Unfair to Stalin

Robert Service

  • Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World by Mikhail Gorbachev
    Collins, 254 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 215660 1
  • The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the ‘Second Revolution’ by Michal Reiman, translated by George Saunders
    Tauris, 188 pp, £24.50, November 1987, ISBN 1 85043 066 7
  • Stalin in October: The Man who Missed the Revolution by Robert Slusser
    Johns Hopkins, 281 pp, £20.25, December 1987, ISBN 0 8018 3457 0

Since 1956 it has been official policy in the USSR to criticise the abuses of power by Joseph Stalin in the period of the so-called Cult of the Individual. It is a widely-held misconception in the West that such criticism ended in the Brezhnev years. In fact, party textbooks continued to castigate Stalin. The negative comments became less specific, however, and many people who weren’t old enough to learn about the purges from Khrushchev’s revelations in the late Fifties and early Sixties were unaware of the scale of the human carnage that Stalin had perpetrated in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev, moreover, allowed the textbooks to counterbalance anti-Stalin commentary with plaudits for Stalin’s domestic and foreign policies. Stalin was never rehabilitated, but his name ceased to be anathema. Gorbachev, coming to power in 1985, has done more than any Soviet leader since Khrushchev to restore the critical side to dominance in treatments of the Stalin question. New projects on Stalin, especially since the January 1987 Plenum of the Central Committee, have been described in the historical journals; and Abuladze’s film Repentance and Rybakov’s novel Children of the Arbat, with their undisguised attacks on Stalinism, have already indicated the direction which may soon be taken by the Gorbachevite Communist leaders.

Gorbachev’s own language has been curiously indirect. His speech to the January 1987 Plenum referred repeatedly to the years of ‘stagnancy’ under Brezhnev as being the product of social and political patterns established under Stalin: but he omitted to mention Brezhnev and Stalin by name. In his present book, which is notable mainly for its bland and unexceptionable list of objectives and for the elegance of its presentation rather than the rigorousness of its analysis, he seldom refers explicitly to either Brezhnev or Stalin.

Gorbachev’s evasiveness is caused by the need to avoid offending the sensitivities of leading party cadres. He knows that Khrushchev’s recklessness here was one of the reasons for his downfall in 1964. But Gorbachev has a further motive too, though it is barely detectable in his book, which was written in the summer of 1987 and published after the speech he made on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. By November, when the speech was delivered, Gorbachev had the confidence to denounce Stalin’s rule more openly. On this occasion, he spoke of the crimes committed in the Thirties. But Khrushchev had said as much thirty years ago: indeed, unlike Gorbachev, Khrushchev had not confined himself to talking only of a few ‘thousands’ of victims of Stalin and his murderous police. Gorbachev, on the other hand, took the official discussion onto a higher plane. Khrushchev, as many Western commentators complained at the time, concentrated on individuals. Stalin and his police chief Lavrenti Beria were laden with all the guilt. Gorbachev, by contrast, has begun to talk of an entire ‘system’ of oppression in Soviet public life in the late Thirties. This is historically cogent but politically risky. Hence Gorbachev’s otherwise ludicrous coyness about the number of victims; hence, too, his banging of the patriotic drum about policies which have long been discredited in Western historical discussions: his extremely skewed account of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is just one glaring example.

Yet the Western newspaper reporters who expressed so much disappointment about Gorbachev’s discussion of the purges were not so much missing the point as ignoring the fact that there are several points at issue. Gorbachev was giving in to the more conservative reformers – and even Ligachev, the second most powerful figure in the Politburo, is a reformer of a sort – when he spoke of the number of people eliminated in the Thirties. In certain other respects, however, he got his way. In particular, he was able to say that many existing defects in the mechanisms of state and society in the USSR are traceable to systemic changes introduced under Stalin. Soviet politics are in need of democratisation, according to Gorbachev, precisely because of the over-hierarchical and oppressive tendencies established in the Stalin era. Gorbachev has also offered a fond appreciation of the epoch immediately preceding Stalin’s dominance. These were the years of the New Economic Policy, which was introduced by Lenin in 1921 and lasted till the end of the Twenties. Under the NEP, peasants were allowed to trade their grain surpluses privately; intellectual debate was freer than it was later; and intra-party disputes were handled without bloodshed.

