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The Wicked Uncle

Pádraig Murphy

On Stalin’s Team, The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics, by Sheila Fitzpatrick, Princeton University Press, 384 pp, £24.95, ISBN: 978-0691145334

Stalin, Biography of a Leader, by Oleg Khlevniuk, ACT
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 752 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1780228358

There is a very rich memoir literature covering Stalin’s life and times, written after his death by those centrally involved. The most prominent part of these works are the memoirs of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. Like all memoirs, these sources have to be treated carefully – self-interest or failing memory affects all of them, although it is accepted that Svetlana’s memoirs are in a separate class in this regard. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian archives relating to the Soviet period were opened, providing new material on that period, and in particular on Stalin himself. These lives of Stalin and his entourage draw on this, as well as drawing carefully on the memoir literature.

In Oleg Khlevniuk’s view, too many sources for biographies of Stalin have been made available over the last twenty years, if one bears in mind the need to sift their sheer volume. In his words, the dilemma consists either of covering the hero without the context, or the context without the hero. He emphasises that many of the documents on which Stalin worked directly are in the former archive of the politburo, now the Russian Presidential Archive, which has not yet been completely opened to researchers. Pending such opening, perhaps a fully definitive biography cannot yet be written. For the time being we’ll have to content ourselves with the results of research on the documentation available, of which these are the most notable. Khlevniuk is liberally acknowledged as an important source of assistance in the other two works. It is difficult to imagine that his own work, which admirably covers both the hero and the context, will be surpassed except in matters of less important detail.

Stalin was one of the great monsters of the twentieth century, quite on a par in this regard with Hitler. The challenge is to understand how the son of an obscure cobbler, born in a small town in Georgia on the margins of the then Russian empire, could in the course of his life become the master of half of Europe and the creator of what became a superpower. He was indeed born into a humble family. For all that, there is no evidence that he suffered from oppression. His father became a drunkard and did eventually leave his mother to raise him alone. This she did, earning a living as a seamstress. While doing this, she evidently was especially solicitous of his education. She managed to have him schooled in the Georgian Orthodox church system, at first at primary level and then at the church’s junior seminary in Tiflis, the capital. In the course of this education, he acquired fluent Russian, although he always spoke the language with a strong Georgian accent. The surviving documentation shows him to have been a model student, until the fourth year, when he became associated with rebellious movements in the seminary, arising evidently from the spartan regime, an atmosphere of constant investigation, searches, denunciations and punishments. He got involved with the illegal railway workers’ movement in Tiflis, and began to read Marx at a time, the late 1890s, when his revolutionary teaching had become widely popular among dissidents in the Russian empire. It is also clear that this experience gave him a first taste of conspiracy ‑ a conspiratorial outlook would mark his take on things for ever after. He left the seminary in 1899 after four years under unclear circumstances. Although he was excluded on the formal grounds of not turning up for examinations for unknown reasons, remarkably, at the end, he was certified by the seminary authorities as having been of good conduct. It seems more than likely that both young Jugashvili, as he was at the time, and the seminary authorities were at one in concluding that he was not good raw material for a church career.

Jugashvili gravitated to the radical wing of the social democratic organisation, organising strikes and demonstrations at first in Tiflis. Under threat of arrest, he left his formal place of employment and lived illegally as a professional revolutionary, thus early entering into a conspiratorial mode of life. His hatred of the establishment was firmly founded on his experience of arbitrariness and obscurantism in the junior seminary. His revolutionary activities extended to Batumi in western Georgia, and then to Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the former a port on the Black Sea important for the export of the oil produced in the area around the Caspian centred on Baku. He was arrested several times and exiled to Siberia, escaping easily under the rather lax Tsarist oversight of exile. In the course of this activity, he rose in the revolutionary ranks of the Social Democratic Party, and joined the more radical, Leninist, wing of the party, called the Bolsheviks, devoted to the acceleration of the process of history through a vanguard party which would advance the proletarian cause through creating an elite of professional revolutionaries. In the course of the 1905 revolution provoked by the defeat of the Russian navy by Japan, the Tsar made some concessions, including the convocation of the parliament, or Duma. This led to a superficial reunification of the Social Democratic Party, as a result of which the Menshevik faction became the majority of the party delegation from Georgia to its convention in Stockholm, and Jugashvili was the only Bolshevik delegate from Transcaucasia. In the course of this trip, he would get to meet Lenin in Berlin, and also visit London and Paris, (apart from a short trip to Vienna, his only trips outside Russia until he went to Tehran for the Allied conference of 1943 and the Potsdam conference two years later). All this experience went to reinforce his conspiratorial approach to affairs; at the same time, his allegiance to Lenin accentuated his sense that he was part of an elite charged with steering history towards a predetermined end.

