Saturday, 13 April 2013


Polity, 2012, 652 pages, $39.95 (hb)

STALIN’S GENERAL: The Life of Georgy Zhukov
Icon Books, 2012, 375 pages, $24.99 (pb)

AGENT DIMITRI: The Secret History of Russia’s Most Daring Spy
Duckworth, 2012, 420 pages, $19.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Stalin’s Great Terror spared no sphere, writes Karl Schlogel in Moscow 1937.  In the usually sedate world of architecture, for example, one leading Soviet architect rounded on what he detected as ‘enemies of the people, diversionists, wreckers, agents of fascism, spies, murderers and blood-sucking gangs of Trotskyist and Bukharinist degenerates and traitors who are stretching out their filthy paws into architectural planning work’.

Many Russian architects duly faced arrest, labour camp or execution as part of the two million people killed during the Great Terror of 1936 to 1938.  Most perished without the fanfare which accompanied the mood-setting show trials of the Bolshevik Party’s ‘old guard’, the comrades of Lenin and Trotsky, an entire generation of socialist revolutionaries liquidated by Stalin because they posed a real or latent challenge to his dictatorial power.

Barely two decades after its victory, the Bolshevik Revolution was utterly reshaped by Stalin’s “hurricane of violence”.  As Schlogel notes, most of the party members in the late 1930s were newcomers, an elite benefiting from the purge of the Soviet administration which opened up an “astoundingly rapid career progression” with its access to material privilege that “consolidated their loyalty to the leader”.

Schlogel’s book is a catalogue of vignettes of the political fear, grim living conditions and cultural aridity of life under Stalinism but, whilst strong on exposition, Professor Schlogel’s book is less forthcoming on explanation.  For Schlogel, the Great Terror exists in an historical vacuum and Stalin’s rise to power is untheorised.  Schlogel decrees the time of Marxism as an analytical tool as “long since past” and the result, despite the human trauma of the Great Terror, is an insipid political drama uninformed by the intense struggle for the soul of socialism that pitted Stalin’s conservatism, opportunism, nationalism and mechanical thinking against the Bolsheviks’ best Marxists.

One survivor of the Great Terror, who yo-yoed in and out of favour with Stalin, was Georgy Zhukov who was, writes Geoffrey Roberts, the “main architect” of the Red Army’s victory against Hitler.  Under General Zhukov’s direction, Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad were saved, and Nazi Berlin taken, yet, just three months later, Zhukov was sacked by Stalin.

Zhukov’s life prospects (peasant poverty, small business trading or conscript war casualty) had been dramatically transformed by the 1917 revolution through a military career in the Red Army.  A Bolshevik long before a party card became prudent for job security, Zhukov repressed his doubts about Stalin, even as the Great Terror reached the Red Army High Command and liquidated 20,000 officers.  Zhukov came under suspicion through victim association but he survived and, indeed, prospered, as the purges fast-tracked promotion.

Zhukov’s qualities as military commander won the favour of Stalin who valued Zhukov’s harsh discipline and his profligate-with-lives military philosophy of no surrender and no retreat.  Patriotism also bound the General and his political master, the casualty being socialist values which were in short supply (beyond the required lip service) in, for example, the capture of Berlin , where looting, rape and other retaliatory atrocities against German civilians soured the liberation.

With the war won, Stalin clamped down on even the slightest possibility of military autonomy, banishing the sometimes independent Zhukov to Odessa and airbrushing him out of the history of the war.  Zhukov feared much worse (‘I had a bag ready with my underwear in it’, wrote Zhukov in his memoirs) and, like many of Stalin’s other elite victims, whose loyalty to Stalin was beyond question, his capricious fate sent a message to all Russians - if the most famous and closest to Stalin could suffer, so could any of them.

Zhukov was rehabilitated by Khrushchev where, as Minister of Defence, he undid some of the Stalinist past (exonerating the military victims of Stalin’s purge) whilst maintaining a neo-Stalinist present (advocating hard-line suppression of the popular and reform-Communist uprising in Hungary in 1956, and overseeing the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb program including tests on Russian soldiers).

Stalin’s successors, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, loyal Stalinists both, remained wary of Zhukov (who knew where the political bodies were buried and the role that his new bosses had played in putting them there) and bounced Zhukov up and down the bureaucratic ladder until his death in 1974.

Zhukov’s biographer, an orthodox Western war historian, respects Zhukov “because he never lost a battle” and his book is skewed towards a military, rather than political, analysis.  Zhukov got a necessary and ugly job done against the Nazis but the book does not contextualise him as part of Stalin’s bureaucratic party-state social base which found democratic socialism a threat to its power and privilege.

The Soviet spy, Dimitri Bystrolyotov, was another, as Emil Draitser writes in Agent Dimitri, who fell foul of Stalin.  ‘Do you want to write your testimony in ink or in your own blood?’, Bystrolyotov was asked by his interrogator when arrested in 1938 as part of a massive purge of Stalin’s security organisation aimed at “eliminating the old guard of spies devoted to the ideas of world revolution”.  Gruesomely tortured, Bystrolyotov served sixteen years in the prison camps of Siberia, his death in 1975 hastened by his broken health and his shattered socialist spirit.

A declassed aristocrat, Bystrolyotov had fled war-torn Russia in 1919 and wandered as a poor labourer through Europe before pitching up at the Soviet Trade Mission in Czechoslovakia.  Having embraced communist ideas out of ‘a great anger’ at economic inequality, Bystrolyotov was recruited by the Soviet spy-front where his aristocratic looks and twenty languages were prized as spying assets.

A ‘sexpionage’ expert, Bystrolyotov “put his male charms to use” to trade love for technological secrets from white-collar, female factory employees and for diplomatic secrets from foreign embassy women.  “Pillow talk” with an SS officer guarding files on Nazi Germany’s secret and illegal rearmament revealed evidence of Hitler’s invasion plans, whilst the Soviet Union’s other enemies (White Russian refugees, Western intelligence officers, Mussolini) were spied on and disrupted.

The fruits of this intelligence, it could be said, though Bystrolyotov’s biographer does not, are justifiable even if the means in a pre-Wikileaks world (seduction, bribery, blackmail) are unsavoury.  Despite the isolation and scarcity distorting the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet Russia’s military and economic survival was essential to the defeat of both fascism and capitalism’s vendetta against the Russian socialist experiment.

Growing tired from the risk of exposure, the constant pretence and disguises, and the often-sordid ethics of his job, Bystrolyotov returned to Moscow in 1937 to his grim fate as a prisoner.  Rehabilitation during Khrushchev’s post-Stalin ‘Thaw’ was followed by will-sapping battles with the KGB bureaucracy for recompense and welfare, censorship of his Gulag memoirs under Brezhnev, and posthumous admittance in 2001 to the KGB ‘Hall of Fame’, with its sanitised history of the KGB and its successor under Putin, a one-time KGB officer.

Draitser, a former Soviet journalist, has laboured to produce a book in which the factual detail is minute but the political analysis is sweeping generalisation, unreflectively concurring with Bystrolyotov’s ultimate disillusion with the entire idea of socialism, which was nothing but a ‘beautiful illusion’, as he put it, ‘dragged through the mud’ on the night of his arrest.

This, then, is Stalin’s political legacy – the conservatising, anti-socialist lesson refracted through the experience of those who, like the  authoritarian Zhukov or the embittered Bystrolyotov, know only of Stalin’s deviant version of ‘communism’.  Collectively, these books are politically gloomy, unrelieved by the alternative of a socialism which is both revolutionary and democratic, an alternative kept well-hidden by most books on Stalin pumped out by the capitalist printing presses.

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