The death of Stalin is a classic story in which concentrated, raw human emotions play out, with comrades too afraid to approach the tyrant lying in his own urine. Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s chief hangman, curator of the infamous Soviet state security, cursing the “master” with final words, only to rush to kiss his hand when his eyes open. That hand, at the last moment before the villain’s death, suddenly rises menacingly, pointing somewhere. This gesture – which has remained undeciphered – strikes terror into his heirs.Post-Stalin reformers
The subsequent struggle for power sees the same concentration of emotions. Everything in it is human, very human, like the instinct to survive. Meanwhile, archetypes of political behavior emerge, and not only in the context of a struggle for power. We have no other historical evidence from the Soviet period about what happens after the disappearance of the leading figure who had concentrated such enormous power in his hands (even if one was withered).
It turns out that whoever fights for power after the dictator is gone begins to compete with other contenders to liberalize the regime. The name of the dictator is mentioned less and less. Lydia Timashuk
, whose allegations served as the basis for the “doctors’ plot” – when doctors treating the highest state officials were accused of murdering Stalin’s ally Andrei Zhdanov – had her Order of Lenin taken back in due course. The “killer doctors” who had not already died in prison were released, and so-called “public opinion,” which had so recently worshipped Stalin, had cursed the “enemies of the people” and was ready to tear the Jews to pieces, quickly turned the other way.
As the eminent Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote
: “Radical policy reforms were quickly introduced and followed each other in dizzying succession. On Beria’s initiative, prosecutions in the ‘doctors’ plot’ were stopped, the doctors released and their freedom announced in the press. Next on the list, also a Beria initiative, was a mass amnesty in Gulag, starting with a million ‘non-political’ prisoners, but soon moving on, albeit more gradually, to the political ones. Stalin’s name, hitherto ubiquitous, suddenly disappeared from the newspapers; publication of his collected works was abruptly halted.”
Brezhnevism went out the door roughly in the same way, though it took some time given the so-called “hearse race,” when three Soviet general secretaries died within two years. Nonetheless, when the last gerontocrat truly close to Leonid Brezhnev died, everything again began to move toward liberalization, with the pivot enthusiastically received by the very “public opinion” that until just recently had shown no signs of life and sat through one party and trade union meeting after another.
Khrushchev’s removal stands apart somewhat as a case of a “palace coup” prepared in advance. It has little to do with our situation: after Khrushchev’s experiments, rejected as a manifestation of unacceptable “voluntarism,” a desire for stability arose within the country’s leadership. The then-elites, by no means paralyzed by fear, as they are now, managed to agree on the need for personnel changes and to find an institutional platform for the rotation of power – the Central Committee Plenum. There is no such platform in Russia’s political system today.
Despite the creeping re-Stalinization that began in 1965, the new post-Khrushchev government tried to liberalize the economy (discussion of economic reforms began under Khrushchev, but systematic implementation started on the initiative and under the control of the new head of government Alexei Kosygin).Is a similar pattern likely after Putin’s departure?
The Soviet historical precedents show that after the departure of autocrats – first Stalin and later the “sequence of state funerals” featuring Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko – liberalization began in the country. Intra-elite struggle did take place but subsided rather quickly.
After Putin’s departure, events could develop on a similar pattern too. The struggle for power should not lead to chaos or moreover the collapse of Russia, owing to the heavy dependence of the regions on the federal budget. Anyone who in the Putin era seemed to be a loyal ally will immediately take steps toward opening Russia back up, liberalizing the economy and gradually democratizing politics. The reason is the serious resource depletion that is taking place before our eyes. By resources I mean not only what is material and monetizable, but also the moral and psychological fatigue of society.