA Simonov was greeted as an international celebrity. His novel Days and Nights was a national bestseller. Everybody knew his poem ‘Wait For Me’. His plays were running in theatres in New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. Simonov himself was photographed in the company of luminaries such as Gary Cooper, Lion Feuchtwanger and Charlie Chaplin, who became his regular correspondent.37

The American tour was one of several foreign trips made by Simonov in the immediate post-war years. On each occasion he was entrusted by the Soviet government with an important task. In London, which he visited in 1947, Simonov reported on the possibility of recruiting leading writers (including J. B. Priestley and George Bernard Shaw) to the Soviet cause.38 In Paris, where he stopped on his way to America, Simonov attempted to persuade the émigré Russian writer Ivan Bunin to return to the Soviet Union. The only Russian to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bunin had been living abroad since 1920, when he fled the Revolution in disgust. He was now in his mid-seventies, but Stalin hoped that patriotic sentiment and nostalgia might yet convince him to return to his native land. Many émigrés were seduced by the favourable image of the Soviet Union in 1945 and some indeed decided to go back. Simonov met Bunin in Paris in a series of fashionable restaurants. He paid the bills with money given him by the Soviet government. Emphasizing his own noble ancestry, Simonov waxed lyrical about life in the Soviet Union. And when Bunin invited him to dinner in his home, Simonov suggested a ‘collective meal’, for which Valentina Serova was flown in from Moscow with a huge hamper of Russian delicacies (herrings, pork fat, black bread and various types of vodka) designed to heighten the old man’s nostalgia. Valentina even sang him Russian songs. But Bunin did not change his anti-Soviet attitudes. He refused to return to the Soviet Union, even for a visit.39

In 1946, the Writers’ Union was reorganized on the lines of the Politburo, with a General Secretary, Aleksandr Fadeyev, and three deputies, including Simonov. The writer Kornei Chukovsky noted in his diary on 16 November 1946: ‘The leaders of the Writers’ Union are very stony-faced. Frozen still. The worst is Tikhonov. He can listen for hours without an expression on his face… Fadeyev and Simonov are also very stony-faced. It must be from the habit of chairmanship.’ Two weeks after his election to the leadership of the Writers’ Union, Simonov was made the editor of Novyi mir (‘New World’), the oldest and most prestigious literary journal in the Soviet Union. In March 1950, he left Novyi mir to assume the editorship of the country’s main literary newspaper, Literaturnaia gazeta, with personal instructions from Stalin to use its editorials to articulate an alternative perspective on the cultural politics of the Cold War, one that would appear sufficiently different from the Kremlin’s position to satisfy the literary intelligentsia’s desire for independence without really departing from its hardline policies towards the West. It was a sign of Stalin’s trust in Simonov that he gave him such a delicate and awkward task.40

Simonov in 1946

Elevation to the Soviet elite led to a dramatic transformation of Simonov’s appearance. He abandoned the ‘military look’ of the war years and began to dress in elegantly tailored English suits, or more casually in turtleneck sweaters from America, a camel coat and the short-peaked cap fashionable in the post-war years. Tall and strikingly handsome, Simonov cut the figure of a European gentleman. He reclaimed many of the manners of the aristocracy into which he had been born. He was a bon viveur and generous host; he was loyal and kind to servants, especially to secretaries and chauffeurs; he opened doors for women, helped them with their coats and greeted them with a chivalrous kiss on the hand.41

Simonov’s lifestyle, too, underwent dramatic transformation. He had several homes. There was a spacious dacha in the prestigious literary resort of Peredelkino, just outside Moscow, which he bought in 1946 from the writer Gladkov for a quarter of a million roubles, a large fortune in those days; a house in Gulripshi, a village near Sukhumi, overlooking the Black Sea, which he bought in 1949; and a large apartment on Gorky Street, in Moscow, where he lived with Valentina after 1948. The couple kept two maids, a housekeeper, a secretary and a private chauffeur for the limousine they had imported from America. The apartment was filled with elegant and expensive antiques. There were precious paintings on the walls, including one by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, which must have come from a private collection that had been confiscated by the state. The apartment was the scene of fashionable parties for the elite of Moscow’s literary and theatre world. Simonov was a keen cook and sometimes he would make elaborate meals for these parties; but more often he would call on the head chef of the nearby famous Aragvi Georgian restaurant who would bring his team of chefs to prepare a banquet in the apartment.42

Among his staff at Novyi mir Simonov was known for his ‘seigneurial’ manner. Lydia Chukovskaia, who was in the poetry division, was struck by the youthful appearance of the new editor, who was then just thirty-one. Yet at the same time she remarked on his enormous confidence, which gave him the authority of a much older man. At work Simonov was serious and measured in his deliberations, drawing on his briar pipe, in the Stalin style, as he handed down instructions to subordinates (there were always half a dozen different pipes on Simonov’s desk). According to Chukovskaia, Simonov was arrogant and domineering in his dealings with the staff at Novyi mir. In her diary she compared the editorial offices to a nineteenth-century manor with ‘minions and lackeys’ running everywhere at the lord’s beck and call. She was especially offended by Simonov’s high-handed treatment of two poets, whom she had persuaded to submit work to Novyi mir in 1946. One was Nikolai Zabolotsky, who had just returned from eight years in a labour camp. Simonov agreed to publish one of his poems but then forced him to change some lines for political reasons. The other was Boris Pasternak, a huge figure in the Soviet literary world who was then, at the age of fifty-six, old enough to be Simonov’s father. Pasternak had asked for an advance on a poem which Simonov had accepted for publication in Novyi mir. But Simonov refused because he saw the request as a veiled threat to withdraw the poem if the advance was not paid. He told Chukovskaia that it was unethical for Pasternak to ‘threaten me, after everything that I have done for him. If I were in his position, I would not behave that way.’ To teach Pasternak a lesson Simonov decided not to publish the accepted poem after all. For Chukovskaia, herself the daughter of a writer (Kornei Chukovsky), brought up on the values of the old intelligentsia, Simonov’s behaviour was appalling, because it signalled his acceptance of the primacy of state power over the autonomy of art. ‘He [Simonov] wants to be a patron and demands gratitude,’ she wrote in her diary.

But people don’t want charity. They want the respect which they deserve. Zabolotsky should be published, not because he spent eight years in the camps, but because his poem is good. Simonov is obliged to support Pasternak, not to do him favours, but obliged to support him, because he is in charge of poetry and, in this domain, Pasternak should be his most important responsibility… Simonov does not understand that it is his duty to Russian culture, and to the people, to give money to Pasternak. He thinks of it as a personal favour, for which Pasternak should be grateful.43

Like all power-holders in the post-war Stalinist system, Simonov was able to exercise enormous patronage. As head of Novyi mir and deputy of the Writer’s Union, he could make or ruin the career of almost any writer in the Soviet Union. He could help people in many other ways – to get housing or a job, even to protect them from arrest – if only he was brave enough to use his influence with the authorities. That was how the system worked. Simonov was inundated with personal requests from colleagues, friends, friends of friends, casual acquaintances, soldiers he had met during the war. He could not help them all, of course, but how he chose the people he would help was revealing.

He was very protective and kind towards his private secretary, Nina Gordon, for example, a small attractive woman in her mid-thirties, who had come to Novyi mir in 1946. Nina had previously worked for the writer Mikhail Koltsov, whose articles on the Spanish Civil War had been an inspiration to the young Simonov. Her husband, Iosif Gordon, a film editor from a noble family, had been arrested in 1937 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp near Magadan. In 1942, Iosif was released so that he could fight at the front. Nina informed Simonov about her disgraced husband when he wanted to promote her to become his personal secretary. At that point Iosif was living in exile in Riazan, where he was working as an engineer. Nina offered to decline the promotion. But Simonov would not hear of it. He even said that he would write to the MVD to help Iosif – an offer she rejected because she did not want to exploit his kindness. As it was, her employment in the offices of Novyi mir could have had unpleasant consequences for Simonov, as shown by an incident in 1948, when Iosif, who had been given permission to visit Moscow for a few days, turned up unexpectedly at the editorial offices. A journalist from the newspaper Izvestiia happened to be there and paid close attention to Iosif, who clearly had the look of an exile. The next day, Nina was called in for questioning by the journal’s Special Department, which served as the eyes and ears of the MVD (every Soviet institution had its own Special Department). Her interrogators wanted to know why Nina had concealed that she was married to a political exile, and threatened to report her for lack of vigilance. When Simonov heard about the incident he was furious. He saw it as an infringement of his editorial authority. Nina received a reprimand by the Special Department, which also issued a statement that ‘suspicious persons’ were not to be admitted to the offices, but there was no further action against her.44

If Simonov was often kind towards people in his personal sphere and brave in helping them with the authorities, he was far less courageous when it came to people in the public sphere. Many writers turned to him for help during the repressions of the post-war years. Simonov was cautious in his response. He was helpful to some, less so to others, depending on his personal feelings, but he was always careful not to risk his own position or to raise suspicions about himself. For example, in September 1946, Simonov wrote a letter of recommendation for his old classmate from the Literary Institute, the poet Portugalov, who had applied to join the Writers’ Union. He did not mention Portugalov’s arrest (in 1937) or the years that he had suffered in the labour camps of Kolyma, referring instead to the ‘seven years that Portugalov spent in the army’ as the reason why he had not published anything, so as not to give the impression that he was pleading for a former ‘enemy of the people’. Portugalov was turned down by the Writers’ Union in 1946, but he reapplied in 1961, at the height of the Khrushchev thaw. On that occasion, Simonov was more forthcoming in his letter of recommendation, pointing to the ‘injustice of his arrest’ as the only reason why his first book of poetry, which appeared in 1960, had not come out twenty years before.45 Simonov also wrote to support the publication of the poet Iaroslav Smeliakov, a committed Communist and close friend of the Laskins, who had been arrested in 1934, served five years in a labour camp and fought bravely in the war, after which he served another term in the Gulag, working in a coal mine near Moscow.46 But other writers who appealed to him were not as fortunate. Simonov refused to help his old teacher at the Literary Institute, the poet Lugovskoi, who had suffered a nervous breakdown during the first battles of 1941 and spent the war years in evacuation in Tashkent. After his return to Moscow, Lugovskoi wrote to Simonov with a request for help in finding a new apartment. Lugovskoi was living with his wife in a communal apartment, but his fragile mental state required privacy. ‘I am no longer young,’ he wrote to his old pupil,

I am a sick person. I cannot bear to live in a communal apartment, with a family of six in the next room… My nerves are constantly on edge and if I end up in a lunatic asylum it will not be surprising… It is hard to ask for help… but you are a humane person, and that encourages me to turn to you. Forgive me! I love you and am proud of you.47

Simonov did not reply. As he saw it, Lugovskoi did not deserve help. For one thing, he already had an apartment, and worse, he had lacked courage in the war – an unforgivable crime in Simonov’s eyes.

Simonov’s firm commitment to the Soviet ideal of military sacrifice goes some way to explain his entanglement in Stalin’s post-war campaigns of repression, starting with his involvement in the ‘Zhdanovsh-china’, the official clampdown against ‘anti-Soviet’ tendencies in the arts and sciences, which was led by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology.

The Zhdanovshchina had its origins in the military victory of 1945, which gave rise to a xenophobic nationalism in the Soviet leadership. Pride in the Soviet victory went hand in hand with the promotion of the USSR’s cultural and political superiority (by which the regime really meant the superiority of the Russians, who were described by Stalin as the most important group in the Soviet Union). Soviet-Russian nationalism replaced the internationalism of the pre-war years as the ruling ideology of the regime. Absurd claims were made for the achievements of Soviet science under the direction of Marxist-Leninist ideology. National pride led to the promotion of frauds and cranks like the pseudo-geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who claimed to have developed a new strain of wheat that would grow in the Arctic frost. The aeroplane, the steam engine, the radio, the incandescent bulb – there was scarely an invention or discovery that the Soviets did not claim for themselves. With the onset of the Cold War, Stalin called for iron discipline to purge all anti-patriotic – meaning pro-Western – elements in cultural affairs. He argued that historically, since the start of the eighteenth century when Peter the Great had founded St Petersburg, the intelligentsia in Russia had prostrated itself before Western – science and culture: it needed to be cured of this ‘sickness’ if the Soviet Union was to defend itself against the West.

