Newly released diaries kept by Alexander Myasnikov, one of Joseph Stalin’s personal physicians at the time of his death in 1953, claim that the Soviet leader – who was famed for his brutality and paranoia – may have suffered from a degenerative brain illness that impaired his decision-making and contributed to the ruthlessness of his rule.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953 at the age of 74 after suffering a stroke. Now excerpts from Myasnikov’s diaries, published for the first time in Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets on 21 April 2011 and subsequently quoted in UK newspaper The Independent, outline Myasnikov’s belief that:
“The major atherosclerosis [hardening of arteries] in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness – which had clearly been developing over a number of years – affected Stalin’s health, his character and his actions … Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid … I would suggest that the cruelty and suspicion of Stalin, his fear of enemies… was created to a large extent by atherosclerosis of the cerebral arteries. The country was being run, in effect, by a sick man”.
Myasnikov’s diary was thought to have been seized by the KGB when he died in 1965 but was recently recovered from the state archive by his family and is now set to be turned into a book called I Treated Stalin.
The causes of Stalin’s ruthless and murederous actions have long been debated by historians, with numerous factors suggested as having possibly influenced his later policies including genetics, an unhappy childhood and the suicide of his second wife in 1932. However, these new diary excerpts have given rise to fears that Myasnikov’s diagnosis may lead to new attempts to ‘whitewash’ Stalin – who is generally considered to be responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens during his rule 1928-1953 – by allowing pro-Stalin revisionists to claim that his actions were caused by his medical condition.
In truth, we’ll probably never know what it was that really made Stalin tick and the available evidence suggests that Stalin’s psyche was far too complex to be explained by any single cause. Even if Myasnikov’s diagnosis suggests that medical factors may have contributed to the cruelty and paranoia Stalin displayed, particularly during the latter years of his rule, he also suggests that Stalin’s condition would have ‘exaggerated’ pre-existing character traits. So even if his illness may have exacerbated certain aspects of his personality, from his early years as a Bolshevik revolutionary and through the cunning tactics which allowed him to rise to power after Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin clearly always demonstrated that he had the capacity for violence and ruthlessness when he deemed it necessary.
Plans for the construction of a new monument to celebrate German reunification have caused some controversy.
The winning design, unveiled earlier this week, was the culmination of a controversial 12 year process involving two public bids for design submissions for a memorial to celebrate the peaceful revolution of 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990. Chosen by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann and approved by a parliamentary committee, the new monument will cost €10m (£8.76m, $14 million USD) and is expected to be built over the next two to three years. The new memorial will occupy a central site in Berlin, near the soon to be rebuilt Berlin Palace, which was destroyed by the SED to make way for a new communist-era German parliament. The square outside the building was also the site of peaceful mass demonstrations in the lead up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
The winning design, entitled ‘Citizens Movement’, was designed by Stuttgart designers Milla & Partner in conjunction with Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz, as a 55 metre long, 330 tonne tilting steel dish. The dish will be inscribed with the slogans ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (we are the people) and “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people) and adorned with engravings depicting scenes from the 1989 revolution.
Rather than a passive monument, the dish is deliberately designed to encourage active engagement and popular participation, with people encouraged to physically climb onto the structure. The construction is designed to tip from side to side and will be set in motion by visitors’ movement. It can hold up to 1400 people but requires 20 people to start moving, representative of ‘people coming together’ as was the case in the 1989 revolution and 1991 re-unification.
German culture minister, Bernd Neumann, said that the new memorial “will not be a dead monument but one … that allows citizens to participate”, while Johannes Miller, one of the architects behind ‘Citizens Movement’, also issued a statement emphasizing the populist sentiment behind the design:
“The rest of the world’s monuments are built to be looked at. “This monument isn’t just an object to look at. It should be entered and set in motion. That movement is only possible when a large group of visitors cooperate. With this concept, it’s the people who’ll make it into something. Maybe they’ll use it for theatre, or like Speaker’s Corner, or skaters will use it. The people will make it their own.”
However the monument has attracted criticism. Viewed as something of a gimmick in certain quarters, it has been described in derogatory terms by much of the German and international media; quickly dubbed ‘a giant fruit bowl’, ‘a baby rocker’ and a ‘playground for grown ups’. Critics have also claimed that the monument is a safety hazard and, in a city already filled with memorials, superfluous. However, the announcement made earlier this week also led to calls from Roland Jahn (former dissident and current head of the Stasi Archive) for construction of a further memorial, this time dedicated to victims of repression in the former GDR.
