March 5, 1953 Happy Stalin’s Death Day

On the night of February 28, 1953 Stalin summoned members of his inner circle to his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. They met now and then for dinner, a movie, and irrational ravings about capitalism. Tonight, summoned were Deputy Premier Georgy Malenkov, Chief of Secret Police Lavrenti Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, and Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin. Though they had been invited for dinner, Stalin did have an ulterior motive. Like many dictators, Stalin suffered from an all-encompassing paranoia. If they were drinking and watching movies with him, they couldn’t be plotting his overthrow. Khrushchev pointed out later that the mood that night had been pleasant, suggesting they weren’t always. The implication was that Stalin’s parties were often terrifying.   

At his little get togethers, Stalin employed the practice of conscribed drinking. In other words, he invited several higherups to dinner and then forced them to drink beyond their capacity. The motives behind this are manifold. First, it’s easier to gain the upper hand on someone who’s puking into some shrubs and trying not to slip off the planet. Rumors were that during the globally-significant Yalta Conference, Stalin would dump his vodka into the lemon trees he’d had shipped in for the occasion. This gave him a great advantage over his two booze-happy colleagues – Churchill and Roosevelt. Second, forcing your guests to drink beyond their means was Stalin’s twisted way of demanding loyalty. People did not want to face the political (or literal) exile that was very possible when they did not meet his expectations. When ending up as a rock painter in the reaches of Siberia was a real possibility, one could summon their courage to drink a few extra shots. What resulted was a sort of a liver-fueled game of Soviet leaders one-upping and humiliating each other. Khrushchev once ended up with the word ‘prick’ pinned to the back of his jacket. The Soviet leaders had a practice of tossing drunken politicians or bureaucrats into the pond on the dacha’s grounds. Politicos were so often chucked into the pond that the guards drained the pond. Third, forcing his guests to drink so much relieved Stalin’s paranoia. Stalin’s constant worry of “who is out to get me” was mollified by rendering those possibly out to get him into incontinent lawn ornaments.

Had someone asked me when I was twelve to describe a party of Soviet communist leaders, I would have laid it out pretty confidently. It was 1986 and TV had told me everything I needed to know about the Soviet Union. The parties would be filled with dour, unpleasant men in bleak rooms spitting harshly pronounced and violent words about how to beat Rocky Balboa. They drank vodka in plain water glasses. They raved about capitalism and the far superior USA. No communist on my TV ever smiled or ever said “Hey Ivan, how did little Drago do on his means of production exam?” And they definitely didn’t pin naughty words on their colleagues’ backs or throw them into ponds. They were terrifying, but in a whole different way.  

With that said, Stalin’s modus operandi looks humane when compared to those of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. These men forced their guests to drink and then took advantage of their unfiltered conversations. When ill-advised points were made, the worst could happen. Once when a guest was overheard saying that Ivan drank too much, he was slaughtered in church the next week. Refusing a drink wasn’t an option. A French ambassador was once arrested trying to leave one of Mr. The Great’s banquets sober. Ivan the Terrible once ran through a nobleman who refused to drink. You had to drink and hope for the best.

There’s no record as to whether Stalin forced his guests on February 28, 1953 to drink. He evidently drank Georgian wine. They said good night at about 5 or 6 a.m. When Stalin didn’t appear the next morning, everyone was afraid to wake him up. He remained on the floor in a puddle of his own urine until 10 o’clock that night. An ironic byproduct of being a dictator is that if something’s wrong nobody will come looking for you because they’re afraid you’re going to banish their family to the gulag. Another irony caught up with him that night too. He had been in poor health since suffering a series of strokes or a heart attack in 1945. In the years leading up to his death, the kremlin’s (mostly Jewish) doctors recommended that he take better care of his collapsing health. Instead of heeding this advice, he naturally saw this as a Jewish plot to remove him and took it as an opportunity to embark upon a campaign against Soviet Jews. In Stalin’s eyes, when everyone’s out to get you, paranoia’s just good thinking.  

He lingered for days, his blood pressure was so high that it read like a social security number. He finally died on March 5. Reactions varied. Apparently so many Russians tried to pay their respects that hundreds of people were crushed to death. The Ukrainians weren’t as broken up about it. The Stalin-ordered murder and exile of thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals, thinkers, and leaders had crippled Ukrainian society. And his orchestration of the horrendous Great Famine in the 1930s and the millions of subsequent deaths made him no hero in Ukraine. On March 5, 1953 a Ukrainian restaurant in Washington D.C. summed up the Ukraine’s feelings by celebrating ‘Happy Stalin’s Death’ with a free bowl of borscht to each diner. The Ukrainians underwent a national revival in the wake of his death and prospered more under Khrushchev. Though Stalin’s last years were plagued by paranoia and bad health and though his last days were unquestionably miserable and humiliating, to many he had not suffered enough.

Today we don’t celebrate Stalin’s death with borscht (but feel free), but a Ukrainian liquor called horilka. What came from an infusion of herbs, berries, roots in strong alcohol is now known as one of the purest alcoholic beverages in the world. While it is better chilled, beware not to chill it too much or the water will freeze to the bottle and you will be drinking pure booze and, according to our lesson of the day, be open to the whims of your local dictator. It is a drink fit for all occasions, but today we drink it to the downfall and death of Stalin and to the downfall and death of all dictators, past and present.      

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