Paul Grenier’s recent post on this blog about historian Nikolai Starikov and his whitewashing of Stalinism generated a record number of comments. Stalin’s legacy remains a hot topic. As it happens, a new biography of the Soviet ruler has just come out.
Authored by Russian historian Oleg Khlevniuk, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator is based on years of research in the Soviet archives. Khlevniuk’s unparalleled access to Stalin’s papers well justifies the production of yet another Stalin biography. That said, the Stalin he describes is a very familiar one, a man who ‘was cruel by temperament and devoid of compassion’, and who ‘favored terror and saw no reason to moderate its use.’ Those who are already well versed in the dictator’s story will not find anything surprising in this book. Nonetheless, it is a useful reminder given attempts by people like Starikov to play down Stalin’s brutality and the awfulness of his legacy.
Indeed, Khlevniuk indicates early in the book that his purpose is to denounce the ‘large scale poisoning of minds with myths of an “alternative Stalin”,’ and complains that, ‘In today’s Russia … Stalin’s image is primarily being shaped by pseudo-scholarly apologias.’ Khlevniuk’s Stalin is a man who ruled through terror. ‘Fear was the primary force behind the dictator’s patrimonial power,’ he writes. Stalin’s modus operandi was to keep the Soviet people perpetually mobilized in the pursuit of internal and external enemies, and his close associates continually off balance and in fear of being the next target of one of the leader’s regular purges. Paranoia, combined with an insatiable desire for power, characterized his rule.
Khlevniuk has no patience for theories which exculpate Stalin from any of the Soviet regime’s worst crimes. Rather, he places Stalin at the centre of all of them. ‘We do not know of a single decision of major consequence taken by anyone other than Stalin,’ he writes, adding that. ‘He personally initiated all the main repressive campaigns, devised plans for carrying them out, and painstakingly monitored their implementation. He guided the fabrication of evidence for numerous political trials and in several cases wrote detailed scripts for how the trials should play out. … He often wrote commentaries and issued orders for additional arrests or for the use of torture to “get to the truth”. He personally sanctioned the shooting of many people.’ ‘Stalin personally organized acts of terror that went far beyond any reasonable sense of “official necessity”,’ Khlevniuk writes.
The Great Terror was not the result of spontaneous action by local officials. Instead, writes Khlevniuk, ‘Archival records clearly show Stalin to be the initiator of all key decisions having to do with purges of party and government institutions. … he took a strong interest in the details. … The documentary evidence shows that large-scale operations rarely deviated from Stalin’s orders.’ During the Great Terror, ‘each region and republic was assigned specific numerical targets for executions and imprisonments’ by the Politburo. ‘Approximately 1.6 million people were arrested, and 700,000 of them were shot.’ This was a very deliberate, and highly centralized, operation, designed and overseen by Stalin himself.
Eschewing some of the larger figures conjured up by Cold War-era historians, Khlevniuk nevertheless concludes that the scale of Stalinist repression was enormous. According to Khlevniuk,
Official records show that approximately eight hundred thousand people were shot between 1930 and 1952. The number who perished as a result of the regime’s actions, however, was much higher. … [due to] the conditions prevailing in the labor camps. … Between 1930 and 1952, some 20 million people were sentenced to incarceration … During that same period no fewer than 6 million, primarily “kulaks” and members of “repressed peoples”, were subjected to “administrative exile”. … On average, … 1 million people were shot, incarcerated, or deported to barely habitable areas of the Soviet Union every year.
… Tens of million were forced to labor on difficult and dangerous projects, arrested, subjected to lengthy imprisonment without charges, or fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes for being relatives of “enemies of the people.” Overall, the Stalinist dictatorship subjected at least 60 million people to some sort of “hard” or “soft” repression and discrimination. To this figure we must add the victims of periodic famines or starvation, which during 1932-1933 alone took the lives of between 5 and 7 million people. The Stalinist famine was largely the result of political decisions. … the Stalinist government used famine as a means of “punishing” the countryside.
All this was the result of a worldview characterized by ‘oversimplification of reality … unidimensionality … with rigid ideological and political dogmatism.’
Not even Stalin’s wartime leadership excuses, or otherwise balances, his brutality. The picture Khlevniuk paints of Stalin during the Great Patriotic War doesn’t deviate from that found in most history books – blundering incompetence for the first year and half of the war, followed by a period of ‘growth as a military leader’ as Stalin learned to listen to his generals. At first, writes Khlevniuk, Stalin was ‘The Blunderer in Chief. … As defensive lines collapsed … he developed an array of strategies that wound up depriving commanders of flexibility and often increased Red Army casualties.’ Later in the war, he began to pay attention to professional advice and there was ‘a genuine discussion of problems’ with subordinates. This is about the only positive thing Khlevniuk says about Stalin.
Stalin’s defenders sometimes maintain that the gigantic human price of his rule was a necessary sacrifice for making the Soviet Union a modern industrial economy. Khlevniuk is having none of it. The Stalin he describes is an economic ignoramus, whose policies were catastrophic. ‘No one was more guilty of putting political expediency before the needs of the economy than Stalin,’ he writes. Far from being a success of rapid industrialization, the first Five Year Plan ‘established a ruinously inefficient approach to industrialization. Vast sums were poured into undertaking construction that was never completed; into equipment for which no use was ever found.’ Stalin never learnt from this. In his final years, he encouraged ‘exorbitant spending on infrastructure’, and ‘a chaotic proliferation of projects led to losses on uncompleted construction.’ He ignored advice to stop wasting vast sums of money on grandiose projects of no economic value. After his death, the Soviet Union’s economic situation markedly improved.
As for collectivization, it was, Khlevniuk says, ‘insane’. The countryside ‘was treated like a conquered colony to be exploited.’ In 1932-33, the result was a famine which killed perhaps 6 million people. Khlevniuk blames Stalin, saying, ‘Although the famine was a complex phenomenon, posterity has every right to call it the Stalin Famine. The Stalinist policy of the Great Leap was its primary cause. … The famine was the inevitable result of industrialization and collectivization.’
In November 1952, Stalin received a letter from a party worker in Riazan province who complained that:
You have to stand in line for black bread.
You can’t get white bread at all.
There’s neither butter nor vegetable oil.
There’s no meat in the stores.
There’s no sausage.
There are no groats of any kind.
There’s no macaroni or other flour products.
There’s no sugar.
There are no potatoes in the stores.
There is no milk or other dairy products.
There is no form of animal fat (lard etc.).
This was the economic legacy which Stalin bequeathed to his successors.
Because it is based on such thorough knowledge of the archives, Khlevniuk’s Stalin: A New Biography is thoroughly convincing. Khlevniuk writes that, ‘Historians are compelled to deal not with simple schemes and political conjecture but with the concrete facts’. The facts which he has assembled leave no room for alternative views. Stalin was a disaster for his country. There is nothing positive in his legacy.