After the gradual petering out of the 1905 revolution, Jugashvili attained prominence in the Bolshevik wing of the social democratic movement, becoming one of its leaders in 1912, when he was elected to the central committee of what had now become the Leninist party. His field of activity now extended to the whole empire, where he exerted himself mightily in underground agitation and the propaganda of revolution. At this stage too he adopted the revolutionary name Stalin, which sounded more Russian, the name by which he would henceforth be known. He showed outstanding organisational and propaganda abilities, as well as daring, decisiveness, stamina, lack of pretention and devotion to Lenin. But a shattering event, which changed his circumstances profoundly, occurred in 1913. He was arrested once again, but this time he was betrayed to the authorities by Roman Malinovsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders, and a favourite of Lenin, who had already for some time been collaborating with the police. This time he would be exiled to Siberia, but the pattern of early and easy escape was also broken. He was sentenced to four years exile in. In 1913, the prospects for Bolshevik revolution seemed to have been reduced to almost naught: the party’s leaders were either imprisoned, exiled or abroad, there was internal dissension and with other parts of the social democratic movement and the party, and Stalin personally, had been betrayed by one of its own leaders. He was thirty-eight years old.

And then came the revolution of February 1917. The Tsar abdicated, a provisional government was installed, made up of the more moderate parties of the opposition – in Bolshevik eyes the protagonists of a “bourgeois” revolution. Those imprisoned and exiled returned, notably to the then capital, Petrograd. Among these was Stalin. Lenin had not yet taken the sealed train from Switzerland to Petrograd. Notable in this development was that Stalin, along with Kamenev, had taken over the party newspaper, Pravda. The moderate line advocated in Pravda under their leadership was that it was now time for the bourgeois revolution and that this liberal bourgeois revolution should be supported pending the historical evolution which would open the perspective of “socialism” at some indeterminate future date. All this was to change after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station. Lenin had drawn completely different conclusions from his experience both as a theoretician of revolution and as a practical conspirator in exile. Even if, or especially if, the Bolshevik party was in a minority, its strategy now should be to gain power at whatever cost and, through its hold on power, advance its aim of establishing “socialism” as the elite vanguard of “socialism’s” leading class, the proletariat. In 1917 Lenin repeated dozens of times that it was necessary and possible to seize power by force and to do so immediately. As to what would happen tactically once power was seized, he was not specific. The motto implicitly was the Napoleonic On s’engage, et puis on voit (first one acts, and then one sees).The bold pursuit of this programme would serve not only the achievement of political power but also that of suppression of moderate forces and the mobilisation of the movement’s more decisive and radical elements. It was a lesson that Stalin, soon to endorse the Lenin line, would not forget. In due course he would apply the lesson to suppress Kamenev, his close comrade in Pravda of summer 1917. The lesson was that ruthlessness in pursuit of what appeared at the outset as an impossibly high goal paid off. In addition, the whole inheritance, through Marx, of German idealism implied the State, once captured, being assigned the indefeasible right to demand any sacrifice, up to that of life itself, from the individual: the State was the bearer of the highest truth of historical progress. Within that paradigm, the basic method was “class struggle”, which was the struggle against internal as well as external class enemies. The process involved the party being assigned an absolute status and, given the way the party was organised its general secretary in practice enjoyed the same status, becoming the incarnation of the party. Stalin (from 1922) and all his successors as Soviet leaders held the position of general secretary of the party (though Lenin himself had not).

The first place where Stalin applied his newly learned Leninist approach was during the civil war that followed the revolution. In Tsaritsyn – later to become Stalingrad – he was, along with Voroshilov, in charge of the Red Army forces. Very quickly an abiding characteristic of his became apparent. Setbacks were inevitably assigned to the old military and technical elite and described as resulting from “counter-revolutionary conspiracies”. Arrests of former officers of the Tsarist army (serving in the Red Army), as well as of officials of the former administration, followed, and the whole concluded very quickly with executions by firing squad, accompanied by notices to that effect in the local press. After an attempt on Lenin’s life in Moscow in August 1918, red terror became official policy, and Stalin sought, and received, sanction for “open, massive, systematic terror directed at the bourgeoisie and its agents”. More than fifty people were shot immediately in Tsaritsyn, and, between September and October 102 people were executed by the Cheka political police in Tsaritsyn, including fifty-two former members of the Tsarist army and policemen. In Khlevniuk’s view, the civil war predetermined the new state and the direction of its development. From the purely military point of view, both in Tsaritsyn and subsequently on the southwest front, Stalin was less than successful. The end of the Civil War, however, saw a somewhat veiled confrontation between Lenin and Trotsky, who had been in command of the Red Army during that war. One result of this was Lenin’s decision to reinforce the role of the party and in pursuit of this, Stalin was promoted to the position of general secretary of the central committee. Here he was responsible for the general leadership of the apparat of the party, with two crucial particular responsibilities: firstly, formulation of the agenda of sessions of the politburo, and, secondly, decisions on questions related to party cadres. The careers of the numerous mid-level functionaries of the party thus depended on Stalin. His crucial position was only reinforced by the subsequent illness and eventual incapacity of Lenin.

