Historians today are only coming to understand the complex and sophisticated individual that was Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia for nearly thirty years until his death in 1953. Much of the information shedding light on the character of the dictator is being unearthed from the archives of the Soviet Union, opened in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism, and which is the source material for a series of some 25 books titled The Annals of Communism, published by Yale University Press. Now Jonathan Brent, former editorial director of the Press, has written a companion “Inside The Stalin Archives” to help get at what he terms is “a true understanding of one of the giant phenomena of the 20th century” that was Soviet Communism. Brent said in an interview with host Lawrence Velvel on the television show Books of our Time, produced by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, that understanding the archives is vital not only for political and educational reasons but for “the moral education of our children and of future generations.” Even during the height of the Cold War, Brent says, the West did not recognize “the true dimensions of the system that was being fought by the United States.” It was “a system that attempted to define everything in your life, from the toothbrush you used, to the wife you married, to the children you had, to the profession you had, and to your belief system in general.” Brent asserts that Soviet Communism “was successful to a greater extent than we understood, which is why today Russia is returning in many respects to that world that we thought collapsed in 1991.”
To begin with, people err who dismiss Stalin as some sort of paranoid madman. The man was not a criminal who personally beat, tortured, or shot people, even if he was responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings. He didn’t, himself, torture people, not like Ivan the Terrible who threw people out the window, who killed his own son. He was a highly functional individual who was also a man of simple tastes and the father of three children “who did not believe that he was constrained by any moral law, because all moral laws were relative to him,” Brent says. Stalin would never criticize things on the basis that they were bad or approve them because they were good. “He would never use the word ‘kind,’” Brent says. “He would never use any of those words that are in our moral vocabulary. He had no moral vocabulary. If he wanted to denounce you, he would say you were an opportunist, or a deviationist. He wouldn’t denounce you on the grounds you’re a bad person because you broke a moral code.” Those denounced were accused of breaking a code of discipline of the Communist Party. In the world that he constructed, he was “utterly rationalistic,” Brent says. “You could say that Stalin was blind to pragmatic solutions to a problem, which would from time to time be brought to him, and the people who brought (the solutions) to him would normally be shot,” the historian said. Where the U.S. today has many institutions that help disperse power by breaking it up into bits and pieces “that keeps us sane,” Soviet society concentrated its power all in one place, so that it was “monstrous and utterly horrendous—murderous.”
Stalin’s lack of a moral compass enabled him to launch in the mid-Thirties what became known as The Great Terror, during which, in 1937 alone, one million Soviet citizens were arrested and, of those, one-third put to death. Stalin claimed he did this to purge the nation of “Trotskyites,” followers of Red Army architect Leon Trotsky who split with Stalin and took refuge in Mexico—where Stalin had him assassinated in 1940. But a lot of the charges against the accused were “pure hokum,” Brent says. They were just “all made up” as part of a campaign to implant in Soviet society a widespread fear that literally convulsed the nation. By some estimates, one out of every 20 Russians was a government informant. Fathers feared their children and children feared their fathers. Bosses feared their employees and employees their bosses, and so on. The Great Terror was ignited when Stalin’s friend Sergei Kirov, the popular Communist Party boss of Leningrad, was assassinated. (Some regarded Kirov as a rival of Stalin for power.) Stalin immediately went to Leningrad and blamed the Trotskyites for Kirov’s murder and called for an investigation, which produced “evidence” that other, high-ranking Party leaders were involved and had to be purged, further consolidating power in Stalin’s hands. Among these were the “traitors” Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, formerly all high-ranking Politburo members. As was often the case, after Kamenev was executed, Stalin ordered the arrest of other members of his family, including his wife, Olga, and had them wiped out as well. Only one of Kamenev’s sons survived Stalin’s purge.
Stalin even arrested the wives of his closest associates, including General Alexander Poskrebyshev, the personal secretary who made his appointments and was a keynoter at Communist Party conventions. Stalin had the general’s wife, Bronislava, arrested in 1931 and ordered her execution ten years later. When Poskrebyshev learned his wife had been arrested, he threw himself at Stalin’s knees, saying, “Comrade Stalin, this is clearly a mistake. My wife is a decent person, a loyal Communist, a devoted member of the Party. Please, I beg of you, bring her home.” To which Stalin replied, “Get up, we’ll find you another wife.” In 1948, Stalin also ordered the arrest for “treason” of Polina, the Jewish wife of his powerful deputy Vyacheslav Molotov, and had her sent into exile. (The woman was only rehabilitated after Stalin’s death five years later.) Thus, wives could be held hostage to ensure the loyalty of Stalin’s intimates. Over time, many of Stalin’s closest associates and/or their family members suffered as the result of Stalin’s cruelty.
