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Cold Warrior

Judith Devlin

Stalin’s Wars: from World War to Cold War, 1939-1953, Yale University Press,

496 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300112041

With Stalin’s Wars, Geoffrey Roberts offers the reader a classic grand narrative of World War II (or, as the Russians know it, the Great Patriotic War) and the inception of the Cold War from a Soviet perspective. Based principally on encyclopaedic reading of the printed sources and enlivened by vigorous argument and engagement with scholarly debate, Stalin’s Wars is a well-written and lucid account of a tragic period when the fate of Europe hung in the balance and its outcome largely depended on one country and one man, the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin.

This is history from above: the war it recounts is not that of the ordinary soldier, recently described by Catherine Merridale and Rodric Braithwaite, but the grand sweep of military strategy, high politics and diplomacy. There is little in these events which is not familiar: what distinguishes the book is Roberts’s perspective. Good history seeks to provoke the reader into questioning his assumptions and this is what Roberts forces us to do. As he explains in his introduction, the author is at pains to “revision” Stalin and above all to defend him from the charges of criminally incompetent war leadership laid by Khrushchev and others after his death. Roberts also takes issue with “Cold War historians” who, he feels, dismissed Stalin as a paranoid and murderous dictator who held onto power only by brute force. He points out, reasonably, that Stalin did not act alone, that he had collaborators and supporters and that he was a formidable political operator who knew how and when to deploy charm and humour (weapons all the more effective as every interlocutor knew the vengeful ruthlessness that lay behind them). In fact, Roberts argues, Stalin succeeded in creating a system resilient enough to withstand Nazi invasion and to survive until the end of the twentieth century.

This achievement could hardly have been realised by a mere paranoid tyrant. Roberts does not deny Stalin’s ruthlessness and even refers to the “political paranoia” which rendered the system dysfunctional at the end of his career, but he minimises these aspects of his rule, suggesting that Stalin’s political vision and understanding of socialism at the end of the war accommodated a form of democracy and liberal reform. The post-war political system, rather than embodying “High Stalinism” as many historians have hitherto suggested, was in fact in transition to the more liberal regime which emerged under the Thaw: “the process of de-Stalinisation began while Stalin was still alive”. Roberts argues convincingly, in a thesis increasingly supported by historians, that Stalin wanted a continuation of the wartime alliance, a kind of détente, rather than the Cold War that developed as a result of the West’s misreading of his intentions and his suspicion of his erstwhile allies.

Roberts’s main concern, the core of his book, is with Stalin’s leadership during the war. For Roberts, this period, rather than the Revolution and Civil War, was the central episode in Stalin’s life, testing both him and the regime he had created and vindicating both. Certainly for the rest of his life, he was to be celebrated in the Soviet Union as a military genius, one of history’s greatest commanders, the saviour of the country and architect of the greatest victory of all times. To assist the acceptance of this view, officials in Agitprop and the teams of writers, historians and filmmakers who worked with them passed over in silence the horrendous losses (only after the end of the Soviet regime was the figure of about 27 million deaths generally agreed on; under Stalin seven million was the officially acknowledged figure), the early defeats, the contributions of the generals (Zhukov, the brutal deputy commander in chief for much of the war, was rapidly demoted and banished to obscure commands in the provinces) and of the Western allies (soon depicted as treacherous types who confined themselves to watching from the sidelines – Lend-Lease hardly getting a mention). Although Roberts acknowledges much of this, he nonetheless argues in his conclusion that the “commonsense” postwar view of Stalin as a great military leader should not be dismissed and he makes a good case for the significance of his contribution to the Soviet victory. The post-war disparagement of Stalin does not coincide with the facts, he suggests, and may be ascribed inter alia to over-reliance on his successor Khrushchev’s memoirs and his speech denouncing the “cult of personality” to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956. (Nor does Roberts accept the equivalence sometimes posited between Stalin and Hitler as two evil dictators, one of whom managed to win because he ultimately commanded greater resources.)