After the death of Lenin, Stalin’s most prominent potential leadership rival was Trotsky. The manoeuvring was byzantine. It involved the creation of the first informal grouping in the politburo, a group of seven, which was composed of all members except Trotsky and the chairman of the Central Control Committee. Repression was the essential feature of such select groupings – a consistent feature of the Stalin system. The security organs were accordingly brought into play in order to repress the opposition, who eventually were tarred with the brush of “enemies” which had earlier been used to malign the so-called bourgeoisie as well as Mensheviks and members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. It ended with the exclusion of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the politburo. The resolution of the plenum of the central committee of June 1926 asserted that the opposition had decided to move from a legal defence of their points of view to the creation of an all-Union illegal organisation. It would be only ten years before the aim of the alleged illegal conspiracy would become “an all-Union counter-revolutionary and terroristic organisation” and the punishment would consist in being shot. Among the first victims would be Zinoviev. Trotsky’s turn would, since he was exiled from the Soviet Union, have to await Ramon Mercader’s ice pick in Mexico in 1940.

On the foot of a war scare in the next year, 1927, caused by the breaking off of diplomatic relations by Great Britain and the assassination of the Soviet ambassador to Poland, the wave of repression moved on from the “all-Union illegal opposition” within the party. Stalin called for maximum vigilance in regard to Poland, but also internally:

It is necessary immediately to declare all prominent monarchists imprisoned here as hostages. Straightaway, we need to shoot five or ten monarchists, declaring that every attempt on life will be met by the shooting of other groups of monarchists. OGPU [the secret police] must be directed to make wholesale searches and arrests of monarchists and all kinds of White Guards all over the USSR with the objective of their complete liquidation by all means. The murder of Voikov [the Soviet ambassador to Poland] provides the justification for the complete destruction of monarchist and White Guard cells in all parts of the USSR by all revolutionary means. The task of reinforcing our own rear demands this of us.

From there, the focus of attention centred on what were called “kulaks”, peasants of any substance who proved to be refractory to the party’s plans to construct “socialism” by a forced concentration of investment on heavy industrialisation, which, in the conditions of autarky both chosen and imposed, implied extraction of surplus value from the countryside – always regarded with contempt by Marxists, witness the characterisation by Marx himself: “the idiocy of country life”. The campaign began with Stalin’s trip to Siberia in 1928. It was entirely in the spirit of the Lenin strategy of successful revolution, a maximal stimulation of leftist excesses, a fuite en avant cutting off and exposing moderates. Not only were the peasants targeted, but also those within the party who expressed reservations. In this case, in the course of 1928 the group around Rykov and Bukharin in the politburo was weakened. This resulted in the victory of the Stalin faction in the politburo and the adoption of the policy of “the Great Leap Forward”. Collectivisation followed, with all that this implied. In Stalin’s eyes, apart from a victorious manoeuvre it meant the unleashing of a massive wave of revolution in the countryside. This continued in its chaotic form until early 1930, when its potential for disorder threatened the sowing season and provoked the notorious Pravda article “Dizzy with Success”, which sought to situate the undertaking as basically successful but marred by some excesses of zeal on the part of subordinates. But collectivisation, in Khlevniuk’s words, was

one of the key achievements of Stalin, on the basis of which in considerable measure his dictatorship was founded. All subsequent characteristics of the Stalinist system can be seen as proceeding from collectivisation. The massive repression of the largest class of the country called for the creation of a significant punitive apparatus, the system of camps and special exile which in the end converted terror into the main method of administration. Collectivisation sharply and almost immediately destroyed the numerous traditional social connections, reinforced the atomisation of society and facilitated ideological manipulation.

