Peaches from Our Tree

R.W. Davies

In 1969 Stalin’s closest associate, Vyasheslav Molotov, in retirement and disgrace, transferred to the Central Party Archive in Moscow 77 letters and notes which he had received from Stalin in the tumultuous decade 1925-36. The letters were stored in complete secrecy for 20 years. In 1989 they were made available to a handful of Soviet historians, and the following year 20 of the most important letters were published in Soviet journals. Now we have two fine parallel editions of the whole set of letters in Russian and English. The Russian editors were working under serious constraints, however. ‘Materials about decisions on many questions dealt with in Stalin’s letters are still kept in secrecy in the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation; in many cases this was an obstacle to the preparation of commentaries,’ they remark with acid restraint. On the other hand, the Presidential Archive has issued a volume of documents – Iosif Stalin v Obyatiyakh Semi (‘Joseph Stalin in the Embrace of His Family’) – containing Stalin’s correspondence in 1928-31 with his wife Nadezhda Allilueva, who committed suicide in 1932, and letters from Allilueva and Stalin to his mother.

Nearly all of Stalin’s letters to Molotov are handwritten. Most were written during the two months or so in each year when Stalin was on vacation in the South and conveyed by the courier service of the OGPU to Molotov in Moscow. Molotov’s replies are rarely available. The letters are informal in style; on occasion Stalin sends greetings to Molotov’s wife (whom he later imprisoned); but these are political not personal documents. They explain Stalin’s reasons for advocating certain policies or tactics, and also contain informal instructions on sensitive issues. The matters they concern are ones which Stalin did not think it appropriate to allude to in the official top-secret coded telegrams which he was simultaneously exchanging with Molotov and various Moscow agencies.

They do not of course convey a full picture of Stalin as a politician. There were undoubtedly considerations which he was not prepared to reveal to Molotov even when they were working closely together. There are no letters for the crucial year 1928, when Bukharin and the Right Opposition broke with Stalin. And while there are over sixty letters for the period 1925-30, there are only a dozen for 1931-6, and none for later years. The Russian editors reasonably surmise that Molotov did not hand over letters to the Archive which dealt with ‘Stalin’s and Molotov’s darkest and most criminal activities’. And later on, Stalin increasingly used and depended on other members of the Politburo and the OGPU.

At this time Stalin relied on Molotov to keep things in order in Moscow when he was out of the capital. In 1933 there was a muddle about the Politburo vacation schedule, and Molotov announced that he was going to be on vacation for some weeks before Stalin returned to Moscow. Stalin insisted that they could not both be away from Moscow at the same time: ‘Is it so hard to understand that you simply can’t leave the Politburo and Council of Commissars to Kuibyshev (he may start drinking) or to Kaganovich for long?’ Molotov had to return from vacation early, and Stalin with rare politeness remarked that this made him ‘a little uncomfortable’. Stalin could rely on Molotov’s complete loyalty. In the long series of interviews Molotov gave to a Russian journalist in the years before his death, there is hardly a whisper of criticism of Stalin. In the present collection he often makes suggestions, but always accepts Stalin’s decisions without hesitation. The close association did not last for ever. In 1936 Molotov was under a cloud for some months. In October 1952, at a session of the Party Central Committee, Stalin denounced him for grave political errors committed while he (Stalin) was on vacation; it is likely that Stalin’s death in March 1953 saved him from arrest.

The letters reveal very clearly some of the stages by which Stalin secured a unified political command. In 1925, when the correspondence begins, Stalin, supported by Bukharin, Rykov and the majority of the Politburo, was engaged in a bitter struggle both with Trotsky and the Left Opposition and with his former allies Zinoviev and Kamenev. These letters conclusively demonstrate the care and relentlessness with which Stalin masterminded the campaign against his opponents. The same methods were employed four years later against much more serious opponents, his former allies the ‘right-wingers’ Rykov and Bukharin, who were supported in their opposition to forcible collectivisation by most of the non-party specialist advisers to the Government.