Thus, when Stalin’s principal intimates feared once the dictator got the hydrogen bomb he would initiate a pre-emptive strike against the United States, they may have had personal reasons as well as political ones to decide he must be eliminated. There were few families untouched and there was literally no individual in the vast Soviet Union who was not in danger. Brent believes Laverentiy Beria, who headed the KGB secret police during WWII and later Soviet nuclear bomb development, and Nikita Khrushchev, the boss of the Ukraine province, “developed a way of poisoning Stalin in his dacha” to get rid of him.
According to Brent, Stalin was intent on showing the U.S. planned a first strike against Russia and planned to break this headline to coincide with the release of news about a sensational “doctors plot” against his life. Because Israel then was showing itself a firm ally of America, Stalin decided to define the alleged plot as one by Jewish doctors even though Brent says only one of the group of nine doctors arrested was Jewish and she was a technician. “The two things would have come to a head at exactly the same time. The doctors were in league with America, Soviet intelligence was in league with America, and America was planning to invade the Soviet Union using nuclear weapons.”Immediately after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, at the age of 75, Beria and Khrushchev repudiated the doctors’ plot and rehabilitated all the physicians within three months. At the same time, the KGB sent “all kinds of signals” to U.S. President Eisenhower “that they want to back away from confrontation,” Brent said, adding, “The world didn’t know that it was on the brink (of nuclear confrontation) in 1953.” The world thought the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the first such East-West showdown.
Despite the trumpeted Jewish doctors’ plot, Stalin was not necessarily anti-Semitic, Brent says. In May, 1939, he arrested the famous Jewish writer Isaac Babel and had him executed eight months later. This, however, was not because Babel was Jewish per se, but rather because Stalin could use him to send a message to Hitler “that he knows what to do with Jews,” Brent says. It also served to send a message his Politburo “about how he is going to deal with the problems of Germany and the Jews.” Babel’s execution served a “useful purpose” in Stalin’s mind. Similarly, Stalin demoted Maxim Litvinov, a Jew, in May, 1939, not for anti-Semitic reasons but because he would not have a Jew negotiating with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. And when Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov, he used the fact that Molotov’s wife was Jewish to tease him as “Molotstein.” Later, when Stalin had Molotov’s wife purged from the Central Committee, Molotov was so fearful that he did not vote against the motion but only abstained.
Even despite Stalin’s crimes, “the horror, the terror, despite everything, this is a country that believes so strongly in this idea of the great socialist Russian state that it is willing to have pictures of Stalin on boxes of chocolate being sold in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow right now,” Brent says. As one KGB (secret police) general told him, Stalin was “a monster but he pulled Russia up.” And that is the mindset of countless Russians today who claim Stalin gave Russia “dignity” and the ability to be on a par with Western nations. As Stalin wrote to author Maxim Gorky in 1928, “There will be no more beggarly Russia, that’s over with. There will be a vanguard Russia based on socialist principles.” Brent says it was this dream “that ignited the country. They wanted to get out of the mud. They wanted to get out of the unbelievable poverty of their lives…and this was the way to do it. And it was a great nation that was originally founded entirely on socialist principles.” Under Stalin, the Russians started building airplanes, dams and modern apartment buildings. “The fact that the dams were often the result of slave labor, the fact that the workers were being treated just as badly as proletariats in England or the United States or Germany or France in the 19th Century never occurred to anybody,” Brent says. “What Soviet citizens saw was that this land that had formerly been a land of slaves under the absolute power of the Tsar was now a land that they all owned. And they envisioned great miracles ahead.” Without a moral compass, Stalin did not empathize with the millions who died of famine as he collectivized the peasants’ plots and forced them to take industrial jobs in the cities. This led to “a tremendous upsurge in productivity” in Russia at a time when the rest of the Western world was mired in the Great Depression. When famine struck the Ukraine in 1932 he sealed the province off from foreign aid and “pulled resources out” to ensure the starvation of 5-million people so that he could seize control of their land and collectivize their farms, Brent says. Collectivization also enabled Stalin to force most of the surviving peasantry into the cities where they would largely find work in the factories of the newly industrialized Soviet Union. Stalin also destroyed the Church so he could eliminate a competing power center. As well, he held a whip-hand over artists in order to control the nation’s culture.
Stalin pushed industrialization because he recognized early on that a rearmed Germany would be a threat for Russia. Even though he had long cast wary eyes at the resurgence of German militarism under Adolph Hitler he nevertheless continued to sell Hitler critical raw materials and oil and allowed Nazi officers to train with his troops on Soviet soil. The KGB heaped extraordinary piles of documentation on Stalin’s desk warning him of the impending Nazi strike but Stalin produced a letter from Hitler pledging he would never attack Russia and, incredibly, believed what Hitler wrote. Stalin’s fundamental errors of judgment and lack of preparation were so great that when Hitler did strike on June 22, 1941, his panzers pushed deep into Russian soil, took Kiev and Kharkov in the Ukraine and were shortly pounding on the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. Unfortunately for Russia, Brent says, in The Great Terror Stalin had “eliminated almost every ranking officer” and took personal control of the Army, which he badly overextended. He pushed its defensive line to the far western Ukrainian border with Poland but did not build sufficient emplacements for guns, tanks, and soldiers, and had inadequate lines of supply to their positions, Brent says. Because of this, as well as the performance of his depleted officer corps, Hitler’s forces steamrollered through Russia’s western defenses and captured tens of millions of people whom the Red Army could not protect.
