Rancorous Luminaries

R.W. Davies

  • Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives edited by J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning
    Cambridge, 294 pp, £35.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 521 44125 0
  • Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant by Amy Knight
    Princeton, 312 pp, £19.95, January 1994, ISBN 0 691 03257 2
  • This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow by Anna Larina
    Hutchinson, 385 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 09 178141 8
  • Stalin i Ordzhonikidze: Konflikty v Politbyuro v 30-e gody by O.V. Khlevnyuk
    Rossiya Molodaya, 144 pp, December 1993, ISBN 5 86646 047 5

Western historians have been struggling for decades to get into the archives of the Stalin period. In the early Eighties, before Gorbachev took office, we were granted very limited access, but were forbidden to see the finding aids and were segregated in a special foreigners’ reading-room. The real transformation came after the defeat of the August 1991 coup. The following month, the party archives made available reports of plenary meetings of the Party Central Committee from the Thirties, as well as Politburo minutes of that time, to both of which I had been refused access the previous April.

May promises made that autumn have not been kept. The KGB, military and foreign affairs archives remain administratively separate from the other state archives, and access is extremely difficult. And we still await the Presidential of Kremlin archives, promised over two years ago – these contain the working papers of the Politburo for the whole Soviet period, and most of Stalin’s own papers. In spite of these restrictions, and the archives, desperate financial situation, the millions of previously inaccessible files now available in Moscow and in the regions have made possible a vast increase in our knowledge of Stalinism, and perhaps in our understanding of it.

The new information about the gulags provides a notable example. While the archives of the KGB are still closed, the stale archives contain a large store of materials from the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD. Ever since the gulag system was established in the early Thirties. Western historians have inconclusively and often acrimoniously discussed its size and significance. Before the archives were opened, estimates of the camp and prison population could only be made by assessing survivors’ reports, and by manipulating gaps in the statistics, the confidential but incomplete 1941 plan, and other indirect evidence. The estimates for the end of the Thirties ranged from Dallin and Nicolaevsky’s ten million and Robert Conquest’s nine million (the latter figure excluded ‘criminals’) to Wheatcroft’s maximum of four to five million, Jasny’s three and a half million and Timasheff’s two million. Elaborate records in the NKVD archives reveal that about two million people were incarcerated in camps, colonies and prisons at the beginning of 1939, and about one million in the ‘labour settlements’ to which kulaks and other undesirables were exiled – some three million in all. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 the total number had risen to well over five million, largely as a result of the mass exiling of Soviet Germans, Crimean Tatars and others accused of treachery or potential treachery during the war.

These figures do not give a complete picture. The files available at present may exclude certain top-secret camps, and they certainly exclude the many people released from camps or exile but not permitted to return to their town of origin. But they do indicate that Jasny’s estimate, largely based on the 1941 plan, was about right for the number of people in camps and labour settlements; almost all the others were too high.

There is more room for dispute about the total number of people who passed through the camps during the Stalin period, and even more doubt about the number of excess deaths from violence, hunger and disease. Newly available demographic material indicates that between eight and fourteen million excess deaths – deaths above the normal expected level – occurred between the population censuses of 1926 and 1939, most of them during the calamitous famine of 1932-3. The estimates made as long ago as 1946 by Lorimer, and in the Seventies by Stephen Wheatcroft and myself, proved to be too low, but many estimates by Western historians were too high.

The present state of our knowledge about these grim consequences of Stalinism is succinctly summarised in Alec Nove’s 14-page chapter in Stalinist Terror. Most of the other contributions to this important collection of essays deal with the Great Purge of 1936-8, the Yezhovshchina. Several authors deal with the impact of the Great Purge on particular sections of the population. A preliminary study of the Soviet élite, by Getty and William Chase, indicates that, contrary to the usual assumption, the purges hit economic administrators more severely than writers and other members of the creative intelligentsia. An ingenious study by Sheila Fitzpatrick of Moscow and Leningrad telephone directories before and after the purges tends to confirm this. As many as 60 per cent of senior officials in heavy industry, as compared with 17 per cent of the creative intelligentsia, dropped out of the phone books between 1937 and 1939.

The same was true for officials and managers working in heavy industry at a local level: Hiroaki Kuromiya shows that between 1936 and 1938 in the Donbass, the main coal-producing area, the Stalinist Terror ‘virtually decimated the party leadership’ and eliminated more than a quarter of all senior mining officials. Nor was the Great Purge confined to the towns. Using the Smolensk archives, Roberta Manning concludes that in the Belyi agricultural district as many as 15 per cent of rural party members were expelled in the single year 1937, and many of these were arrested.