In 1931 and 1932 some hundreds of thousands of “wreckers” and “kulaks” were shot or imprisoned in camps, and more than two million “kulaks” and members of their families were sent into exile. The outcome was even more traumatic. The collective farms, in all the years of their existence, never succeeded in producing enough food for the country. Worse, in these years the intervention produced famine, during the peak of which, in 1932-33, from five to seven million people were victims, principally in the grain-growing areas of the Ukraine, northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan and parts of Russian regions, but most severely in the Ukraine and northern Caucasus.

Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda, committed suicide in November 1932. The circumstances are not completely clear. What does seem certain is that Stalin felt profoundly betrayed, and Fitzpatrick with some justice situates this as the end of “wonderful times”, during which Stalin enjoyed what might pass for a normal social life to a more lone existence and a heightening of the paranoia which would mark the rest of his life.

The murder of Kirov in December 1934 set off the next wave of repression. Stalin took it at as the pretext for unleashing the Great Terror, which in its development was to swallow up large parts of the party apparatus, the military leadership, the survivors of pre-revolutionary governing classes and the church. In the summer of 1936 Kamenev and Zinoviev were tried for the second time, found guilty and executed. This, as Fitzpatrick puts it, was a Rubicon. The rationale for targeting the party itself might seem obscure, but when Stalin’s overall aim is regarded as the establishment of an unquestioned dictatorship, it is evident that all possibilities of challenge must be eliminated. The party apparat was an essential part of administration of this perverse system, but, to the extent that those who staffed it developed a sense of independent exercise of power they represented an implicit threat to the absolute power of Stalin and had to be eliminated. The operation was carefully calculated. The most important element in it was the Politburo decree No 00447 of 30 July 1937, which set out numerical targets for those to be executed and imprisoned in camps for every region of the country. Implementation depended on torture, which was severe, and quite frequently resulted in death. All verdicts of death and imprisonment were confirmed centrally in Moscow so that, in the light of this, and of the politburo decree at its origin, the whole inner group of the leadership were perpetrators. In 1937 and 1938 around 1.6 million people were arrested, and of these, around 700,000 were shot, and an unknown number murdered in the course of investigation by the NKVD. In the course of not quite one and a half years, up to 1,500 “enemies” were shot every day. The documentation clearly shows that the repressions were centralised operations and that the initiative unambiguously lay with Stalin. The securing of his all-powerful position apart, a further motivation can be seen in the growing threat of a new war at the time. The need to eliminate the threat of a fifth column was seen as confirmed by the evolution of the Spanish Civil War: Stalin was convinced that one of the main reasons for the defeat of the Republican side was betrayal in that camp itself.

The onset of war itself saw the Soviet Union at once bereft of significant parts of its military leadership, which had perished in the throes of the Great Purge, and of allies in the face of the possibility of German aggression. The reason for the latter can be debated, but Stalin was not convinced that Britain and France did not wish to see the USSR taking the brunt of Hitler’s aggression while they sat by and waited for German forces to be exhausted. As a result, Stalin engaged in the renversement des alliances called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the course of the division of East-Central Europe that followed, Stalin pursued the line he had been following domestically: at Katyń, on March 5th, 1940 the politburo adopted a decision to decapitate the part of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union. Several thousand Polish officers, civil servants, landowners, factory owners, police and representatives of the intelligentsia were murdered. Stalin’s objective apparently was to restore to the USSR the territory lost to the Russian empire after the revolution. When Hitler in turn threw over his alliance with Stalin, the latter was caught unprepared and, for a fearful moment, and apparently at a loss, threatened in his capital.

By 1937-38 the politburo was completely under Stalin’s thumb. Five members or candidate members – Kosior, Chubar, Eikhe, Postyshev and Rudzutak – had been executed. Even those who escaped execution lived in constant fear of that fate and could not prevent repression of their own family members. That said, in early 1939 Stalin resumed his practice of operating through a select group of politburo members: the tasks confronting the country were so vast and challenging that he had no option but to delegate. But it was a delegation subject to the understanding that authority resided in only one person, who had the right of life or death over his subordinates. The chosen in 1939 were Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan and Kaganovich, making up with Stalin himself a “Secret Five”. Even in this context, Stalin did not hesitate to demonstratively humiliate the other members, and a session of the politburo in which he does this to Molotov is recorded in one of the memoirs. Molotov, it is recorded, shuddered at the public castigation, but was silent. “The remaining members of the Buro sat silently, with their noses in their papers.”

