Staunton, Nov. 7 – Sixty years ago this week, the Soviet leadership removed the remains of Joseph Stalin from the mausoleum on Red Square where they had lain since the dictator’s death eight years earlier and buried them along the Kremlin wall. Fearful of popular risings, Nikita Khrushchev and his comrades ran this as a special operation.
In the event, there were no risings pro or con, except in Stalin’s native Georgia where protests broke out; but the concerns the Kremlin had then about reburying Stalin certainly pale in comparison to its fears even now about burying Vladimir Lenin whose mummified remains have been in the mausoleum since 1924.
On this anniversary, historian Igor Kyan recounts the lengths to which the CPSU leadership went to deflect responsibility for this move from itself to the population itself, the secrecy with which the operation was carried out, and the defensive measures the powers that be took in order to counter any possible protest (versia.ru/kak-ubirali-stalina-iz-mavzoleya).
As he notes, this event was little discussed in Soviet times and not much more in post-Soviet ones. Undoubtedly this is the case not only because of what it shows about the personalities and performances of Soviet leaders in the past but also because of what it suggests may be similar things now concerning the possibility of removing Lenin’s body as well.
“It is obvious,” Kyan says, “that the very idea belonged to Nikita Khrushchev;” but it appears likely that he wanted to do this not so much as part of an effort to reveal Stalin’s crimes but out of personal animus to the late dictator whom Khrushchev blamed for the death of his own son.
“However, well knowing how the system worked, Khrushchev didn’t risk removing Stalin on his own.” Instead, he orchestrated speeches at the 22nd CPSU Party Congress about how inappropriate it was for Stalin who had done so much harm to be lying in a place of honor by the founder of the Soviet state.
The most famous of these speeches was made by Dora Lazurkina, an old Bolshevik, who said that she regularly consulted Lenin in her dreams and that the revolutionary had just told her that he “didn’t like having Stalin alongside him, a man who had brought so many misfortunes to the party.”
Her words were followed, according to the transcript of the meeting, by “storming, prolonged applause. All rise.” But she wasn’t the initiator of all this. Khrushchev had already told his comrades that Stalin was going to be removed. Initially, he thought of burying Stalin next to his wife at the Novodeviche cemetery.
But fearful that such a placement might become a pilgrimage site, the Kremlin leader decided to bury him next to the Kremlin wall, a place the regime could exercise far greater control in the case of problems. And so that night, a grave was dug, Stalin was moved, and his name was removed from the mausoleum.
Despite fears, the Soviet people did not react except in Georgia, a pattern that meant the two companies of machine gunners the regime had moved into the mausoleum area were not necessary. The population accepted this as they had accepted much else that the Soviets and Stalin personally had done, Kyan says.
The removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum immediately triggered the removal of many statues to him around the country. This was done so rapidly that the population wasn’t prepared. When a statue of Stalin was removed in Volgograd, a janitor ran to the militia to report that it had been stolen.
He was told to shut up and accept the change. Stalin hadn’t been stolen; he had been removed by the party leaders – and they of course knew best.