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Joseph Stalin

The Cold War and Stalin's Last Years

World War II

After Stalin

At the close of the Second World War, the Soviet people, who had borne so many burdens during the conflict, now harbored the hope that their lives would improve. To Stalin's mind, of course, such thinking presented a danger: if people began to long for something better, they might rebel. Thus he now began a drive to maintain control at all costs. His inner circle was shaken up: Lavrenti Beria remained in power as head of the secret police, but Molotov began to fade into the background, and Georgi Malenkov, who had enjoyed Stalin's trust since the beginning of the war, was replaced by Andrei Hanoi, who led a renewed ideological offensive. Soldiers who had seen too much of the prosperous West were interned in camps to keep them from "infecting" the population with subversive ideas; there was a new purge of the military, in which even the great Zhukov was reduced a minor provincial command; and a new cultural offensive was launched against newspapers and other literature considered threatening to the regime. The Western Allies, now Soviet enemies in the fight for global influence, came under heavy attack in the press, where Stalinist writers invented imagined atrocities and attributed them to the Americans and the British. Meanwhile, "Praising American Democracy" received listing in secret police handbooks as grounds for arrest.

The post-war conflict with the West came as no surprise to Stalin. In part, it constituted a continuation of the Marxist dream of world revolution, a dream revived by a series of Communist uprisings from Greece to China in the late 1940s. In part, it was a reassertion of Russian nationalism that went back to the Tsars. But most importantly, the Cold War that emerged as the Soviets moved to expand their sphere of influence at the expense of the West was a reflection of what may have been the most important aspect of Stalin's peculiar personality: his unlimited will to power. He had vanquished Trotsky and Zinoviev, Bukharin and Kamenev, and even the German Reich; the United States was simply the latest in a long line of rivals with whom he had jockeyed for supremacy.

Soviet foreign policy in the late 1940s, then, was characterized by a steady belligerence, and the application of constant pressure on politically sensitive areas. Eastern Europe quickly belonged to Stalin, as did East Germany, and in February 1948 Stalinist forces seized power in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Moscow supported Communist forces in the Greek Civil War, pressed Turkey to give up control of the Bosphorus, backed Communist parties in Italy and France, supported Communist insurrection in Indochina (Vietnam), and backed a Stalinist dictatorship in North Korea--all the while denouncing the "warmongers" in the West. Then, in the summer of 1948, Stalin ordered a blockade of West Berlin, which was controlled by the Allies; Britain and the U.S. only managed to retain their hold there via a patchwork airlift from West Germany. But Western leaders were tiring of Stalin's bullying tactics. By the late 1940s, sympathy for the Soviet Union was in sharp decline in the United States, and the Cold War had begun in earnest. Indeed, Stalin faced opposition even in Eastern Europe: Marshal Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia, quarreled sharply with Stalin in 1948, and broke from the Soviet bloc.

In 1949 the Soviets finally succeeded in exploding an atomic bomb, and China fell to the Communists under Mao Zedong. The Marxist revolution--the mere dream of revolutionaries in Stalin's youth--seemed to finally be at hand, and that December, Mao attended the impressive celebration of Stalin's seventieth birthday. The aging man was still dangerous: in 1948, he had abruptly eliminated Zhdanov and his allies (they were all shot), and returned Malenkov to favor. Meanwhile, his latent anti-Semitism was coming to the fore in his old age, and undertook an undeclared campaign of persecution against the Soviet Union's Jews. Nonetheless, Stalin was increasingly feeble, and gradually became dependent upon Malenkov, Beria, and others in day-to-day affairs; his formidable daughter Svetlana was frequently in attendance on him, although she later said they "had nothing to say to each other."

(His two sons were disappointments: Vasily, the younger, was a dissolute disgrace; Yakov had died, disowned by his father, as a German prisoner of war.) Stalin now took an obsessive interest in films, which he watched constantly. He became devoted to pseudo-scientific theories as well, although this was not a new attachment--Marxist claptrap had long dominated true science in the Soviet Union, especially in the biological sciences. He also continued in his constant political plottings, and, as always, saw enemies everywhere.

In 1950, Mao and Stalin signed a Sino-Soviet friendship treaty, although the two dictators were wary of one another. In March of that year, the Stalinist leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, came to Moscow. He left bearing one of Stalin's last poisonous presents to the world--permission to invade the American-backed South Korea. When the Korean War threatened to spread, however, Stalin never considered involvement--indeed, during his last years he blanketed the West with propaganda for peace. And the propaganda was not wholly ill received: despite all his crimes, the Soviet Union still possessed admirers in Europe and America- -a remarkable testament to the seductive lure of Marxism.

As Stalin neared death, his paranoia intensified. There is evidence that during his last days he was planning another great purge, this one to be directed against Molotov, Beria, Malenkov, and others. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitic campaign continued throughout the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, and as 1952 drew to a close, he hatched a plot to eliminate all Jews from western Russia. This was to begin with the "discovery" of the so-called "Doctors' Plot": his (Jewish) doctors would be accused of collaborating with a foreign power and plotting to kill him. From there, Stalin planned to have leading Jewish Communists "request" resettlement in the east, a request that would of course be granted. The Doctors' Plot was "detected" in January of 1953, and a wave of anti-Semitic hysteria swept the country. But by now Stalin's health was failing rapidly. As late as February 28, he was able to dine with a group that included Beria, Malenkov, and Nikita Krushchev, who would ultimately emerge as his successor. But the next day he suffered a stroke. For three days he wavered between life and death, before finally passing from this life, in great pain, on March 5, 1953. It was, for Russia and the world, the end of an era.

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