The central grouping around Stalin changed marginally throughout the war. Formally, after Stalin’s funk in June 1941 following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, it became the State Committee for Defence, and Malenkov, Beria and Voznesensky joined. The first year and a half of the war went badly for Moscow, with massive German advances and the capture of huge Russian armies. An important reason for these defeats, apart from unpreparedness, was the trademark Stalin insistence on ill-thought-through offensives, which only succeeded in worsening the strategic situation. Also typical was the Stalinist remedy for this: in the first five months of the war, Beria reported, 45,700 persons were arrested for political reasons – Stalin assigned primary blame for defeat to betrayal within his own ranks. Throughout the war, he imposed to a greater or lesser degree – sometimes greater, sometimes less – party commissars on the military command structures, in order to ensure party control at all stages on a military elite which he never completely trusted. Further, so-called Smersh battalions were deployed to punish retreat, and penalisation of those who surrendered to the enemy took the form of punishment of family members. He did however learn some lessons, and from the beginning of 1943 was more careful in his advocacy of offensives in all circumstances. This resulted in a more defensive approach at crucial junctures, and this paid off at Stalingrad, which was the beginning of the end of the German offensive, and, above all, during the Kursk offensive, which can be seen as the turning point of the war in Europe.

Victory, when it came, could be attributed to his learning of these lessons, but also, and importantly, to his forced industrialisation programme begun in the thirties. The first five-year plan demanded a 110 per cent increase in productivity, which Stalin insisted had to be possible. “To lower the tempo means to lag behind,” he said in 1931. “And those who fall behind are beaten. But we don’t want to be beaten … The history of old Russia consisted in her being beaten for her backwardness.” (Curiously, and significantly, this same mantra has been repeated by Vladimir Putin as the rationale for his modernisation programme.) It was not only the sheer weight of Soviet manpower, or the help of the Allies, that was decisive. It was also the superiority of the T54 tank, as well as the resilience of the population in adversity. Stalin did appeal to Russian patriotism, from Alexander Nevsky to Tsar Alexander I, and carefully staged a\ limited reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. The extent to which he was conscious of historical precedent, and the extent of his potential ambitions, was encapsulated in his reply to Averell Harriman in 1945. Harriman was meeting the Soviet delegation at the Berlin station as it arrived for the Potsdam conference. He asked Stalin whether he was pleased to arrive as the victor in the capital of the defeated enemy. Stalin answered: “Tsar Alexander got to Paris.” Within the country, at the insistence of the politburo and of the military leadership, Stalin’s conduct of the war was marked by his designation as Generalissimo. That this happened after the final victory was, significantly, due to his own reluctance to accept such an honour until victory had been achieved.

Stalin’s seemingly decisive success in the war was, no doubt, read by many as a portent of possible relaxation of the repressive regime which had been enforced ever since his access to power. This, however, was not to be. Released prisoners of war were consigned to camps. This was at once a manifestation of the Stalinist policy of avenging what was seen as the treachery of allowing oneself to be captured and of a very old Russian pathology about contagion from more advanced societies. As, in 1825, the Decembrist revolt had been caused by the return to a feudal system of officers who, during the Napoleonic War, had experienced more progressive political systems, so now millions of Soviets had experienced Europe and, as a rule, the experience had been a shocking one. The victors had seen with their own eyes that the so-called “slaves of capitalism” led immeasurably better lives than they did and that Soviet propaganda had for many years taken them for fools. A “struggle against toadying” to foreigners was introduced to counter such pernicious influences, and among its victims were the poet Anna Akhmatova and the novelist Mikhail Zoshchenko. The newly acquired territories to the west – the Baltic countries, lands taken over from Poland in Byelorussia and the Ukraine – were ruthlessly purged. Around half a million of the inhabitants of these lands were, between 1944 and 1952, murdered, arrested or deported. By January 1st, 1953 more than two and a half million people were in camps, colonies and prisons and another 2.8 million in so-called special settlements in remote regions of the country. In all, some three per cent of the population was either imprisoned or deported. Largely because of irreconcilable differences of outlook as manifested by the brutal takeover and purge of the newly acquired territories, and the equally brutal sovietisation of the Eastern European countries which were nominally independent, the entente between the Allies, which had, with much effort, been maintained during the war, did not long survive it. Trials of “class enemies” were conducted in the new satellites, leading, for example, to the trial and execution of Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia. Imposition of the Soviet system on the newly acquired satellites was accompanied by a hubris which we have also seen in the West more recently. In 1952, Stalin told Ignatiev, one of the toadies he appointed head of the Ministry of State Security, “We ourselves will be able to determine what is truth and what is not.” This too contributed to the stoking of the paranoia in regard to foreigners which was a key element of the Stalin system.

