Rear Window: Death of a tyrant: Even Stalin's victims wept with grief when he died

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The Independent Online
WHEN Kim Il Sung died, the era of parade tyrants closed. It began with Mussolini, rolled on through Hitler, Stalin and an assortment of lesser dictators - Ulbricht, Somoza, Ceausescu, Stroessner, to name a few - and closed on 6 July in Pyongyang. (Castro and Saddam Hussein survive, but are no longer really in the big league).

For a parade tyrant, whose face glared from every wall, a million people could fill a stadium with flags and, at a whistle blast, turn into a design of doves, stars and slogans: 'Great Leader and Defender, the Universe Loves You'. When a parade tyrant died, his people, and even his victims, felt that the world had come to an end and wandered, aimless and snivelling, about the streets. In Pyongyang, we read, 'citizens by the tens of thousands were seen beating their breasts and crying uncontrollably'. But in a few years time, so history teaches, they will be unable to remember why they felt like that.

When Stalin died, on 5 March, 1953, prisoners in the countless labour camps of the Gulag wept. He perished of a stroke in his dacha at Kuntsevo. He might, conceivably, have been saved, but his henchmen were too terrified - or too calculating - to do anything sensible except have leeches applied. When he was dead, Moscow Radio waited until 4am the next day to announce, after a roll of drums, that 'the heart of the comrade-in-arms and continuer of genius of Lenin's cause, of the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, has ceased to beat'.

That afternoon, his body was placed on an open catafalque in the Hall of Columns in the Kremlin, so that Party and people could pay tribute. The writer Ilya Ehrenburg announced: 'He walks on the crest of the century. The mills of Turin stopped working; agricultural labourers in Sicily froze into immobility; dockers of Genoa ceased working . . . In New York upright people, surrounded by police, informers and ruffians, spoke with sadness: 'The friend of peace has died'.'

Then things slid out of control. In spite of their rhetoric, Stalin's colleagues had not realised that his death would release monstrous, inchoate, spontaneous grief. The queues which formed to walk past the bier, waiting outside the Kremlin in bitter March weather, soon stretched back for miles. After a time, they ceased to form lines and became a sea of millions of struggling human beings. Army lorries were brought in to form barriers, fatally compressing the mob. The young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was there.

'The crowd turned into a monstrous whirlpool. I realised I was being carried straight towards a traffic light. The post was coming relentlessly closer. Suddenly I saw that a young girl was being pushed against the post. Her face was distorted and she was screaming. But her screams were unaudible against all the other cries and groans. A movement of the crowd drove me against the girl; I did not hear but felt with my body the cracking of her brittle bones.

'I closed my eyes in horror, the sight of her insanely bulging, childish blue eyes more than I could bear, and I was swept past. When I looked again the girl was no longer to be seen. The crowd must have sucked her under . . . At that moment I felt I was treading on something soft. It was a human body.'

Nobody knows how many people were trampled to death. Five hundred was one estimate. Many years later, Yevtushenko wrote a poem about that day:

Judgement was passed on the

day of the funeral

when people came to Stalin

over people

for he taught them to

walk over people.

On 9 March, Stalin's embalmed corpse was placed in the Mausoleum on Red Square, beside Lenin. But he did not stay there long. At the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, an old woman - one of the first Bolsheviks, who had spent 17 years in the camps - was brought to the tribune to announce Lenin had appeared to her in a dream to say he was uncomfortable in such company. Krushchev had Stalin removed and buried by the Kremlin wall, under a stone which says: 'J V Stalin, 1879-1953'.

All over the world, Communists felt bereaved and distraught at the news of Stalin's passing. Even Academician Andrei Sakharov, who was to become the most steadfast enemy of the system, wrote to a friend that 'I am under the influence of a great man's death'. Much later, he recalled 'it was years before I fully understood the degree to which deceit, exploitation and outright fraud were inherent in the Stalinist system'.

W H Auden, long before, had composed his 'Epitaph on a Tyrant':

Perfection, of a kind, was what

he was after . . .

When he laughed, respectable

senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried, the little

children died in the streets.

(Photographs omitted)