On Stalin’s orders, Zhdanov launched a violent campaign against Western influences in Soviet culture.* For Stalin the starting-point of this campaign was Leningrad, a European city he had never liked, whose independence from Moscow had been greatly strengthened by the war. The clampdown began on 14 August 1946, when the Central Committee published a decree censoring the journals Zvezda and Leningrad for publishing the work of two great Leningrad writers, Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova. In singling out these writers for attack the Kremlin aimed to demonstrate to the Leningrad intelligentsia its subordination to the Soviet regime. Akhmatova had acquired immense moral influence during the war. Although her poetry had been rarely published in the Soviet Union since 1925, she remained for millions of Russians a living symbol of the spirit of endurance and human dignity that enabled Leningrad to survive the siege. In 1945, the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who had then just arrived as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Moscow, was told that in the war Akhmatova

received an amazingly large number of letters from the front, quoting from both published and unpublished poems, for the most part circulated privately in manuscript copies; there were requests for autographs, for confirmation of the

authenticity of texts, for expressions of the author’s attitude to this or that problem.

Zoshchenko believed that the Central Committee decree had been passed after Stalin heard about a poetry reading by Akhmatova before a packed house at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. After Akhmatova finished reading, the audience erupted in applause. ‘Who organized this standing ovation?’ Stalin asked.48

Zoshchenko was just as much a thorn in the dictator’s side. He was the last of the Soviet satirists – Maiakovsky, Zamiatin and Bulgakov had all perished – a literary tradition Stalin could not tolerate. The immediate cause of the attack on him was a children’s story, ‘Adventures of a Monkey’, published in Zvezda in 1946, in which a monkey escapes from a zoo and is trained as a human being. But in fact Stalin had been irritated by Zoshchenko’s stories for years. He recognized himself in the figure of the sentry in ‘Lenin and the Guard’ (1939), in which Zoshchenko portrayed a rude and impatient ‘southern type’ with a moustache, whom Lenin treats like a little boy.49

As a leading member of the Writers’ Union, Simonov had little choice but to go along with this campaign. In his first issue as editor of Novyi mir he published the decree of the Central Committee alongside a transcript of a speech by Zhdanov which described Akhmatova as ‘one of the standard bearers of a hollow, empty, aristocratic salon poetry which is absolutely foreign to Soviet literature’ and (in a phrase that had been used by Soviet critics in the past) as a ‘half-nun, half-harlot or rather harlot-nun whose sin is mixed with prayer’.50

Perhaps Simonov felt some discomfort as the persecutor of the Leningrad intelligentsia, with which his own mother’s family identified, but whatever feelings he may have had on this score, he refused to let them hold him back from what he understood as his higher duty to the state. Reflecting on these events in the last year of his life, Simonov confessed that he had gone along with the Zhdanovshchina because he believed that ‘something really needed to be done’ to counteract the ‘atmosphere of ideological relaxation’ that had taken hold of the intelligentsia. Unchecked, it would lead to ‘dangerous expectations of liberal reform’ precisely at a time when the Soviet Union needed to prepare for the intensified ideological struggle of the Cold War. This is what he argued at the time. As he put it in a letter to the Central Committee:

On the ideological front a global struggle of unprecedented violence is being waged. And yet, despite the circumstances there are people spouting theories about a ‘breathing space’ – the idea that we should all sit around in a coffee house and talk about reform. These are mostly people, by the way, who have no need for breathing space, because they laboured very little in the war; in fact, most of them did nothing… If they want, we can give them their breathing space by stopping them from working in the field of Soviet art, but meanwhile the rest of us will go on working and fighting.51

This contempt for intellectuals who shied away from ‘struggle’ – a long-standing view of Simonov’s – explains his hostility to Zoshchenko, in particular. With Akhmatova his attitude was different. He did not like, or even really know, her poetry, but he took exception to the violent language used by Zhdanov against her, because it seemed to him that ‘nobody should speak in such a way about a person who had suffered with the people as Akhmatova had done during the war’.* By contrast, Zoshchenko had spent the war years in evacuation in Tashkent, and according to the Soviet press, which accused the satirist of cowardice, he had fled from Leningrad to avoid fighting at the front. Simonov believed the charge of cowardice. He did not know the truth, or did not bother to discover it: that Zoshchenko, who was in his mid-forties and in poor health, had been ordered by the authorities to leave Leningrad at the beginning of the war. He judged Zoshchenko by the same harsh measure he applied to every man who did not fight, and extended it to the intellectuals who failed to recognize the need to join the ideological struggle of the Cold War. The theatre critic Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, who knew Simonov as well as anyone, points out that this rush to condemn people like Zoshchenko was entirely based on prejudice. Simonov, he writes, had a tendency to

mistrust anyone – especially an intellectual – who had spent the war years working in the rear, and had not shared in the bloody sacrifices of the soldiers at the front. This generalized suspiciousness – which was formed without the slightest effort to look deeper into the biography of each individual – did not take into account the fact that millions of people in the rear worked themselves into the ground so that millions of their comrades at the front could be armed for victory.52

Simonov joined in the attacks on Zoshchenko but not directly in the slander against Akhmatova. When Pravda asked him to write an article condemning the two, Simonov replied that he would speak only against Zoshchenko, and the resulting article was almost wholly focused on the prose writer. However, Simonov reversed his campaign a few months later when he learned the truth about Zoshchenko’s evacuation and heard from the writer Iurii German that Zoshchenko was a courageous man, who had fought with honour in the First World War. Realizing his mistake, Simonov made some efforts to correct the situation: he recommended to Zhdanov the publication of Zoshchenko’s Partisan Tales, written in 1943, which Simonov personally edited, even though he did not think that they were very good. Zhdanov refused to read the tales, but at a meeting with Stalin, in May 1947, Simonov again brought up the issue of their publication on the grounds that Zoshchenko was in a desperate state and needed help. It was a bold and courageous step to go above Zhdanov and ask for Stalin’s help directly for a writer so disliked by the Soviet leader. Stalin told Simonov that he could print the tales on his own editorial authority, but that after they were published, he would read them and form his own opinion about Simonov’s decision to print them. As Simonov recalls, there was more than a ‘hint of a threat in Stalin’s humour’, but he went ahead with the publication of the tales, which appeared in Novyi mir in September 1947.53

And yet, despite this effort at setting things right, Simonov then refused to show compassion for Zoshchenko. In 1954, a group of English students came to Leningrad and requested a meeting with Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. The meeting was attended by several Party members from the Writers’ Union in Leningrad. The foolish students, who made their anti-Soviet feelings clear, asked Akhmatova and Zoshchenko for their opinion of the Central Committee decree of August 1946. Akhmatova replied that the decree had been correct. She was no doubt frightened of the consequences of saying otherwise. But Zoshchenko was less careful. He replied that the decree had been unjust, and he violently rejected the accusations of cowardice against himself. The Party leadership of the Writers’ Union immediately accused Zoshchenko of ‘anti-patriotic behaviour’, and sent a delegation headed by Simonov to Leningrad to ‘work him over’. In a heart-rending speech of self-defence that bordered on hysteria, Zoshchenko declared that his writing life was finished, that he had been destroyed, and he pleaded with his accusers to let him die in peace. Simonov rejected Zoshchenko’s pleas and went after him in the manner of a prosecutor at a purge meeting. ‘Comrade Zoshchenko is appealing to our feelings of compassion, but he has learned nothing, and he ought to be ashamed,’ Simonov declared, referring once again to his war record and his ‘anti-patriotic’ conduct after 1945.54

The attacks against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were soon followed by a series of repressive measures against ‘anti-Soviet elements’ in all the arts and sciences. The State Museum of Modern Western Art was closed down. A campaign against ‘formalism’ and other ‘decadent Western influences’ in Soviet music led to the official blacklisting of several composers (including Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Prokofiev) charged with writing music that was ‘alien to the Soviet people and its artistic taste’. In January 1947, the Politburo issued a decree against a History of European Philosophy (1946) by G. F. Aleksandrov, the head of Agitprop (the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda), accusing the book of having undervalued the Russian contribution to the Western philosophical tradition. Aleksandrov was soon removed from his post. Later that year, in July 1947, the Central Committee published an ominous letter censuring the scientists Nina Kliueva and her husband Grigorii Roskin for ‘obeisances and servility before foreign and reactionary bourgeois Western culture unworthy of our people’. The scientists had been accused of giving information about their cancer research to the Americans during a tour of the USA in 1946. On their return they were dragged before an ‘honour court’, a newly founded institution to examine acts of an anti-patriotic nature in the Soviet establishment, where they were made to answer hostile questions before 800 spectators.55

As the Cold War intensified, fear of foreigners took hold of society. The American journalist Harrison Salisbury recalls returning to Moscow as a foreign correspondent in 1949. None of the Russians he had known from his previous stay in 1944 would acknowledge him. He wrote to his old acquaintances Ehrenburg and Simonov, but not even they replied to him. In 1944, it seemed to Salisbury, the country had been poor, but, compared with the 1930s, there was a new mood of freedom and a buoyant atmosphere that arose from the people’s hopes for victory. By contrast, in 1949 the country had reverted to a state of fear, and there was a

complete severance of any kind of ordinary human relations between Russians and foreigners which, in turn, simply reflected the impressive xenophobia of the Soviet government and the degree to which they had made it plain to all Russians that the most certain, if not the quickest, way to obtain a one-way ticket to Siberia or places even more distant lay in having anything to do with a foreigner.

The briefest of contacts with foreigners could lead to arrest for espionage. The Soviet jails were filled with people who had been on trips abroad. In February 1947, a law was passed to outlaw marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners. Police kept watch over hotels, restaurants and foreign embassies, on the lookout for Soviet girls who met with foreign men.56

After the foundation of Israel, in May 1948, and its alignment with the USA in the Cold War, the 2 million Soviet Jews, who had always remained loyal to the Soviet system, were portrayed by the Stalinist regime as a potential fifth column. Despite his personal dislike of Jews, Stalin had been an early supporter of a Jewish state in Palestine, which he had hoped to turn into a Soviet satellite in the Middle East. But as the leadership of the emerging state proved hostile to approaches from the Soviet Union, Stalin became increasingly afraid of pro-Israeli feeling among the Soviet Jews. His fears intensified as a result of Golda Meir’s arrival in Moscow in the autumn of 1948 as the first Israeli ambassador to the USSR. Everywhere she went she was cheered by crowds of Soviet Jews. On her visit to a Moscow synagogue on Yom Kippur (13 October), thousands of people lined the streets, many of them shouting ‘Am Yisroel chai’ (‘The People of Israel live!’) – a traditional affirmation of national renewal to Jews throughout the world but to Stalin a dangerous sign of ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’ that subverted the authority of the Soviet state.57

The enthusiastic reception of Meir prompted Stalin to step up the anti-Jewish campaign that had in fact been underway for many months. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Jewish Theatre in Moscow and the leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), was killed in a car accident arranged by the MVD. The JAFC had been established in 1942 to attract Western Jewish aid for the Soviet war effort, but for many of the Soviet Jews who had joined it, among them leading writers, artists, musicians, actors, historians and scientists, its broader aim was to encourage Jewish culture in the USSR. The immediate post-war years were relatively favourable for this goal. In 1946, Mikhoels was awarded the Stalin Prize. Jewish plays were often broadcast on the radio. The JAFC developed a major project to commemorate the Nazi destruction of the Soviet Jews: a collection of documents edited by Vasily Grossman and Ilia Ehrenburg known as The Black Book. Stalin had hoped to use the JAFC to curry favour with the nascent Jewish state in the Middle East. But as it became clear that the new state would more likely be allied to the USA, he changed his attitude. The MGB was instructed to build up a case against the JAFC as an ‘anti-Soviet nationalist organization’. The publication of The Black Book was postponed indefinitely. After the murder of Mikhoels, the Jewish Theatre was closed down. In December 1948, over a hundred JAFC members were arrested, tortured to confess to their ‘anti-Soviet activities’ and executed or sent to labour camps.58

In the Soviet literary world the assault against the Jews took the form of a campaign against ‘cosmopolitans’. The term was first coined by the nineteenth-century literary critic Vissarion Belinsky to refer to writers (‘rootless cosmopolitans’) who lacked or rejected national character. It reappeared in the war years, when Russian nationalism and anti-Jewish feelings were both on the rise. For example, in November 1943, Fadeyev attacked the Jewish writer Ehrenburg for coming from ‘that circle of the intelligentsia that understands internationalism in a vulgar cosmopolitan sense and fails to overcome the servile admiration of everything foreign’.59 After 1945, the term appeared with increasing regularity in the Soviet literary press.