The capricious brutality used to keep the leadership group in due awe before the vozhd, or leader, continued. Molotov, undoubtedly the most biddable of the group formed from time to time around Stalin, was pilloried for his performance at the London Conference of Allied Foreign Ministers in September 1945. An additional element in the case against both Molotov and Mikoyan was that “they had fallen under the spell of the Americans”, in other words, they had been toadying to foreign imperialists. Molotov was forced to divorce his wife, who was excluded from the party and exiled. There was even worse. The so-called “Leningrad” group, Voznesensky and Kuznetsov, advanced to the politburo under Stalin’s favour, but apparently under the protection of Zhdanov, were excluded from it in 1948 and eventually shot. Beria and Malenkov, seen as rivals of the Leningraders, advanced their positions. The Doctors’ Plot was engineered on the pretext that the Kremlin doctors, most of them Jewish, were engaged in killing the leadership. They were exiled. Another plot was premissed on the links between Russian Jews and American Jews. This one drew energy from the campaign against toadying to foreigners and the role played by American Jews in support of the new state of Israel. It resulted in the crude murder of Solomon Mikhoels, the leading member of the Jewish theatre in Moscow. Yet another campaign was mounted against a supposed conspiracy by the Mingrelian minority in Georgia. All these murderous persecutions were also targeted at specific politburo members or the KGB. The Doctors’ Plot was aimed also at the KGB head, Abakumov, who was duly arrested. The Mingrelian affair aimed at Beria. Other longstanding members of the leadership group, such as Molotov, as has been seen, but also Mikoyan, were given clear notice of their fall from favour, and it seems likely that only the final decline of Stalin saved them from sharing the fate of Voznesensky and Kuznetsov.

By early 1953 Stalin was more dominant than ever, but equally more isolated than ever. His death on March 5th threw a fascinating light on this. He lived alone in the so-called “near dacha”, not far from Moscow – alone, that is, except for numerous service personnel who knew that it was crucial to keep their distance. Late on the night of March 28th, he invited a group of four, Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Bulganin to the dacha for one of the all-night suppers which were a feature of his management of colleagues in the leadership. He saw them off at about 4.00 am. the following morning. His collapse later that night was not noticed by the staff, terrified to approach without being summoned, and they began to get concerned until about midday, when suddenly a light was switched on in his quarters and they expected to be summoned. But they were not. It wasn’t until 10.00 pm that the arrival of post from the Central Committee provided a pretext for approaching the vozhd and, when one of the staff made so bold, he discovered him collapsed on the floor and incoherent. The alarmed staff decided to convey the serious situation to the leadership, in the first place, Ignatiev, the head of the MGB and of Stalin’s personal security service. Ignatiev was unwilling to risk taking the initiative and ordered the staff memher to apprise Beria and Malenkov of the situation. The pattern of avoiding the risk of wrath continued, taking the form of none of the inner group being willing to act alone and, eventually the group of Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev and Kaganovich acting in concert, and bringing the out-of-favour couple Molotov and Mikoyan into their deliberations. This demonstrated simultaneously how cowed they were in the face of the tyrant and ‑ precisely because they shared this fear ‑ their ability to act as a team once the necessity for this became inescapable. Thus they did manage, despite the subjection they had endured under the vozhd, to take charge after his death and arrange a credible transition of a system which, although less absolutely murderous, was to last another forty-eight years.

What now remains of the Stalin inheritance? Khlevniuk examines this question carefully, and links it to the challenges faced by the USSR after Stalin, but more particularly to the challenges faced by contemporary Russia. Above all, the Stalin myth in Russia today is based on the following three elements.

First, the Stalin model of industrialisation and mobilisation of forces to that end is presented as having been extraordinarily effective and the only possible one. It is often mentioned as a model for contemporary Russia. In this context, such widely known tragic consequences as famine or massive repression are seen as either exaggerations or inevitable, or indeed as beneficial, or as having been implemented by bureaucrats of the nomenklatura bypassing Stalin. Further, the characteristic phenomena of the Stalinist system, still in evidence at the end of the Soviet Union, are widely forgotten. Khlevniuk characterises them as shortages of food and of consumer goods, chronic queues, frightful living conditions, weak defence from arbitrary power of functionaries and security services, severity of laws, and many other limitations. As for consumer goods, he points out that only vodka production increased in the Stalin period; from 300 million litres in 1924-5 to 810 million litres in 1952. Medical services and everyday hygiene were at a low level.