Journalist Christian Bangel goes further, claiming that the memorial represents an ‘imbalanced unity’, symbolic of German failure to adequately come to terms with re-unification in the last twenty years. While acknowledging that, on the surface the memorial represents a ‘fun idea’, in an article published in Zeit Online, he claims that:
“The memorial leaves out any sense of the process of reunification – the problems, the friction, and yes, the sense of marginalization that many East Germans still feel. It’s very possible that this memorial will one day be seen as a symbol of the failure to confront the ghosts of East Germany … and why bother to build a memorial anyway? We already have a monument that symbolizes division, change and unity the world over: the Brandenburg Gate”.
Finally: “Citizens Movement” was not the only monument to be unveiled in Germany this week – a memorial in memory of Paul the Octopus, who became an unlikely star of the 2010 World Cup after successfully predicting the outcome of eight matches by choosing mussels from boxes labelled with the flags of rival teams, was also unveiled at the aquarium in Germany where he lived until his death in October 2010. The tribute to Paul, part of a new exhibition in Octopus Garden, shows a very large Paul with his tentacles hanging over a football which is patterned with different national flags!
27 June 2011: A recent article, ‘Rocking Remembrance‘ by Dr. Karl Schlogel, written for ‘Slow Travel Berlin’ in reference to the planned memorial to unfication, contains some interesting perspectives.
Footage appearing to show Czech President Vaclav Klaus slyly pocketing a ceremonial pen during a meeting with his Chilean counterpart Sebastián Piñera has become a global internet sensation, receiving over 1.5 million hits on YouTube. Filmed during a recent news conference to announce a new trade agreement, the video clip shows Klaus removing the pen – which was encrusted with semi-precious Chilean lapis lazuili stones – from its case and clearly admiring it before drawing it under the table and seemingly attempting to pocket it without anyone noticing!
The online furore created by the footage led to statements from both Presidential offices, claiming that Klaus hadn’t behaved inappropriately. Klaus responded by claiming that he ‘takes stuff all the time’ with previous hauls including ‘a pen from a Nato summit in October and a notepad from the Latvian parliament’. Radim Ochvat, Klaus’s spokesman, stressed that the President was entitled to take the pen, which was ‘a pen with a logo of the state or office, which presidents and members of their delegation receive during state visits’, adding that ‘We at the Prague Castle always give such a pen to delegations, along with a notepad’. This was followed by a statement from Piñera’s office, confirming that ‘guests of the President were free to take the ceremonial pens as gifts’. However official ‘clarification’ hasn’t prevented a number of satirical responses to the ‘theft’ such as this cartoon by Sergei Velkin at RIA Novosti and the establishment of a Czech facebook group backing a campaign for people to send pens to Klaus at Prague Castle as ‘their president obviously has nothing to write with’!
Aceeptance of a legitimate gift? Or a hangover from the communist period when petty pilfering was viewed as the norm? Watch the footage below to decide for yourself!
This week heralded two significant dates in the history of modern Poland. 10 April saw the first anniversary of the 2010 Smolensk air crash, widely regarded as the worst national disaster to befall Poland since World War Two and resulting in the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other victims, including many members of the Polish political and military elite. Today (13 April) also marks 68 years since German radio announced the discovery of mass graves in the nearby Katyn forest in 1943, the result of a brutal cull of almost 22,000 Polish army officers carried out by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940. One year on from the Smolensk crash, Poland is still grieving, but attempts to commemorate Poland’s most recent tragedy have been overshadowed by political tensions and rising anti-Russian sentiment, which also threatens to re-open older historical wounds.
The Fateful Legacy of Katyn
Despite occurring 70 years apart, the two tragedies are indelibly connected in the minds of most Polish people. On 10 April 2010, when his plane crashed after hitting trees while attempting to land in thick fog just outside the Russian city of Smolensk, Lech Kaczynski was leading a Polish delegation on their way to a memorial service to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Even placed into a much longer historical tradition of antagonistic Polish-Russian relations dating back at least as far as the Middle Ages, Katyn remains a particularly painful episode in Polish history due to the subsequent level of Soviet disinformation about the tragedy. As Anna Berezowska recently surmised, even today, ‘For Poles, a single image is conjoured when we visualise Katyn: lies’ .