The vozhd’ (or leader’s) post-war image as a great military leader was, however, in no small measure the work of his propaganda machine (rather than of common sense). Even at the time, the cult of Stalin, particularly in relation to the war, provoked simmering resentment in the Soviet elites, a resentment which emerged more clearly after his death and found its fullest expression in Khrushchev’s famous secret speech. Khrushchev, who had been party boss of the Ukraine when war broke out and who was involved in the disasters attendant on the early defeats, launched his attack on Stalin in terms that caused several in his audience of staunch Stalinist apparatchiki to faint. The great vozhd’, in his lifetime the object of an assiduous and extravagant cult, who had been hailed as the equal of Lenin, the architect of the Revolution, a great Marxist theorist, outstanding scientist etc., was suddenly revealed as a man whom Lenin at the end of his life had pronounced “unfit for purpose” (or at least for the powerful role of general secretary of the party), as a capricious dictator who had sent his fellow revolutionaries and colleagues to their deaths on trumped-up charges during the Terror, and who had been responsible for the initial defeats on the outbreak of war.

Whereas Stalin had been at pains to have himself portrayed as a latter-day Kutuzov(1) in films such as The Fall of Berlin, Khrushchev asserted that he had been wrong-headed; deaf to the advice of his diplomats and intelligence agents on the imminence of the German attack; that he had succumbed to panic on the first onslaught of the Wehrmacht; that he had insisted on many misguided attacks, resulting in enormous and avoidable loss of life, and that he had ignored the expert advice of his generals. If victory had been won, it was despite rather than because of Stalin, thanks to the leadership of the party and the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Soviet people (a theme briefly taken up by Stalin himself in 1945 to put the generals in their place). For Roberts, this philippic was motivated by self-interest and the need to deflect criticism from the speaker and undermine his rivals in the leadership and he sets out to defend Stalin from Khrushchev’s charges. Stalin, Roberts asserts, was no mere unbalanced dictator “who brought nothing but woe to the world”.

One of the first controversies Roberts discusses is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, which enabled Hitler to invade France secure in the knowledge that Stalin had been bought off with territorial gains in western Ukraine, Belorussia and Poland and de facto control of the Baltic states. The pact provoked consternation among Stalin’s western admirers (God, it seemed, had cut a deal with Mammon), but was later justified on the grounds that it had given Stalin time to prepare the Soviet armed forces and defences for the forthcoming war. The army had been decapitated during the Terror, when most of the high command and senior officer corps had been arrested, shot or sent to the Gulag(2). Stalin thus had reason to be concerned with the war-readiness of the army and was reluctant to engage with the formidable enemy on his flank. Instead, according to the Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov, he hoped to play one side of the corrupt but surprisingly divided capitalist world against the other to the advantage of Soviet power.

The pact certainly points to Stalin’s quasi-imperial view of Russian statehood: he may have been, as Roberts rightly observes, an ideologue and may have envisioned a new kind of state (equating modernity and industrial might with socialism), but the forms this vision took in foreign policy were in many ways traditional. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin reclaimed the borders of the pre-revolutionary Tsarist state – a job he completed after the fall of France when he gobbled up the already curtailed independence of the Baltic states and part of Romania. Stalin, Roberts suggests, saw these moves as essentially defensive (and he was consistent in their pursuit, having looked for similar concessions from the western democracies earlier) but unfortunately Hitler, like most of the rest of the world, did not. The pact can hardly be adduced as evidence of Stalin’s wisdom and perspicacity however, as the advantages it gave in terms of preparing the country’s defences were thrown away by his refusal to believe the reports reaching him in May-June 1941 that Hitler was about to attack. German armies were already deep into Rusian territory by the time the Soviet armed forces were permitted to respond. Furthermore the pact provided for the delivery by the Soviets of key resources such as oil, minerals and grain, which gave the Nazi regime the means they required to attack the Soviet Union: without them, as Roberts tells us, they could not have mounted the invasion.