Second, a central element of the myth is the Soviet victory in World War II and the subsequent advance of the USSR to world power status. This, like industrialisation/modernisation, is credited to Stalin. However, while Stalin and the system he established undoubtedly brought victory in the end, they also bear responsibility for the defeats of the first year and a half. It is conveniently forgotten that it was because of Stalin’s miscalculations that the start of the war was so catastrophic and deprived the country of a significant part of its armed forces and of economic resources.

Third, the achievements of pre-revolutionary industrialisation, as well as the military successes of the Tsarist armies in the First World War, are minimised. Khlevniuk compares pre-revolutionary and Stalin-era industrialisation. In the period 1860-1913, average annual growth rates were about five per cent, higher, of course, at the top of the cycle. While growth rates were higher during the pre-war Five-Year Plans, the overall picture has to be nuanced. The forced creation of heavy industry went ahead at the cost of a ruined countryside, an inadequate development of light industry and of the social sphere, and a fall in the quality of life. In the final analysis, all this had negative effects on productivity and hindered technical progress.

In a clear address to his fellow citizens, Khlevniuk concludes that today the precepts of Stalin are followed only by North Korea, “demonstrating in all clarity to unprejudiced observers the real possibilities of Stalinism in the contemporary world”. He asks whether the Russia of the twenty-first century will repeat the fate of the twentieth.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book is breezy, with much literal reported conversation adding to the colour. It is also notable for vivid portraits of many of the cast, apart from Stalin himself. These include Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Beria, Ordzhonikidze, Karl Pauker and many others. These give a real sense of the persons involved and make the book a very readable account of Stalin and his entourage. One could debate the appropriateness of “court” as a description of this entourage, or the persistent description of its members as “magnates”, given the murderousness of many of their undertakings, but perhaps its equal could readily be found in medieval history. Indeed, Sebag Montefiore himself suggests that the Soviet elite “were much more like a feudal service nobility whose privileges were totally dependent on their loyalty”. In any case, the debate would be somewhat academic. Sheila Fitzpatrick chooses to call this entourage a “team”, and there is no point in debating that overmuch either. Questionable, however, is her thesis that the team consisted of about twelve men at any given time, and that they stayed together for three decades. The formulation is somewhat unfortunate: one can indeed think of some dozen men close to the vozhd at any given time, but it would be difficult to find any who survived for thirty years. Fitzpatrick says she conceived of her book as a popular one, putting political seminar models aside and focusing on individuals and their interactions. The book is indeed all the better for putting seminar models aside, but one has then to ask why such an issue is made of the point of view. She points out that “the view from nowhere” is a physical impossibility, and that she has therefore chosen a point of observation within the Stalin team. She appeals to our trust on this basis. Seldom can a book that sets out to be “popular” have been burdened with such an encumbrance. It is presumably what leads her to describe Molotov taking over a position in the team “that he would hold with distinction for a decade”, or to call Ordzhonikidze a “knight”, or, again, to call Stalin himself “cultured”. All this while acknowledging that all members of the team were complicit in the terrible crimes of which Stalin was the initiator.

A propos of culture, Fitzpatrick states that “Stalin was an indefatigable reader, with an estimated norm of five hundred pages a day, covering history, sociology, economics, and Russian literature, classic and contemporary”. Khlevniuk, on the other hand, points out that Stalin had very little time for recreational reading, or for rumination by himself, and could not have read five hundred pages a day. While conceding that Stalin was formed by reading in his youth, he says this, while theoretical, was what he calls “politically utilitarian”, that is, it covered that part of the works of Marx and Lenin which was useful in fomenting revolution. He was also well-read in Soviet literature, but not in Russian or foreign classical literature. (Khlevniuk does, however, apparently forget that much earlier in his life, at the Orthodox seminary, Jugashvili had been accused of reading subversive literature in the form of Victor Hugo.) He makes an analysis of Stalin’s library, more specifically, of those books which contain his notes and underlinings, and which therefore are included in his archive, and concludes that this confirms his one-sidedness. He counts 397 books and journals in this archive. The majority is made up of the works of Lenin –seventy-two items, and it is clear from other evidence that Stalin carefully read the works of Lenin and used quotations from Lenin in advancing his point of view among revolutionary colleagues at the earlier stages of his career, and to reinforce his dominance later. Significantly less resorted to were the works of Marx and Engels. Thirteen works by them figure in the library. Of the 397 works, twenty-five were produced by Stalin himself. Notable also were the works of Russian and foreign social democratic theoreticians and prominent Bolsheviks such as Bogdanov, Plekhanov, Bukharin, Kautsky, Trotsky and others. There were about thirty of these. Apart from these, Stalin kept and carefully read nineteen numbers of the illegal Bolshevik theoretical journal Enlightenment, published before the revolution. The list further includes numerous examples of propagandistic and educational literature of the Stalin period. Historical works are also notable, including several courses of Russian history published before the revolution. Stalin loved history, constantly citing historical examples, and initiated the preparation of new textbooks on history to the extent of being in some sense a co-author. Many historical books and films were written/made with his support. He felt particularly close to two tsars, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great: these gathered the Russian lands together, increased its military power, and fought mercilessly against internal opposition. History was a means of legitimising his own policies. As we have seen, he instanced Alexander I’s advance in Europe at the conclusion of the war. Khlevniuk is perhaps a touch too severe. He does not mention that Stalin is known to have read Plato carefully, but perhaps, following Karl Popper, this can be seen as “politically utilitarian”. Elsewhere, he concedes that Stalin was well-read and had a good memory, and that he could also express himself succinctly and clearly. He was in the habit, Khlevniuk says, of preparing carefully for meetings where business was to be done, and, thanks to this, impressed his interlocutors with his unexpected knowledge of detail.

