Soviet Revisions

Oleg Gordievsky

  • Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy by Dmitri Volkogonov, edited and translated by Harold Shukman
    Weidenfeld, 642 pp, £29.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 297 81080 4
  • Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations by Walter Laqueur
    Unwin Hyman, 383 pp, £16.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 04 440769 6
  • The Prosecutor and the Prey: Vyshinsky and the 1930s Moscow Show Trials by Arkady Vaksberg, translated by Jan Butler
    Weidenfeld, 374 pp, £25.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 297 81064 2

Dmitri Volkogonov, General of the Soviet Army, head of the Institute of Military History and admirer of Gorbachev, has produced the most authoritative biography of Stalin we have read so far. There is no doubt that he had many advantages over Western biographers of Stalin, of whose work he seems to have made little use. As an official historian and a general, he had access to unique archival material; and he has based his work primarily on documents held in the Soviet archives of the Ministry of Defence, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (for the history of the Communist Party) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are therefore many new details, insights and extrapolations in his book. What is remarkable, however, is that, even at the height of glasnost, an influential Soviet historian was not given access to CPSU Central Committee records, which contain all the most important material for any understanding of Soviet history pertaining to the Politburo, the Party Secretariat and the Central Committee. It goes without saying that he had no access to KGB archives. Yet if Stalin’s motives, decisions and actions between 1928 and 1952 are to be understood, the details of his work with the secret political police – his eyes, ears and armoury – is crucial.

Stalin’s close colleagues also knew that he kept a black notebook in which he made regular entries. Immediately after learning that Stalin had died, Lavrenti Beria rushed to the leader’s office, opened his safe and seized the black notebook and other papers (there weren’t many of these). No one has seen them since. Lack of access to all that material has meant that Volkogonov’s work, while undoubtedly interesting, is not sensational, and changes little in what we previously knew about Stalin. Volkogonov of course believes that he has been able to make a great number of new revelations. As an army man himself, he writes most successfully about Stalin as a military leader and about his relations with the Soviet Army chiefs. He also adds many details about the Stalinist Terror of the Thirties, and relates the fate of many individual victims. He is proud of the fact that he has been able, as he thinks, to provide the most reliable figures for the losses suffered by the Soviet Union in the Second World War – twenty-six to twenty-seven million, of whom ten million fell in battle or died in captivity; while the number of victims of the 1929-1952 repressions was 22 million. The first figure is correct, In the second, however, he has apparently failed to include the victims of collectivisation and of the great famine of the Thirties. He has talked to Stalin’s former guards and brings to light details of Stalin’s way of life, letting it be understood that Valentina lstomin, his housekeeper, was his mistress during the last years of his life.

Intellectually, Volkogonov’s chief mistake is to try to describe in detail what an incredible monster stood at the head of the Soviet Union and its Communist Party for a quarter of a century, while at the same time trying to prove that nothing is wrong with Marxism-Leninism, Communism or Lenin himself. What is more, he cannot quite break with the belief, so deep-rooted in Soviet history, that Trotsky was an even greater villain than Stalin, and that Russia could almost be seen as fortunate in having had Stalin, rather than Trotsky, as its ruler. Although he says over and over again that Stalin was a scoundrel (‘Stalin never forgave anything’ is reiterated half a dozen times), he cannot completely conceal the admiration for him which he acquired in his youth and which is so characteristic of Soviet officials and military people of his generation. Thus, of Trotsky he says: ‘The military reforms in the Army began only with his departure’; ‘like it or not, he acted against his own state.’ And of Stalin: ‘He drove himself hard at work. Days off did not exist for him’; in the bureaucratic system set up by Stalin, ‘the impetus of October and Lenin’s orders was not completely lost’; ‘he slept under a soldier’s blanket’; ‘after he died it was found that he had no personal belongings.’ Nor is the book devoid of traditional Soviet prejudices about the West. In Volkogonov’s opinion, Stalin made his pact with Hitler because ‘class egocentricity, hostility to socialism and mercenary considerations prevented London and Paris from making a sober assessment of the real peril. Hitler appeared to them as a lesser danger than the Soviet Union.’ When Winston Churchill spoke in Fulton in 1946, ‘the great Englishman was clearly exaggerating. He in fact proved himself to be a prisoner of spy mania and the witch-hunt.’