However for Roberts the pact reveals a dimension of Stalin too often overlooked, that of the man of peace. Above all, he argues, Stalin wanted to avoid war, a leitmotiv of his foreign policy both then and after the war. Not all readers will be wholly persuaded by this. Although Stalin may have viewed conflict with Nazi Germany as inevitable in ideological terms, he undoubtedly wanted to postpone or avoid it as long as possible, as he was well aware that the regime he presided over was far from secure. (One of the forms taken by this sense of insecurity was the policy of dispatching his enemies, real or imagined, which culminated in the purges of the late thirties, the consequence of which was to disorganise and destabilise the regime still further.) But Stalin was not averse to small wars if he thought he could win them: witness the winter war with Finland, launched in November 1939 when the Finns refused his terms for a treaty of mutual assistance. The Finnish campaign was a disaster: far from succumbing rapidly to the numerically superior Soviet forces, the Finns inflicted over 126,000 casualties before suing for peace in March 1940. Roberts suggests that Stalin saw the results of this disastrous muddle as a victory, which enabled the Soviet Union to achieve its territorial aims (more expansion) and thwart “Anglo-French imperialist intrigues”. If anything, he believes, it made Stalin confident that he and his army (with its shortcomings corrected) could cope with war. There was certainly a post-mortem: Voroshilov, his old comrade and party stooge whom Stalin had placed in charge of the armed forces since 1925 was removed and never again fully restored to favour. The army’s tactics and errors were analysed and steps taken to improve the discipline, professionalism and mechanisation of the army.

If Stalin was confident of the Soviet army’s capacity to win a war with Germany, he gave little sign of it. The familiar account of what happened at the end of June 1941 follows the impression given in Khrushchev’s account in the secret speech. It depicts Stalin as refusing to believe the reports from his diplomats, intelligence services and even Churchill that a German attack was imminent. He also refused to allow his troops to mobilise or the civilian authorities to prepare the evacuation of the civilian population: instead, when the first reports came in the early hours of June 22nd, 1941 that German units had crossed the border following aerial bombardment, Stalin ordered his troops to hold fire as there had been no declaration of war. Only after several hours did he allow Soviet forces to respond. In the following days, he remained at his dacha in horrified disbelief as the Germans swept into Soviet territory, meeting little effective resistance. He left it to the premier, Vyacheslav Molotov, to inform the Soviet people by radio that war had broken out.

Only at the end of June did he recover, assuming control of the war effort and making his famous radio broadcast of July 3rd, addressing the public in terms unheard of for a generation as “my brothers and sisters”. Appealing to Russian patriotism, he urged his audience to rally to the defence of the country, drawing inspiration from the defeat of Napoleon and reminding them that they were not alone in this war of liberation of the motherland. Undoubtedly this was a well-judged performance which helped to restore the morale and nerve of the country and its leaders, and it testifies to Stalin’s political acumen. In this, it can be compared both to his speech on November 7th(3), when the German armies were at the gates of Moscow and Stalin’s mere presence in the capital helped to steady the situation, and to his insistence that the usual military parade be held: the troops who marched past the mausoleum on Red Square went straight to the front. Stalin’s behaviour at these critical junctures lends weight to Roberts’s contention that in the early stages of the war his contribution was above all political and psychological.

Roberts seeks to defend Stalin from the charge that he was obdurate and foolish in refusing to acknowledge the imminence of the German invasion. He suggests that there was room for doubt in that some of the reports were equivocal and pointed to disagreement about the desirability of war within Hitler’s councils, exemplified by the conduct of the German ambassador in Moscow, Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg. Nor was Stalin quite as insouciant as has been suggested: front-line troops had been built up. (Arguably, however, this was a disadvantage, since their military inaction was to result in their prompt decimation.) But above all, Roberts argues, the problem lay not with Stalin’s indecision and obduracy, but with the fact that Soviet military strategy was predicated on attack. The military planners had envisaged a war fought not on Soviet territory but beyond the country’s borders and thus were slow to adapt to the circumstances that obtained in late June and July 1941. Roberts argues effectively against the claim that Stalin panicked and hid in his dacha. He cites evidence to the contrary from Molotov and others and, more compellingly, notes that his appointment diary and the numerous decrees and orders he issued point to energetic activity. However, it should be noted that Anastas Mikoyan and others, when discussing Stalin’s collapse, are referring to a three-day hiatus, between June 27th and July 1st, when he learned that Minsk had fallen and when, probably exhausted, he withdrew from the scene, rather than to the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

In his discussion of the subsequent war, Roberts demolishes several myths, among them the one according to which the Red Army sat at the gates of Warsaw in summer 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, waiting for the Germans to dispatch the nationalist Polish Home Army and allowing the killing of almost a quarter of a million civilian inhabitants of the city. Certainly it suited Stalin’s purposes to have the Home Army removed from the scene as it ensured that the Polish government in exile in London, which had ordered the rising, was weakened in its negotiating position over the post-war settlement. But, Roberts argues, the Red Army was not strong enough to attack during the summer of 1944 and was able to take the city only in the following January.