The campaign against the ‘cosmopolitans’ began when Fadeyev forwarded a letter he had received from an obscure journalist (Natalia Begicheva) to Stalin on 10 December 1948. Originally written as a denunciation to the MVD, the letter claimed that there was a group of ‘enemies’ at work within the literary establishment, and cited as the leaders of this ‘anti-patriotic group’ seven critics and writers, all but one of them Jewish. Under pressure from Stalin, Fadeyev made a speech in the Writers’ Union on 22 December. He attacked a group of theatre critics, naming four of the six Jews denounced by Begicheva (Altman, Borshchagovsky, Gurvich and Iuzovsky), who, Fadeyev claimed, were ‘trying to discredit our Soviet theatre’. It was a relatively moderate speech: Fadeyev was apparently reluctant to play the role of Stalin’s henchman. Once a decent man, Fadeyev had been reduced to a trembling alcoholic by the moral compromises he had been forced to make. Stalin kept up the pressure, enlisting Pravda to attack Fadeyev for not being vigilant enough against the ‘cosmopolitans’, and putting rumours out that he was about to be replaced as the leader of the Writers’ Union. Unable to resist any longer, Fadeyev gave his endorsement to an anonymous article in Pravda on 29 January 1949 (‘About One Anti-Patriotic Group’) which, in language strongly reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Great Terror, denounced several theatre critics as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ and accused them of fomenting a ‘bourgeois’ literary conspiracy to sabotage the healthy principles of ‘national pride’ in Soviet literature.60 All the critics named were Jews. The article was almost certainly written by the Party hack and Pravda journalist David Zaslavsky. A former Menshevik and active Zionist until he joined the Bolsheviks in 1921, Zaslavsky had written several hatchet jobs for Stalin to expiate his sins and expedite his rise into the Soviet elite.*

Fadeyev at the Writers’ Union, 22 December 1948. Far left: Simonov. Next to him: Ehrenburg. The banner under the portrait reads: ‘Glory to the Great Stalin!’

The Pravda article was soon followed by a series of attacks on ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ in the rest of the Soviet press. Stalinists competed with each other to denounce the ‘anti-patriotic groups’ which they claimed were undermining Soviet poetry, music, art and cinema.61 For the Jews named by these vicious articles, the consequences were harsh. Many lost their jobs, or were expelled from the Party or their union, effectively depriving them of their livelihood. Some were arrested. A few saved themselves by confessing their ‘mistakes’ or by distancing themselves from the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’. Of the theatre critics denounced by Fadeyev, only one man was arrested, Iogann Altman, the victim of an ugly article, filled with hatred and thinly veiled anti-Semitism, in the journal Soviet Art. ‘In the name of the Soviet people, we pronounce that the Altmans of this world pollute Soviet culture like living corpses,’ it declared. ‘We must get rid of their rotten stench to purify the air.’ Altman was denounced in the Writers’ Union by Anatoly Sofronov, a fanatical supporter of the anti-Semitic campaign and a major power in the Union during the long absences of the alcoholic Fadeyev. Expelled from both the Writers’ Union and the Party, Altman was arrested on the night of Stalin’s death in March 1953. Altman and Fadeyev had been good friends for many years. It was Fadeyev who had insisted that he should work with Mikhoels in the Jewish Theatre. ‘He needs an adviser, a commissar: think of it as a Party command!’, Fadeyev had said. When Altman was asked by his interrogators how he came to work with Mikhoels, he said nothing about Fadeyev. He knew that he might save himself by naming the leader of the Writers’ Union, but he did not want to implicate Fadeyev in what was being styled as a ‘Zionist conspiracy’. Undoubtedly, Altman hoped that Fadeyev would respond in kind, would intervene to rescue him. But Fadeyev did nothing. Fadeyev was absent from the meeting at the Writers’ Union when Altman was expelled, and nobody could find him in Moscow (Simonov believed that he had disappeared on a drinking binge to escape his responsibilities). Altman never recovered from Fadeyev’s betrayal. Released from jail in May 1953, he died two years later, a broken man.62

Simonov too was dragged into the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. At first he tried to hold a moderate line. If he did not openly protest against the campaign, he also didn’t align himself with Sofronov and the other hardliners. Simonov was not an anti-Semite. As the editor of Novyi mir, he had published several writers of Jewish origin. His first two wives were Jewish; the second, Zhenia Laskina, was a cousin of the writer Boris Laskin, who had been named as an ‘enemy of Soviet literature’ in Begicheva’s original denunciation to the MVD. Simonov’s moderate position irritated the hardliners in the Party and the Writers’ Union. Simonov had many enemies: critics who were jealous of his status as ‘Stalin’s favourite’ which had done so much to promote him, as a young man, to the top of the Soviet establishment; and members of the Central Committee who thought that Stalin’s protection had made Simonov insubordinate to the rest of the Party leadership. To drive a wedge between the writer and Stalin, these hardliners accused Simonov of trying to protect the ‘cosmopolitans’. The most vicious of these accusations came from Viktor Vdovichenko, the editor of Soviet Art. Vdovichenko sent Malenkov a long denunciation, listing more than eighty Jewish names in what he claimed to be a Zionist organization within the Writers’ Union. Much of the denunciation was directed against Simonov. Vdovichenko accused him of protecting Zionists. He pointed to the editorial staff of Novyi mir, which he said included many Jews (‘people without kith or kin’), and singled out for criticism Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, who had been brought by Simonov to Moscow from the Ukraine, where the theatre critic had been in disgrace for criticizing a play by Khrushchev’s favourite writer, Aleksandr Korneichuk. Simonov was fond of Borshchagovsky, ‘a quiet and modest man’, whose literary opinions were indispensable at Novyi mir, according to Natalia Bianki, a member of the editorial staff. ‘Simonov decided almost nothing without him. “Let’s see what Borshchagovsky has to say”, was his frequent comment.’ Vdovichenko claimed that Borshchagovsky had not produced ‘a single work that made him worthy of being on the staff of Novyi mir’, and that his influence at the journal was purely a function of Simonov’s Jewish sympathies. He pointed out that Simonov had been married to a Jew and that he had many Jewish friends.63

Like Fadeyev, Simonov ultimately gave in to the pressure of the hardliners. He was afraid of losing his position in the Stalinist elite and thought he had to prove his loyalty by joining in the campaign against the Jews. In a letter to the editor of Pravda, he countered the hardliners’ accusations of Judaeophilia by distancing himself from Borshchagovsky and the other Jewish critics he had employed at Novyi mir.64 The Kremlin urged Simonov to expand on the themes of the anonymous Pravda article (‘About One Anti-Patriotic Group’) in a keynote speech in the Writers’ Union. Fadeyev had been reduced to a drunken wreck, and Sofronov was keen to do the job, but Malenkov believed that Simonov would give more authority to the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign precisely because of his well-known moderate stance. Simonov was further pressed by Fadeyev, who warned that Sofronov would give the speech if Simonov refused. A hardline anti-Semite with political ambitions in the Writers’ Union, where he hoped to replace Simonov as the Kremlin’s favourite to succeed Fadeyev, Sofronov was certain to add another dozen names to the existing list of Jewish writers and critics destined for expulsion from the Writers’ Union. Fearful that power would fall into Sofronov’s hands, Simonov agreed to give the speech. He delivered it at the Plenum of the Writers’ Union on 4 February 1949. Simonov’s first wife, the Jewish writer Natalia Sokolova (née Tipot), described in her diary the dreadful atmosphere as he delivered his denunciation of the ‘anti-patriotic group’:

The speech lasted an hour and a half, then there was a break, and then another session for an hour and a half. People listened, looking tense and guarded, no one spoke except for a rare whispered, ‘Has he named someone new?’… ‘Did you hear?’… ‘Yet another cosmopolitan?’… ‘A new cosmopolitan?’ Some people made a list of all the names, as I did.65

In later years, Simonov continued to maintain that he had made the speech to keep the extremist Sofronov from taking control of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. Although remorseful about his role, Simonov insisted that it had been his aim to moderate the campaign against Jewish writers by taking up the leadership of it himself. This is supported by the memoirs of his friend, the theatre critic Borshchagovsky, who was with Simonov in his Gorky Street apartment when Malenkov phoned to say that Stalin wanted him to make the speech. Putting down the receiver, Simonov ‘looked at me sadly and gazed out of the window’, recalls Borshchagovsky. ‘It took him less than ten minutes to reach his decision.’ Then he said:

‘I am going to make the speech, Shura [Aleksandr]. It is better if I do it, and not someone else.’ Having yielded on that point, he looked for some argument to justify his ‘active engagement’, for an honest point of view he could hold to in this dishonest campaign. ‘All this thuggishness (khamstvo) and rudeness we must end. We must learn to argue on a different level, to civilize our language. We have had, and we still have, the problem of the formalists, constructivist apologists, people who want to enslave us to the culture of the West, and we must talk about them.’66

It is also true that in his speech Simonov attempted to set the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign in a broader political and intellectual context rather than offering up some crude Zionist cabal. In a series of articles for the Soviet press, in which he built on the ideas of his speech of 4 February, Simonov accused the ‘cosmopolitans’ of ‘putting [Jean-Paul] Sartre in the place of Maksim Gorky and the pornography of [Henry] Miller in the place of Tolstoy’.67 The Cold War undoubtedly influenced his thinking on the need to defend the Soviet Union’s ‘national culture’ against the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who would sell it into ‘slavery to American imperialism… and the international power of the dollar’. But otherwise there is little evidence that Simonov’s participation was crafted as a civilizing influence on the campaign against the Jews. His language was inflammatory. He called the ‘anti-patriotic group’ a conspiracy of ‘criminals’ and ‘enemies’ of Soviet culture who were not to be mistaken for mere ‘aesthetes’, because they had a ‘militantly bourgeois and reactionary programme’, namely working for the West in the Cold War. He blamed the Jews for bringing many of their problems on themselves. They had, he said, refused to assimilate into Soviet society and had embraced ‘Jewish nationalism’ after 1945. He sacked all the Jews from the editorial staff at Novyi mir. He even wrote to Stalin on behalf of the Writers’ Union, calling for the exclusion from the Union of a long list of inactive writers, all of whom were Jews.68

His friend Borshchagovsky was included on that list. From the start of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign, Simonov had been gradually distancing himself from the theatre critic, who had been singled out as one of the main leaders of the ‘anti-patriotic group’. He knew that in the end he would be forced to denounce his friend, whose career he himself had promoted. After the phone call from Malenkov, when he agreed to give the speech against the ‘anti-patriotic group’, Simonov attempted to justify himself to Borshchagovsky by explaining: ‘If I do it, it will put me in a stronger position. I will be able to help people, which at the moment is the most important thing.’ He warned him not to come to the plenum, saying to the theatre critic as he left: ‘If you come, I shall feel obliged to denounce you in even stronger terms.’ Borshchagovsky did not read the speeches or the articles in which he was named by Simonov as a ‘saboteur of the theatre’, as a ‘bourgeois enemy’ of Soviet literature and ‘literary scum’.* He had trusted Simonov – he had viewed him as a friend – and stoically claimed to understand that he was forced to ‘perform a ritual ideological dance’.

Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, 1947

Borshchagovsky was expelled from the Writers’ Union and the Party. He lost his job at Novyi mir and was sacked from the Red Army Theatre, where he was the head of literature. Borshchagovsky and his family – his mother, his wife and their young daughter – were kicked out of their Moscow flat. For a while, they were put up by their friends, who let them sleep on floors or stay at their dachas (they even stayed at Simonov’s dacha at Peredelkino). Borshchagovsky took repression in his stride: a survivor of the 1930s, he had learned to carry on as best he could. To make ends meet, he sold his possessions (mostly books) and borrowed money from friends, including Simonov, who gave him money, as Borshchagovsky understood, ‘to ease his own conscience’, and refused to let him pay it back.69

Filled with guilt towards his friend, Simonov went on seeing him as often as he could between 1949 and 1953, when the ban on Borshchagovsky was finally lifted, but he never spoke to him about the speech. It seemed to Borshchagovsky that when they met, Simonov would ‘look at me in an anxious way, as if he thought he needed to explain’. In July 1950, Simonov supported the publication of The Russian Flag, Borshchagovsky’s patriotic novel set in the Crimean War. ‘The book is accomplished, serious and necessary,’ Simonov concluded in his report to the censors. ‘I am convinced that its deeply patriotic content will touch readers’ hearts… Borshchagovsky has committed serious mistakes of an anti-patriotic character, that is evident, but he has suffered and he has acknowledged his mistakes.’ The book was finally passed for publication in 1953.70

Interviewed fifty years later, in 2003, Borshchagovsky was still stoical about the injury Simonov had done him. ‘One grows accustomed to the pain’, was all he would say. But according to his wife, in the last years of his life, he was increasingly haunted by the events of 1949.* In his memoirs he concluded that Simonov had not found the civic courage to defend his friends and fellow writers from the hardline anti-Semites in the Writers’ Union. He didn’t feel Simonov was moved by fear or that he lacked a conscience. Rather, he believed that Simonov was driven by personal ambition, and especially by a kind of political servility: he was simply too devoted to Stalin, too infatuated with the aura of his power, to adopt a more courageous stand.71

The ‘little terror’ of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility. The repressions of the post-war years were carried out by career bureaucrats and functionaries like Simonov. These people did not have to participate in the system of repression. Simonov was probably not in danger of expulsion from the Writers’ Union, let alone arrest. Had he refused to add his voice to the denunciation of the Jews, he might at most have suffered demotion from the leadership of the Writers’ Union and dismissal as the editor of Novyi mir, although of course he may have feared much worse. But the point is, people like Simonov had a choice. They could have followed a career path that skirted the pitfalls of political responsibility, as millions of others did, albeit at the cost of losing out on privileges and material rewards. For those unable to take a public stand, there were quieter ways to avoid involvement in political decisions that compromised their moral principles. As Borshchagovsky wrote of the people who betrayed him in 1949, could easily have chosen not to speak, they could have not shown up at the Plenum of the Writers’ Union, or pretended to be ill: they were not subject to Party discipline. For Borshchagovsky, the persecutions of that period, and the behaviour of those who facilitated them, were rooted in an all-pervasive compliance with the Stalinist regime – the defining characteristic of ordinary Stalinists. As he wrote:

The phenomenon of 1949, and not only of that year, is not explained by fear – or if so, a fear that had long before dissolved into other elements within the human soul… [more to the point is] the servility of officious hangers-on, who had so little courage and morality that they were unable even to stand up to the semi-official directives of the lowest bureaucrats.72

There were certainly people in a similar position of responsibility to Simonov who refused to get involved in the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. The President of the Academy of Sciences, Sergei Vavilov, for example, quietly resisted intense pressure to denounce an ‘anti-patriotic group’ in the Academy and sabotaged his own bureaucracy to prevent the dismissal of Jewish scientists (his brother Nikolai, the geneticist, had been arrested in 1940 and starved to death in prison in 1943).73 In the Writers’ Union there were people such as Boris Gorbatov, the Party Secretary of the Writers’ Union Presidium and a close friend of Simonov, who refused to go along with the campaign against the Jews. A Jew himself, Gorbatov had more cause to fear than Simonov: his wife had been arrested in 1948 and sentenced to ten years for ‘foreign espionage’, while he himself was not above political suspicion (in 1937, Gorbatov had been accused of propagating ‘Trotskyist’ opinions in his first novel, Our Town, a proletarian epic about the Five Year Plan in the Donbass; although he had narrowly avoided expulsion from the Party, his brother had been arrested as a ‘Trotskyist’ and shot in 1938). Yet despite the intense pressure of the Stalinist hardliners in the Writers’ Union, who denounced him as a ‘Jewish sympathizer’ of the ‘anti-patriotic group’, Gorbatov refused to join the persecution of his fellow Jews. For this he was forced to give up all his posts in the Party and the Writers’ Union. Borshchagovsky recalls meeting him in 1949 at Simonov’s dacha in Peredelkino. Having fallen out of favour with Stalin, Gorbatov was ‘a broken man who had been driven into a corner’, but he had managed to retain his moral dignity and principles.74

Simonov was an altogether more complex, perhaps even tragic, character. He clearly had a conscience: he was troubled and even repulsed by some aspects of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. But he lost himself in the Stalinist system. The military ethos and public-service values he inherited from the aristocracy were so closely harnessed to the moral categories and imperatives of the Soviet system that he was left with few other means to judge or regulate his own behaviour. Simonov had a hypertrophied sense of public duty and responsibility that defined his outlook on the world. ‘Without the discipline of public duty,’ Simonov once said, ‘a person cannot be a complete human being.’ He was an activist by temperament; he could never have pretended to be ill to avoid being forced to make a difficult moral choice. In Simonov’s opinion, the avoidance of public responsibility was tantamount to cowardice. He had no time for people who were prone to indecisiveness, weakness or procrastination – all of which he considered human failings. He admired people who were rational and logical. These were the moral qualities he assigned to his fictional heroes – men like himself, only more courageous, who were able to draw the right conclusions from objective evidence and act decisively.75

It was the elevation of duty to a supreme virtue that determined Simonov’s political obedience: he confused public virtue with submission to the Party line. He was in awe of Stalin. His post-war notebooks are filled with synopses of Stalin’s works, quotations from his speeches and lists of the leader’s phrases and ideas which he set out to learn in order to become more politically literate.76 Simonov was infatuated with Stalin’s power. He felt his presence, felt Stalin watching over him, in virtually everything he did. Stalin was his patron and protector, his teacher and his guide, his critic and confessor, and at times perhaps, in his imagination, his jailer, torturer and executioner.

The slightest criticism from the Soviet leader was enough to reduce Simonov to a state of total misery. In 1948, Simonov’s novella Dym otechestva (‘Smoke of the Fatherland’) was savagely attacked by

Simonov (seated third from right) at the Congress of Soviet Writers in the Belorussian Republic, Minsk, 1949

Agitprop’s main journal (Kul’tura i zhizn’) with the personal backing of Stalin, who, concluded Simonov, ‘disliked the story intensely’. Frightened and depressed, Simonov could not understand what was wrong with the book, which was one of his own favourites. ‘When I wrote it,’ he later told a friend, ‘I thought I was fulfilling my duty to the Party… and to Stalin, who was then, two years after the end of the war, the supreme authority for me.’ The central figure in the novella is a Communist veteran of the war who returns from abroad to the Soviet Union in 1947. Believing that his duty to the nation has been done, he tries to rebuild his private life in the difficult conditions of the post-war years. The novella accurately portrayed a certain mood that was common at that time, and it was a patriotic work, full of favourable comparisons between the Soviet Union and the USA. But it did contain some straight talk, about the famine of 1946–7 in particular, which was not done at the time (it was not until the Khrushchev thaw that social problems were addressed at all by Soviet literature), and it was this that had attracted censure from the Party leadership. Simonov was shaken by the attack on his work. It coincided with the attack on Fadeyev’s novel The Young Guard (1947), which had also been initiated by Stalin, and also in the Agitprop journal, giving rise to the suspicion that the tyrant was preparing a purge of the leaders of the Writers’ Union. Desperate to understand why Stalin had disliked his work, and eager to correct it so that it would meet with his approval, Simonov went to Zhdanov for advice, but Stalin’s chief of ideology had no light to shed on the matter – Zhdanov himself liked the novella – so Simonov resolved ‘not to publish Smoke of the Fatherland again’.77

Shortly afterwards, Simonov was called by one of Zhdanov’s secretaries, who asked him when he would be delivering his play about Kliueva and Roskin, the disgraced scientists, whom Stalin had accused of subservience towards the West. Stalin had originally proposed the idea of a novel on this subject at a meeting in the Kremlin with Fadeyev and Simonov in May 1947. There was a need, he said, for more patriotic works of fiction to expose the intelligentsia’s submission to the West. Simonov agreed but suggested that the theme was better suited to a play. At that time Simonov was still writing Smoke of the Fatherland, so he put off working on the play, a serious political commission that he felt as a burden, although he did go to Zhdanov’s offices to look at the materials on Kliueva and Roskin. Coming as it did so quickly after the attack on him by Agitprop, the call from Zhdanov’s secretary was a clear message to Simonov that Stalin would forgive him for the mistakes he had made in his novella, if he delivered the play Stalin had been waiting for. Desperate to redeem himself, in the early months of 1948 Simonov produced the first draft of Alien Shadow, a crude propaganda play about a Soviet microbiologist whose infatuation with the West leads him to betray his motherland. In a shameful act of political toadying, Simonov sent the draft to Zhdanov for his approval, and on his advice to Molotov and Stalin for their approval as well. Stalin telephoned Simonov and gave him precise instructions on how to rewrite the play. He advised Simonov to place greater emphasis on the egotism of the scientist-protagonist (Stalin: ‘he sees his research as his own personal property’) and to highlight the government’s benevolence by ending the play with the Minister of Health implementing Stalin’s orders to forgive the errant scientist and let him carry on with his research. ‘That is how I see the play,’ Stalin said. ‘You need to correct it. How you do it is your own business. Once you have corrected it, the play will be passed.’ Simonov reworked the ending of the play, making the changes suggested by Stalin, and sent him the second draft for his approval. ‘I wrote the play in agony, under duress, forcing myself to believe in the necessity of what I was doing,’ recalled Simonov. ‘I could have chosen not to write it, if only I had found the strength of character to resist this self-violation. Today, thirty years later, I am ashamed that I lacked the courage to do that.’78

The episode ended in tragicomedy. The play was published in the journal Znamia and nominated for the Stalin Prize, along with several other plays, whose merits were considered by the Secretariat of the Writers’ Union, before being passed up to the committee of the Stalin Prize. At the meeting of the Secretariat, where Simonov was present, several of his colleagues criticized the ending of the play (the one suggested by Stalin) on the grounds that it was ‘too weak, too liberal, almost a political capitulation, to forgive the scientist rather than to punish him’. Simonov said nothing about his telephone conversation with Stalin. ‘I sat there in silence listening to my colleagues censuring Stalin’s liberalism.’ The play won the Stalin Prize.79

Simonov was accustomed to self-criticism and self-censorship. He wrote many letters to the Soviet leadership confessing to mistakes. He drafted several stories which he then put in the drawer because he knew the censors would never pass them for publication. In 1973, Simonov was asked by the German writer Christa Wolf whether he had ever felt pressure to write what he knew to be politically acceptable. Simonov admitted to a life-long struggle between the writer and the censor in himself and even acknowledged feelings of disgust when his cowardice gained the upper hand.80

Occasionally, the writer in Simonov did rebel against the censor, and the poet spoke up for his political conscience. In October 1946, at the height of the Zhdanovshchina, for example, Simonov wrote an angry letter to Aleksei Surkov, the editor of the journal Ogonyok, to which he had previously sent a number of poems for publication. Simonov expressed his bitter disagreement, ‘in substance and in principle’, with the petty cuts and changes Surkov had made to his work, including the removal of the names of foreigners (on ‘patriotic’ grounds) and the names of Soviet figures who had been politically disgraced. Simonov took particular exception to the cutting of a poem dedicated to his old friend David Ortenberg, who had been dismissed as the editor of the Red Army newspaper Krasnaia zvezda in 1943 after he had refused an order from the Kremlin to sack several fellow Jews from his editorial staff. Ortenberg had bravely written to the Party leadership to voice his discontent with the ‘unchecked anti-Semitism’ which he had detected in some sections of the military and in many areas of the Soviet rear. ‘I want to include this poem,’ Simonov insisted, ‘I like it as a whole. It is dedicated to a person I love, and I want it to remain as I wrote it.’81

Perhaps Simonov attached more significance to his poem about Ortenberg as he became entangled in the literary persecution of the Soviet Jews. His conscience often troubled him, even when he was involved in the repressive measures of the Stalinist regime, and the conflict nearly broke him as a writer and a man. The physical and mental stress of his political responsibilities showed up in his changing appearance: in 1948, Simonov, aged thirty-three, seemed a young man in the prime of life; just five years later, he looked grey and middle-aged. His hands suffered from a nervous skin condition, and only heavy drinking calmed his nerves.82

Simonov in 1948 (left) and in 1953 (right)

