In February 1946, Air Marshall Novikov, who had been commander of the Soviet Air Force, was arrested. The Soviet secret police brutally interrogated him, accusing him of various offenses, including the crime of not developing sufficiently reliable planes. But the interrogators kept coming back to one question: what were his dealings with Marshall Zhukov , the great Soviet war hero?
Stalin had grown to resent Zhukov and had witnessed how friendly he was with General Eisenhower , the visiting American commander. Stalin hoped to rewrite the history of the war to eliminate his own errors and exaggerate his military role, and Zhukov was taking too much of the limelight.
Bowing to pressure from the secret police, Novikov at last “confessed” that he was “guilty of crimes committed in the Air Force.” He also called Zhukov “an exceptionally power-loving and narcissistic individual” who was “not afraid of inflating his own role during the war as a senior commander.”
At a meeting of the Soviet Union’s main military council in June, Zhukov was charged with, among other things, taking too much credit for winning the war. Stalin, who had previously condemned his close associates to torture and death, simply told Zhukov, “You must leave Moscow for a while.” Zhukov was lucky.
Two years later, Stalin targeted the man who had been at his side during the entire war, Vyacheslav Molotov . Molotov had been the most loyal of Stalin’s followers, yet Stalin had long distrusted Molotov’s wife, Polina Semyonovna, who was Jewish and had a brother in Palestine and a sister in the United States. Accusing her of acting in a politically inappropriate manner for associating with Jewish nationalists, Stalin called for a vote to expel her from the party. Molotov knew that to vote his wife out of the party would be just the first stage of her persecution. At a Politburo meeting on December 29, 1948, he had to decide whether or not to condemn his own wife. He abstained from the vote. Although the evidence against her was suspect, Semyonovna was arrested less than a month later.
In January 1949 Molotov wrote a note to Stalin apologizing for his abstention and for not working to prevent his wife from her errant ways. Stalin fired him as foreign minister two months later, but Molotov carried on serving the Soviet leader loyally in the Politburo while his wife suffered in exile.
“When Stalin believed that something was in his own interests, he could be cruel and merciless, even towards the people closest to him. When I was Molotov’s assistant I could see the way he treated Molotov. [Stalin] sent [Semyonovna] first to prison, and then she was sent into exile. She was away for more than three years.”– Vladimir Yerofeyev, Molotov’s assistant
Stalin now decided to punish the entire leadership of the city of Leningrad, today called St. Petersburg. During the war, Leningrad had been under siege, more than a million people had died, and the city’s wartime leaders had been cut off from direct central party control in Moscow. Yet this isolation had also brought local Soviet officials, like Alexei Kuznetsov, a kind of freedom.
Leningrad was finally liberated in January 1944, and Kuznetsov was recognized as one of the brightest of a new generation of Communist leaders. As far as Stalin was concerned, that meant he was dangerous. Stalin brought Kuznetsov to work in Moscow after the war. Then, one day in the summer of 1949, Kuznetsov was summoned to the Kremlin where he was tortured and shot. Stalin had not forgotten the sense of initiative and independence that had developed in Leningrad during the war. Against the backdrop of his 70th birthday celebrations, Stalin had two thousand Leningrad officials removed from office and imprisoned or exiled.