Stalin had always been suspicious of the ‘bourgeois specialists’. In 1925, in the midst of the struggle with Zinoviev, he complained to Molotov that on economic questions it was not the Politburo but the State Planning Commission, Gosplan, which was effectively in charge – and ‘even worse, not even Gosplan, but the sections of Gosplan which are controlled by specialists’. In 1929 and 1930, most of the top specialists advising the Government were arrested, including Groman, a senior planner, and Kondratiev, the economist world-famous for his ‘long cycles’. The OGPU forced them to confess that they had engaged in sabotage and planned to set up an anti-Communist government with the support of foreign powers.

The letters provide fascinating details about Stalin’s ruthless control of these events from his southern vacation resort. Six letters written in the summer of 1930 set out the tactics to be used. His comments ranged from broad hints to virtual instructions about the nature of the confessions to be obtained. ‘It is essential to arrest Sukhanov, Bazarov, Ramzin,’ he insisted in August 1930, ‘and Sukhanov’s wife should be probed (she is a Communist!).’ ‘By the way,’ he remarked on 2 September, ‘how about Messrs the defendants admitting their mistakes and disgracing themselves politically, while simultaneously acknowledging the stability of Soviet power and the correctness of the method of collectivisation? That would be rather good.’ In the same letter he referred approvingly to the ‘work of inspecting and bashing’ (proverochnomordoboinaya rabota) being carried out in the State Bank and the Commissariat of Finance by the OGPU and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate.

A month later, in a letter to the head of the OGPU, he commented on the confessions he had been sent and suggested in detail further confessions which might be obtained:

In any new (future) testimonies ... pay particular attention to the question of foreign intervention and its timing ...

  Run Messrs Kondratiev, Yurovskii, Chayanov etc through the mill; they have clearly tried to evade [the charge of having] a tendency to intervention but they are (indisputably) interventionists ...

  If Ramzin’s testimonies are confirmed and corroborated in the depositions of other persons accused (Groman, Larichev, Kondratiev and Company, etc) that will be a serious success for the OGPU ...


  Greetings! J. Stalin.

The Russian editors argue that the letters not only demonstrate Stalin’s great personal power but show that he ‘advocated an extremely harsh response to all the issues which fell within the purview of the country’s top leadership’. In response to an unfavourable or unexpected turn of events, however, and under pressure from his associates, he would adopt more flexible policies – while completely failing to acknowledge his change of line. Thus in July 1930 Pyatakov, head of the State Bank, and a former supporter of Trotsky, came to the conclusion that inflation was getting out of hand, and sent a memorandum to Stalin arguing that the state budget for the following year must be in surplus, and that no further currency should be issued. Stalin’s indignation knew no bounds. In successive letters to Molotov he claimed that Pyatakov was being manipulated by supporters of Kondratiev and Groman, and called for his dismissal. He described him as ‘a truly right-wing Trotskyist’. In October both Pyatakov and the Commissar for Finance were duly replaced. Then, having seemingly established a political framework for further inflation, he initiated or acquiesced in an abrupt change in policy. Even before the new appointments had been made the Politburo decided to tighten the financial screw. And in December the economic plan for 1931 proposed that the state budget should be in surplus and no further currency issued – a striking example of Stalin’s well-known ability to ‘wear other people’s clothes’.

There are no doctrinal statements in these letters. But there is a strong sense of Stalin’s exhaustive efforts to build up a powerful Communist state by strengthening Soviet industrial might and military capacity. Throughout the letters industrialisation and defence are closely linked. As early as July 1925, he argued that new factories must be built not in Leningrad and other frontier regions but in places which will be ‘a convenient rear in the event of military complications’. In September 1930, he proposed that revenue be provided to cover additional defence expenditure by increasing vodka production, ‘discarding false shame’. In July 1935, he insisted that ‘the People’s Commissariat for Defence must be fully provided for in all circumstances.’ In his letters of 1929 and 1930, he insisted that collectivisation of agriculture need not be delayed by the lack of tractors: ‘the simple pooling of peasant implements results in a colossal increase in sown area ... The eyes of our Rightists are popping out of their heads in astonishment.’ In the summer of 1930, even Molotov was reproved for his toleration of a more flexible form of co-operative farming.

