October 31, 2016

Why Stalin's Corpse Was Exhumed on Halloween

Why Stalin's Corpse Was Exhumed on Halloween

On October 31, 1961, the body of Joseph Stalin was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried in "obscurity" near the Kremlin Wall. That it happened on Halloween is just a coincidence: Stalin’s corpse isn’t reanimated and there haven’t been reports of a ghost, vampire, or zombie version of the former fearless leader (that we know of). Still, on a holiday known for ghouls and goblins – at least, in countries that celebrate it – it’s worth exploring just why Stalin was exhumed on Halloween 55 years ago.

The answer, in short, is the policy of de-Stalinization that characterized the reign of Nikita Khrushchev and the Thaw associated with his name. When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, the nation mourned the loss with elaborate fanfare and – for some – true grief. His body was embalmed and put on display beside Vladimir Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square: generations of communists would be able to pay their respects.

But in the struggle to succeed Stalin at the head of the Soviet government, few wanted to continue his style of leadership. When Nikita Khrushchev consolidated his place at the top of the Party hierarchy, he clinched the spot in part by distancing himself from its previous occupant.

At the Twentieth Party Congress on February 24, 1956, Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech – an ironic title, given how infamous it has become – revealing that the former leader’s “cult of personality” had been carefully constructed to obscure the fact that he had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members, military leaders, and citizens based purely on paranoia and hunger for power. Khrushchev ended his rousing presentation with the words, “Long live the victorious banner of our Party – Leninism!”

It was this phrase that likely held the Soviet Union together. With the sudden need to sweep 25 years of Stalinism under the rug, a reaffirmation of Leninism was proof that the Soviet state was still on the right side of history, and communism still its bright, triumphant destiny. Stalin’s rule was just a blip in the radar.

As such, it was only fitting that Stalin no longer deserved a place beside Lenin in the mausoleum. Or, as one Bolshevik woman put it in a speech to the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, Lenin no longer wanted him there:

“He was standing there before me as if he were alive, and he said: ‘It is unpleasant to be next to Stalin, who did so much harm to the party.’"1

Soon thereafter, on the last day of October, Stalin’s body was removed from its spot beside Lenin and re-interred near the Kremlin wall a few hundred feet from the mausoleum. Transplanted from Lenin's side to the company of lesser figures from the Russian Revolution, the man who had once possessed ultimate power in the USSR probably turned in his grave – which was cramped, since he was used to a glass case in the mausoleum.

However, even with the revelations about Stalin’s repressions, his legacy was not to be laid to rest. Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Khrushchev, stopped short of renewing official approbation of Stalin or his policies, but the leader did regain some of the stature he had lost under Khrushchev.

Today, Stalin is as controversial as ever – and perhaps even more divisive. Many Russians acknowledge the Terror he orchestrated, but also credit him with defeating the Nazis and winning WWII, thereby saving Russia and, effectively, the whole world. Some argue that the latter feat should excuse the former flaw, and attempts to rehabilitate Stalin’s memory are increasing: citizens of Volgograd fight for the city to be renamed Stalingrad, its moniker from 1925 until 1961; a museum dedicated to his political and military success and ignoring his crimes opened in Tver in March, 2015; and neo-Stalinists claim that the Terror “wasn’t as terrible as they say.” With such attempts to resurrect Stalin’s good name, the next time he rises from the grave may look very different from his exhumation on Halloween, 1961.

For now, Stalin’s corpse remains safely underground. But in a Russia under yet another authoritarian leader, the memory of Stalin continues to haunt the nation today.



1. Dora Lazurkina, quoted in Robert Payne, The Rise and Fall of Stalin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 712-13.

Cover image: Stalin and Lenin's bodies in the mausoleum. ciml.250x.com

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