‘All my own relatives are in prison too!’

Yoram Gorlizki

  • On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics by Sheila Fitzpatrick
    Princeton, 384 pp, £24.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 14533 4

We were ‘milk-drinkers’ by comparison, Vyacheslav Molotov, for many years Stalin’s deputy, said of Stalin’s inner circle. ‘Not one man after Lenin … did even a tenth of what Stalin did.’ For Molotov, Stalin’s organisational skills, his boldness and his cunning saved the Bolshevik Revolution after Lenin died. Others would take a different view. Either way, part of the fascination Stalin exercises comes from the sharp contrast, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, between the warm, affectionate, tactile world of his inner circle and the often brutal world beyond – and the ease with which disbelieving former friends and comrades were dispatched from one to the other. Stalin was skilled in the art of eviction. ‘Rykov and his gang must be driven out but for the time being this is just between ourselves,’ he mused to Molotov in 1929. Members of the group were to be dropped one by one, according to different timetables. ‘No doubt this incremental approach was the product of Stalin’s caution,’ Sheila Fitzpatrick observes in On Stalin’s Team, ‘but at the same time it had a tinge of sadism: the defeated hung twisting in the wind for a long time, begging for clemency and reinstatement … until they ended up as total outcasts if not gibbering wrecks.’

The bulk of archive and memoir revelations of the last twenty years has tended to confirm what we already knew about Stalin, but it also suggests that we may have been asking the wrong questions. At issue is not whether he was a ‘weak leader’ or a man ‘responding to events’. The major decisions of his administration – on collectivisation, the Great Terror and upping the tempo of the Cold War – were all almost entirely his. But this observation raises other questions. What were his objectives? Was there a logic to his actions? And why did he choose to rule in the way he did? One question that has come to vex historians in recent years is why – a big difference between Stalin and Hitler – he preferred to rule through a collective. If the man was all-powerful, why did he convene a ‘ruling group’ that could, conceivably, have ganged up on him?

There are three possible answers. First, Stalin was a firm believer in ‘collective responsibility’, especially when it came to killing. Asked many years later whether the arch ‘de-Staliniser’, Nikita Khrushchev, had himself signed death lists, Molotov was withering. ‘Of course he did. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been promoted. Any intelligent person could see that.’ Second – and again the contrast with Hitler is marked – Stalin was obsessed with the details of policy and the machinery of government. Being in constant contact with his most important department heads enabled him to squeeze out information about what was really going on below. Third, after his wife’s suicide in 1932, he was desperately lonely: the ruling group, especially after the Second World War, doubled as his social circle.

Fitzpatrick looks at Stalin’s inner circle as a social group. Not only are there portraits of key leaders, their wives and children, but we find out about the friendships and rivalries among them, how and with whom they fell in and fell out, how and where they socialised, and, intriguingly, what happened to them after Stalin died. Most were well-known public figures in their own right, and some had their own mini cults. At festive parades and demonstrations the giant portraits of Stalin were flanked by smaller ones of his ‘comrades-in-arms’, who would figure, too, in the ballads and poems of the new Soviet folklore as ‘knights’ to Stalin’s ‘prince’. Most had sizeable provincial towns named after them.

Who were these people? Stalin earned their allegiance through what he did best: plotting, conspiring and repressing. He bonded, for example, with Kliment Voroshilov in Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) during the Civil War where, in a taste of things to come, the two were involved in putting down ‘counter-revolutionary plots’, then got tangled up in a battle with Trotsky, which they lost (something Stalin would never forget). Others such as Anastas Mikoyan, Lazar Kaganovich and Sergo Ordzhonikidze were Stalin’s linchpins in tough, mostly local factional fights. Andrei Andreev, Valerian Kuibyshev, Jan Rudzutak and Molotov himself were all stalwarts of the Central Committee whose office Stalin headed from 1922. As a group, they were noticeably more proletarian than the leaders of the various Left, United and Right Oppositions against whom they battled in the 1920s, but also less sophisticated, less educated and less well travelled. None had lived in Europe or spoke a foreign language. The idea that they were ‘hicks’ fed into a long-running resentment of the Russian intelligentsia that would bubble up at various points over the next thirty years.

The leader who emerges most vividly from Fitzpatrick’s account is Molotov himself. It is often said that he was the most unlikely of revolutionaries. ‘With his pince-nez and a neat little moustache, Molotov didn’t look much like a revolutionary, even in his youth.’ Reared in the party apparatus he was, as Trotsky famously jibed, one of the ‘party bureaucracy without souls’. Dogged, hard-working and unflappable, he was the most unswervingly loyal of the Stalin group in the 1920s, and for that earned Stalin’s confidence. Indeed, he insisted that Molotov lead the most important missions to the countryside and take charge of things in Moscow when he himself was away. The benefit of that from our point of view is the startling frankness of Stalin’s letters to Molotov, first published in English in 1995 – one of the most valuable new sources on Stalin’s thinking and personality.[*]