Throughout the post-war period, the Soviets continued to deny any responsibility for the Katyn massacre, claiming instead that it had been carried out by the German army, who had subsequently occupied the area and then used by Hitler as propaganda in an attempt to discredit the USSR. In Poland, the communist authorities forbade any public discussion of Katyn and while many Poles remained convinced of Soviet culpability, to openly express such beliefs was a punishable offence. It was only in 1990 that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacre. In recent years more comprehensive evidence has emerged from the Soviet archives, finally resulting in the online publication in April 2010 of documentation dated 5 March 1940, confirming that the massacre had been carried out by the NKVD on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In November 2010 the Russian State Duma also formally recognised the massacre as a ‘crime of the Stalin regime’, and since the Smolensk disaster last April, Moscow has made more than 137 volumes of documents relating to the Katyn massacre available to Warsaw, although over 40 other volumes have yet to be sent, a process which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently promised to complete.
Despite the development of a more open dialogue between the two states in the post-communist period, neither side has been willing or able to fully face up to the legacy of Katyn, which continues to cast a long shadow over Polish-Russian relations. Only a few days before the fateful crash in August 2010, the first joint Polish-Russian memorial took place at the Katyn cemetery, attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Transcripts of the speech Lech Kaczynski was due to give in Smolensk also acknowledged that Katyn had ‘poisoned relations between Russians and Poles for many decades’.
In the aftermath of the Smolensk crash, hopes were raised about the potential for further rapprochement and the possibility of healing old wounds. Current Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski has urged ‘healing rather than recrimination’ in response to the tragedy, and earlier this week, in a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, Komorowski and Medvedev laid wreaths at the crash site before bowing their heads to observe a minute of silence as a solo bugle mournfully sounded. This was followed by a visit to Katyn itself, to commemorate the victims of the 1940 massacre. This display of togetherness was swiftly followed by an announcement about the formation of a new ‘Centre for Dialogue and Understanding’, to be based at twin sites in Moscow and Warsaw, with the aim of ‘promoting projects conducive to a dialogue in Polish-Russian relations’. According to a statement on President Komorowski’s website, the Centre aims to help overcome ‘barriers and stereotypes [and] help to counter the dangerous attempts to falsify history’, which continue to threaten relations between the two countries.
Despite conciliatory gestures from both sides however, some wounds are proving hard to heal. A Russian investigation into the Smolensk crash concluded in January 2011 by blaming the crew for attempting to land the plane in adverse weather conditions despite warnings from Russian air traffic controllers on the ground in Smolensk, claiming they may have come under pressure to land from Lech Kaczynski himself. This verdict has proved controversial however, and many Poles have refused to accept the investigative findings, criticising Russian handing of the disaster and blaming bad communication and lack of support from ground controllers for the crash. Questions have been asked about why the airport remained open, if landing conditions were so bad. Some even subscribe to more extreme conspiracy theories: it has been alleged that the Russians artificially created the fog and gave the pilots misleading information in order to deliberately bring the plane down, a theory that has also been publicised by the Polish media. While only a small minority really believe that the crash was not accidental – 8% according to one recent poll – the same poll indicated that 78% of respondents did not consider the circumstances around the crash to have been adequately resolved and supported further, more independent investigation into events. An alternative Polish-led investigation is currently underway, but the investigators say they are still waiting to receive important documentation from Russia.
Papering Over the Cracks?
One year on, the organisation of commemorative events to mark the first anniversary of the Smolensk crash have highlighted deep divisions within Poland and cast a shadow over recent attempts to improve Polish-Russian relations. Official commemoration of the anniversary began at 08.41am on 10 April, as Polish politicians, flanked by crowds, gathered at Warsaw cathedral to mark the time that the plane crashed in Smolensk. However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (the late Lech Kaczynski’s twin-brother and current leader of the main opposition ‘Law and Justice Party’), who has declared that Russia are ‘directly responsible’ for the crash and that the victims have been ‘betrayed’ by the current Polish government, boycotted the official ceremonies, choosing instead to hold his own ‘unofficial’ ceremony, laying a wreath outside Warsaw’s Presidential Palace, in a gesture of defiance that was supported by a 3000 strong crowd holding nationalist banners and shouting “Here is Poland!”. The weekend before the official commemoration a 2000 strong protest also took place in Warsaw, with one Polish man arrested after burning an effigy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian embassy. This has fuelled fears that the ‘politicisation’ of the Smolensk tragedy in Poland is reawakening traditional suspicions of Russia and undermining still fragile attempts to build closer relations between the two states.
When in power, Lech Kaczysnski was a divisive political figure due to his conservative nationalist agenda and despite a genuine outpouring of grief in the aftermath of the fateful crash, controversial proposals to bury Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow soon split popular opinion. His death, particularly under such tragic circumstances, has also proved divisive, leading to charges that some parties in Poland are using the tragedy for their own political ends. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in particular, has been accused of using the death of his brother to exploit ‘Russophobia’ in Poland and gain political leverage. The imminent prospect of an election by October 2011 – and a recent poll putting Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice party just 4% behind Donald Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform in the polls, gaining 28% and 32% respectively – have led to charges that Jaroslaw was effectively using this week’s commemorations to launch his own election campaign.