In his memoirs, composed in the last year of his life, Simonov recalls an incident that particularly troubled his conscience and brought him face to face with the realization that Stalin’s tyranny rested on the cowardly complicity of functionaries like himself. The incident occurred in 1952 at a meeting in the Kremlin to judge the Stalin Prize. It was more or less agreed to give the prize to Stepan Zlobin’s novel Stepan Razin, but Malenkov objected that Zlobin had behaved badly in the war because he had let himself be captured by the Germans. In fact, as everybody knew, Zlobin had behaved with extraordinary courage; he had even led a group of resistance fighters in the concentration camp where he was held. After Malenkov had made his statement there was a deathly hush. Stalin stood up and paced around the room, passing by the seated Politburo members and the leaders of the Writers’ Union and asking out loud, as if to himself, but also for them to consider, ‘Shall we forgive him or not?’ There was silence. Stalin continued to pace around the room and asked again, ‘Shall we forgive him or not?’ Again there was silence: no one dared to speak. Stalin went on with his pacing and asked for a third time, ‘Shall we forgive him or not?’ Finally he answered his own question: ‘Let’s forgive him.’ Everyone had understood that the fate of an innocent man had been hanging in the balance: either he would win the Stalin Prize or he would be sent to the Gulag. Though all the writers at the meeting were at least acquainted with Zlobin, no one spoke in his defence, not even when invited to do so by Stalin. As Simonov explains: ‘In our eyes it was not just a question of whether to forgive or not forgive a guilty man, but whether to speak out against a denunciation’ made by a figure as senior as Malenkov, a denunciation that had evidently been accepted as truth by Stalin, for whom the question was whether to forgive a guilty man. Looking back on this event, Simonov came to the conclusion that Stalin had always been aware of the accusations against Zlobin, and that he had himself deliberately nominated his book for the Stalin Prize so that he could stage this ‘little game’. Knowing that there would be nobody with the courage to defend Zlobin, Stalin’s aim had been to show that he, and only he, decided the fate of men.83


The ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign opened the floodgates to anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism had a long history in the Russian Empire. After 1917, it continued to exist, especially among the urban lower classes, whose hatred of the Jews in trade was a major factor in the popular resentment of the NEP which Stalin had exploited during his rise to power. The widespread indifference of the lower classes towards the purges of the 1930s was also partly shaped by the perception that the Party leaders, the main victims of the Terror, were all ‘Jews’ in any case. But generally before the war the Soviet government made serious attempts to stamp out anti-Semitism as a relic of the tsarist past, and Soviet Jews were relatively untroubled by discrimination or hostility. All this changed with the German occupation of the Soviet Union. Nazi propaganda released the latent force of anti-Semitism in Ukraine and Belarus, where a significant proportion of the non-Jewish population silently supported the destruction of the Jews and took part as auxiliaries in rounding up the Jews for execution or deportation to the camps. Even in the remote eastern regions of the Soviet rear there was an explosion of anti-Semitism, as soldiers and civilians evacuated from the western regions of the Soviet Union stirred up hatred of the Jews.84

With the post-war adoption of Russian nationalism as the ruling ideology of the Stalinist regime, the Jews were recast as ‘alien outsiders’ and potential ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’, allies of Israel and the USA. Borshchagovsky recalls the atmosphere of ‘Kill the Yids!’ which developed under cover of the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign:

‘Rootless’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘anti-patriot’ were useful words for the Black Hundreds* – masks behind which the old term ‘Yid’ could hide. To take away the mask and speak that sweet primeval word was full of risks: the Black Hundred was a coward, and anti-Semitism is strictly punished by the Criminal Code.85

The language of officials who broadened the campaign against the Jews was similarly masked. Between 1948 and 1953, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews were arrested, dismissed from their jobs, expelled from their universities or forcibly evicted from their homes, yet they were never told (and it was never mentioned in the paperwork) that the reason for these actions had to do with their ethnic origins. Officially, at least, such discrimination was illegal in the Soviet Union.

Before the war most of the Jews of Russia’s major cities were only partly conscious of themselves as Jews. They came from families that had left behind the traditional Jewish life of the shtetl and embraced the urban culture of the Soviet Union. They had exchanged their Judaism and their Jewish ethnicity for a new identity based upon the principles of Soviet internationalism. They thought of themselves as ‘Soviet citizens’, and immersed themselves in Soviet society, rising to positions that had been closed to Jews before 1917, even if they retained Jewish customs, habits and beliefs in the privacy of their own homes. The anti-Jewish campaigns of the post-war years compelled these Jews to see themselves as Jews again.

The Gaister family was typical of those Jews who had left the Pale of Settlement and found a new home in the Soviet Union. Before his arrest in 1937, Aron Gaister was a leading member of the Soviet government, the Deputy Commissar of Agriculture; his wife, Rakhil Kaplan, was a senior economist in the Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Their daughters Inna and Natalia were brought up as Soviet citizens, immersed in the universal culture and ideas of Russian literature and barely conscious of the Jewish elements that remained in their Moscow home – from the food they ate to the family rituals on Soviet holidays and the tales of the pogroms which their grandmother told. In 1944, Inna enrolled as a student in the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. She worked in the evenings at the laboratory of one of her professors to support herself and help her mother, who, after her release from the ALZhIR labour camp in 1945, had settled in Kolchugino, 100 kilometres north-east of Moscow. In 1948, Inna’s younger sister was refused entry to Moscow University. When Inna went to find out why, she was told by the secretary of the Party committee that she should look at her sister’s questionnaire: Natalia had entered ‘Jewish’ under nationality.* This was the first time Inna was made conscious of her Jewishness, she says. A Russian boy with lower grades was admitted to the university instead of Natalia. He went on to become a professor.

In April 1949, Inna was arrested during her defence of her diploma at the university. Convicted as ‘the daughter of an enemy of the people’, she was sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan, where she found a job as a schoolteacher in Borovoe, a bleak and remote steppeland town. Two months later, Natalia was arrested too: she had failed to record the arrest of her parents in the questionnaire she had filled out to join the Komsomol at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, where she was accepted as a student in 1948. The fact that she had kept a photograph of her father, instead of renouncing him, was taken by her interrogators as an admission of her guilt as a ‘socially dangerous element’. Natalia was also sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan. She ended up in Borovoe with Inna and her mother, who joined them there.86

Vera Bronshtein was born in 1893 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. She joined the Bolsheviks as a schoolgirl in Odessa in 1907 and became an active member of the revolutionary underground, taking part in the Bolshevik seizure of power in Moscow in October 1917. She married a Russian factory worker, had a daughter, Svetlana, born in 1926, and then left her husband (who turned out to be an anti-Semite) when he threatened to denounce her as a ‘Trotskyist’ in 1928. Vera worked in the administration of the State Archives. She studied history at the Institute of Red Professors and went on to become a history professor, handing down the certainties of Stalin’s Short Course to the soldiers of the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, where she taught from 1938. Untouched by the Great Terror, Vera and her daughter enjoyed the comforts of the Soviet elite until 1948, when Vera was arrested on the basis of a denunciation by her ex-husband. Convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary activity’, she was sentenced to five years in the Potma labour camps. At that time Svetlana was a student and an activist in the Komsomol at Moscow University. Threatened with expulsion from the university, she was put under growing pressure to denounce other students and professors as ‘Jewish nationalists’, but she refused, unable to believe the propaganda about ‘Zionist conspiracies’. Naively, she even wrote to Stalin to complain about discrimination against Jewish students at the university, an action which led to her own arrest in 1952 and a sentence of ten years in the Viatka labour camp.87

Olga Loputina-Epshtein was born in 1913 to a Jewish family that left the Pale of Settlement for Poltava after 1917. She moved to Leningrad in the early 1930s when she married Boris Epshtein, another Jew from the Pale, and became an accountant in the Lenin Factory. Their son Mark was born in 1937. During the war, Olga and her son were evacuated to Cheliabinsk. Boris was killed on the Belorussian Front in 1944. Olga remarried and returned with her new husband and Mark to Leningrad in 1945. The city had a chronic housing shortage and, even with the help of Olga’s brother, who worked in the MVD, they could only find a tiny room in a communal apartment. Among their neighbours, who were mostly workers, anti-Semitic attitudes were strongly held, and they frequently surfaced during arguments. ‘The apartment was a tinderbox of ethnic hatred waiting to explode,’ recalls Mark.

The neighbours, who were often drunk, would swear at us, curse and threaten us, tell us we should go to Palestine, whenever they had some complaint, and then my mother would say to my stepfather, who was a pure Russian: ‘Kolia, why don’t you deal with your fellow tribalists?’ The atmosphere was poisonous. Sometimes the threats became so serious that my mother would run to the Party headquarters [in the Smolny building opposite the apartment], but nothing ever came of her complaints.

At school Mark was bullied by the other children, who refused to sit next to ‘the dirty Yid’. They painted ‘Yid’ on the door of the building where he lived. Olga complained many times to the school authorities. She even wrote to the Party leadership, but without effect. Nor was there any point in taking her complaint to the MVD, because her brother had been arrested, along with many other Jewish officers of the MVD, in connection with the Leningrad Affair. Olga became ill with anxiety and suffered several heart attacks between 1949 and 1953 which left her practically an invalid. After the death of her second husband, in 1955, she became wholly dependent on her son. They continued living in the same apartment, with the same anti-Semitic neighbours, until Olga died in 1987. At the age of sixty-five, Mark got married and moved out.88

The anti-Jewish campaigns also took their toll on the Laskin family. In 1943, the Laskins had returned to Moscow from Cheliabinsk, where they had been evacuated in the war. Samuil and Berta lived in the apartment of their eldest daughter, Fania, in the Arbat, where Zhenia’s son Aleksei and her sister Sonia also lived (Zhenia lived at the family apartment on Zubov Square). Samuil returned to the world of trade, supplying salted fish to Gastronom, the state’s network of food stores. Fania continued working in the administration of the tractor industry, while Sonia went to work at the Stalin Factory, the huge car plant in Moscow, where she soon rose to become the head of metal and technical supply. It was an important job because in the post-war years the Stalin Factory was introducing new technology and higher grades of steel for the mass production of lighter cars and lorries. Sonia was devoted to her work. Her husband, Ernst Zaidler, a Hungarian Communist working for the Comintern, had been arrested and shot in December 1937, and they did not have children. Zhenia worked as a radio editor and coped as best she could with Aleksei, who was often ill. She did not want to call on Simonov for help, so her parents took care of the child. Simonov’s parents also helped. In 1947, they took Aleksei on an extended seaside holiday to help him recover from TB.89

Simonov himself had little time for Aleksei. He saw him only once or twice a year. His mother Aleksandra needed to remind him to write to Aleksei on his birthday. In 1952, on Aleksei’s thirteenth birthday, a telegram from Simonov had failed to reach his son, so he later wrote to him:

Dear Alyosha!

I have been feeling unwell, and was not in Moscow, and only today did I realize that, by some misunderstanding, they did not dispatch the telegram which I wrote to you on your birthday… I believe in your future and I hope that with the passing years you will grow up to become a little friend. Another year has brought you closer to that… Twice a week I pass by the new building of Moscow University, and I always think that you will study there some day, and then you’ll start on your working life – going where the state sends you. Think of that with joy, and work joyously towards the happy calling that waits for you and millions of children just like you…90

Aleksei was not offended by the formality of this letter: all his relations with his father were like that, and since there were so few communications he treasured each one of them. His father’s letters were usually typed, meaning they had been dictated to a secretary. Pedagogical in tone, they were more like the letters of a Party functionary than those of a father to a son. This one was written in the summer of 1948, when Aleksei was eight years old:

Dear Alyosha, I received your letter and drawing. As far as the drawing is concerned, it is not bad in my opinion, especially the cockerel. But there is no cause for pride. Remember, your father at your age could draw better than you can, so you must work even harder to catch up. I hope that your promise to get top marks will be true not just on paper but in reality as well. I would be very glad of that.91

Aleksei recalls his father often telling him that ‘ties of blood’ had no special significance for him: it was one of his ‘democratic principles’ to treat his family on the same terms as colleagues and subordinates. Aleksei paid the cost of his father’s principles. He could not understand why his famous father, who was so popular with everybody else, had so little time for him. On the few occasions when his father came to take him out, Aleksei felt awkward, there were long silences, but his father never noticed his unease. In the spring of 1947, Simonov sent his son a suit (brown jacket, brown shorts and a cap) which he had brought back from a trip to the USA. Aleksei did not like the shorts – the boys in the yard would laugh at him and even beat him when he wore them – so he put them in a drawer. Several weeks later a government car turned up at the house on Zubov Square to take Aleksei to visit his father. He had not seen him for a year. Berta, Aleksei’s grandmother, made him wear the brown suit to show his father that he liked the gift. In front of all the other boys, who had gathered in the yard to inspect the limousine, Aleksei walked out and got into the car. He was driven to the Grand Hotel, where Simonov had taken a private dining room to entertain his friends. The seven-year-old boy was presented to the company and called on by his father to give them a ‘report’ on how he had fared during the past year at school. Having been informed of his son’s success at school, Simonov had planned a surprise for him: a cook in a white suit and a big white hat came in carrying a ‘surprise omelette’ (made of ice cream) on a silver dish. Aleksei was left to eat the ‘omelette’ on his own while his father went on talking with his friends. To Aleksei, his father seemed ‘all-powerful and almost magical’. At one point Simonov turned towards his son and asked him if he liked his suit. Aleksei gave him a polite response. Shortly afterwards Aleksei was driven home – ‘to wait’, as he recalls, ‘for the next meeting with my father, maybe in a month, maybe six, depending on how busy he was with his work for the government’.92

