On Saturday, September 23, 1933, Adolf Hitler was at a ceremony in Frankfurt with a shovel in his hands. He symbolically scooped up a shovelful of earth. This was the groundbreaking that began construction of the German autobahn. Over a thousand miles away, Josef Stalin was on holiday at Sukhumi on the Black Sea. He went out on the sea in a motor yacht, the Red Army. He was going to do a bit of hunting and shooting while enjoying the balmy weather. Along for this expedition was Stalin’s bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik. It was a good thing for Stalin that Vlasik was on board, he would need him.
Google the phrase “assassination attempts hitler” and the search engine will find 165,000 results. Google the phrase “assassination attempts stalin” and it finds 79,000 results. Stalin garners less than half the results of Hitler. This is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Hitler was in power for 12 years (1933 – 1945), Stalin for 29 years (1924 -1953), two and a half times longer. How did Stalin avoid attempts on his life? Wikipedia has a dedicated page for “Assassination attempts on Hitler.” It not only lists 27 attempts from 1934 – 1945, but also includes bullet points noting that there were at least 10 attempts on the fuhrer’s life in just 1933 alone and prior to his ascension of the chancellorship, in the pre-1933 years, there were another four attempts. Several other Wikipedia pages are dedicated to entire plots and conspiracies, the most famous being Operation Valkyrie, where Hitler barely escaped death following an explosion at his headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, in East Prussia. Hitler had a lot of enemies gunning for him. As we are all well aware, Hitler looms large in the historical imagination. His life, both professional and private, has been dissected countless times. It is little surprise that the innumerable attempts to assassinate him have been so assiduously documented.
The same cannot be said of Stalin. There is little evidence that assassination attempts were carried out against him. There is a good reason for this historical anomaly. Stalin created the prototypical secret society. During peacetime the Soviet Union was just as closed off as North Korea is today. There is one distinct difference though, because the Soviet Union played an outsize role in world historical events, the rise of Communism, World War II and the Cold War, it was heavily scrutinized by the outside world. It was forced to interact with the international community because it was either a Great Power or post-World War II, a superpower. One would think that if attempts had occurred against Stalin’s life, by now they would have come to light.
There is no doubt that Stalin had bitter enemies and even when he got rid of almost all of them, he created many others with his pathological paranoia. Enemies of the state were an integral part of the Stalinist system. Despite the seemingly unending plots against him by real or imagined enemies there is barely any record of Stalin dodging bombs, bullets, knives or poison. This does not mean, it didn’t happen, but for whatever reason – lack of archival resources, plots snuffed out before they really got going or would be assassins rounded up in the periodic purges – any attempts have not survived through the historical record. Why is this so? Keep in mind, that as soon as Hitler fell from power in 1945 the western world immediately had access to the copious documentation kept by the Germans. In contrast, after Stalin’s death in 1953, it would be nearly forty years before the Russian state would allow access to Soviet archives. Even after the communist system disintegrated in the early 1990’s, access was somewhat limited by the political ramifications of “secrets” possibly coming to light. Now with Putin in firm control of the Kremlin, access is once again being denied. Who knows what secrets lie buried deep within the Russian state archives. They may exist, but may never come to light.
One attempt on Stalin’s life that may have occurred took place while he was vacationing in the sub-tropical climes of Abkhazia along the Black Sea. This area was favored by Stalin and his Soviet henchman as a respite from the nerve jangling business of revolutionizing the Soviet Union. This attempt is mentioned in at least two English language history books: Robert Service’s Stalin: A Biography and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. This being Soviet history, it would not be right if it was a simple open and shut case of a failed assassination. Instead it has the usual bizarre twist that call into question whether it was a real attempt, an accidental attempt or a setup. Since the main subject is Stalin, we should not be shocked by the intrigue. Yet on the surface the attempt is relatively straightforward.
Stalin, Vlasik and the boat’s captain took off from a specially constructed jetty that was below the dictator’s dacha (vacation villa) at Museri in Abkhazia. Both Stalin and Vlasik had their arms at hand. While skimming across the water just off the coastline, they suddenly heard gunfire (Service states that it was rifle fire, Montefiorre says machine gun fire). Vlasik quickly pushed Stalin to the deck and covered him. Vlasik returned fire as the boat motored out into the open sea. Neither man was struck. The boat showed no damage and the firing ceased just as quickly as it had arisen. The action was over in less than a minute, but the suspicion was just beginning.
Stalin is said to have first believed that it was nothing more than a martial greeting from nearby Georgian villagers. Given a bit of time though his thoughts changed. A man with a mind as paranoid as Stalin’s was not going to settle on such psychological naiveté. He later got a letter from Soviet border guards who admitted they had done the shooting. They had mistakenly believed the boat held foreigners who were trying to create a disturbance. Thus, they had dutifully fired on the watercraft. The man who would eventually come to lead Stalin’s secret police, the sadomasochist Lavrenti Beria, led an investigation. Though he seems to have corroborated the border guard’s tale (they were only given reprimands), Beria also encouraged suspicion of the man who had organized the outing, the chief communist official in Abkhazia, Nestor Lakoba. This was done to harm Lakoba’s relationship with Stalin while at the same time bringing Beria even closer to Stalin. It worked.
Along with Vlasik, Beria gained greater trust from Stalin. Here we have an instance of the insidious court politics of Stalin’s inner circle. These were men who sacrificed anyone and anything in their ambitious lust for power. To add an element of Caucasian intrigue to the whole episode (all involved except for Vlasik were from the Caucasus), there is an additional speculation that cannot be ruled out. Beria may have set the whole thing up. And why not, he both hated and feared Lakoba. Less than four years later, Beria would have Lakoba over for dinner in Tblisi. Almost immediately afterwards, Lakoba fell violently ill, between nauseous episodes, he was said to have muttered that Beria had poisoned him. He may have been right. His death the next day is the strongest circumstantial evidence.
As for the border guards, at first they seem to have gotten off miraculously easy. Not so fast. Stalin was not one ever to forget a possible betrayal. In the ensuing years, when Stalin’s great purges began, the case was exhumed. The guards were then punished much more harshly and in line with Stalinist justice. They were shipped off to Siberia where they met a very bad end.
And what of our principal character in this episode, the dictator Josef Stalin. Like so many of the intrigues he was a part of during his rule, he almost gets forgotten in the incomprehensibly complex web of deceit. Make no mistake, Stalin would have been well aware of all the main players in his death defying drama. He would have seen to it personally that his brand of justice was carried out. On the corpses, we find his fingerprints. He signed off on Lakoba’s murder. He triggered the purges which swept the border guards away in a whirlwind of terror.
Soviet history is filled with dark ironies. Beria, the man who investigated this case, the man who saw to Lakoba’s murder personally, may also have been involved in the death of Stalin. Many believe that the great intriguer Stalin, may have been poisoned in a plot overseen by Beria nearly twenty years after the incident off the coast of Abkhazia. Of course this is all mere speculation. The truth may be hidden somewhere in the Soviet archives or it may never be known. When it comes to Stalin everything is a secret or a conspiracy. The truth is a moving target, like Stalin in the boat that day, it’s very hard to hit the mark.