While painting what is still an anodyne picture of the Thirties, Gorbachev managed to offer a decidedly enthusiastic portrait of the Twenties. Indeed, he implied that in many respects the NEP could be seen as offering the possibility of a stage-by-stage transition to socialism without the necessity of Stalinism. Popular political choice and participation were themes that ran through his speech. He even spoke of the February Revolution of 1917, which saw the overthrow of Nicholas II and the installation of the Provisional Government, in terms which only briefly discussed the role played by the Bolsheviks.

A fondness for the NEP is not new among professional historians in the Soviet Union. One, P.V. Volobuev, re-emerged from the obscurity which enveloped him in the Seventies to publish a book early last year on ‘Russia’s path of societal development’ which treats the NEP in very similar terms; others in the more distant past did the same, although with the greater caution which was necessary under Brezhnev. This tradition of thought extends back to Stalin’s last great opponent Nikolai Bukharin, member of the Politburo and editor of Pravda in the Twenties, when the NEP was at its apogee. But Bukharin has not elicited a strong positive reaction from Soviet politicians, as opposed to historians, until Gorbachev. Even so, Gorbachev is not – at least on present evidence – a Bukharinist. His speech, while praising the potentialities of the NEP, also denied that the NEP could have protected the country against Hitler in 1941. There is as yet no reason to suppose that this tension is not an authentic reflection of Gorbachev’s views. He is not the first and will not be the last politician to believe two mutually contradictory things at once. But at the very least he has suggested that the NEP would have been a viable political system and a practical economic strategy for development if only the USSR had existed in a world which was less hostile to the very existence of the Soviet state.

How realistic this is as a historical judgment is fiercely debated. The principal economic historian of the period, R.W. Davies, has written of the large capacity for economic development within the NEP’s parameters. In his view, the New Economic Policy was not just a strategy for recovery from the Great War and the Civil War: it also presented opportunities for further advance. This is not a fulsome recommendation, however; and Davies also draws attention to the impediments to success: among them, the still-widening technological gap between the Soviet Union and the West; and the neglect throughout the Twenties of certain key industries.

Michal Reiman takes a gloomier view. His book is based on the well-informed émigré Menshevik press and on the German Foreign Ministry archives. He reproduces several key documents which are said to have been passed by Moscow-based German agents to Berlin. Unfortunately, he doesn’t look into the authenticity of these highly intriguing documents. If they are genuine, there is a distinct possibility that they will open up new areas of investigation into the Soviet Union of the Twenties and Thirties. (They would also, incidentally, demonstrate that Stalin’s notions about high-level foreign spies were not wholly paranoid, though there can only at best have been a handful of such spies, not millions as Stalin liked to pretend.) Most of the book’s arguments, however, can stand independently of the German material. Reiman proposes that the NEP was a period of chronic crisis in both agriculture and industry; and stresses that throughout the Twenties farming lagged behind an industrial development which itself was never impressive. But this surely is true of most countries in the process of industrialisation and does not of itself demonstrate the existence of what would, in Gorbachev’s terminology, be described as ‘crisis phenomena’. Perhaps a balance needs to be struck between the pessimism about the NEP typical of the late E.H. Carr and the warmth for it expressed by historian-reformers in the Soviet Union and by Stephen Cohen in the USA.

The merit of Reiman’s book lies elsewhere. E.H. Carr, whatever one thinks of his general analysis (and readers of this journal will be aware that his heritage is contentious), pioneered the study of early Soviet institutions. Reiman has a similar interest in the workings of the Soviet political system and writes with a vivid sense of the texture of public life under the Bolsheviks. He highlights the worries and ambitions of party officials at the end of the Twenties and is acute in his depiction of the ‘political culture’ of the central party leadership, a theme as yet thinly treated in the secondary literature. Although, as Reiman implies, the culture of Bolshevism was a key factor in promoting Stalin to victory in the debates of the late NEP period, we still don’t have a general account of the attitudes of the Bolsheviks in the lower levels of the Party. Impatience with the ‘slowness’ of economic development; a predisposition towards the use of violence to ‘solve’ social problems; and a feeling of security within highly authoritarian institutional structures: these were common features of the Party in the Twenties. Stalin didn’t ‘win’ simply because he knew how to operate the levers of power in the central party leadership: it was not merely placement politics that brought him victory. Yet we must be careful not to exclude him from the story. Whenever detailed analysis of the years from 1917 to 1953 is attempted, Stalin’s importance is confirmed. His cult vastly exaggerated his role: but our mockery of the cult has often been accompanied by an underestimation of his impact.