The interplay between politics and society under Stalinism has been even more hotly debated than the scale of repression and human suffering. In the first quarter of a century after the war. Western – and particularly American – Sovietology was dominated by the ‘totalitarian hypothesis’ In its strong form, this held that a monolithic party-state ruled omnipotently over a passive, frozen society: in its very different weaker form, the party-state merely sought to achieve omnipotence. Both the advocates and the critics of the totalitarian hypothesis frequently muddied the discussion by failing to define the sense in which they were using the term. In the USA, in the years of McCarthyism and after, opponents of the totalitarian view were held to be soft on Communism, a consideration that overshadowed the larger debate. ‘We practised a good deal of self-censorship,’ an American historian of the post-war generation, Alfred Meyer, admitted in retrospect, ‘because we did not wish to discredit ourselves politically.’

Some leading British historians, notably Carr and Deutscher, peremptorily rejected this prevailing orthodoxy. And by 1958 evidence from the Smolensk archives of the complexity of Soviet society led Merle Fainsod, one of the doyens of ‘totalitarianism’, to modify his earlier certainties. Then in the Seventies, Moshe Lewin’s work on Russian peasants and Soviet society and Stephen Cohen’s outstanding biography of Bukharin presented a Soviet society in flux, and a Communist policy which was not fixed in one mould but contained competing trends within itself. For these historians, Stalin’s victory at the end of the Twenties over the more humane and less authoritarian strand represented by Bukharin was a distortion and corruption of the development of Communism; they were confident that the system would be reformed.

Hot on their heels came a younger generation, including Professors Arch Getty and Roberta Manning, who rejected the totalitarian hypothesis even more emphatically. Professor Manning, in her first study of Belyi district, published in 1984, went so far as to declare that in 1937 ‘the Soviet regime governed the countryside, in so far as the countryside was governed at all, dependent ultimately, like all governments, on the consent of the governed.’ And in his book on the Great Purge, published in 1985, Getty stressed the impact of political and structural factors ‘from below’ on the purges, and dismissed outright the normal view that they were masterminded by Stalin from above.

The leading adherents of these rival approaches regard each other with great mutual hostility. The term ‘revisionism’ in the sense of ‘anti-totalitarianism’ has been applied both to Cohen and Lewin and to Getty and Manning: but Cohen, failing to appreciate the merits which lurk behind the unhappy generalisations uttered by Getty and Manning, rejects their work as ‘elliptical scholarship’ and not ‘real scholarly revisionism’.

The bitterest exchanges have been those between Robert Conquest and Getty, the most militant if not the most extreme representatives of the ‘totalitarian’ and ‘revisionist’ schools. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives have exacerbated rather than mollified relations between the protagonists, as readers of recent issues of the TLS will have noticed. For Conquest, Getty is a ‘supposed historian’ whose work, when he doesn’t ‘stick to indexing’, is valueless or even positively harmful. For Getty, Conquest is an old-fashioned Cold Warrior who ‘must adapt to higher academic and professional standards’.

In fact, the newly-opened archives shed a great deal of light on the dark issues which divide these rancorous luminaries. They confirm – if confirmation was needed – that as early as 1933 Stalin’s proposals, however outrageous, were rarely if ever challenged in the Politburo. In August 1933, for example, while Stalin was on holiday in the Crimea, the Politburo, on the initiative of Stalin’s old associate Ordzhonikidze, took a minor decision which Stalin did not like, and he wrote crossly to Molotov about it: the Politburo reversed the decision within 24 hours. Nor did Stalin make any attempt to pretend to future generations that someone else was holding the smoking gun. On 9 August 1937, he despatched the following telegram to the Saratov regional party committee: ‘The Central Committee proposes you organise within seven days accelerated trial of those guilty of arson, sentence all to be executed by shooting and report executions in local press.’ This is one of many similar telegrams in the Stalin archive.

