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Stalin

“‘I’m finished,’ Stalin had recently been heard to say to himself: ‘I trust no one, not even myself.’ Svetlana says of this period that a visit to her father would physically wipe her out for several days; and Svetlana was in no fear of her life.

On 1 March Stalin stirred at midday, as usual. In the pantry the light came on: MAKE TEA. The servants waited in vain for the plodding instruction, BRING TEA IN. Not until 11 P.M. did the duty officers summon the nerve to investigate. [Stalin] was lying in soiled pyjamas on the dining-room floor near a bottle of mineral water and a copy of Pravda. His beseeching eyes were full of terror. When he tried to speak he could only produce ‘a buzzing sound’ – the giant flea, the bedbug, reduced to an insect hum. No doubt he had had time to ponder an uncomfortable fact: all the Kremlin doctors were being tortured in jail, and his personal physician of many years, Vinogradov, was, moreover (at the insistence of Stalin himself), ‘in irons’. […]

Stalin’s right side was paralysed; his left side twitched at random. Over the next five days, as the doctors trembled over their work, Vasily Dzhugashvili would sometimes stagger in and shout, ‘They’ve killed my father, the bastards!’ At 9:50 P.M. on 5 March Stalin began sweating heavily. His blue face turned bluer. Svetlana watched and waited. This is her valediction:

For the last twelve hours the lack of oxygen became acute. His face and lips blackened… The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed like the very last moment, he opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry, and full of fear of death… [Then] he suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something up above and bringing down a curse on all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace.

What was he doing? He was groping for his power.

Stalin was dead – but he wasn’t yet done. He had always loved grinding people together, pestling them together, leaving them without air and space, without recourse; he had always loved hemming and cooping them, penning them, pinning them: the Lubyanka reception ‘kennel’, with three prisoners for every yard of floor space; Ivanovo, with 323 men in a cell intended for twenty, or Strakhovich, with twenty-eight men in a cell intended for solitary confinement; or thirty-six in a single train compartment, or a black maria packed so tight that the urkas can’t even pickpocket, or the zeks trussed in pairs and stacked like logs in the back of the truck – en route to execution… On the day of Stalin’s funeral vast multitudes, ecstatic with false grief and false love, flowed through Moscow in dangerous densities. When, in a tightening crowd, your movements are no longer your own and you have to fight to breathe, a simple and sorrowful realization asserts itself through your panic: that if death comes, it will be brought here by life, too much life, a superabundance of life. And what were they all doing there anyway – mourning him? On that day well over a hundred people died of asphyxiation in the streets of Moscow. So Stalin, embalmed in his coffin, went on doing what he was really good at: crushing Russians.”

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Pulled from Martin Amis’s engrossing short history of Stalin and the origins of the Soviet Union Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million.

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Stalin funeral