It is hard, however, to exculpate Stalin from his role in the loss of over 520,000 men killed or captured at the fall of Kiev, due entirely to his refusal to listen to the urgent pleas of his commanders for permission to withdraw. Stalin preferred to believe that his troops lacked the will to fight or that some might even be traitors. Rather than endorsing rational military commands, he issued savage disciplinary orders in summer 1941 and again in the following year and had the general in charge of the western front charged with treason and shot. Order 270, of August 1941, affirmed that all prisoners taken by the enemy were to be regarded as traitors; what was designated as “premeditated surrender” was to be punished by execution. Wives of captured officers were liable to arrest and incarceration in the Gulag. Those caught in German encirclements were treated as traitors: even those who fought their way back to the Soviet lines were liable to interrogation by special NKVD (security) troops and had to try to prove their innocence of desertion, treachery or spying.

In July 1942 the infamous Order 227 (“Not a Step Back”) tried to prevent the collapse of discipline and morale caused by the failures of the summer’s offensives, again promised summary execution or service in punishment battalions for those deemed cowards and stationed blocking troops behind the front lines to catch deserters and participants in unauthorised retreats. Although communicated to all troops at the time, this was a secret order, not officially published then, or in the celebratory volumes of Stalin’s war orders issued after the war (or indeed until 1988). Its savagery was thus tacitly acknowledged by the regime, which realised it to be at odds with Stalin’s official image of reluctant but necessary severity and fatherly benevolence. According to one estimate, up to 200,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by their own side during the war as a consequence of these dispositions.

There was no relenting on these attitudes after the war, when returning POWs were again interrogated and in many instances dispatched to the camps. Of the 5.4 million Soviet citizens repatriated after the war, only a minority of whom had willingly collaborated with the enemy, it is estimated that about a fifth were executed or sentenced to twenty-five-year terms in the camps, with about three million more going to the Gulag for shorter terms and only about a fifth being allowed home. As victory approached, whole nations, including the Chechens, were deported from the north Caucasus for alleged collaboration and repression in the army continued. Among the victims was the artillery captain Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose initial irreverence about the incompetence of “Old Whiskers” sharpened after eight years in the camps into the most powerful of all indictments of Stalin and all he stood for.

In assessing Stalin’s war leadership, it is necessary to add into the equation the treatment of the cities of Leningrad and Stalingrad (where 40,000 civilians were left to endure the appalling battle). It is hard to imagine many regimes withstanding the siege of Leningrad, where, thanks to the failure of the city authorities to make any effective provision for a large-scale evacuation of the threatened city, most of the population (swollen by refugees from the Western territories) was left to face the fierce winter with almost no strategic reserves. No measures had been taken to protect the food supply, which was concentrated in vast warehouses on the city limits, where they were bombed and burned on September 12th, 1941. The city could not be supplied: food ran out, as did light, heating and hot water. The pipes froze and staircases turned into icy death traps as people tried to carry water up from the canals to their freezing flats. This was the least of it. By November, children could not be let out alone: people feared that they might be murdered by gangs rumoured to be selling human flesh on the markets. Over 200 individuals were arrested for cannibalism. People dropped dead from hunger in the streets on their way to the factories (where work continued) or dragging their loved ones to the cemetery. The only exception to this picture of hell was the Smolny Institute: once an aristocratic girls’ school (whose motto had been “Tenez-vous droite et parlez français”) it was now party headquarters and had light, heat, food and even orange juice flown in for the party boss, Andrei Zhdanov, who, it was later alleged, panicked but was not allowed by Stalin to leave. Although Roberts does not devote much space to these horrors, which fall outside his concern with Stalin’s strategic preoccupations, they are relevant to any consideration of the dictator at war. Most leaders would have retreated or capitulated: but in the east, it was a war to the death, fuelled, for Hitler, not so much by strategic as by ideological concerns. For Stalin, no less than for Hitler, it was a war to the end, no matter what the cost in human suffering and lives: the survival of the regime was at issue and to defend it, Stalin was ready for anything.

