1953 was the year Stalin died, and a year of revolt in several Soviet bloc countries, in the first place, East Germany. This article by Jean-Michel Krivine, at the time a member of the French Communist Party, is from Rouge (2 January 2003), the paper of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France. In it he describes some of the momentous events that followed the - very partial - Soviet thaw after Stalin's death.
1953 was a year particularly rich in events. One among them provoked seismic upheavals whose effects are still with us. But, before we deal with that, let's look at those that surround it.
France would experience a wave of strikes such as it had not known since those of 1947-1948 organised by the French Communist Party (CP). But, this time, it was a spontaneous movement that broke out in the month of August, and the CP would have to get on board a moving train (if one can say that, since all transport was paralysed...) in order not to be left behind. The four million strikers demanded a general increase in wages and wanted to get rid of a statute which would delay (still further!) the retirement age for public sector workers.
The Rosenberg incident would, equally, shake the world. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, left-wing Americans, were sentenced on 5 April 1951 to be electrocuted. They were accused of having delivered atom bomb secrets to the Soviets. It was Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who claimed to have supplied the information to Julius and his network. No convincing evidence was produced but the McCarthyite witch-hunt was in full cry. The Rosenbergs strenuously denied all the accusations and would be executed on 19 June 1953, despite a massive protest campaign, especially in Europe. David Greenglass got off with 15 years in prison. Released in 1960, he claimed, on the CBS network on 5 December 2001, to have testified falsely and that it was he who had sent the information...
1953 was the year when André Marty was expelled from the CP. The former "hero of the Black Sea", leader of the sailors who in 1919 refused to intervene against the Russian revolution, was accused, on one front page of l'Humanité [the CP's newspaper] in January 1953 of having "police links", and his branch proposed his expulsion. In all likelihood, the CP leadership, in the absence of Thorez, who was still being treated in the USSR, needed scapegoats, as its politics, oscillating between sectarianism and opportunism, had lost the CP votes in the parliamentary elections of June 1951...
However, all the events we have described paled into insignificance beside that which really marked the year 1953. On Wednesday 4 March, CP militants, unfolding a special edition of l'Huma, were shocked to read, in huge letters: "Radio Moscow announces a great tragedy which will shake people the whole world over: comrade Stalin is gravely ill." After that was a message from the French CP's central committee and a huge photo of the little father of the people.
"Stalin is dead"
The next day, the photo was even bigger, and on Friday 6 March came the finale. The front page was bordered in black, the title leaving no one in any doubt: "Radio Moscow, 2.15 am, Stalin is dead." The photo of the departed god took up almost the whole page. For the next four days, the black border remained on the front page and the giant photos of Stalin marched on.
Stalin's death would open a new page in world history. In the first place, in the USSR: it signalled the end of the regime of police terror, at the same time not threatening the power of the ruling bureaucracy. That simply had to be civilised a little. Two men took on the task: Malenkov, named head of the Cabinet, and the KGB chief Beria, named interior minister. The little known Khrushchev would become head of the Party.
The doors of the gulag would open and, from the end of March, hundreds of thousands of deportees were freed and then pardoned.
On 4 April, Pravda announced that the "plot of the white shirts" had been an invention by the state's security forces who had used "illegal methods" to obtain confessions: in January 1953, nine renowned doctors had been arrested and accused of deliberately causing the death of Zhdanov (one of the principal defenders of Stalinist orthodoxy) and several others. All had "confessed" to their crimes.
However, a battle for power would rack the leadership and Beria would be thrown out in June. With Stalin gone, Thorez, paralysed down his right side, could return to France. On his return, Aragon wrote one of his bad poems: "He is coming back".
Stalin's death and the new course in the USSR would lead to upheavals in the people's democracies. They were ruled by Stalinist leaders, sustained by the Soviet clan clustered around Stalin's old companion, Molotov.
The situation in East Germany was especially worrying. The crisis of supplies got worse and refugees flooded into West Berlin. In April 1953, the Stalinist leader Ulbricht failed to get any help from Moscow and issued a decree increasing the demands on industrial workers. An unexpected workers' revolt came to his aid: on 16 June, the workers in the Stalinallee, unhappy with their wages, stopped working and took to the streets. Quickly, the strike stretched across East Berlin and, the next day, demonstrations covered the town. At noon, a state of siege was announced and two Soviet motor divisions took position. Insurgents taken prisoner were executed, and by the evening of the 17th order was restored in East Berlin. However, the flame of Stalinallee continued to burn in many towns (Leipzig, Dresden, etc.) and the Soviet army had to intervene. There were tens of thousands of arrests and 42 people executed.
In Czechoslovakia, too, there were protest movements in several large industrial centres (in Pilsen, Ostrava and Prague) when the devaluation of the currency considerably impoverished the population. In Hungary, the Stalinist Rakosi was forced to accept his old adversary, the "liberal" Imre Nagy, as president of the Council in the middle of the year. In the other people's democracies, the changes would come more slowly and later.
The Fourth International had to salute these events in East Germany and considered them as the first phase in the political revolution that it expected to see developing in the "socialist camp".
It is undeniable that Stalin's death was the major event that year, for its effects in the USSR as well as the rest of the world.
I will end with a small personal anecdote, which evokes the ambiguous atmosphere of that time. The author of these lines, still a loyal member of the French CP, had booked two seats to see Carmen at the opera in Paris. The same day - horror! - that we learned of Stalin's death. What to do? We decided in the end to go, my wife and I... and if another comrade were to see us there? Well, they were in the same boat; they wouldn't say anything! And that's what happened...
Translated by Vicki Morris