5 of Stalin's closest comrades - and what happened to them

Pictured L-R: Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov, 1937

Pictured L-R: Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov, 1937

Getty Images; Alexander Rodchenko/MAMM/MDF/russiainphoto.ru
At various times during his reign, Uncle Joe trusted these guys almost as much as himself; he created a cult around them, naming streets, cities, and, in one case, even the Moscow Metro after them. But theirs was a precarious existence, and not all remained in favor for long.

1. Lazar Kaganovich (1893-1991)

Lazar Kaganovich (L) and Joseph Stalin

It was Lenin who first trusted Kaganovich with positions of high responsibility. The industrious, hard-nosed Lazar was appointed by Stalin to implement the most important state tasks: collectivization, railway construction, and the rebuilding of Moscow, including the new subway system. Until 1955, the legendary Moscow Metro was in fact named after Kaganovich, and only later Lenin.

As a manager and overseer, Kaganovich’s preferred method was fear. He actively rooted out "wreckers" in all areas, and even viewed train drivers as potential spies.

It was Kaganovich who accelerated Khrushchev's party career, but after Stalin's death he did not support Khrushchev for the position of head of state. That is perhaps why Khrushchev later accused Kaganovich of complicity in the purges and Stalinist terror, ousted him from the Soviet leadership, and then stripped him of party membership.

For the last 30 years of his life, Kaganovich cut an isolated figure. Everyone turned their collective back on this once all-powerful man. Yet to the very end he remained faithful to his convictions and personally to Stalin.

Read more about Kaganovich here

2. Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986)

Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin

The first of the Bolsheviks that Molotov got to know was Stalin. And so naturally, after Lenin's death, he supported the moustachioed one in the internal party power struggle that ensued. In turn, Stalin entrusted Molotov with the key areas of defense, industrialization, and economic growth. He was also responsible for the overly ambitious five-year plans, and together with Kaganovich carried out collectivization. Molotov also signed the death warrants of those that the party considered to be harmful members of society.

READ MORE: The human cost of Soviet five-year plans

Internationally, Molotov is best known as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in which capacity in 1939 he concluded a non-aggression pact with Germany, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; he was entrusted by Stalin with all diplomatic negotiations during WWII.

After the death of Stalin, Molotov led the internal party struggle against Khrushchev. But when the latter consolidated his grip on power, he removed Molotov, like Kaganovich, from all positions of power for his role in the crimes of the Stalinist regime.

However, in 1986, Molotov achieved reinstatement as the oldest party member; that same year he died just shy of his 97th birthday.

Read more about Molotov here

3. Sergey Kirov (1886-1934)

Sergey Kirov, Joseph Stalin and Stalin's daughter Svetlana

In the opinion of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's favorite was Sergey Kirov. Kirov joined the Bolsheviks only after the October Revolution of 1917. Prior to that, he was linked to the Mensheviks, the rival wing of the party. It was rare for Stalin to forgive such past allegiances, and many “oppositionists” paid with their lives. However, Stalin personally defended Kirov from the attacks of other party members, and entrusted him with membership of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, effectively making him one of the country’s top dogs.

With little authority among the rest of the party leadership, Kirov made up for it with charisma and oratorical skills. He gave speeches to factory workers, who accepted him as one of their own. He behaved modestly and smiled broadly.

Then, in 1934, he was shot dead outside his office in Leningrad. The killer was detained, but the motives behind the murder remain a mystery to this day. It is also unknown whether the hitman acted alone or on the orders of a higher-up, allegedly Stalin himself. In any case, Stalin exploited the moment to root out opponents and supporters of his former party rival Zinoviev. Although it is unclear whether there was a conspiracy, the murder of Kirov was followed by a wave of repressions and executions of all who fell under suspicion. According to historians, this marked the start of the Great Terror. 

4. Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1969)

Kliment Voroshilov (L) and Joseph Stalin

Voroshilov holds the record for time spent in the upper echelons of power: more than 34 years in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. During the Russian Civil War, he commanded an entire army on the southern front. He was also responsible for establishing order in revolutionary Petrograd, and, together with Felix Dzerzhinsky, was a founding father of the Cheka (the extraordinary commission for combating counter-revolution), the predecessor of both the NKVD and the KGB.

One of Stalin's most loyal associates, he sided with the latter in the internal party struggle that followed Lenin's demise. Later, he wrote a book entitled Stalin and the Red Army, in which he eulogized Stalin's role in the Civil War. He was one of the first marshals of the Soviet Union, carried out military reforms, and served as Minister of Defense. As one of Stalin’s inner circle, he, like many of his other associates, signed execution warrants and purged army commanders.

After Stalin's death, for seven years Voroshilov served as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, officially the main position in the country (although the de facto leader was the party’s general secretary). He lived to a ripe old age as a party member and Soviet leader. Voroshilov was one of the few associates of Stalin to be buried by the Kremlin wall. 

5. Lavrenty Beria (1899-1953)

Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria and Stalin's daughter Svetlana on his lap

Having become a Bolshevik in 1917, during the Civil War Beria joined the Azerbaijan branch of the Cheka. As a professional chekist (security officer) he was responsible for keeping order in the newly created Georgian SSR and throughout the entire Caucasus region. He performed this same task in the NKVD, eventually working his way into the party elite.

Beria was the one closest to Stalin in the final years of the leader's life. He constantly visited his home and dacha, and there are many surviving photos of Beria with Stalin's family.

Beria was in charge of the Soviet Union’s nuclear program, as well as the mass deportation of peoples accused of collaborating with Hitler in the occupied territories. It was Beria who oversaw the assassination of Trotsky, and identified and purged “foreign agents” and “spies” nationwide. What's more, he was rumored to be a sex pest, luring and raping young women, and threatening them or their relatives with reprisals if they resisted.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Beria was arrested and convicted of crimes against innocent persons and of anti-Soviet conspiracies (many of which were historical and poorly evidenced). He was shot that same year.

Read more about Beria here.

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