This had always been the case. Stalin was utterly ruthless in the pursuit of his goals. Roberts observes that ideology was an important part of his worldview, although the dictator was also ready to be pragmatic. He was indeed capable, especially in affairs of state, of playing a long game, but Roberts is right to point to the centrality of revolutionary socialism in his sense of purpose and even of destiny. Socialism, for Stalin, was not the bookish doctrine and utopian dream which enthused generations of young radicals: it was a political and economic system forged in actuality with blood and tears and by trial and error, by (above all) himself and those whom he led, inspired or flogged into following him. Not for nothing did he see himself as a latter-day Peter the Great. A desperado in his youth, when he was associated with the extremist, terrorist (and un-Marxist) wing of Bolshevism in pre-revolutionary Georgia, he believed if not in the cleansing power of violence in the manner of Saint-Just, at least in its necessity and inevitability.

What had the great revolution of October 1917 meant in practice? Was the new state socialist and, if not, how would it become so? What was socialism when translated from page to life? No one, in 1921 after the end of the Civil War, was sure. It was Stalin who was to offer the definitive answer in the Soviet Union. The twenties were spent in a state of uneasy and increasingly vicious debate on the issue. Stalin was uncertain where he stood, other than harbouring the conviction that it was not on the side of the flamboyant poseur Trotsky, with his court of artists, military men and young party intellectuals. Having adopted the idea of “socialism in one country”, as opposed to Trotsky’s permanent (international) revolution, Stalin eventually plumped for the radical solution, an end, as he saw it, to all the pussy-footing with the peasantry, which was leading nowhere, leaving the towns hungry, heavy industry underdeveloped and the military under-equipped for the war that must inevitably come.

Having blundered into the policy of collectivisation, not being very sure of what it meant or where it would lead, he resorted to brute force on a scale he never initially envisaged when he met a degree of resistance he had failed to anticipate. When the policy of the Great Turn (crash industrialisation and collectivisation) threatened the regime with economic and social collapse and caused many in the party to panic, his reaction was to diagnose counter-revolutionary forces at work, “la révolution en danger”, and to repress criticism and dissent. The logic of events, as much as personality, carried Stalin along to the self-destructive violence of the Terror and the brutal dictatorship that emerged in the 1930s. But however circumstantial in origin, a key feature in Stalin’s rule and political persona was the merciless deployment of power for the purposes, however unrealistic, which he – as the personification of history and revolutionary destiny – deemed necessary. This conception of power, to which a fundamental lack of compassion and humanity contributed, enabled him to conduct a war of unparalleled ferocity and brutality, a brutality which extended not only to the enemy but also to the Soviet soldiers and people. Though Stalin understood his troops’ suffering (he excused the looting of the victorious Red Army abroad on these grounds), he did not care to alleviate it or make any concessions to them or to the citizenry, who had more or less starved behind the lines, either then or after the war.

This brings us to Roberts’s interpretation of the post-war Stalin. He correctly observes that the regime which emerged after the war was significantly less chaotic and more professional that it had been in the 1930s. The state’s self-confidence had been enhanced by victory and its efficiency tempered by the trials of war: a new generation of technocrats, like the economist Voznesensky, had emerged at the head of the state structures. During the war, the screws on society had been loosened: a limited cultural thaw and some economic devolution, especially in the countryside, had been permitted. Roberts believes that Stalin was ready to extend this economic and cultural liberalisation after the war, as an indication of which he points to declining repression. These liberal policies went, he suggests, in tandem with a new vision for a democratic Eastern Europe. The peoples’ democracies (of the Europe that wound up behind the Iron Curtain) were not to be ironically named puppet regimes but examples of a new kind of popular left-wing democracy. A spanner was thrown in the works, however, by the erstwhile Western Allies, who appeared to Stalin to threaten the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe and challenged the limited ambitions of the Soviet state in the mistaken belief that Stalin was intent on extending the Soviet sphere of influence throughout Europe.