‘Nobody ever called him charismatic,’ Fitzpatrick writes of Molotov, ‘but after you observe his stubborn perseverance over thirty years, you can’t help but develop a certain admiration for his sheer ability to take it – not just the work but also the abuse.’ The abuse began to get really bad in the Great Terror when he saw his own friends and dependants disappear, among them his German tutor, his daughter’s German nanny and all four of his deputies. A.M. Mogilny, the head of his office, invoked his ‘right to silence’ by flinging himself down the liftwell in the NKVD when he was arrested and forced to testify against Molotov. But the arrest that was to have the most lasting impact on Molotov was that of his closest friend, Alexander Arosev, who was apprehended in July 1937 and executed six months later. Molotov’s ‘ability to take it’ contrasts with that of another member of the Stalin group, Ordzhonikidze, who after the execution of his deputy Piatakov, and on the eve of an onslaught on cadres in his own commissariat of heavy industry, cracked up and committed suicide.

Like so many of the ‘Kremlin wives’, Molotov’s partner, Polina Zhemchuzhina, was Jewish, but unlike the others she was allowed to attend Kremlin receptions and would build a sparkling career as architect of the Soviet perfume industry and, later, commissar for fisheries. Sent on a trip to the Far East in 1939, Zhemchuzhina would have her own brush with the NKVD when, back in Moscow, a number of her colleagues and protégés were arrested and gave incriminating evidence against her. She got off lightly with a demotion, but in the late 1940s was considered to have grown too close to the celebrated Jewish actor and head of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels, and, in addition, was said to have announced herself in Yiddish as a ‘daughter of the Jewish people’ to the new Israeli emissary to Moscow, Golda Meir. ‘Stalin came to me at the Central Committee,’ Molotov later recalled. ‘“You need to divorce your wife!” he said.’ ‘If that is what the party demands, then that is what we shall do,’ Zhemchuzhina responded. But Stalin still wasn’t satisfied. When the hapless Molotov abstained from a vote to have his partner expelled from the party (the final stage before her arrest), Stalin insisted on an abject letter of retraction from Molotov, which he then circulated to other members of the group.

Fitzpatrick has long been one of the most perceptive observers of the role of the Civil War in Bolshevik culture. She notes, for example, how the casual military mode of dress (belted tunic and high boots) remained in fashion with the ruling group for many years and how, with subordinates, they ‘favoured a quasi-military tone of command, gruff and peremptory, sometimes abusive’. ‘The Bolshevik party called itself a workers’ party,’ she notes, ‘but in the 1920s it was also a party of Civil War veterans.’ Not only Stalin and Voroshilov, but Ordzhonikidze, Mikoyan, Kirov and Kuibyshev had all forged close ties on the southern fronts during the war. In the heyday of collectivisation and industrial construction, members of Stalin’s inner group such as Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich and Ordzhonikidze recalled the glorious days of the Civil War, as they criss-crossed the country ‘constantly on the road, fighting (and sometimes laying fires) … sending daily reports on local collectivisation and industrial construction back to Moscow’.

Fitzpatrick is also well known for highlighting the ‘beneficiaries’ of the Great Purges, the first generation of fully Soviet-educated recruits who filled the places vacated by the victims of the terror. Here, however, we see them from the perspective of their Politburo patrons, who took pleasure in selecting the best of the young – often taken directly from engineering schools – to train up as department heads and deputy ministers. This new cohort was a source of pride, particularly to Stalin and Molotov, and it is here, with these young men, that we see Stalin at his best: ‘wise, benevolent, ready with a joke and an informal remark to put them at their ease’.

One of the book’s most intriguing areas concerns the emergence of group norms, for example, the informal rule against interceding with the security agencies on behalf of friends and relatives. When Mikoyan saw his two youngest sons disappear into the Lubyanka in connection with the so-called Kremlin Children’s case he did nothing, knowing that any attempt to intervene would be pointless. The same thing happened when Kalinin’s wife was arrested (Kalinin was the official head of state): ‘knowing appeals on behalf of family to be in vain, [he] bided his time: it was six years later, within sight of the victorious end of the war, and on the eve of an operation that he thought he might not survive, that he wrote a short letter to Stalin asking, without elaboration or justification, for amnesty for his wife.’

The most interesting twist comes with Stalin himself. When asked by Georgy Dimitrov whether he could help imprisoned relatives Stalin is reported to have said: ‘What can I do for them, Georgy? All my own relatives are in prison too!’ In fact, the scope of the carnage in Stalin’s own entourage was as high as in anyone else’s, higher maybe. One loss that is particularly puzzling is that of Alyosha Svanidze, arrested in 1937 and shot four years later. Svanidze was Stalin’s brother-in-law, but he was also his closest friend after Kirov had been assassinated and often spent the night at Stalin’s dacha to keep him company. Stalin could have saved Svanidze had he wanted to, so why did he keep up the fiction that he couldn’t? Fitzpatrick suggests that he ‘was following a precept of the unwritten revolutionary code of honour that had always been dear to him, namely subjugating personal interests to the interests of the revolution’. This, she thinks, makes sense if we think of Stalin as a member of a ‘team’ rather than just an all-powerful dictator. ‘To have been seen by the team to be saving his own people, while letting others perish, would have been a major sacrifice of moral authority.’