Stalin’s Communism emphatically did not mean equality, or workers’ democracy, except as a very distant and shadowy goal. A letter dated 28 September 1930 reveals that he himself initiated the legislation which tightened labour discipline and took away important rights gained by workers after the 1917 Revolution. ‘Forbid the promotion of workers from the bench to all kinds of administrative posts’; break with ‘petty bourgeois traditions on the question of absenteeism and labour discipline’; ‘establish a regime in which an unemployed person who twice refuses work which is offered to him is automatically deprived of the right to receive benefit’ (has Peter Lilley read these letters?).

What of the international aspects of Stalin’s Communism? In his Foreword to the English-language edition, Robert Tucker, the American biographer of Stalin, argues that the letters ‘bear out the proposition ... that Stalin was a Russian imperial Bolshevik for whom the further progress of the international Communist revolution and the territorial expansion of Soviet Russia around its periphery were one and the same process.’ It is true that in the Twenties, in his ferocious battles with the Left Opposition, Stalin evidently still shared their view that the time was not far off when revolutionary movements would triumph in China, Germany and even in Britain. As late as 1929, he advocated armed support for a revolutionary uprising in Manchuria. But the proposed uprising was a response to the unilateral Chinese attempt to seize the joint Soviet-Chinese railway which ran through Manchuria. And in the Thirties the references to foreign affairs in his letters were concerned not with territorial expansion but with the danger of aggression from a foreign power. In 1930 he seems genuinely to have believed that a foreign attack was likely. In a top-secret letter to the head of the OGPU he argued that public confessions by the bourgeois specialists would succeed ‘in heading off interventionist attempts for the next year or two, which is of great significance to us’. In a letter to Molotov written at the same time, he claimed that the Poles were ‘certain to be putting together ... a bloc of Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Finland) in anticipation of a war against the USSR’ and that ‘they will go to war as soon as they have secured the bloc.’ I cannot find evidence in these letters that Stalin was an expansionist ‘imperial Bolshevik’ in the Thirties.

Professor Tucker also argues that the letters show Stalin to have been ‘a thinking, reacting, plotting politician during every waking hour’. His letters to his wife and mother modify this image. The letters to his mother were certainly brief and almost entirely formal: ‘Greetings to my mother! Live ten thousand years! My greetings to old friends and comrades. Kisses. Your Soso.’ But he did get round to sending her money (‘One hundred and fifty roubles – I can’t manage any more’), photographs of himself and the children, clothes and medicine. And after Allilueva’s suicide, he dropped his guard and wrote to his mother: ‘After Nadya’s death, my personal life is naturally difficult. But a steadfast person must remain steadfast.’ His letters to Allilueva reveal even more clearly that he devoted some waking hours to matters other than politics. He grumbled about his mother-in-law and, as has always been rumoured, was contemptuous of Jacob, his son by his first marriage (‘a hooligan and blackmailer’ – presumably a reference to his attempted suicide). But he also displayed much affection for Allilueva. He asked for news of the children, and urged her to find time to visit him: ‘It’s very boring here, Tatochka. I sit at home alone, like a gloomy owl.’ He sent her lemons and ‘peaches from our tree’, and rose to her defence when she reported that the Molotovs had complained that she was neglecting him. Many waking hours were also spent worrying about his health.

But Tucker is certainly right that Stalin was not deflected for a moment by any sentimental attachments or physical troubles from inflicting politically necessary suffering on others. In the midst of his complaints about his health, he told Molotov that in the State Bank and Commissariat of Finance ‘two or three dozen wreckers from the administration must be executed, including a dozen cashiers of various kinds’ and that ‘Kondratiev, Groman and another couple of scoundrels must certainly be executed.’ In September 1930, while he was undergoing dental treatment in Sochi, 48 ‘food wreckers’ were shot on his instructions, scapegoats for the food shortages resulting from his policies.