Apart from his mother Aleksandra, Sonia was the only person who

Samuil and Berta, Sonia, Aleksei and Zhenia, circa 1948

dared to criticize Simonov for neglecting Aleksei. In October 1947, Sonia wrote to Simonov. Aleksei had been ill and needed food and medicines which the Laskins could not get:

It is distasteful to have to remind you for a second time (only the second?) of your obligations to your son. You allow yourself to ignore him to a degree that I find astonishing. Believe me, neither I nor Zhenia would approach you if it was not necessary for your child, but it is wrong to make Alyosha suffer because we feel uncomfortable about asking you for a favour – a feeling which is wholly the result of your behaviour. If things were different, I would write you off, I would stop your son from loving a father who cannot even spare two hours for him. I have told you this before.93

In May 1950, Sonia was arrested and held in solitary confinement in the Lefortovo prison in Moscow, where she was interrogated in connection with the Stalin Factory Affair, in which the Jewish workers of the car plant were accused of spying for the USA. The origins of the affair went back to 1948, when some of the factory’s workers had begun organizing group trips to the Jewish Theatre in Moscow. The Stalin Factory had a large contingent of Jewish workers, mostly engineers and administrators, who were supportive of the JAFC and the foundation of Israel. Their cultural activities were encouraged by the deputy director of the factory, Aleksandr Eidinov, who also gave a tour of the car plant to the American ambassador. This was enough for the MGB to fabricate an ‘anti-Soviet group of bourgeois Jewish nationalists at the Stalin Factory’, which, it claimed, was passing industrial secrets to the USA. The initiative for the investigation came from Nikita Khrushchev, the Moscow Party boss from December 1949, although he was probably following instructions from Stalin, who by this time was seeing ‘Jewish spies’ and ‘plotters’ everywhere. Convicted by a military tribunal, Eidinov was one of fourteen ‘leaders’ who were later shot. More than a hundred other Jewish workers from the factory, and several hundred more from factories across the Soviet Union, were sent to various labour camps.94

Sonia was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labour in the camps of Vorkuta in the Far North. Fania and Zhenia concealed the length of her sentence from Samuil and Berta, telling them that she had been given just five years, because they feared the truth would kill them. Sonia was sent to the brick factory in Vorkuta, where she worked with her usual energy and initiative. Even in the Gulag she was entirely dedicated to the cause of Soviet industry. Sonia was rewarded with a privileged position as a librarian in the labour camp, but in her letters home she frequently expressed her frustration that she could have served the country better as a senior industrialist than by filing books.

Sonia’s arrest took a heavy toll on Samuil’s health. Throughout her absence he seemed to be weighed down by an immense sadness, according to Fania. Samuil was seventy-one when Sonia was arrested. He had always been a sprightly man, full of life and energy, but after her arrest he became old and frail. He could no longer work at the same pace he had worked before. Still, traditions continued. Every Sunday for the next five years the family and friends would meet as usual for the famous ‘Laskin suppers’, when Berta would prepare delicious Jewish dishes and Samuil would hold his kitchen parliament. Simonov was never there, but his parents often were. ‘They were different people, from a different class,’ recalls Fania, ‘but they got on well with our parents, and they loved Zhenia and Aleksei.’ The opening toast would always be the same: ‘To the return!’ If a letter from Sonia had arrived during the previous week, it would be read out and the assembled guests would discuss her news. There would always be some tears. Everyone would give their greetings to Sonia for the reply which Zhenia would write.

By the early 1950s, conditions in many of the camps had begun to improve, as the administrators of the Gulag looked for ways to get the prisoners to make greater efforts, and weekly letters were not unusual for star workers like Sonia. Censors still read the correspondence, but the rules were more relaxed, and it was possible for prisoners and relatives to write with a new openness. There were even occasions when Sonia was allowed to call her family on the telephone – occasions when emotions ran too high for proper talk. ‘My dear girl,’ Zhenia wrote to Sonia after one such call,

You cannot understand what a joy it was for all of us, but especially for Mama and Papa. It makes it easier for them to wait. Papa was trembling and could not say a word for the first minute. I cannot tell you how happy they are to have heard your voice… Aleksei – he has grown up so much that you would not recognize him – he was very nervous when he spoke to you, that’s why his voice sounded strange. He said something stupid about shaving and then got depressed because of it.

In 1952, Zhenia went to stay with Sonia in Vorkuta. It was part of the relaxation of the Gulag system to allow relatives to visit prisoners. Zhenia was one of the first visitors to Vorkuta. On the night before her departure she asked Simonov to come to the house at Zubov Square. Aleksei overheard his parents’ conversation. Zhenia was afraid that she might be arrested in the labour camp (it was a common fear of relatives) and she wanted Simonov to give a solemn promise that, should anything happen to her, he would let their son remain with Samuil and Berta until she returned. Zhenia was generally a diplomat in life. She had an extraordinary capacity for getting on with people of all kinds, without judging them, but on this matter she was adamant – it was a question of principle: Aleksei was not to live with Simonov.

Zhenia (left) and Sonia at Vorkuta, 1952

Zhenia never asked Simonov for anything for herself. In 1951, she had been sacked from her radio job, as part of a general purge of Jews in radio. For a long time she could not find work. She applied to dozens of literary magazines and newspapers and sent along articles she hoped they might publish, but she did not turn to Simonov. For Sonia, though, she would do it. Much of Zhenia’s energy at the time was taken up with the appeal for Sonia’s release. She wrote to all the relevant authorities: to the Military Tribunal that had sentenced Sonia; to the Military Procurator responsible for the review of its cases; she even wrote to the editor of Pravda in the hope that justice would be done. Finally, Zhenia appealed to Simonov. Over a period of six months, she met him several times, hoping to get information and advice. Simonov was unwilling to become involved, as Zhenia wrote to Sonia:

You cannot imagine how Kostia [Simonov] has changed. Nothing remains of the person we once knew. In the past few years I have seen him very little, and never for more than a few minutes, so I’m struck all the more – as you would be too – by his new personality… It is not just a question of his getting older (he is still comparatively young), nor of his becoming wiser with experience or as a result of his exalted position and prosperity. No, it is something else entirely… Kostia promised to get us the information we need. I thought it was worth waiting for because the information was likely to be reliable, but he still hasn’t done it. No doubt he is too busy… He could have done more but – God go with him – let him live his quiet and comfortable life. I have simply stopped respecting him.

In Simonov’s defence there was probably not a lot that he could have done, even had he chosen to intervene on Sonia’s behalf. Certainly that was the view taken by the rest of the Laskin family, who continued to treat him with affection and esteem. On the rare occasions when they saw him, they never raised the question of Sonia’s release. ‘We knew that he was close to Stalin and that he could have had a word with him,’ Fania explains, ‘but none of us ever brought that up – we just couldn’t allow ourselves to do it.’95

In any case, by this time Simonov had become so entangled in the Stalinist campaigns against the Jews that he would have put himself in a difficult position if he had tried to act for the Laskins. When Simonov took charge of the literary newspaper Literaturnaia gazeta, in 1950, he had been instructed by the Kremlin to bring it into line with its own position in the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. The previous editor had been too soft, and Stalin was depending on Simonov to turn the influential newspaper into the vanguard of the Party’s ‘struggle against alien bourgeois elements’ in Soviet culture. On taking over as its editor, Simonov dismissed eleven members of the paper’s staff (all of them Jews) for ‘poor work and political mistakes’. Under his control the newspaper regularly published articles and editorials whose anti-Semitism was only thinly disguised by the ‘ideological struggle’ with ‘comopolitanism’ and ‘servility towards the West’. Having been a ‘moderate’ in the early stages of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, Simonov, it seems, was becoming one of its hardliners. He maintained this position right until the end of the Stalinist regime. On 24 March 1953, more than two weeks after Stalin’s death, Simonov wrote on behalf of the Secretariat of the Writers’ Union to the Central Committee with a list of names of Jewish writers who needed to be purged (as ‘dead-weight’) from the Writers’ Union. Even later, he wrote to insist on the purge of his old friend and war comrade Aleksandr Krivitsky, the editor of the international section of Literaturnaia gazeta, because of ‘certain biographical facts’, as he put it in his denunciation to the Central Committee, not least Krivitsky’s lack of vigilance against Jewish nationalists.96

Vigilance was exactly what Simonov was trying to display. Under growing pressure from a series of attacks by anti-Semites who, it seemed, had the support of the Kremlin, Simonov reacted as he always had: he frantically tried to demonstrate his loyalty. The campaign against Simonov began in 1951 with a public argument about the use of pseudonyms by Jewish writers. At a meeting to discuss the Stalin Prize, Stalin asked why the writer Orest Maltsev did not use his Jewish name (Rovinsky) and proposed that anyone using a Russian pseudonym should henceforth be required to include his Jewish name in brackets on all official forms.* This had been official custom during tsarist times, when Jews and revolutionaries were seen as practically synonymous, but after 1917 the practice had been dropped because it was considered anti-Semitic. The use of pseudonyms was widely discussed in the Soviet press, starting in 1949, with hardliners urging the return to the system of identifying Jewish names. In February 1951, an article appeared in Komsomolskaia pravda by Mikhail Bubennov (‘Are Literary Pseudonyms Still Necessary?’). It was a nasty article, openly anti-Semitic in character, in which Bubennov taunted Jewish writers for adopting pseudonyms and accused them, ‘chameleon-like’, of ‘hiding from society’. As the editor of Literaturnaia gazeta, Simonov responded to the article, claiming that the use of pseudonyms was a private matter and citing laws from the 1920s that gave writers the right to adopt them. He signed off the article as ‘Konstantin (Kirill) Simonov’. It was a courageous argument. Komsomolskaia pravda then came out with a defence of Bubennov by no less a person than Mikhail Sholokhov, the celebrated author of Quiet Flows the Don. Simonov was doubtful that Sholokhov had really written it. He wanted to call him and ask him, man to man, what sort of pressure had been placed on him, but then thought better of it. Instead he wrote a second article in Literaturnaia gazeta, accusing Sholokhov and the Bubennov campaign of ‘cheap sensationalism’ and claiming that he would not write another word about the controversy.97

Thousands of other people did. The controversy produced an avalanche of letter-writing to the press. Some people wrote in support of Simonov – many of them Jews, others choosing to remain anonymous. But most correspondents agreed with Bubennov, either because in their view there was no need for any pseudonyms in the Soviet Union, where ‘everyone is equal regardless of their race’, or because they thought the Jews had something to conceal. Many of the letters were violently anti-Semitic and accused Simonov of ‘acting as defender of the Jews’.98

By this stage a whispering campaign had started against Simonov. It was rumoured that he was a Jew. Towards the end of 1952, Simonov was approached by Aleksei Surkov, a leading member of the Writers’ Union and an opponent of the anti-Semitic campaign. Surkov told him that during the past year he had been involved in a number of discussions with senior bureaucrats from the Central Committee about a series of denunciations claiming that Simonov was a ‘secret Jew’. Some people said that his real name was Simanovich, that he was the son of a Jewish craftsman on the estate of ‘Countess Obolenskaia’, who had adopted him; others that he was the son a baptized Jew from St Petersburg. They all pointed to his ‘Jewish looks’ and to the fact that he used a pseudonym (Konstantin instead of Kirill). Simonov’s initial reaction was to dismiss all these rumours as ridiculous: his mother was a princess, not a countess, and she had no estate. But the Simanovich story found its way into a threatening denunciation by a veteran member of the Party, Vladimir Orlov, who accused Simonov of promoting Jews to the editorial staff of Literaturnaia gazeta in order to transform the newspaper into a ‘Zionist organization’. The threat loomed larger in January 1953, when Surkov visited Simonov again and told him he had been approached by the writer Vladimir Kruzhkov, who claimed to have evidence of a literary group in Moscow with connections to Jewish nationalists throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: according to Kruzhkov, the leader of this group was Simonov. Surkov was taking a huge personal risk by telling Simonov, because he had been sworn by Kruzhkov not to say a word. ‘There are some bastards digging around under you,’ Surkov warned. ‘They’re digging your grave.’99

