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.

 

References

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

You Might Also Like

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955