The archives also confirm that the Politburo was an active instigator of the Great Purge. An instruction from People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Yezhov, dated 30 July 1937, and based on an earlier decision signed by Stalin, announced a plan to execute 73,000 ‘anti-Soviet elements’, and send a further quarter of a million to labour camps or prisons for eight to ten years. There were numerical targets for each of 62 regions. The target for the Smolensk (Western) region was to execute a thousand people and incarcerate a further five thousand. This savage instruction undermines Professor Manning’s previous account of the purges in Belyi district, in which the emphasis was on the part played by local grievances in stimulating the purges. Of the 37 expulsions from the Party in Belyi district in 1937, 30 took place after the 30 July instruction. She incorporates the decree somewhat uneasily into her revised narrative, arguing that the ‘arrest operation’ following the decree coincided (!) with the climax of the local terror. The powerful role of the Politburo in the Great Purge is again made clear in David Hoffman’s chapter on Moscow. According to Hoffman, ‘the tone of party committee meetings at factories changed overnight’ after a secret letter had been received passing on the Politburo’s directive to root out all Trotskyists.

In last autumn’s Slavic Review Amy Knight intemperately reproved a fellow historian for his claim that local influences played a significant part in the Great Purge. In Georgian archives and newspapers, she insists, ‘I found no indication that local officials were acting on their own initiative or that the denunciations by the rank and file were anything other than feigned hysteria, whipped up on orders from Moscow.’ Dr Knight is right to place the main emphasis on the role of the centre: the purges were launched by the Politburo, and were abruptly halted by a firm signal from Moscow. But it is also possible to go too far in this view. In Stalinist Terror both Lynn Viola, writing about the countryside in the early Thirties, and Roberta Manning effectively demonstrate that traditional local enmities and grievances played their part in determining who would be victimised. As in medieval witchhunts, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and in milder episodes such as McCarthyism, obedience to authority and genuine fear of imaginary enemies were inextricably mixed.

While there is no doubt that Stalin was a dictator who had accumulated enormous personal power, the revisionists are certainly justified in their assumption that his decisions were influenced by both his associates and his enemies (we now know that he was a voracious reader of Trotskyist and Menshevik émigré publications), as well as by the conflicting pressures welling up from society as a whole. But the question remains: was Stalin an independent actor with his own clear, long-term programme, or was he rather a plaything of historical forces and political processes? Professor Getty now acknowledges that ‘Stalin lit the match’ which ignited the Great Purge. But he also compares Stalin not with Hitler but with Eichmann, as if he was obeying someone else’s orders. For Getty, Stalin remains ‘a cruel but ordinary mortal unable to see the future’: ‘not a master planner’, but someone who ‘stumbled into everything from collectivisation to foreign policy’. Getty adduces the secret record of Party Central Committee meetings in 1935 and 1936. At one of these Stalin displayed reluctance to expel the old Bolshevik Enukidze from the Party, at another he complained during a speech by Yezhov that too many party members had been expelled.

It is difficult to know how much weight to attach to such new evidence. Stalin was a good tactician. The retreat from collectivisation launched by his famous article ‘Dizzy with Success’ in March 1930 soon proved temporary. In support of his conclusion that Stalin’s hesitations about launching the Great Purge were not mere tactics, Getty expresses great scepticism about the widespread view that in 1935 and 1936 Stalin had to present an appearance of moderation in deference to Ordzhonikidze and other members of the Politburo opposed to the terror. Oleg Khlevnyuk, a young Russian historian, in his meticulous study of Stalin and Ordzhonikidze, takes the rather more cautious view that while Ordzhonikidze was not prepared to enter into a serious struggle with Stalin, ‘he may have supported a “softer” strategy,’ and certainly resisted the extreme forms of repression. In other words, Stalin did have to overcome resistance to the Great Purge from Ordzhonikidze and his commissariat, and from other great departments of state.

Khlevnyuk concludes that the Soviet system of the Thirties was capable of accommodating – and sometimes did accommodate – more moderate and balanced policies, and that it was in this context that Stalin personally decided to launch the Great Terror. As Khlevnyuk points out, Stalin’s death in 1953 provides a case study both of his political importance as an individual and of the limits of his influence: ‘immediately after Stalin’s death, his successors renounced many of the extremes of state terrorism relatively easily, but they did not touch the foundations of the system.’

Khlevnyuk’s book is part of a distinguished series of short ‘First Monographs’ by Russian historians. The appearance of these books has been made possible, in spite of the collapse of most serious publishing in Russia, thanks to the financial support of an enlightened Russian entrepreneur and of various Western universities.