The book is flabby, verbose, and abounds in repetition. A more serious defect is that Volkogonov, evidently begrudging the laurels won by Solzhenitsyn and Anatoli Rybakov, has blended fiction with historical research, ‘Stalin,’ Volkogonov writes, ‘cast his mind back into the distant past, when on Lenin’s orders, he went to the Eastern Front with Dzerzhinsky.’ Or: ‘he stood up, deep in thought, and began to pace up and down his large study, as usual holding his unlit pipe in his hand.’

Walter Laqueur’s book is concise, free of false stereotypes and logically argued. Each statement has a source reference, and the work rests on a solid knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union, accumulated by Laqueur himself and other competent Western historians of the modern era. Starting from the assumption that every educated person knows Stalin’s biography, Laqueur has set himself the task of writing a study of Stalin and his time based on the new information which, thanks to glasnost, came to light in the Soviet Union between 1987 and 1990. Not all of this material is strictly speaking new – some of it was already known in the West – but it hasn’t always been handled very wisely. Laqueur therefore considers that educated Western interpretation is essential, and he has succeeded brilliantly in providing this.

Volkogonov’s book appeared just as Laqueur’s manuscript was being completed, in the early months of 1990. Laqueur, however, succeeded in reading many of its chapters when they were published as instalments in the literary periodical, Oktyabr. Unlike Volkogonov, Laqueur does not drown in a sea of minutiae, but deals with the fundamental questions: Trotsky and Bukharin as the possible alternatives to Stalin; the Great Terror; Stalin, Hitler and the war; and the psychology of Stalinism. With a sure touch and in every chapter, he scores over both Volkogonov and other Soviet interpreters of the Stalin phenomenon. One of the best instances of this is his skilful exposure of the new Soviet myth that Stalin inherited most of his ideas from Trotsky, and by putting them into effect caused all the Soviet Union’s calamities: that, to be more precise, it was what Trotsky did and wrote in the mid-Thirties which made Stalin resort to his Great Terror.

Laqueur’s logic and facts are also deadly when it comes to those Soviet authors who interpret the past from positions of anti-semitism and Russian chauvinism. His irony is both persuasive and pertinent when directed at ‘revisionist’ historians who try to whitewash Stalinism.‘The ink had hardly dried on those articles and books which argued that one should not exaggerate the importance of the Terror,’ writes Lacqueur, before Soviet writers began to write about ‘millions and even tens of millions of victims, and the prevailing fear of mass starvation, the pervasive denunciations, tyranny and totalitarianism’.

I only find it hard to go along with Laqueur when he talks about those Western intellectuals like the Webbs and H.G.Wells who sang Stalin’s praises. Contemporary Soviet writers – and in this instance I would include myself among them – have nothing but contempt for these people. Laqueur doesn’t defend them but it seems to me that he is a little too ready to understand them. In the Soviet Union, as he sees it, the tendency is to exaggerate both their ‘political and psychological sophistication’ – men such as Feuchtwangler and Romain Rolland, he reminds us, were simply striving to mobilise public opinion for the conflict with Germany – and their influence. But in that case, Soviet authors would ask, what are the factors which even today cause the public in the West to fail completely to comprehend the uniqueness, the scale and the monstrosity of the crimes committed by Communism and Stalinism? Why does Laqueur feel it necessary in his book to stress that ‘what happened in the Soviet Union was without precedent in peacetime in modern history’? One still has yet to get to the bottom of the reasons for the uncritical attitude to Stalin adopted by a considerable part of the Western public.

Laqueur has a deep knowledge of perestroika as it has affected the arts. He is acquainted with the novels, films and poetry which enormously contributed to the dethronement of Stalinism. He is absolutely correct when he says that ‘to write the history of intellectual de-Stalinisation is to write the history of Soviet intellectual life after 1986.’ To put it another way, everyone who wants to find out about intellectual life in the Soviet Union in recent years would be well advised to read Laqueur.