The anti-Jewish campaign reached its climax around this time. The final episode was the absurd Doctors’ Plot. The plot had its origins in 1948, when Lydia Timashuk, a doctor in the Kremlin Hospital who also worked for the MGB, wrote to Stalin two days before Zhdanov’s death, claiming that his doctors had failed to recognize the gravity of his condition. The letter was ignored and filed away, but three years later it was used by Stalin to accuse the Kremlin doctors of belonging to a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ to murder Zhdanov and the rest of the Soviet leadership. None of the doctors who had treated Zhdanov was Jewish, so Stalin had to find a way to link his death with Zionists. The fabrication of the plot hinged on the confession beaten out of Dr Iakov Etinger, a leading diagnostician, who had been arrested in November 1950 for uttering anti-Soviet thoughts to relatives and friends. Etinger confessed that he was a Jewish nationalist and that he had the protection of Viktor Abakumov, the head of the MGB. After the arrest of Abakumov, in July 1951, hundreds of doctors and MGB officials were arrested and tortured into making confessions, as Stalin concocted a huge international conspiracy that linked Soviet Jews in the medical profession, the Leningrad Party organization, the MGB and the Red Army to Israel and the USA. The country seemed to be returning to the atmosphere of 1937 with the Jews in the role of the ‘enemies of the people’. In December 1952, Stalin told a meeting of the Central Committee that ‘every Jew is a potential spy for the United States’, thus making the entire Jewish people the target of his terror. Thousands of Jews were arrested, expelled from jobs and homes, and deported as ‘rootless parasites’ from the major cities to remote regions of the Soviet Union. Stalin ordered the construction of a vast network of new labour camps in the Far East, where all the Jews would be sent. Throughout the Soviet Union people cursed the Jews. Patients refused to visit Jewish doctors, who were hounded out of practice and, in many cases, forced to work as labourers. Rumours spread of doctors killing babies in their wards. Pregnant mothers stayed away from hospitals. People wrote to the press calling on the Soviet authorities to ‘clear out’ the ‘parasites’, to ‘exile them from the big cities, where there are so many of these swine’.100

And then at the height of this hysteria, Stalin died.


Stalin had suffered a stroke and lay unconscious for five days before he died on 5 March 1953. He might have been saved if doctors had been called on the first day, but amidst the panic of the Doctors’ Plot none of Stalin’s inner circle dared take the initiative. Stalin’s own doctor was tortured for saying he should rest. If Stalin awoke from his coma to find doctors by his bed, he might consider the act of calling them a sign of disloyalty.101 It is a fitting irony that Stalin’s death was hastened by his politics.

On the evening Stalin died, Simonov was in the Kremlin for a general meeting of the Soviet leadership: 300 members of the Supreme Soviet and the Central Committee. Everybody was aware of the grave situation, and most of the delegates had turned up early in the Sverdlov Hall. ‘We all knew each other,’ recalls Simonov, ‘we recognized each other and had met many times through our work.’

We sat there, shoulder to shoulder, we looked at each other, but no one said a word. Nobody asked anything of anybody else. It seems to me that no one even felt the need to talk. Until the start [of the session] there was such a silence in the hall that, if I had not sat there for forty minutes myself, I would not believe that it was possible for three hundred people to sit so close to each other without making a sound.

At last the Presidium members arrived* and announced that Stalin was dying. Simonov had the strong impression that, with the exception of Molotov, the other members of this inner circle were relieved by the news: it was visible on their faces and audible in their voices.102

From the Kremlin Simonov went to the Pravda offices, where he was with the editor when the call came informing him of Stalin’s death. Although he had been expecting it, the news was a shock. ‘Something shuddered inside me,’ Simonov recalls. ‘Some part of my life had ended. Something new and unknown had begun.’ At that moment he felt a sudden need to record his thoughts in poetry: he did not know if he could write, but he was certain he couldn’t do anything else. He went home and began:

I wrote the first two lines and suddenly, unexpectedly, I burst into tears. I could deny it now, because I don’t like tears, neither mine nor anybody else’s, but only those tears properly conveyed the shock I had experienced. I did not cry out of sorrow, nor out of pity for the deceased: these were not sentimental tears, they were the tears that result from shock. A revolution had happened, and its impact was so enormous that it had to be expressed in something physical, in this case in the convulsive weeping that seized hold of me for several minutes.

Speaking later with his fellow writers, Simonov discovered that they had felt the same. Many followed his example, penning heartfelt eulogies on Stalin’s death. The sense of shock and grief, it seems, affected people who had experienced Stalin’s reign in widely different ways. On the night after Stalin died, Simonov wrote:

There are no words to communicate

All the unbearable pain and sorrow,

There are no words to narrate

How we mourn for you, comrade Stalin!

Tvardovsky, the ‘kulak’ son who had renounced his family in the 1930s, wrote:

In this hour of great sorrow

I cannot find the words,

To express fully All our people’s loss…

Even Olga Berggolts, who spent two years in prison during the Great Terror, wrote a mournful poem to her torturer:

The heart bleeds…

Our own, our dear one!

Holding your head in its arms,

The nation weeps for You.103

Stalin’s death was announced to the public on 6 March. Until the funeral, three days later, his body lay in state in the Hall of Columns near Red Square. Huge crowds came to pay their respects. The centre of the capital was mobbed by mourners, who had travelled to Moscow from all corners of the Soviet Union; hundreds of people were killed in the crush. Simonov was among those chosen to stand guard over Stalin’s body. He had a unique opportunity to observe the reactions of ordinary people as they filed past. He noted in his diary on 16 March:

Stalin’s body lies in state

I do not know how to give an accurate description of the scene – or even how to put it into words.Not every body cried, not every body sobbed, but somehowe very body showed some deep emotion. I could sense a kind of spiritual convulsion inside every person filing past at the very moment they first saw Stalin in his coffin.104

This ‘spiritual convulsion’ was felt across the Soviet Union. Mark Laskin, who had no reason to love Stalin, broke down in tears when he heard the news. Surprised by his own emotional reaction, he thought it might have to do with the overwhelming role Stalin had played in his life:

I had spent my entire adult life in Stalin’s shadow – I was sixteen when Lenin died in 1924 – and all my thoughts had been shaped by the presence of Stalin. I waited on his words. All my questions were addressed to him, and he gave all the answers, laconically, precisely, without room for doubt.105

For people of Laskin’s age, or younger, Stalin was their moral reference-point. Their grief was a natural reaction to the disorientation they were bound to feel upon his death, almost regardless of their experience in Stalin’s reign.

Some victims of the Terror even felt genuine sorrow on Stalin’s death. When Zinaida Bushueva heard the news, she burst into tears, although her husband had been arrested in 1937, and she had spent the best years of her life in the ALZhIR labour camp. Her daughter Angelina recalls her mother coming home that day:

They were all crying, my mother and my sister and my grandmother. My grandmother said that it would have been better if she had died instead of him. She was four years older than Stalin. She loved him. She often wrote to him. She believed that it was Stalin who had allowed her to write to her daughter [in the labour camp] so that she could reunite the family… ‘It would be better if I had died and he had lived,’ my grandmother kept saying. I didn’t contradict her – I loved Stalin too. But today [in 2003] I would say to her: ‘Granny, what on earth are you saying?’ She herself had suffered so much. Her daughter had been arrested. Her grandchildren had been sent to orphanages. Her son-in-law had been shot. Even her own husband had been persecuted for being a priest… Yet she was prepared to lay down her life to save Stalin.106

But for some of the older generation, whose views had been formed in an earlier age, the death of Stalin was just as likely to be a cause for rejoicing.

Svetlana Sbitneva was born in 1937 in Barnaul in the Altai region of Siberia. Her father was arrested before she was born and was shot in 1938. Her mother came from Omsk, where her family had been active in the Social Democratic movement before 1917. Sixteen of her mother’s relatives were arrested in the Great Terror: all but one, Svetlana’s grandmother, were either shot by the Bolsheviks or perished in the camps. Svetlana was told very little about her family. She grew up to become a model Soviet schoolgirl and, like all schoolgirls, loved Stalin. On the day his death was announced, she came home from school with black ribbons in her hair: there had been a mourning ceremony at her school – the children had decorated Stalin’s portrait with palm leaves and white lilies – and this had left her deeply moved. ‘We were all crying,’ she recalls. ‘We thought that it was the end of the world.’ As soon as she got home, Svetlana climbed up to the roof, where she liked to go to be alone. There she found her grandmother:

She was sitting there, crying quietly and crossing herself in a way I had never seen before. She saw that I had been crying and she said: ‘Don’t worry, dear, I am crying from happiness. Because he killed my family: my sons, my brothers, my husband, my father – Stalin killed them all – leaving only me and your mother.’ That was the first time I heard any of this. And then the two of us sat down and cried together, from joy and grief.107

For the vast majority of the Soviet people, whatever Stalin’s death meant, it was not a release from fear. In fact, it was likely to increase their fear: they did not know what would happen next. Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalls a conversation with her dressmaker, one of the few people with whom she shared her feelings, shortly after Stalin’s death:

‘What are you howling for?’ I asked her. ‘What did he mean to you?’ She explained that people had somehow learned to live with him, but who knew what would come now? Things might get even worse… She had a point.108

Boris Drozdov was living with his parents in Magadan after the release of his father, one of Berzin’s close associates, from a labour camp in 1951. ‘Everyone was frightened when Stalin died,’ recalls Boris. ‘My father was afraid. People feared that Beria would come to power, and they were scared of him. The Gulag system was associated with Beria and the MVD, not with Stalin, who many people thought had not even known the truth about the camps.’109

Vera Bragin’s mother worshipped Stalin, even though she had been exiled as a ‘kulak’ and her husband sent to the labour army, where he died in 1944. ‘When Stalin died, my mother did not throw out his portrait,’ recalls Vera. ‘She kept it on the wall, next to the picture of my father.’ At a village meeting,

Everyone was crying… People associated Stalin with our victory in the war, with the lowering of prices and the end of rationing. They thought that life was slowly getting better and they were afraid that now it would get worse.

Many rural people felt a similar anxiety. ‘Things had been so hard for us during the war, but then in the last years [before Stalin’s death] life had got a little better,’ recalls the ‘kulak’ daughter Klavdiia Rublyova, who also spent the war years in the labour army, and then worked in a kolkhoz near Krasnoiarsk. ‘When Stalin died we did not know what would happen, and people were afraid.’110

Mourning ceremony at the Gorky Tank Factory in Kiev, 6 March 1953

Fears that Stalin’s death would lead to a new wave of mass arrests agitated many families, especially those who had lost a relative in the Terror. As Elga Torchinskaia remembers:

The general reaction in our family was, ‘What will happen next?’ We were afraid of the government, we did not know what to expect from it, and we were scared that it might retaliate for Stalin’s death by making more arrests.111

The fear only abated when the Doctors’ Plot was exposed as a government fabrication. The decision to reveal the truth about the Doctors’ Plot appears to have come from Beria – a critic of the anti-Semitic campaigns and potential victim of the MGB purge that followed from the Plot – who took control of the ‘collective leadership’ that assumed power on 5 March. Despite his background in the security police, which made him widely feared by the population, Beria was something of a political reformer. He wanted to dismantle the Gulag system (‘on the grounds of economic ineffectiveness’), to end the use of torture by the Soviet police, to reverse the Sovietization of the western Ukraine, the Baltic lands and East Germany and to rid the country of the cult of Stalin – a programme which he thought would help build popular support for his own dictatorship. On 4 April, Beria called off the investigation into the Doctors’ Plot. Pravda announced that the people responsible for the ‘incorrect conduct of the investigation’ had been arrested and ‘brought to criminal responsibility’. Public opinion was divided. Judging from a sample of workers’ letters to Pravda, many people continued to believe that there were ‘elusive enemies’ behind the scenes of power and that the rehabilitation of the doctors was itself a sign of ‘Jewish influence’ in the highest spheres of government (‘Without comrade Stalin our government has bowed before the Jews,’ etc.). But others were incensed by what turned out to be malicious slander against Jewish physicians and demanded an explanation for the unjust arrests.112

