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Prominent Russians: Mikhail Kalinin

November 19, 1875 - June 3, 1946

Mikhail Kalinin was the nominal head of state from 1919-1946 in the USSR. Not having any real political power, he was the symbol of the people’s power, coming from a peasant background, and was nicknamed the All-Union Headman by the press.

Humble origins

Mikhail Kalinin was born into a peasant family in the Tver region near Moscow in 1875. After getting an elementary education, Kalinin was sent to work as a page boy for the owner of the neighboring estate. The mistress of the estate moved to Saint Petersburg in 1889, and took the young Kalinin with her to work as her servant. As the boy was literate, he took to the abundant library of his mistress, which furthered his education during this time.

In 1895, however, he left the estate and went to work at a factory where he got involved in various workers’ protest groups and underground circles. These links to the worker’s vocation and illegal protest circles were essential elements of any future Bolshevik’s biography. Kalinin was no exception – for the next 20 years this became the basic formula of his life.

Because of his active role in organizing protests and strikes, he was frequently arrested and exiled only to gain more and more respect in the eyes of his peers upon his return. So in 1898 he joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and became a candidate for the governing Central Committee shortly after the Bourgeois Revolution of 1905. A year later he was sent as a representative to the 4th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in Sweden.

Perhaps Kalinin would have remained merely an active Bolshevik all his life had it not been for a key acquaintance he made while being in one of his many exiles in Tsarist Russia. In the early 1900’s Kalinin was exiled to the Caucasus town of Tiflis (the modern-day capital of Georgia, Tbilisi), where he met Stalin’s future father-in-law and eventually became involved in the same opposition circle as Stalin. This factor changed the course of Kalinin’s future both politically and personally.

Kalinin’s evolution

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Kalinin was briefly the head of the city of Saint Petersburg, which by then had been renamed Petrograd.

Two years later, he was elected President of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. The election was preceded by an elaborate recommendation from Vladimir Lenin This comrade, who has twenty years of party work behind him is a peasant from Tver, and has close links with peasant farming… however, even the Petrograd workers have been convinced that he has the ability to approach wide layers of laboring masses.Peasant by birth and a factory worker by trade – Kalinin was the living symbol of the union between peasants and workers.

Сталин, Ленин и Калинин во время VIII съезда партии в марте 1919 года Stalin, Lenin and Kalinin in March 1919

In essence the title Kalinin held was in fact “head of state”, despite the fact that he couldn’t exercise any power in reality. Nevertheless, he was reelected as the head of the Presidiums of all eight USSR Soviet Congresses.

Kalinin’s evolution as a person ran parallel to the evolution of the Soviet state. He was Stalin’s biggest ally and supporter in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. Yet he refused to recognize Stalin’s power completely. But while he could still afford to disagree with Stalin in the 1920’s – the choice no longer was there once 1930’s came around. Defying Stalin, who had become an all-powerful dictator by then, would have been fatal.

Kalinin signed each and every decree legalizing Stalin’s unlawful and even barbaric actions: collectivization, arrests, and the death sentences of hundreds of thousands. However, he failed to protect the people closest to him in the face of the Red Terror.

The arrest of Kalinin’s wife

Kalinin met his first love in 1905 in St. Petersburg. Ekaterina Lorberg was seven years his junior, but was already an active revolutionary at only 23 – working at a textile factory in Estonia, she took part in the workers’ strikes. Escaping the Tsar’s police she fled to St. Petersburg, where she found likeminded friends and joined their circles.

Председатель ЦИК СССР Михаил Калинин с детьми в родной деревне. 1922 USSR Central Election Committee chairman, Mikhail Kalinin with children in his home village. 1922

Mikhail and Ekaterina married the following year. She was a faithful wife, bearing him two sons and two daughters, while at the same time taking an active role in social work, thereby strengthening her husband’s reputation.

But no matter how high a person would rise on the political ladder in the Soviet Union, his position was never secure. No one was exempt from the Great Purges, which swept through every layer of society. Kalinin was one of the few high profile statesmen who had been spared… but not Ekaterina.

In 1938 Stalin sanctioned her arrest on charges of anti-Soviet activity and links with Trotskyites. According to some historians, Kalinin’s wife happened to speak unfavorably about Stalin in one of her conversations with an old friend. She called him a “tyrant and sadist who killed Lenin’s guard and millions of innocent people.”

Ekaterina was sentenced to 15 years in prison and Kalinin did not even move a finger to help her. The man whose signature had started Stalin’s repression machine in the 1930’s got caught in its vicious engine. Had he tried to intervene on his wife’s behalf, he ran the risk of becoming an enemy of the state himself.

The harsh gulag system broke Ekaterina’s health completely - after a few years, the 63-year-old woman was declared handicapped by a medical commission. She sent an appeal to Stalin, where she admitted her “mistakes” albeit they had been done not out of “conscious animosity but rather from a lack of understanding of the current political situation in the country and a lack of critical attitude towards her surroundings.”

In June 1945, a year before Kalinin’s death, Ekaterina was released. Kalinin died in 1946 at the age of 70, while his wife outlived him by some 14 years.

The memory of Kalinin

"All-Union Head Man" Mikhail Kalinin in Uralmash workshop. 1933

Few people can boast as many places named after them as Kalinin. In 1946, Konigsberg, a former territory of Eastern Prussia, was renamed Kaliningrad, the name it still bears today. The old town of Tver, which at one point was even a capital of Mediaeval Rus was also renamed Kalinin. One of the major roads in Russia’s capital, New Arbat Street, had been renamed Kalinin Avenue for a time. The current metro station “Aleksandrovsky Sad” was named “Kalininskaya” for decades, and those are just the major venues, not including schools and institutes, parks, squares, factories and districts all over Soviet Union to bear his name. Pretty much every decent size city had a Kalinin street, some of them retaining their names up to this day.

Figurehead of state

Kalinin’s image of the All-Union headman created and maintained by the Soviet propaganda machine was there to show that the real power lied in the hands of “Grandpa Kalinin”, who had come from the working class background. He was a “one of us” kind of head of state, who was there to cover up the bloody regime of Stalin’s dictatorship.

Kalinin was the last authority for thousands of innocent people who sent him their petitions from the gulags, hoping that “Grandpa Kalinin” would sort things out for them and have them pardoned and released. However, he never meddled in NKVD affairs, always maintaining his loyalty to Stalin. After all he was just a figurehead performing a merely decorative function for the Soviet power.

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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