It will be apparent that, while Sebag Montefiore’s and Fitzpatrick’s books each has its not inconsiderable merits, I regard Khlevniuk’s biography as the closest to definitive of the three. This, of course, is partly because it is clearly centred on the principal “hero”, to use Khlevniuk’s terminology, whereas the others set out to focus perhaps equally strongly on the entourage. But it is mainly because Khlevniuk writes with acute consciousness of the place of Stalin in Soviet and Russian history. He is very aware of the uses and abuses of the Stalin myth in contemporary Russia, and of the danger that those who don’t face their history straightforwardly are doomed to repeat it. He makes an invaluable contribution in the Russian context to what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past. This is something Germany has managed rather effectively since 1945. Others, including, on Khlevniuk’s evidence, the Russians, have not been so successful.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Cormac Ó Gráda’s 2014 essay “Leaping Into Darkness” on China’s “Great Leap” famine of 1958 to 1962, in terms of the number of its victims the greatest famine in human history.

While Mao’s personal, genocidal culpability is central to accounts such as Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine and Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts (1996), he is quite a remote ‑ though hardly sinister ‑ figure in Zhou [Xun]’s narratives. One informant notes that “militarization was Mao’s idea”, another that he stressed the need for “self-reliance”; one remembered Mao’s visit in 1958 to the village of Xushui, iconic for its communistic feats, but he “couldn’t see him”; another, Barber Feng of northern Sichuan, referred to the head of his brigade as a crook, “the type of person that Mao once warned us about”. But that is about it. Moreover, to Zhou’s evident surprise, Mao’s memory was revered almost everywhere she went. In Henan’s Suiping county, devastated by the famine, “in almost every home there was a portrait of Chairman Mao”, while an old neighbour of Zhou’s in Chengdu claimed that “if it wasn’t for Chairman Mao, who liberated us, we would not be able to enjoy today’s good life”. An old villager, wondering why Zhou was dwelling on the past, explained that while under Mao people learned to appreciate life by eating bitter food, “these days life is not too bad for many people”. Zhou does not attempt to resolve the “disconnect” between the follies of the Great Leap Forward, the violence, and the deaths, on the one hand, and Mao’s role, on the other.

Had Zhou interviewed her subjects a generation ago, would their verdict on the part played by Mao in the famine have been the same? Oral history, like all history, often tells us as much about the present as the past. Its strength lies in the searing anecdote and the local detail, not in sophisticated analysis of political decision-making at the top. The Chinese poor were as remote from Mao and Beijing in the 1950s as the Irish poor were from Lord John Russell and London in the 1840s. The willingness of Zhou’s witnesses to let Mao off the hook in the 2000s, though important, hardly resolves the extent of Mao’s culpability in the 1950s. That issue remains controversial. For some (like, say, Frank Dikötter or Jasper Becker) it is enough to declare the famine “Mao’s Famine” ‑ and Zhou’s subtitle also echoes this sentiment. For others (like, say, Tom Bernstein or Stephen Wheatcroft or Felix Wemheuer) the famine was the result of an ill-conceived and reckless attempt at forcing a desperately backward economy to catch up. To compound the disaster, when the Great Leap imploded China lacked what Yang in Tombstone dubs “negative feedback”: thanks to the form of “closed” governance they had created, Mao and his circle seem to have discovered “destruction on a scale few could have imagined” rather late in the day ‑ although this issue is controversial and is one on which Yang and Dikötter, for instance, disagree.