For the Torchinsky family the conclusion of the Doctors’ Plot was a huge relief. They took it as emphatic proof that all the ‘plots’ by ‘enemies’ were fabrications by the state and that they need not fear a new wave of arrests. Released from fear, Elga grew in confidence and began to speak out against people who had bullied her. Elga worked as an assistant at the Ethnographic Museum in Leningrad. One of her senior colleagues, an ardent Stalinist and a ‘frightful anti-Semite’ called Maria Nesterova, had given loud support to the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign, writing dozens of denunciations of Jewish workers at the museum, some of whom were dismissed from their jobs. During the mass hysteria of the Doctors’ Plot, Nesterova became even more vociferous in her denunciations of the Jews, telling everybody, for example, that babies delivered by Jewish doctors were born blue because their blood had been sucked out by the Jews. Elga knew that it was pointless to argue with Nesterova, who obviously hated her. She was afraid to lose her job, so she had remained silent and withdrew into herself. But after the exposure of the Doctors’ Plot, Elga chose to confront her:

I told her that she did not know what she was talking about, and that everything she said had been picked up from people in food queues… Maria began to threaten me: ‘Do you know what I can do to you? You shut up!’ And then from somewhere, I don’t know where, I found the courage to reply: ‘Please, don’t threaten me, I’m not afraid of you.’113

Those who felt joy at Stalin’s death were mostly too cautious to show it in public. Any sign of pleasure had to be concealed. Zinaida Belikova, a factory worker in Krasnodar, recalls that many of the town’s intelligentsia, doctors, teachers, even Party officials, found it hard to hide their excitement when Stalin died. ‘The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.’114

When the Gaisters heard the news of Stalin’s death, they were still living in exile in Kazakhstan, expecting to be rearrested any day in connection with the Doctors’ Plot. On 6 March, Inna’s mother Rakhil came home from the shop with a kilogram of sugar. There was never any sugar in the shop, but for some reason, that day the shop had it. No one else in the settlement had dared to buy the sugar. It might be seen as evidence of celebration. But Rakhil saw no harm in taking advantage of her good fortune in finding some. When she showed the sugar to her daughters, they were terrified. ‘We threw ourselves at poor Mama, and became hysterical,’ recalls Inna. ‘How could she have bought sugar on a day like this? What would they think of us? Poor Mama! Fear had deprived us of reason.’115

The one place where the death of Stalin was welcomed with undisguised rejoicing was in the Gulag’s camps and colonies. There were, of course, exceptions, camps where the vigilance of the authorities or the presence of informers prevented prisoners from showing their happiness, but generally the news of Stalin’s end was greeted with spontaneous outbursts of joy. On 6 March, in the Inta camp Iurii Dunsky and Valerii Frid met with their friend, the poet Smeliakov, to organize a midnight party. They could not get hold of any alcohol (everybody wanted some that day) so they bought a bag of sweets and ‘ate them all in one sitting… as if we were children at a tea-party’. In the Viatka labour camp Vera Bronshtein and her fellow prisoners set down their tools and began to sing and dance when they heard the news: ‘We are going home! We are going home!’ Among the prisoners it was commonly assumed that they would be released on Stalin’s death. Hopes and expectations were extremely high. When Olga Adamova-Sliuzberg heard the news, she was living in exile in Karaganda in Kazakhstan. Covering her face so that her workmates could not see her joy, she began to tremble with nervous excitement: ‘It’s now or never. Everything has to change. Now or never.’116

In several labour camps expectations ran so high that, when the prisoners were not released on Stalin’s death, there were mass protests and uprisings. During the spring and early summer of 1953, major strikes and protests erupted in the labour camps of Norilsk and Vorkuta, followed by smaller demonstrations in many other camps in 1953–4.117 These ‘slave rebellions’ were an important turning-point, not just because they helped to bring about the abolition of the Gulag system, which was already being questioned by the Soviet leadership, but because they were the first real protest on a major scale against the tyranny of the Stalinist regime.

The Norilsk uprising was the biggest in the history of the Gulag. It involved nearly 20,000 prisoners in six camp zones of the Gorlag prison, the mining and industrial complex of Norilsk, where the work regime was particularly harsh. Most of the Gorlag prisoners were former Red Army soldiers, foreign POWs and Ukrainian and Baltic nationalists, many of them serving sentences of twenty-five years for their part in resistance movements against Soviet forces in 1943–5. They were hostile to the Stalinist regime, ready for a fight and did not have a lot to lose. During the autumn of 1952, a large contingent of prisoners had been transferred to Gorlag after taking part in an armed uprising in the Karaganda camps. The influx of these rebels had a radical effect on the political mood within the Norilsk camp. Ad hoc ‘strike committees’ sprang up in all the Gorlag zones. In the fourth zone, where Lev Netto was a prisoner, there was even a secret reading and discussion club called the ‘Democratic Party’ (also known as the ‘True Leninists’). Here prisoners studied Lenin’s ideas on the revolutionary underground as a model for how to organize themselves along military lines.

Stalin’s death raised their hopes of a release. But when Beria declared an amnesty on 27 March, it applied to prisoners whose sentences were shorter than five years (mainly criminals). Conditions at Gorlag became even worse. The working day was lengthened, prisoners were forced to work in severe frost, and rations were reduced to a minimum. The guards began to treat the prisoners with calculated cruelty. They provoked the remaining criminals to start fights with the ‘politicals’ and then suppressed the ‘politicals’ with brutal violence. More than twenty ‘politicals’ were murdered by the guards between March and May. As in other camps where there were rebellions, the guards’ provocations were almost certainly aimed at keeping the Gulag system going. Beria had made it clear that he wanted to dismantle the Gulag system, releasing all but the most dangerous criminals, so unless it could be shown that the release of ‘politicals’ was a danger to society, tens of thousands of Gulag guards and administrators would find themselves without a job.

The prisoners in the Gorlag strike committees and conspiratorial groups were divided about what to do. Some were in favour of an uprising, but others thought that it was doomed to fail. They decided to arm themselves defensively. ‘We made knives from bits of steel,’ recalls Netto, who organized their secret manufacture in a workshop. There was no plan for an uprising, but in this atmosphere of heightened tension it was only a question of time before some further provocation led to a rebellion.118

For Lev Netto these events were the culmination of a long process of political awakening that began in 1944, when Lev was dropped behind the German lines to organize the partisans in Estonia. Born into an Estonian family in Moscow, Lev had always thought of himself as a Soviet Russian with an Estonian background and he saw his mission in patriotic terms, but what he witnessed in his parents’ native land (the Red Army was guilty of pillage, rape and village-burning) made him think again about the Soviet forces as the ‘liberators’ of Estonia. The native population called the Soviet forces ‘Stalinist bandits’, and he couldn’t help but agree.

Captured by the Germans, Lev was imprisoned in a camp with thousands of other Soviet POWs. This too was a moment of awakening, for he had always believed, in line with Soviet propaganda, that there were no Soviet POWs, only deserters. But here, as he recalls, were

thousands of ordinary men, just like me, canon fodder for the Soviet regime… I began to feel a kind of revulsion against Stalin and the Soviet system, which had so deceived me and treated us [the soldiers] as less than human.

Later, in the spring of 1945, when he was in a camp run by the US forces, Lev was able to contrast the Soviet system with the attitude of the Americans:

Whenever the Americans came back from some operation they would hand in their guns. The next day they would get a different gun. But [in the Soviet army] each man was responsible for his own gun and, if he lost it, he would be dragged before a tribunal, to be imprisoned or even shot. The Americans placed a higher value on the individual. With us the individual counted for nothing.

On his return to the Soviet Union, Lev was sent to a filtration camp and readmitted to the Red Army. In 1948, he was arrested as a ‘foreign spy’ and sent to Norilsk. There he fell in with Fyodor Smirnov, the leader of the Democratic Party, who encouraged him to see the Stalinist regime as a deviation from Marxist principles. The Democratic Party was held together by informal ties of trust and comradeship.* Because informers were a constant danger, nothing was written down, and everyone who joined had to have the personal recommendation of an existing member, who remained responsible for him. In this environment prisoners like Lev could develop and express their own political identity.119

The uprising began on 25 May. Some guards had shot at a convoy of prisoners on their way to work. A protest strike quickly spread through all of Gorlag, including the female section, although its stronghold was in the fourth and fifth zones, where the prisoners – west Ukrainians, Poles and Balts – were militant and organized. They were armed with axes, knives and picks, but their main weapon was a hunger strike to put pressure on the camp authorities. ‘Our slogan was “Freedom or Death”,’ recalls Netto. ‘We wanted to be freed, and we were determined to fight for freedom even unto death. We thought it would be better to die fighting than to keep working and living in this inhuman way.’ It was time for Stalin’s slaves to prove themselves as citizens. The insurgents locked themselves into their barracks and raised black flags as a symbol of their protest against the arbitrary killing of their comrades. Each zone had its own strike leaders, but a general strike committee was quickly organized to present demands to the authorities. Netto served as a messenger and coordinator between the various zones, a dangerous task because he ran the risk of being shot every time he moved from one zone to another.120

The strikers’ demands were all about respect and dignity. Despite their apocalyptic slogans, what the strikers actually asked for was relatively moderate and by no means anti-Soviet.121 They wanted the guards to call them by their names, not by the numbers on their prison clothes, which they asked to be removed. They wanted windows without bars in the barracks. They wanted an end to beatings by the guards, and for the guards who had killed prisoners to be punished. They wanted a normal ten-hour working day instead of the fifteen-hour shifts which most prisoners were forced to work. They wanted to be able to write freely to their relatives instead of only twice a year. The strike committee refused to negotiate with the Norilsk authorities and demanded talks with the government in Moscow, aware that the local bosses could not make concessions without clearance from Moscow in any case. A few days later, on 5 June, Beria sent one of his senior officials to talk to the leaders of the strike. It was an extraordinary precedent: never before had the Kremlin responded to prisoners’ demands with anything but brutal force. Beria’s emissary promised to convey the strikers’ demands to the government. But he pleaded with them to resume their work, which he said was highly valued and important for the country as a whole. It was a clever ploy, because more than anything the strikers wanted recognition for their labour. In Netto’s words:

We had made great sacrifices to provide the country with nickel, we were proud of our work, and when we heard these words of gratitude – and from no less a personage than Beria’s representative – it was like spiritual nourishment. It lifted our spirits and made us ready to go on. We were prepared to make further sacrifices, if only they would treat us as human beings, if only they would talk to us as human beings.122

Among the rebels divisions arose between those who wanted to continue with the strike and those who preferred to return to work in the hope of wresting concessions from Moscow through cooperation. In truth, the fighters had no real prospect of holding on, let alone of winning: they were isolated in the prison zone, surrounded by soldiers and had minimal support from the rest of the Norilsk population. So when the chief prosecutor of Norilsk addressed the strikers over the loudspeaker system, calling on them to disperse and promising that they would not be punished, most of the prisoners obeyed. They were sorted into groups by the camp guards. The ringleaders were led away, the rest allowed to return to their barracks. A few thousand strikers resisted. In the sixth zone, on 7 July, 1,000 women formed a human circle, four rows deep, around a black flag and began to scream and whistle when the soldiers tried to drag them away; they kept up their din for five hours and were only broken up by water canon. In the fifth zone, 1,400 prisoners refused to leave and fought pitched battles with the soldiers, who opened fire, killing twenty prisoners. According to reports, the most stubborn resistance was in the third zone, where several hundred strikers locked themselves in the barracks and held out against the troops until 10 July. The unexpected leader of these rebels was Semyon Golovko, the young Cossack from the northern Caucasus, who suddenly discovered the courage in himself to lead this desperate fight. ‘I did not realize that I had it in me,’ he recalls. ‘At the beginning, when the soldiers were banging on the doors and threatening to shoot, I was very scared. I kept saying the Lord’s Prayer. But once I had taken charge, I no longer felt this fear.’ An estimated 500 prisoners were killed and 270 injured before the camp was taken by the troops.123

The strikes were suppressed. But the labour camps were never really pacified. The prisoners’ demand for human dignity was ultimately irrepressible. Smaller strikes and demonstrations continued during 1953–4, until at last the regime recognized that it could not go on with the Gulag system and began to release the prisoners.

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