Death behind the Curtain


Stalin: Fifty years ago, newspapers cautiously reported rumors of the Soviet dictator's passing.

March 05, 2003

Fifty years ago today, Josef Stalin died in Moscow. News traveled differently in those days.

The first headlines were somber, with a sense of foreboding, but the world was left to guess whether the Soviet dictator had indeed died.

Today, a headline would not talk about implying and thinking, the way The Sun's two-line banner headline of March 5, 1953, did. Modern headlines require facts and sureness, suggesting we know more about the world, or think we do.

In the America of 1953, the Soviet Union loomed large and terrible - and unknown.

Eleven of the 14 articles on that front page were about Stalin, whether he was dead and how the world would react if he were. William Manchester, a Sun reporter who would become a famous literary light and historian, wrote from Ankara:

"Word of Premier Stalin's stroke was received cheerfully in the streets of the Turkish capital today, but in offices where decisions are made faces were long. The big Turks figure Moscow could do worse and probably will."

Russell Baker, reporting from London for The Sun, wrote:

"London is a tense world capital tonight, keeping a death-watch on Moscow and nervously speculating about a struggle for power in the Kremlin."

An article from The Sun's Washington bureau was headlined:

Congressmen Hopeful, Wary

Of Results of Stalin's Illness

"Cautious expressions of hope that it might produce an improvement in the world situation," it said, "mingled with the fear that a change in the regime would bring no modification of the Kremlin's policies, and, worse, it could even result in further Communist aggression that could only end in World War III."

In the days that followed, Stalin was written about as a tyrant and dictator who presided over an empire where political dissidents disappeared and those small landowners who resisted collectivization were banished to the hardship of forced labor. He was portrayed as an enemy to the United States, but something of a respected enemy.

There was no mention of him as the man responsible for the deaths of millions - perhaps 20 million to 30 million - of Soviet citizens in the famine he engineered or the Great Terror he set off.

That would come out 30 years later.

By the next day, the news was confirmed. Stalin had indeed died, of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Sun's banner headline said:

Stalin Is Dead But Kremlin

Keeps Silent On Successor

An Associated Press account of his life, published March 6, 1953, began:

"Josef Stalin, the son of a cobbler, emerged out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution to master the forces unleashed by upheaval - and became the undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement.

"Successively theological student, revolutionary agitator, journalist, military leader and political administrator, he fired a downtrodden and war-shattered conglomeration of varying races into a crusading host. Under iron discipline they fulfilled in four years a five-year plan begun in 1928. Then he launched them upon an even broader effort which carried them into the front rank of nations."

Today, he is seen as one of history's great evils. In Russia, however, different feelings still manage to exist.

A recent poll there found that 36 percent of Russians think Stalin did more good than bad for the country (he was the leader during World War II). Another 29 percent say the opposite, and 34 percent didn't express an opinion.

In the poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, 61 percent said Stalin was guilty of large-scale repression and "genocide of his own people." And 3 percent blamed him because the country was unprepared for the war and suffered huge, perhaps unnecessarily large, casualties. The same percentage blamed Stalin for the death of millions of peasants during collectivization.

Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, described his last minutes this way (as quoted by Martin Amis in his book Koba the Dread):

"At what seemed like the very last moment, he opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry, and full of fear of death. ...

"[Then] he suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something up above and bringing down a curse on all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace."

Stalin was dead.

Kathy Lally

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