Days of Reckoning

Orlando Figes

  • Stalin: Man and Ruler by Robert McNeal
    Macmillan, 389 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 333 37351 0

‘What is Stalin?’ an Old Bolshevik asked Trotsky in 1925. After a moment’s consideration came the reply: ‘the outstanding mediocrity in the Party’. Trotsky’s contempt may in part be explained by the wounds which his own pride had suffered from the growth of Stalin’s influence among the party rank and file after Lenin’s death in January 1924. On the other hand, not even Stalin’s closest allies considered intellect and charisma to be among his greatest virtues – at least, not until the Stalinist ‘cult of the personality’, which, according to Robert McNeal, didn’t really take off until 1933, four years after the consolidation of the Stalinist dictatorship.

Stalin was barely known to the Soviet people in the early Twenties. A poor public speaker and second-rate ideologue, he had established his reputation in the Party as a man behind the scenes – an effective administrator who could be relied on to do almost any kind of job at short notice and without hesitation. Stalin, as McNeal informs us, ‘was the man you counted on when the job was leaning on somebody’. During the early years of Bolshevik rule (1917-21), when the regime was engaged in a civil war against its political enemies, there were many such jobs to be done. Stalin’s offices multiplied, largely thanks to the patronage of Lenin himself. Yet he remained strangely insecure and highly sensitive to criticism. One source of insecurity was his Georgian background, for which he compensated with an aggressive Russian chauvinism (in a similar manner, Hitler buried his provincial Austrian roots in a pan-German nationalism). It is interesting in this context that Djugashvili-Stalin never quite managed to rid his spoken Russian of its Georgian accent. Unlike Lenin and Trotsky, he was untouched by the European currents that flowed into Russian culture until the Thirties, when he finally sealed off his servile kingdom from the West. Apart from a little self-taught German, he spoke no foreign languages. He made only four trips to Europe during his life. And he never wore a suit or necktie in public, but appeared in Asiatic military garb.

A second source of insecurity, which increased as his career progressed, was his revolutionary past and the doubts people had about it. There were rumours, which McNeal is probably right to discount, that Stalin had informed the Tsarist Police about some of his rivals in the Bolshevik underground in Baku. Martov, the Menshevik leader, was probably closer to the mark in 1918 when he accused Stalin of having carried out bank robberies (‘expropriations’) to finance party activities, although on this, as on quite a few other unresolved points in Stalin’s biography, McNeal appears to have no opinion. On several occasions during the Civil War, Trotsky, the War Commissar, complained that Stalin was waging his own private war for military glory at the expense of Red Army interests, although McNeal correctly apportions some of the blame for the disastrous Polish Campaign of August 1920 to Kamenev and Tukhachevsky. Lenin, the sick and dying man of 1922-23, also had his quarrels with Stalin, though by now he had entrusted his amanuensis with so many powers that he proved unable to get the better of him. A lifelong enemy of Russian chauvinism, Lenin was critical of Stalin’s high-handed treatment of the Georgian Communist leaders opposed to the Russian-dominated Transcaucasian Federation. In his final Testament, dictated for the 12th Party Congress in April 1923, the Bolshevik leader expressed his fears about Stalin’s ‘rudeness’ and his concentration of ‘boundless power’ in the party-state bureaucracy. To democratise the latter, he recommended a tenfold increase in the size of the Central Committee and the Party Commission of Control, with the new members drawn from ‘ordinary workers and peasants’. He also urged the Congress to replace Stalin as the Party’s General Secretary with a ‘more tolerant, more loyal and more polite’ person.

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[*] Historians of the Nazi regime have been similarly divided since the Sixties between ‘intentionalists’ stressing Hitler’s role in the shaping and implementation of Nazi policy, and ‘structuralists’ emphasising the ‘polycratic’ or multi-dimensional nature of the Nazi state, its relationship with old élites and institutions, and its ‘cumulative radicalisation’ in response to changing social forces.

[†] Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers 1928-1931 will be published by Cambridge in August.