“What if it gets worse?”

Members of Project 03/05/53 have interviewed over a hundred people who remembered the days of Stalin’s death and funeral. The stories are not representative of the whole country because most of the respondents belong to the urban educated class, but it’s still a treasure trove of information.

Most of the interviewees were still schoolchildren in 1953, some were college students and some were in the late 20s, like the composer Grigory Frid:

I had never felt any love for comrade Stalin. I graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1939 and I already knew about the arrests and executions then. Although no one was a victim of repression in my family, even in the 1930s neither my father nor I could explain certain facts to ourselves. For example, the fact that a lot of people confessed of crimes they had allegedly committed.

When Stalin died, surely I did not cry. I heard about it on the radio, I think. And like all members of the intelligentsia, I had the most dreadful expectations: what if it gets worse? This is the first thing that came to mind. So I could not feel happy about his death. Besides, naive as it sounds today, Stalin’s death was not the most important event in my life at that moment. Because [that was when] Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev died; I knew him, not closely but I did know him. That was a major tragedy… We had to claw Prokofiev’s body out of his apartment but that was impossible: Prokofiev lived in Kamergersky Lane where everything was cordoned off… They only took away his body at night. Then I spent the whole night – I don’t remember who else was there – by his coffin. I felt Prokofiev’s death far more deeply than Stalin’s.

From what I have read elsewhere, I recall that quite a few people had that fear of things getting even worse, of the security apparatus unleashing another wave of terror, more chaotic and indiscriminate than ever before. They imagined that Stalin had been the only brake on the murder machine he had created. What actually followed was the exact opposite.

Without drawing parallels, I have to mention that some educated Russians are wary of Putin’s departure. They have in mind a number of scary-as-hell scenarios. If Putin goes, a civil war will break out. Or there will be an eruption of violent ethnic nationalism. Or Putin will be succeeded by people with the same KGB mindset but none of his economic prudence or his belief in maintaining an appearance of constitutional order. Or regional governors will pull the country apart.

As for me, I’m hoping the next Russian government will go down in history as the detox and rehab regime.


  1. As for me, I’m hoping the next Russian government will go down in history as the detox and rehab regime.

    Me too, and I’m dearly hoping Sechin isn’t allowed to slink off beneath a rock somewhere and live out his days in peace.

    I’m also curious as to what an incoming, reformist regime does with Kadyrov.

    • I’m hoping for a public investigation into some – at least some – machinations of this regime. Better late than never. When Khruschev appointed a commission to look into the murder of Kirov in 1934, it had been 22 years after the fact, about the same length of time that has now passed since the start of the first Chechen war in 1994. Despite the years of terror and war, there were still enough people alive in 1956 who could provide some helpful information: the commission held 3,000 interviews. But it was a secret intra-party inquiry (the commission was co-chaired by a much-respected survivor of the great terror) and it’s unclear what it really found.

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