Trotsky, for one, has had a deleterious effect. His brilliant writings of the Thirties were picked up by anti-Bolshevik historians as a stick with which to beat Stalin. As a result, Stalin’s image as a perpetual second-rater – a ‘grey blur’ – gained currency. It also led to an overrating of Trotsky’s own historical importance – but that is another matter. Stalin’s activities in the Russian Civil War, for example, were much more influential than Trotsky’s record allows; and the unlikely assortment of conservative, liberal and Trotskyite historians who followed Trotsky made the same mistake. Robert Slusser’s book supplies chapter and verse on the way Trotsky misconstrued Stalin’s role in the months before October 1917. Stalin was one of a handful of members of the Bolshevik Central Committee who formed its inner core. He seldom did as he was bidden by Lenin without putting up some resistance, as Slusser demonstrates; and tensions between the two persisted. But because Lenin eventually got his way on matters of political strategy, even Slusser finds himself able to describe Stalin in 1917 as ‘the man who missed the Russian Revolution’.

Is this entirely fair? I ask not because a world-historical mass murderer deserves our indulgence but because the topic is vital to other questions of Soviet history. Let me offer just one instance. At the start of 1917 Lenin demanded that the Bolsheviks, when they took power, should impose land nationalisation. He carried his party with him on this in April. But he did not have Stalin’s support. Stalin had always thought that such a policy would alienate the peasants, whose acquiescence was vital to any socialist regime in its early phase. Eventually, Lenin saw the pragmatic sense of Stalin’s arguments; but the conventional secondary literature, as usual, gives the ‘credit’ to Lenin for reversing Bolshevik policy on the land in the autumn of 1917. Analogous examples could be taken from the years before the Russian Revolution. Nor was it unknown for Stalin to give practical expression to his disagreements with Lenin. Slusser describes the anti-Lenin position assumed by Stalin in the Bolshevik Central Committee in March 1917 (when the articles Lenin was writing were censored by its members). Stalin had a history of doing things his own way. Before the First World War he had briefly been editor of Pravda; Lenin, who had initially supported his appointment, was less happy when he discovered that Stalin’s policies did not accord with his own.

How Soviet historians in the years ahead will deal with the Stalin question is not yet clear. The political obstacles to a fair assessment are well-known, but there is also a conceptual road-block: all historical debates about Stalin are constrained to take place in the context of whether Stalin at any given time was supporting or opposing Leninism. This is not the most fruitful way to study the policies of a political party.

For a politician like Gorbachev, the recent Soviet past is so painfully sensitive an issue that strict limits are likely to be placed upon any research projects. Hagiography of Lenin, already intense under Brezhnev, will probably be strengthened. As he prises Stalin from his last fingernail’s hold on official esteem, Gorbachev will surely feel the need to seek legitimacy in the Lenin cult. Regimes which don’t have to submit themselves to an electorate have perennial difficulty in justifying their existence to their populations. Books on Lenin can therefore be expected to remain a major Soviet industry. Yet there are signs of a shift in the way he is treated. In one recent journal article, he has been represented as a politician who, not having had much experience of mass audiences before 1917, lacked faith in himself at his first open meetings – to the point of asking Alexandra Kollontai to speak on his behalf. The image of a more ‘human’ Lenin has begun to be fostered. It’s an image that has some basis in historical reality: but its present emergence is not unconnected with the regime’s instrumental need to establish Gorbachev, a man who admits to his own limitations and regularly reminds his audiences that there are no easy solutions, as a Leninist in the true tradition.

The emphasis on the democratic aspects of Soviet Russia before Stalin can be similarly explained (although this is not to doubt the sincerity of the historians who are writing favourably about the NEP), but it isn’t clear that it is justifiable historically. The NEP epoch was a more generous political era than the Stalin era which ended it. But, in comparison with the late Romanov period, its politics were grim. No competing parties existed in the Twenties, except illegally. Nicholas II, despite clinging to his dynastic prerogatives, had been compelled to tolerate dozens of political parties. Freedom of belief was more brutally infringed in the Twenties than it had been before 1917. Orthodox believers, priests especially, were persecuted. The political police were more pervasive than they had been before the Revolution. And private entrepreneurs, while having legal sanction to operate, never knew when the next arbitrary local clampdown might take away their personal possessions. There are many reasons to look again at the NEP as the source of a milder version of Communism than that which superseded it and which has persisted, in modified fashion, to this day. But the reform-historians are making headway only slowly. Brezhnevian professorial and editorial appointments continue to predominate. Rumblings in the Academy of Sciences and in Moscow State University signal a rearguard action on the part of the conservatives. And the outcome is as yet quite unclear.