Anna Larina’s moving and informative book is based on her own experience of these grim years as the childhood admirer, the young wife and soon the young widow of Bukharin, who was executed after the last of the great public trials in March 1938. Larina’s memoirs suffer from the usual disadvantage of recollections long after the event – her memory is faulty, and biased in favour of the causes and people she admires. When her book was published in Russian in 1988, some historians too easily accepted her passionate assertion that Bukharin did not have any political conversation with the émigré Menshevik Boris Nicolaevsky in Paris, and that Nicolaevsky was lying when he claimed that Bukharin’s opinions and information formed the basis of the famous ‘Letter of an Old Bolshevik’, published in the Menshevik journal in 1936. Professor Getty has long dismissed the ‘Letter’ as a spurious source, and in Stalinist Terror – in defiance of his normal suspicion of memoirs – he cautiously welcomes Larina’s testimony. But Liebich and Tucker in the Slavic Review (Winter 1992) have shown that Larina is confused about both the itinerary and the dates of Bukharin’s last journey abroad. Conversations with Bukharin may after all have made a major contribution to the ‘Letter’.

For the most part, however, Larina’s personal recollections greatly enhance our understanding. Her account of her confrontation with Beria at his headquarters in her Lubianka in 1938, after Bukharin had been executed, portrays Beria more vividly and convincingly than any document so far found in the archives. Beria was in charge of the secret police almost continuously from November 1938, after the fall of Yezhov, until Stalin’s death – longer than any of his predecessors. Larina had known him six years before as ‘a rather intelligent businesslike man who, like all Georgians, was so unaffectedly hospitable’: now she realised that he was ‘an unprincipled careerist’, ‘a criminal from the start’. Even so, she did not experience him at his worst. An old family acquaintance, he did not treat her as he did many other young women: he did not rape her, or get his associates to beat her and kick her in his presence. He bullied and cajoled her, and offered her sandwiches, grapes and tea.

In her biography of Beria, Amy Knight draws on local and central party archives to provide a very full account of Stalin’s fellow Georgian and close associate. (She was unable, however, to obtain access to the KGB and Presidential archives.) She strongly confirms previous assessments of his cruelty and rapacity. But he was an intelligent sadist. And when Stalin died, Beria, like Fouché and other famous police chiefs, sought to strengthen his power by presenting himself as a humane and efficient reformer. Within a few weeks of Stalin’s death, many prisoners were released on Beria’s initiative. Between March and June 1953, Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ was implicitly criticised, the rights of Ukrainians and other non-Russian peoples were extended, and East Germany was put under strong pressure to modify its drive to socialism. Apparently Beria even proposed to meet Tito, with the aim of normalising relations with Yugoslavia, at a time when Tito was still being denounced in Moscow as a ‘fascist hireling’.

The other leaders, terrified at the power Beria was gathering into his hands, secured his arrest and execution, denouncing him in the time-honoured way as an agent of international imperialism. They also rejected some of his more radical policies as ‘sowing the seeds of misunderstanding between the peoples of the USSR’ and as a ‘capitulation’ to imperialism.

Inspired by Dr Knight’s lively account of these events, which is based largely on the previously secret proceedings of the July 1953 plenum of the Party Central Committee, some commentators have surmised that far-reaching reforms might have come much earlier to the Communist world if Beria had not been overturned. But the other Soviet leaders were surely right to tremble at the possible consequences of allowing this ruthless police chief to take charge.

Beria was certainly not the only reformer in the Kremlin in 1953. At the July 1953 plenum, Malenkov, who made the opening report denouncing Beria, also made the final speech. In this speech, which is not mentioned by Knight, Malenkov in effect announced that reforms would continue. He said nothing about Beria, and instead rounded on those Central Committee members who had assumed that Beria’s defeat meant a return to Stalinist ways. He criticised many past failings, including the cult of Stalin, the exclusion of the Politburo from important decisions, the failure to call a party congress between 1939 and 1952, the overtaxation of the peasantry, the decision to build the Great Turkmenian Canal without a proper economic assessment, Stalin’s support for ‘product-exchange’ rather than trade, and the lack of economic incentives to collective farmers. Malenkov’s son, A.G. Malenkov, has published an encomium celebrating his father as a frustrated great reformer.

After much manoeuvring and in-fighting among the party leaders, the banner of reform was raised again in 1956 by Khrushchev and Mikoyan – two more potential reformers, who, like Beria and Malenkov, had kept their jobs and their lives by obeying Stalin unconditionally. (The archives reveal that Mikoyan, who has a reputation for liberalism, was one of the most vicious and unscrupulous denigrators of Bukharin during the Great Purge.) The trouble was not the absence of leaders who recognised the necessity of reform, but the resistance of the system to reform, and the leaders’ own moral and intellectual commitment to Stalinism, which rendered them incapable of designing a viable model of ‘reformed Communism’.