As far as Stalin’s ideas about the shape of the new Europe go, it is reasonable to assume that he did not want to use force, which the Soviet Union could ill afford and which could be, in the long term, counter-productive. His policies were, as Roberts acknowledges, dominated by security concerns: he wanted the German threat neutralised by dividing the state and Soviet borders protected by a buffer zone of friendly nations. If this could be achieved by agreement with the populations concerned, so much the better. Stalin had some grounds for hoping that this might be the outcome. Support for communist and left-wing parties at the polls was strong or growing at the end of the war in much of Europe (though more so in France and Italy than, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, in the Soviet zone), in the wake of the heroic Soviet victory and the sense for many that the old politics was bankrupt. That Stalin was ready, when it suited his purposes, to make a pact with the devil of bourgeois democracy was evident. That he was ready to contemplate some form of democratic government, so long as Moscow-oriented communist parties were firmly entrenched therein, is also possible, as Roberts suggests. That he even envisaged a democratic path to socialism in Eastern Europe is not to be excluded. But to conclude from this that he was turning into a democrat because he held elections at home(4) and talked of democratic socialism to communist visitors from Eastern Europe is another matter. Nor is it clear what he meant by democracy.



The evidence suggests that Stalin was a brutal realist rather than a reborn believer in social democracy. When “the people” did not agree with him, he simply used intimidation and rigged the polls, as in Romania and Bulgaria in 1946. In Poland, the main bone of contention with the Allies, he never intended to allow the Poles’ strong anti-Russian sentiment dictate the political settlement. Whatever the rhetoric about democracy, if the people did not come up with the right answer at elections, Stalin would quickly correct them. Roberts recounts these developments, but he believes that the problem lay not so much with Stalin’s response to the East European rejection of Soviet socialism as with the West for upbraiding him in relation to it. Although he is right to point to Stalin’s flirtation with democracy and willingness to muse on alternative roads to socialism, he was ready to envisage these only insofar as they chimed with his wishes and priorities. He had no compunction about jettisoning such notions if they did not serve his purposes.

What then are we to make of his “democracy” at home and the 1936 constitution? Roberts discusses the first post-war elections in the Soviet Union, inferring from them a degree of popular support for the regime. His comments raise the important and understudied question of the significance of the 1936 constitution (the most liberal the Soviet Union ever had, at least on paper, in the view of Boris Kagarlitsky). Drafted largely by Bukharin in a process that elicited a wide popular response, it promised the classic liberties as well as democratic elections, restoring the vote to many citizens hitherto referred to as “former people” (priests etc). These concessions were justified, it was announced, as socialism had arrived. This caused some confusion and briefly raised hopes, especially among religious believers who thought that they might be able to enjoy the newly proclaimed religious freedom. Why did Stalin launch this initiative? It is usually supposed that it was merely a cynical exercise in window-dressing, in line with most Soviet propaganda of the time. Certainly, it helped the Soviet Union to look like a flourishing democracy at a time when it supported the Popular Front against the fascist and lesser authoritarian luminaries of central and eastern Europe. Initially, however, multiple candidacies for election had been envisaged and it is not clear that the policy was, ab initio, a wholesale fraud. Democracy, when raised within the context of inner party elections by Zhdanov in February 1937 at the height of the Terror, was intended as a means of unsettling or replacing the party elites and keeping them on their toes. A similar ploy may have been in Stalin’s mind in relation to the state apparat and party-state relations with the constitution. Whatever he intended, however, he did not choose to risk anything remotely resembling democracy, then or later. He clove in practice to a dictatorship, sharing power with no one, least of all the carefully selected representatives of the people assembled in the Soviets.

After the war, Stalin was intent on reasserting his authority, encouraging the rivalries and intrigues of his courtiers and prospective heirs, playing them off against each other (a dimension of post-war Soviet reality which Roberts, ever averse to our main source for this, Khrushchev, largely ignores), putting the army in its place and quickly signalling to state and society who was in control. The zhdanovshchina, or cultural clampdown, which Roberts relates to the onset of the Cold War, is generally seen as having its origins earlier, in 1943, when the writer Zoshchenko came under fire for his autobiographical novel Before Sunrise and when Agitprop was directed to renew conservative (and anti-Semitic) policies in the sphere of culture and the arts. The aim of the post-war cultural decrees was to rein in the intelligentsia and make them and the wider public understand that wartime liberties were at an end. It was no accident that one of its early targets was not only the city of Leningrad (the hero city, capital of the tsars and of the sophisticated intelligentsia) but also a music hall revue featuring Pushkin’s foppish hero Evgeny Onegin, wandering through an alien Soviet Leningrad replete with bureaucratic traps and shortages (much like Zoshchenko’s monkey, who ends up preferring his cage in the zoo to the freedom of the Soviet city, a tale Zhdanov also attacked). These relatively innocuous satires were deemed subversive, lacking in “party-mindedness” and narodnost (national character). Stalin, who as Roberts notes, oversaw the drafting of the decrees, had no truck with independent-mindedness or social autonomy, nor did he find the growth of the new powerful Soviet state machinery wholly congenial. However much he played cat and mouse with its key personnel, he needed a counter-balancing agency, which he found in the party, decimated by the Terror, run down in the war, and now to be revived in power and significance. This as much as anything was the message of the zhdanovshchina, delivered by Stalin’s implicit heir, the clever, unprincipled Leningrad party boss and ideology chief Andrei Zhdanov.

