761.13/6–2052: Telegram

No. 513
The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Department of State

top secret

2051. For very guarded and limited distribution. With regard to Bucharest 507 to Dept of June 181 about rumors concerning Stalin, removal of Stalin’s pictures etc., hope to submit later in summer careful study of top personnel situation here. But thought it might be useful at this time to sum up very briefly my impressions to date for benefit limited circle of top officials our govt.

There is no recent reliable evidence concerning composition of Politburo and mutual relationships between its members. Insofar as statements and behavior of Soviet power permit us to make guesses at situation, I see evidence which leads me to believe that Stalin’s personality is still making itself felt from time to time in formulation and conduct Soviet policy. Recurrence of certain phrases and extremisms in Sov propaganda appear to represent genuine Stalin touch. Sov press still cites Stalin copiously and with reverence, and his recent Victory Day messages to satellite leaders constituted official confirmation here of his continued existence and exercise of office of Prime Minister. On other hand, there [Page 1015] seems to me to be considerable evidence that his participation in public affairs is sporadic and relatively superficial as compared with period before and during the war. There are indications in Sov actions of divided councils, indecisions and inability on part of action-taking officials to get clear directives from superiors. I do not get impression of complete one-man dominance which characterized Sov policies some years ago. Hypothesis occasionally broached in foreign circles (see Svandze’s articles in Fr magazine Réaltiés) that Stalin has in recent years required Politburo to take action by majority vote when he is not present or available seems to me, for numerous reasons, to be quite plausible. Such an arrangement wld account for much of the hesitation and indecision visible in Sov policy.

There are occasional evidences, but unmistakable ones, that the bets of informed members of the higher party and police bureaucracy are running toward Malenkov as most likely person to emerge in position of decisive authority as Stalin’s authority wanes or is eclipsed by death. These indications as I said, are unmistakable, but I think we wld be wrong to assume that these people really know and are necessarily placing their bets on the right horse. Kremlin politics are tricky in the extreme. My own guess would be that mere appearance of these indications, which cannot fail to have been carefully noted by all members of Politburo including Stalin, render Malenkov’s position at this moment extremely delicate and dangerous, and constitute a burden rather than a boon to his chances for succession. We shld not be surprised if we see him overtaken by catastrophe before this coming denouement is complete.

While we do not have evidence that Molotov has ever aspired to Number One position, and while it wld indeed seem somewhat contrary to his character and habits, it may be that circumstances, above all perhaps his own impeccable caution, will lead him into it.

One more thing: foreigners often assume it is only Stalin’s death that cld plunge Politburo into state of acute internal crisis. I wld warn against this. It might be precisely a death among the leading aspirants to power: Malenkov, Molotov, Beria, perhaps Bulganin, which wld have most unsettling and unexpected effects. Whims and vicissitudes of nature seem to me to have spared this body of men for abnormally long time. It is time nature began to play her usual tricks, and their effects may well be quite different from anything any of us have anticipated.

  1. This telegram reported that unconfirmed rumors and reports were circulating that the party organizations had been instructed to deemphasize Stalin and that Molotov and Vyshinsky would soon replace Stalin. One report indicated that party orders had been issued to remove Stalin’s pictures from public display. (Microfilm Moscow telegrams, FY 53)