Now, a new squabble has broken out over the Smolensk crash site, after Russian authorities replaced a Polish plaque placed by relatives of the victims in November 2010 which referred to the 1940 deaths as a ‘genocide’ with a dual-language plaque that omits any mention of Katyn. Russian authorities have since claimed the original plaque was replaced because Russian law prohibits memorials written solely in a foreign language and in an attempt to quell rising tensions Medvedev and Komorowski have announced that a joint Russian-Polish panel will be set up to design a mutually acceptable commemorative plaque which will permanently mark the site.
Celebrations are being held today to mark the 50th Anniversary of the first successful manned space flight. At 09.07 am (Moscow Time) on 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off into orbit around the earth uttering the word ‘Poyekhali’ (‘Here We Go’); thus ushering in the era of human space flight. In the fifty years since Gagarin’s pioneering journey, more than 500 other men and women have followed him into space.
Yuri Gagarin spent a total of 108 minutes in space, before making a safe re-entry and landing after he bailed out from his capsule and parachuted to earth near the Volga river. His first words back on the ground reported that he was well and had no injuries, before receiving official congratulations from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The success of Gagarin’s flight was a major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, following on from their successful launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the Soviet press made much of the fact that Gagarin was ‘the son of humble peasants’ (his parents worked on a collective farm).
Archival documents released in the post-comunist period have demonstrated that Soviet desperation to beat the Americans by putting a man in space led to a number of technical ‘short cuts’ before the launch. There was no time for the development of safety precautions in case of fire or failure to launch, for example. The Soviets were thus taking something of a gamble by going ahead with the launch on 12 April and the success of Gagarin’s flight was by no means assured. Two days before take off, engineers removed some of the electronics from the Vostok to lighten the craft (including sensors for monitoring temperature and pressure levels), after belatedly realising that the combined weight of Gagarin, his spacesuit and his seat was 14 kilograms over the allowed limit. This ‘tinkering’ caused a short circuit which was hurridly patched up the night before the launch. During the flight itself, Gagarin was also beset by a series of malfunctions: portions of the control system failed 156 seconds after lift off; the engine switched off 15 seconds too late; Gagarin struggled to open the breathing valve in his spacesuit after a cord became tangled and towards the end of the flight the temperature in the capsule rose to such a degree that he almost lost consciousness.
The Soviet gamble paid off however, and after the success of his space flight, Gagarin was awarded numerous medals, including that of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. He became an international celebrity, appearing on the cover of TIME magazine on 21 April 1961, and travelled widely abroad but remained most feted within the Soviet Union, where he attained heroic standing. Numerous monuments were erected to honour his achievement and streets were named after him in many Soviet cities. Gzhatsk, the town where he spent much of his childhood, was even renamed Gagarin.
However, Gagarin never returned to space. The success of his initial mission and his heroic status made him too valuable for the Soviets to risk losing. Instead he began re-training as a fighter pilot and became deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow, which was founded in his honour.
Gagarin was killed in 1968 during a flight training exercise and his ashes were buried in the Kremlin walls on Red Square. His memory lived on however, providing enduring inspiration for Soviet pop culture with commemorative postage stamps, watchbands, music, posters, cards and coins dedicated to preserving his image:
Yuri Gagarin’s popularity and heroic standing have survived the collapse of the USSR unscathed and his achivements remain widely celebrated today. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently described Gagarin’s flight as a ‘revolutionary’ event that changed the world and 50th anniversary celebrations in Russia today will be marked by a number of ceremonies, parties and an honorary 50-gun salute at the Kremlin.
To see the world ‘through Gagarin’s eyes’ as it were, you can watch this wonderful film; First Orbit, which provides a minute by minute recreation of Gagarin’s flight using original mission radio communication, synchronous footage of the Earth shot from the International Space Station and accompanied by a beautiful original composition by Philip Sheppard:
More information about First Orbit can be found here:
The Guardian Newspaper also has a webpage which allows you to ‘Follow Yuri Gagarin’, hosting the First Orbit video and also accompanied by a full written record of communications between Gagarin and Ground Control here:
The BBC have a page dedicated to Gagarin here:
To hear more about Gagarin’s enduring cultural legacy in the USSR, watch the short video, ‘Jukebox Hero: Yuri Gagarin’s Pop Culture Legacy’, by RFE/RL here:
Finally, Google have also celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight with the creation of a special ‘Google doodle’ on 12 April 2011!