Although Roberts sees these policies as precipitated by the growing Cold War and the West’s refusal to meet Stalin half-way, there is little in the dictator’s previous record or indeed in his plans to suggest that he was seriously contemplating liberal reforms. Roberts is undoubtedly right, however, to observe that the international climate helped to colour the terminology which the cultural clampdown exploited, with xenophobia, Great Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism all becoming more pronounced features of official rhetoric. The zhdanovshchina marked a return to the Manichean worldview of pre-war Stalinist socialism (the virtuous young socialist state pitted against the decadent and doomed old capitalist world) which had fallen into relative abeyance during the war. More importantly, it sought to exploit significant if officially unacknowledged trends within Russian popular culture, notably Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism. The regime carefully if unsystematically monitored public opinion and knew enough to realise that these themes enjoyed some support and that they could be drawn on to legitimate its policies.

The Soviet public at the end of the war, however much its support for the regime and pride in its new prestige had been enhanced by victory, had hoped for something else – for a relaxation of the economic, political and cultural pressures they had so long endured. Instead they got a return to strict collectivisation, a famine only partly explained by the drought of 1946, confiscatory currency reforms, obligatory bond subscriptions and growing repression.

For Roberts, repression at home is related to the full outbreak of Cold War in 1948. The Leningrad Affair (which saw the arrest early in 1949 of many of the city’s party luminaries associated with the recently deceased Zhdanov), on which Roberts reserves judgement, is commonly seen as a product of the infighting between Stalin’s heirs, infighting Stalin found judicious to encourage. There may not have been as many arrests in the postwar years, as Roberts argues, but then there did not need to be since the lessons of conformity and caution had already been taught: whole peoples, as well as former POWs and returnees, were swept at the end of the war into exile or the Gulag, which Stalin showed no signs of dismantling. By 1953 it is estimated that the camps held 2.5 million convicts, many of them political prisoners in name or fact (in 1947, 54 per cent had been condemned for counter-revolutionary activities). The zhdanovshchina was only one of a series of repressive campaigns: it was succeeded by the arrests of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the (anti-Semitic) anti-cosmopolitan campaign, honour courts, Lysenko’s witch-hunts in biology and genetics, the Mingrelian Affair(5) and the Doctors’ Plot (which accused the country’s leading physicians, including those who attended the Kremlin, of scheming against the leaders’ lives). This threatened to become an exercise in ethnic cleansing directed against Soviet Jewish citizens but Stalin’s providential death put an end to it, enabling his heirs to inaugurate the new era of reform and confused, partial liberalisation known as the Thaw.

With this conventional reading of post-war Stalinism Roberts disagrees, challenging common assumptions about Stalin’s motives and intentions and suggesting that he endorsed relatively liberal policies during and after the war and that the Thaw was presaged by his initiatives. Not everyone will endorse this view but historians increasingly agree with Roberts in seeing the war as a watershed in Soviet politics. There was a widely shared desire for change among the elites, the intelligentsia and the general public but we can glimpse only occasional indications of these forces at work and they had very limited room for manoeuvre or effective action. Only with Stalin’s death were they able to intervene decisively. Roberts is right to observe that the Thaw did not come out of the blue but had its roots in postwar society and the state, but it is less easy to follow him in ascribing this to Stalin.

