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  • Peter McGuire

Stalin's Stampede of Slaughter

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Part 4 of a series on human stampedes and crushes

By the time of his death in 1953, Stalin had held absolute power in the USSR for three decades. In that time, he’d built a cult of personality that stressed brotherhood with the common man combined with unquestioning devotion to a narrow set of ideological principles. This cult involved intense personal devotion to the state as embodied by Stalin himself. In many ways, this was a development of the strategy the Tsars had pursued: the cultivation of personal devotion to a distant and benevolent ruler. The communist revolution defeated the short-lived democratic revolution long ago. The civil and political rights demanded of Nicholas II never materialized under the new order.

At the same time, Stalin was a personal savior to the Soviet peoples. A very real and visceral reason for many Soviets was that he’d rolled back the forces of Nazi Germany. The invasion reached within 15 miles of Moscow and subjected the most populated parts of the USSR to vicious war crimes. The horrors of the occupied Soviet Union for those years of World War 2 only hinted at the large-scale deportment, slaughter, and abuse planned for them by the Nazi regime. Many Soviets felt a significant debt to Stalin for saving them from this fate.

Upon his death, the suddenly-rudderless Soviet leadership praised Stalin’s achievements publicly while a brutal and bloody power struggle ensued behind the scenes. The potential successors leaped at the chance to associate themselves with The Great Leader one last time. This would be the funeral to end all funerals.

Soviet citizens flooded into Moscow as soon as Stalin’s death became public. The next day, March 6th, 1953, people flooded Trubnaya Square to view the Great Leader’s body. They channeled through a narrow boulevard that descended sharply until they found their path blocked by trucks and troops on horseback. Once the crowd was stopped, even temporarily, crowd turbulence set in and “whirlpools” of people began to form. People who were forced into window wells along the street were trampled quickly. Some were pressed onto iron bars on windows and were slowly, excruciatingly, stabbed through. Inhabitants of the lower floors of the buildings listened to the screams of the crushed and then the grinding, crunching of their bodies.

Police initially interpreted the crush as disobedience and responded aggressively. According to several reports, the crush could have been alleviated by simply moving the trucks that were blocking the boulevard, and when one of the trucks was destroyed by the pressure of the people, many bodies came tumbling over it. Eventually, police began lifting women and children from the crowd and evacuating them.

A vivid account of the crush comes from Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a major poet of the Kruschev era and critic of Stalinist repression. He wrote:

New streams poured into the human torrent from behind, increasing the pressure. The crowd turned into a monstrous whirlpool. I realized that I was being carried straight towards a traffic light. The post was coming relentlessly closer. Suddenly I saw that a young girl was being pushed against the post. Her face was distorted by a despairing scream which was inaudible among all the other screams and groans. A movement of the crowd drove me against the girl; I did not hear but felt with my body the cracking of her brittle bones as they were broken on the traffic light. I closed my eyes in horror, I could not bear the sight of her insanely bulging, childish blue eyes, and I was swept past. [...]

I was saved by my height. Short people were smothered alive. We were caught between the walls of houses on one side and a row of army trucks on the other.

‘Get the trucks out of the way!’ people howled. ‘Get them away!’

‘I can’t. I’ve got no instructions,’ a very young, fair, bewildered police officer shouted back from one of the trucks, almost crying with desperation. And people were being hurtled against the trucks by the crowd, and their heads smashed. The sides of the trucks were running with blood. All at once I felt a savage hatred for everything that had given birth to that ‘No instructions’ shouted at a moment when people were dying of someone’s stupidity. For the first time in my life I thought with hatred of the man we were burying. He could not be innocent of the disaster. It was the ‘No instructions’ that had caused the chaos and bloodshed at his funeral. Now I saw once and for all that it’s no good waiting for instructions if human lives are at stake — you must act.

Janitors worked all night long to clean up the mess of bodies and body parts. Apparently, the street was cleared up by morning. To reduce the official death toll, many of the dead were issued death certificates with natural causes of death. The number of dead eventually released by Krushev in 1962, a decade later, was 109. Estimates vary, but some reach upwards of 2 or 3 thousand casualties, comparable to the Khodynka Tragedy. Deaths were no doubt compounded by the slow response by authorities and total failure to provide first aid. Streets were completely blocked all over Moscow and surviving victims had to find their own way to hospitals.

Although images and videos of the funeral services were widely disseminated, the crush was successfully covered up for many years. To this day, little is known about it in English and the Soviet records remain unavailable. It’s likely that the same brutal authoritarianism that caused the crush will also prevent us from knowing its full details.

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