‘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.

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