Roberts asks interesting questions, however, not least when it comes to the tendency to see Khrushchev as the chief author of de-Stalinisation. De-Stalinisation was a longer-term and more complex process than this suggests. While the initial moves to limit the excesses of Stalinist power and reform the economy and detention system were made by Georgy Malenkov and Lavrentiy Beria (initiatives which enabled Khrushchev to pose as a moderate conservative and remove them), Khrushchev continues correctly to be credited with the main assaults on Stalin’s reputation. The secret speech of February 1956, the most dramatic of these attacks, was a courageous, if to some extent self-interested, denunciation, but one that could in the circumstances hardly be avoided: some explanation had to be offered to the party cohorts gathered at the congress as thousands of its former members poured out of the camps, their innocence in many cases acknowledged. All the leaders were aware of the dangers of the exercise: afraid of their own role in the repressions of the thirties being exposed, they also feared the effect of these revelations on public opinion. The initial reaction at home and abroad – riots in Georgia, confusion and indignation among many members of the Soviet public, radical criticism of the political system from the intelligentsia and then upheaval and revolution in the satellite states – justified these fears and the denunciation was reined in. Stalin’s reputation remained ambivalent, as it had been since Malenkov’s initial criticisms in 1953: his place, ironically, was akin to that of many of the rivals he had dispatched – he became a non-person, absent from the history books, the mausoleum, the squares, offices and schoolrooms where his image had been ubiquitous. Classic films of the revolution were re-shot to exclude him. Many, however, refused to accept even Khrushchev’s limited attacks on the man who led the country to victory in the war. Even today, Stalin continues to command admiration: his bronze bust adorns the ceremonial entrance to the main Moscow war museum, where it was placed in 2000 alongside those of Zhukov and Kutuzov. Here there is no controversy about Stalin’s stature as a war leader. It is even mooted that the city of Volgograd could revert to the name of Stalingrad.

Roberts complements the work of Robert Service, who has challenged Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin as a boorish, dull, bureaucratic nonentity and Sukhanov’s characterisation of him as a “grey blur”. Although he does not rehabilitate Stalin, Roberts offers a much more positive assessment of the dictator and his motives than is common. He downplays his ruthlessness and morbidity and his tyrannical treatment of colleagues and the citizenry by concentrating on his skills in the councils of war and peace. Stalin was indeed a formidable operator: he could not have remained in power so long or imposed himself on so many of his contemporaries had he not been an astute observer of human foibles and frailties. He was a strategist, preoccupied with the historical fortunes of the Revolution and the state that embodied it. His contribution to the war may well have been, as Roberts suggests, essential for the success of the Soviet war effort. But he was also a ruthless ideologue and despot, who sent hundreds of thousands to a terrible death without turning a hair. This Roberts grants, but he does not dwell on that side of Stalin’s personality or what it means for an overall assessment of his subject. However, he has a masterly command of his material and with Stalin’s Wars he has given us a passionately argued and meticulously researched account of Stalin as war leader which is compelling reading and has justly been hailed as the most up to date and comprehensive on the subject.

  • Kutuzov was the Russian general who, following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and occupation of Moscow, defeated the French in 1812.
  • Between 1937 and 1939, approximately 35,000 officers were dismissed, with many being arrested or shot. Of 837 officers of the rank of colonel and above, 720 were purged; seventy-one of eighty-five members of the Military Council were dead by 1941, including three out of five marshals, fourteen out of sixteen top army commanders and 131 of 199 divisional commanders. Among the victims were the military head of the armed forces, Tukhachevsky, and the Civil War hero Blyukher, who alone did not succumb to the brutal torture inflicted by the NKVD to procure false confessions of treachery.
  • In this famous speech, broadcast live to the country during a German aerial bombardment of Moscow from Mayakovsky metro station, Stalin again called on the Russians to emulate the traditions of Dmitri Donskoi (who defeated the Tatars in 1380) and other heroes of the pre-revolutionary past who had expelled foreign invaders from the homeland.
  • According to successive Soviet constitutions, power was vested in popularly elected soviets or councils. Although voting was mandatory, there was no choice of candidates, the ballot was not secret and voters were subject to direct or indirect intimidation. In any case, the soviets were largely irrelevant to the exercise of power, which was concentrated in the party, and increasingly in the thirties in Stalin personally.
  • This affair, which accused the Mingrelians, an ethnic minority in Georgia, of conspiring with Turkey against the Soviet Union, is generally seen as having been part of a move by Stalin against Beria, who was himself Mingrelian.

Judith Devlin teaches in the Department of History at University College Dublin. While her first research interests lay in nineteenth century France, she now concentrates on Russia. She has worked on contemporary history (political culture) and most recently on the Stalin era. Her current research focuses on the Stalin cult.

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