On Saturday, March 5, millions of Russians solemnly marked the 69 years since Joseph Stalin died of a massive stroke, an event portrayed with surprising historical accuracy in the comedic film The Death of Stalin. This date has always been an important one for liberal Russians, people who hate Vladimir Putin and want their country to look more like Western Europe than the Soviet Union. Many of them have ancestors who were among the millions that vanished during Stalin’s Great Terror. But most Russians—and Ukrainians—were touched in some way by the terror, simply because of its vast scale. Exact numbers are hard to come by but according to historian Robert Conquest, in just two years, 1937 and 1938, some 7 million Soviets were arrested as “enemies of the people,” one million were executed, and 8 million more were sent to the camps. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, about 20 million people had passed through the Gulag.
When the dictator’s death was announced, millions genuinely grieved the passing of the Father of Nations, and hundreds were trampled to death in the crush of his public funeral. But many others quietly celebrated his death. There was one immediate effect of Stalin’s death: it stopped the Doctor’s Plot, which Stalin, in his end-of-life paranoia, had hatched, alleging that Jewish doctors were poisoning their patients as part of an American and Zionist cabal. There were rumors going around Moscow that Stalin was readying to deport millions of Soviet Jews, who had just survived World War II and the Holocaust, to Siberia. But he died just in time, and his successors quickly unraveled the plan and let imprisoned Jewish doctors out of jail. Stalin’s death also lifted the blanket terror under which most Soviets lived, fearing that a stray word to the wrong person could end with a bullet in the back of the head. Even his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, felt relief on March 5, 1953. “Petrified and mute,” she wrote, “I understood that a certain liberation had come.” And though persecution of dissidents returned with the ascent of Leonid Brezhnev to the Soviet throne, it never again reached the level and scale it had under Stalin.
This year, the anniversary took on a new and weighty significance. One Novosibirsk artist posted an image of Stalin’s funeral mask with the inscription, “That one died, and this one will, too.” The message from him and from every Russian posting about the anniversary was unmistakable: they were hoping and praying for Vladimir Putin’s speedy death—and for the relief they imagine it would bring. Death had not arrived in time to keep Putin from invading Ukraine, but it could still swoop in and end the war.