The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was deduced only by reducing the total population figures at the next census.

Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked ‘How many matches were burned?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle.  For all his charisma, political awareness, and good sense of military strategy, Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had ‘fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. According to one especially infamous order, Number 227, every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack, and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.

The huge toll in human lives paid for Stalin’s ‘brilliant strategy’ was captured in Dmitri Baltermants’ photo, ‘Grief, or Searching for the Loved Ones in Kerch’. Before ultimately reaching Berlin like the Red Army itself, Baltermants covered the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Grief was taken at the Crimean front, where he went upon his release from the hospital after seriously wounding himself in Stalingrad.

The photo depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. Village women searched for the bodies of their loved ones. The contrast between the oversaturated sky above and the bodies haphazardly strewn in the foreground underlines the poignancy of the moment, but for the same reason, the photo was censored in the Soviet Union where authorities only published the photos that could help boost morale; ‘Grief’ reflected nothing but harsh tragedies of war, and it wasn’t seen by the general public until the 1960s.

The photo was allegedly cropped, and oversaturated sky itself was either the result of studio error or deliberate manipulation by Baltermants. Like so many tales originating from behind the Iron Curtain, these stories were of course unverified.



Stalin Is Dead

On March 1st, 1953, the morning after an all-night dinner in his country estate outside Moscow centre, Joseph Stalin failed to rise at his usual time. He was discovered lying on the floor of his room only at about 10 p.m. in the evening. The Deputy Prime Minister Lavrentiy Beria was summoned, but neither he nor the politburo called the doctors until the next day. (A few months earlier, aging and paranoid Marshal Stalin fabricated a “Doctors Plot” to assassinate top Soviet leaders). With his drunken son Vasili storming around the room, and the members of the Politburo haplessly wringing their hands, Stalin died on 5th March, and his body was transported back to the city to lay in state at the Hall of Columns, the grand ballroom of the House of Trade Unions, where Lenin had lain in state too.

(It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: “I took him out.” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about “spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him”, and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a favorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin’s death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge).

The Moscow Radio announced the news in a 47-minutes long bulletin. The next day, red flags went up all over the country in mourning. Those who were indeed not mourning were the motley crew that assembled at his bierside in the above historic photo. On the bier, Stalin was clad in a marshal’s uniform, with only one of his innumerable decorations–the “Hero of Socialist Labor”–on the breast. From left to right are: Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev, Kaganovich and Mikoyan.

Everyone was stiff and formal but everything was not well within the walls of Kremlin. They found Stalin’s shoes too big to fill. Stalin was succeeded first by a ruling “troika” with Beria, Molotov and Malenkov. Soon afterwards, Beria was purged and replaced by Khrushchev. When Molotov, Malenkov, Bulganin and Kaganovich attempted to pull the same trick of Khrushchev, the latter outmaneuvered them and they were dismissed. Khrushchev in turn was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Voroshilov as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet when Voroshilov retired.

Most of them (Khrushchev included) would spend the rest of their lives in obscure retirements. By the time Molotov died in 1986, he was the last of the ’17ers. “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich would nearly outlast the Soviet Union itself, living until 1991. The true survivor, politically wise, was Anastas Mikoyan, who consistently betted on the right horse: he supported Stalin when Lenin died; he denounced Beria’s and Molotov’s attempt to oust Khrushchev, and organized the latter’s de-Stalinization speech. When Mikoyan himself abandoned his support, Khrushchev knew it was the time to leave. Under Brezhnev, he was the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and retired with six Orders of Lenin.

Stalin, photographed by Dmitri Baltermants