One of the remarkable findings of “Inside The Stalin Archives” is Brent’s discovery that Stalin, a man who wrote no memoirs, was in the habit of expressing his views on the books he was reading by writing extensively in the margins. Examining Stalin’s copy of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Bolshevik Revolution, Brent found in Stalin’s handwriting in the margins–phrases such as “this is not true, maybe this is true,” and so on and so forth all the way through. At the top of some pages, Stalin wrote ‘lie, liar, betrayer.’ And then with his big blue pencil, he would just cross out of the book what Trotsky was saying.” Pointing out that Stalin had no intimate friend to whom he confided his deepest thoughts and no lover to whom he wrote love letters, Stalin’s notations reveal who the man was “in the quiet of his own study at 4 a.m. when nobody is looking; we can see how his mind is working,” Brent says. Trotsky was Stalin’s hated enemy but Stalin nevertheless read Trotsky’s book because “he wanted to know what his hated enemy was thinking.”
Stalin recognized that he was a living symbol of the Great State he was endeavoring to create. When his dissolute son, Vasily, terrorized his teachers and schoolmates by saying, “I’m Stalin, you can’t do that to me,” Brent says his fed up father grabbed him and said, “Listen, you are not Stalin. Even I am not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what is written about in the newspapers and what is in the portraits.” This illustrates that Stalin recognized that he “was greater than himself” and that his power was “transpersonal.”Actually, Brent goes on to say, Stalin was “in some ways rather ascetic, but he wasn’t overly ascetic, not a Robespierre.” However, he understood that this other Stalin had to represent something—the larger-than-life Stalin that was on the blimps flying over Red Square and pictured on the airplanes. Brent believes, “That was the embodiment of power, the capstone of power, and that kept the country under control.”
Stalin’s methods have not gone unnoticed by his successors in the Kremlin. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today copies Stalin’s tactic of allowing corruption to flourish by ridding Russia of wealthy oligarchs and seizing their property for the state. He’s “abetting corruption” because he knows that “weakens the rule of law, and the weaker the rule of law is, the stronger is the government,” says Brent. Business executives who enriched themselves through their crony capitalist ties in recent years are being demolished by the “very Stalinist tactic” in which Putin informs his subordinates, “Now, I’m not telling you ‘No man, no problem’ but somehow, you know that’s what I need and so you do the dirty work for me, and somehow I reward you for it,” Brent says. “Nobody sees it, nobody knows it, but you understand it, I understand it.” One entrepreneurial capitalist toppled was Mikhail Khodorkovsky—formerly Russia’s richest man because of his holdings in oil company Yukos. He was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges and sentenced to eight years’ in prison. With him out of the way, the Russian government could auction off the Yukos production unit Yuganskneftegas. And like Stalin before him, Putin attempts to suppress any publication that is critical of the government. Brent recalled that Putin came down “very hard” on a professor who wrote that the Soviet army had occupied Lithuania for six months prior to the outbreak of World War II when the Moscow line was that the army had liberated it. “In fact, there is a new law…by the (Dmitry) Medvedev government concerning the falsification of history,” Brent noted, “so if you produce such a book arguing that the Soviet army had occupied Lithuania…you would be sued in a court of law today in Russia.” Putin’s use of Stalinist tactics fits in with the resurgence of Bolshevik nationalism Brent says that is “a very, very powerful force in the minds of people in Russia today, so that the rehabilitation of Stalin that you’re seeing on the street corners of Moscow and all of the provincial cities in Russia is connected to their deep seated and utterly unsatisfied need to see the realization of those dreams.” If only for this reason, understanding Stalin’s mind is essential to understanding much of what occurs in Russia today.
Brent was interviewed by Lawrence Velvel, dean and cofounder of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, a law school purposefully dedicated to providing a quality, affordable legal education to students from minority, immigrant, and low-income backgrounds who would otherwise be unable to afford a legal education. Sherwood Ross is a media consultant to the law school. Reach him at [email protected] .
Sherwood Ross is an award-winning reporter. He served in the U.S Air Force where he contributed to his base newspaper. He later worked for The Miami Herald and Chicago Daily News. He contributed a weekly column on working for a major wire service. He is also an editorial and book publicist. He currently resides in Florida.