There is little doubt that this rule originated with Stalin; others were forged by the rest of the group. As Stalin got older, the others, aware that internecine attacks might trigger new suspicions and destabilise the precarious balance within the ruling group, went so far as to enter into an informal ‘solidarity pact’ to desist from saying or doing anything that might send the leader into a rage. The best example was the group’s decision to protect their elder statesmen, Mikoyan and Molotov, when, in the late 1940s, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of them and tried to cut them off from informal sessions of the Politburo. Stalin didn’t notify Mikoyan and Molotov of these meetings, but the others did and so they turned up all the same.

Fitzpatrick suggests that this development adds an important dimension to how we see the leader. One of the most important measures of Stalin’s power as a leader had been his ability, up until this point, to mould the group by controlling its membership: ‘In the past, Stalin had always kept a firm hold on the power of exclusion, with his invited Groups of Five, Seven and so on regularly substituting for the formal Politburo. Now, in an extraordinary development, he seemed close to losing it.’ Fitzpatrick could have made more of this point. Most members of the core group had known each other for decades and it seems likely that people who knew each other that well would have developed informal understandings. The subject is touched on here and there, but the small-group dynamics of the ruling circle are not followed up in a sustained way, so that we don’t really have a sense of the way group etiquette changed over time. Fitzpatrick makes much of the changing forms of address within the ruling circle. ‘In the early years most of the team addressed Stalin as well as one another using the familiar form ty, and the convention was that he was just the first among equals. But the reality that he was more than that was increasingly visible and by the postwar period only a couple of old hands were still using the familiar form with Stalin.’ Closer attention to group norms would have afforded an insight into how the inner circle evolved over time – for example, through changing attitudes to seniority after the admission of a cohort of younger leaders such as Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev in the late 1930s.

One of the most novel sections of the book is the chapter on how the ruling group fared without Stalin. Fitzpatrick shows the team managing the post-Stalin transition remarkably well, not only maintaining stability but even launching a raft of reforms. Building on a recent vein of scholarship, she suggests that they were able to do this precisely because they had already consolidated as a group under the dictator.

The months after Stalin’s death were unusually busy in the Kremlin and Fitzpatrick deploys considerable skill in untangling the different lines of policy, in keeping track of fast-changing alliances, and stripping back the layers of blame and recrimination that soon became a tool of political warfare in the battle for de-Stalinisation. The person whose reputation would suffer the most from all this was the one everyone turned on first, the police chief Lavrenty Beria, but, as Fitzpatrick shows, Beria wasn’t all bad: ‘The day of [Stalin’s] funeral was Molotov’s 63rd birthday and two days later Beria gave him a birthday present: with the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he presented his gift – Zhemchuzhina, flown in from exile in Kazakhstan that day on Beria’s orders.’ Not that the phlegmatic Molotov was softened by this, especially when he and Beria clashed on foreign policy shortly afterwards. ‘Just remove him?’ Molotov responded when Khrushchev came up with the idea of relieving Beria of his post, implying that more radical measures might be in order.

Beria was executed, but sanctions on the other members of the ruling group who were toppled in the coming years were far milder. Molotov was expelled from the Politburo and from the Central Committee and had to live with the fact that the city named after him reverted to its original name of Perm. But Molotov was still unable to let go of some of his old ways. When he got the ambassadorship to Mongolia ‘he buckled down to the job with his usual conscientiousness … and was feted by the Mongolians, who were proud to have such a famous man among them.’ When the ‘200 per cent Stalinist’ Lazar Kaganovich, now head of a chemical factory in the industrial town of Azbest in the Urals, ran into a problem his default response was to start a hunt for ‘wreckers’.

The children of Stalin’s ruling circle come into their own after his death. The members of his team were keen not only to keep their kids well away from politics, but to see them acquire the education, culture and air of sophistication they themselves lacked. Most of the Kremlin children were graduates, some had PhDs. Molotov’s daughter became fluent in French, Mikoyan, Beria and Zhdanov’s sons spoke German, while the Khrushchev and Malenkov boys, and Stalin’s own daughter, Svetlana, learned English. Reading about the outside world in the Russian-language magazines distributed in elite circles by the Allies after the war, they were part of an early postwar generation that fell in love with America. After Stalin’s death the children began to argue with their parents. When Svetlana visited the Molotovs in the 1960s, Zhemchuzhina said to her: ‘Your father was a genius. He destroyed the fifth column in our country, and when the war began, the party and people were united.’ The Molotovs’ daughter and her husband were embarrassed, ‘looking down at their plates’; to Svetlana, now mixing with quasi-dissident intellectuals, the Molotovs seemed ‘like dinosaurs’.

[*] Stalin’s Letters to Molotov edited by Lars Lih, Oleg Naumor and Oleg Khlevniuk.