The British reader may not know it, but Arkadi Vaksberg is one of the most popular people in the Soviet Union – a brilliant lawyer and writer. Before glasnost, be was the nearest thing to what might he called an investigative journalist, describing cases of scandalous injustice and corruption involving important officials, and mysterious crimes which were unravelled with great difficulty. With the advent of glasnost, he began to write about what it had previously been forbidden to mention: corruption at the top of the Party, the hideous crimes of Stalinism, the involvement in crime of the very organs of law and order. Vaksberg worked with Literaturnaya Gazeta for many years. Whenever a contribution of Vaksberg’s was published, readers went straight to his article, ignoring everything else in the paper. It was perfectly logical that a man like this should write a book about Vyshinsky, one of the most repulsive instruments of Stalin, the man who created the ‘juridical basis’ for repression and torture and who was then launched on a diplomatic career aimed primarily at unleashing the Cold War. Vyshinsky is best-known in Britain as the prosecutor in the famous Moscow show trials of 1936.

In Russia, Vyshinsky’s name is as well-known as Stalin’s, Yezhov’s, Beria’s and Molotov’s. But many of the facts will come as a revelation to Soviet readers. For example, how was it that before the Revolution, when Vyshinsky was still a Menshevik, he was involved in attempts to arrest Lenin, yet after 1917, he not only managed to preserve his life and liberty but made a spectacular career for himself? The answer is that when he was imprisoned briefly in 1908, he was in a cell with Stalin, with whom he shared the food parcels sent him by rich relatives.

Some people in the Soviet Union and many in the West who knew Vyshinsky after the war as a smooth diplomat, and an erudite man, serving as Soviet representative at the United Nations, said: ‘Yes, he was a merciless, unforgiving, ruthless prosecutor at the show trials, but he sincerely believed in the guilt of the accused.’ Thanks to the material he has found in the archives, Arkadi Vaksberg is able to prove that Vyshinsky not only knew in detail about the illegal methods of investigation being used, and above all about the torture that was inflicted, but that on occasion he took an active part in all this himself. One of his methods was to threaten to kill members of an accused person’s family in order to obtain a false confession.

When the International War Crimes Tribunal was set up in Nuremberg at the end of 1945, Vyshinsky used to go there from time to time. He was clearly trying to influence the course of the trials. We learn from the book that a Commission for the Direction of the Nuremberg Trials was set up in the Soviet Union in conditions of absolute secrecy. Its main purpose was to prevent discussion of any aspect of Soviet-German relations during 1939-1941. Vyshinsky fulfilled this task admirably.

The reader will find of a multitude of gripping stories of Soviet life in the Stalin era told here. For informativeness and illumination, Vaksberg’s book is comparable with those of Volkogonov and Laqueur, but is superior to theirs in its lively and fresh investigative style. It has been excellently translated by Jan Butler. In addition to this, it has a special piquancy for British readers. There are many quotations from British officials talking about Vyshinsky and aspects of Soviet life connected with him. He gives due credit for perspicacity to some of them, including the former diplomat Sir Frank Roberts and Sir Hartley (now Lord) Shawcross, both of whom he quotes at length. But he subjects others to biting sarcasm. This, for example, is what Winston Churchill said about the Moscow trials ‘at which Vyshinsky appeared with such brilliance in the role of State Prosecutor’: they were ‘a not unuseful purge of the military and political apparatus in Soviet Russia’.

At the time of the show trials, Vaksberg writes, the British Embassy in Moscow ‘had absolutely no idea of the leadership’s motive forces or of the intrigues inside the Kremlin, and this caused them to make political forecasts which can only bring a sad smile to our lips.’ One of several examples of such forecasts is the absurd report submitted by the Embassy to London in 1937:

Yezhov is a very strong figure and, what is very important, is a Party official and not a Chekist. Most likely he will be Stalin’s successor. Stalin gave the NKVD to Yezhov to reduce the power of this now strong organisation. That is why Yezhov’s appointment should be welcomed.

Vaksberg ends his book with a bitter question. Is it true, he asks, that history’s only lesson is that one learns no lessons from it? I should like to ask another question. Has the British Embassy in Moscow, like other Western embassies there, learnt the lesson of its reporting in 1937, as it now reports back to its capital in this new fateful period in the history of Russia?

Translated by Tom Beattie.