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Malenkov - The Thaw

Under the Malenkov-Beria regime (March-June, 1953) the relaxation extended to many fields of Soviet policy. Measured by Western standards this was modest, but by Soviet standards it appeared the inauguration of a new era. The arrested doctors were released and vindicated; a partial amnesty was proclaimed; the nationality policy took a more liberal course in regard to the minorities. The term "collective leadership/' indicating a change from the personal dictatorship of a severe and suspicious leader, sounded appealing.

In the political arena, the amnesty for common criminals, announced in March, was actually extended to embrace numbers of Communist and non-Communist political prisoners. Among those released, amnestied and rehabilitated, army leaders constituted an important element. Over the years of Stalin's mass murder and blunders, many pressures were built up for the rehabilitation of his victims. Of these, pressure from the Soviet army undoubtedly was, and remains, the greatest. Russian armed forces lost many millions of dead, wounded, and prisoners in the Second World War, and Hitler penetrated further into Russian territory than any invader in Russian history.

Marshal Georgi Zhukov was one of the best-known Russian army leaders to return to Moscow after Stalin's death. Zhukov's popularity with the masses in Russia was genuine and considerable. There is no doubt that it was this popularity and Zhukov's great influence with the top leaders of the Army which caused Stalin to banish him to the hinterland. The fact that he immediately emerged into the public spotlight within twenty-four hours of Stalin's death indicates not only the depth of his hold on the Army leadership and the stability which his association with the new Government would suggest to the public.

The political climate softened. Far from democratic, the new trends were markedly less severe, less oppressive, and less terroristic. Ilya Ehrenburg, the highly official, praised, and decorated Soviet writer, significantly called his new novel The Thaw [Ottepel, published in Moscow in 1954] spring has not arrived but is approaching. One of Ehrenburg's characters was general manager Ivan Zhuravlev, an efficient man of the Stalin era bent on 100 percent fulfillment of industrial plans but unconcerned about the poor living conditions of his workers. At the end of the story Zhuravlev is removed from his post.

Another character in the novel is Vera Sherer, a physician who had been persecuted during the anti-doctor campaign but was now happily vindicated. (At the height of that campaign a group of workers, Ehrenburg relates, sent her a pot of flowers.) "In my youth," recalls another character, "I read an article by Gorki in which he said we must have our own, Soviet, humanism. The term has somehow disappeared, but the task remains. ... It is time to fulfill the task. . . . These are the last of the winter days. On one side of the street there is still frost, and on the other heavy drops are falling from the icicles."

As a component part of the "thaw", the powers of the police were substantially curtailed. Scores of its leaders were removed and imprisoned; some were tried and executed. The first incident in this line of development was the arrest of Beria and a group of other police leaders in the summer of 1953. According to an official Soviet version, Beria had been exposed as an agent of the "imperialists." In December 1953 it was announced that Lavrenti Beria, Vsevolod Merkulov, Vladimir Dekanozov, and three other ranking police leaders had been sentenced by a military court to death and immediately executed.

Police Chief Beria's rapid aggrandizement of power immediately after the passing of Stalin convinced all his comrades how urgent this wing-clipping process was. The Soviet army, which hated the secret police for honeycombing it with spies and outranking it in political influence, gladly lent a hand in the arrest of Beria on June 26, 1953, and in the downgrading of his police system that brought relief at all levels.

Another version of Beria's death was given in May 1956 by Khrushchev to a visiting French senator: Beria had refused, Khrushchev said, to follow the instructions of the Presidium and was striving to build up his own power. After a 4-hour session of the Presidium in the Kremlin, Beria admitted his plot. He left the room together with the others, and in an adjoining circular hall, Anastas Mikoyan fired a bullet from behind and killed him.

The purge of the Soviet police continued over the next 2 years. In July 1954, the GB (State Security) officer M. D. Ryumin, after a trial before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court, was sentenced to death and executed. In December of the same year, six GB leaders, among them Viktor Abakumov and A.G.Leonov, were tried in Leningrad by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court; four, including Abakumov and Leonov, were sentenced to death and executed; two received long corrective camp terms. 15 In November 1955, six GB leaders and two prosecutors of the Georgian Soviet Republic were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Tiflis. Six were sentenced to death and executed; two received prison terms.

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Page last modified: 02-05-2016 14:27:17 ZULU