Death of Stalin - the leader of the Soviet Union dies, bringing to an end the often brutal period of 'Stalinsim' that had helped shaped the USSR since the 1920s
Just how many millions of deaths Joseph Stalin was responsible for is disputed, but that the figure runs into millions is not in doubt. Even to the end, when he was in his seventies and approaching his own death, his subordinates continued to carry out his murderous orders.
Stalin was paranoid in any case and in his later years he suffered from arterio-sclerosis. There’s a theory that this may have exacerbated his temper, which became ever more savage as he grew older. His doctor, Vladimir Vinogradov, noticed a marked change for the worse in Stalin’s health early in 1952. When he suggested that the dictator start to take things more easily, the patient flew into a furious rage and had him arrested.
However, Stalin himself had indeed begun to feel his age and tell his subordinates that he had not long left to live. His senior colleagues, their homes and offices bugged by the security police, were all terrified of him. At a meeting of the Central Committee of the Party in October 1952 Stalin announced that he was too old to cope any longer and asked to be relieved of his post as Secretary General. Georgi Malenkov, in the chair, paled for fear that the other members would not instantly stand up to protest and demand that the request be denied. Fortunately for him, they did.
Stalin left the Kremlin for his dacha at Kuntsevo, outside Moscow, in mid-February 1953, for the last time. There are conflicting reports of what happened, but after a routine night of heavy drinking until the early hours of March 1st, the guards became alarmed when there was no sound from their master all day and late in the evening a guard or a maid ventured in and found him lying on the floor of his bedroom. One account says he was conscious, but only able to make incoherent noises, and had wet himself. Nikita Khrushchev recalled that he and Malenkov, Beria and Bulganin went out to Kuntsevo after a telephone call from the guards to Malenkov. At the dacha they were told that Stalin had been put on a sofa in the small dining room ‘in an unpresentable state’ and was now asleep. The four men, embarrassed and not realising that anything was seriously wrong, went back to Moscow.
Not until the next day, with Stalin paralysed and speechless, were doctors summoned. Almost too frightened to touch him, they announced that he had suffered a massive stroke. Leading Politburo members went to the dacha every day, hesitating and dithering, apparently unsure what to do, while rumours spread that they or some of them had taken a hand in putting an end to the dictator.
According to his daughter Svetlana, who was at the bedside, at 9.50pm on the 5th Stalin’s eyes opened with ‘a terrible look – either mad or angry and full of the fear of death’. He raised his left hand, pointing upwards, perhaps threateningly, and then death took him. It was announced on the radio the next day, with appeals for calm, and the funeral was held in Red Square on March 9th in the presence of a huge crowd – so large that some were crushed to death. Stalin’s veteran colleague Vyacheslav Molotov, whose wife was in a prison camp where she was known as Object Number Twelve, spoke in praise of the dead tyrant. So did Malenkov and Beria, but in private Beria made no secret of his relief at the dictator’s passing. Stalin’s body was embalmed and was presently put on display with Lenin’s corpse in the renamed Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum.
Malenkov, Molotov and Beria had taken steps to secure their own positions. At a meeting on March 6th Malenkov was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Molotov was to be foreign minister. Beria, appointed minister of internal affairs, organised an exhibition for members of the Central Committee at which tapes of Stalin’s conversations with security police were played and the late dictator’s responsibility for the arrest of innocent officials was clearly established. Nothing was said in public as yet, but the demolition of Stalin’s image had begun.
East German Uprising - a wave of strikes and protests turns into a widespread uprising against the communist German Democratic Republic government, which was violently suppressed by Soviet troops
The East German uprising began as a series of strikes and protests at living standards; it soon turned political, with town halls being stormed amid vocal demands for German reunification. The immediate trigger for the unrest was an announcement by the Communist government that it would increase working hours for factory employees while simultaneously drastically raising the price of groceries.
The backdrop to the uprising was a policy of "expanding socialism according to plan" by East Germany's communists in the early 1950s. It involved a combination of expropriating farms to create massive industrial-scale farming collectives and stepping up construction of the heavy-industry sector. That combined with crushing World War II reparations payments plunged the East German economy into chaos. As austerity measures became the order of the day, the country fell into economic crisis as more and more people left for the relative prosperity of West Germany. By the spring of 1953, close to 30,000 people left East Germany every month.
Then came the strikes. During the last days of May and early June, dissatisfied workers began laying down their tools. But the first massive wave of protest came on June 16, as thousands of construction workers, emboldened by the death of Stalin, protested on Berlin's Stalinallee (today's Karl Marx Allee) against wage cuts, forming a long protest march through East Berlin.
The following day, more than a million people went on strike and took to the streets in more than 700 cities and communities. What began as an uprising for better wages quickly turned into a protest for freedom, democracy and unity in Germany. The workers called for greater government transparency, a better quality of life, the resignation of the GDR's government, free elections by secret ballot and reunification.
The tense situation escalated further in East Berlin, the epicenter of the unrest. The GDR regime turned to the Soviet Union for help. Soviet tanks rolled into the unarmed crowd of protesters. The troops began firing at the workers on Friedrichstrasse and at Potsdamer Platz, killing dozens of people.
During the days following June 17, as many as 10,000 protesters and members of the strike committee were arrested. More than 1,500 protesters were given lengthy prison sentences.