Monday, 11 January 2016


ON STALIN’S TEAM: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics


Melbourne University Press, 2015, 364 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

Joseph Stalin could not have been the brutally efficient tyrant he was without some help.  He had at his service a team of loyal auxiliary dictators, as the University of Sydney history professor, Sheila Fitzpatrick, explores in On Stalin’s Team.


There were a dozen men in Stalin’s leadership group, the Party’s top decision-making body (the Politburo).  Most familiar in the West were Nikita Khrushchev, the post-Stalin Soviet leader and exposer of Stalin’s crimes, and Vyacheslav Molotov, foreign minister and Stalin’s second-in-command who was jokingly nicknamed ‘stone-bottom’ by his peers (from Leon Trotsky’s withering reference to Stalin’s Politburo as ‘the Party bureaucracy without souls, whose stone-bottoms crush all manifestations of free initiative and free creativity’).


The muster of revolutionary veterans on Stalin’s team included Sergo Ordzhonikidze (“charismatic and hot-tempered”), Andrei Malenkov (the “quintessential apparatchik”), Andrei Andreev (listening to Beethoven on his portable gramophone on road trips to conduct Party purges), Lazar Kaganovich (a ‘200% Stalinist’ with a taste for shouting, swearing and hitting subordinates) and Anastas Mikoyan (a canny survivor able to duck trouble).


Wherever repression was needed, “the team joined in, a gang of schoolyard bullies” - they signed off on lists of party members for whom the secret police had recommended the death sentence, and they travelled the provinces to preside over party meetings which resulted in the arrest of regional party leaders.


It is, says Fitzpatrick, a mistake to, as Trotsky did, dismiss Stalin’s lieutenants as second-rate nonentities for they showed energy, zeal and initiative in carrying out Stalin’s orders.  They were not totally robotic.  They risked censure (and worse) by defending their bureaucratic corner in jostles over budgets and the pace of economic transformation.  They tried to save friends and colleagues from Stalin’s mass terror, and they wavered over the expulsion of Trotsky from the Soviet Union.


Team members had reservations about the arrests and scapegoating of ‘bourgeois’ engineers and other ‘wreckers’ for the failings of Stalin’s policy of rapid industrialisation.  Stalin’s post-war anti-Semitic turn in search of new enemies met with team members’ “silent disapproval”.  In private conversations amongst themselves, they could be maliciously critical of Stalin.


This dissidence was, however, feeble, ineffectual and cowardly.  Even after Stalin’s death in 1953, which the team welcomed, they dutifully paid public homage to Stalin as a great leader even if he made occasional ‘mistakes’.


With an eye on reputation management, they could conveniently pin the guilt for the scope and savagery of the mass terror on fellow Politburo member, Lavrenty Beria (head of the secret police), as a bad influence on Stalin, even though, argues Fitzpatrick, Beria was “the boldest and most radical” of the post-Stalin reformers.  When a commission set up to review Stalin’s terror reported that, between 1935 and 1940, two million people had been arrested, with 688,000 shot, for ‘anti-Soviet’ activity, the Politburo had Beria executed, absolving their own complicity in Stalin’s political slaughter.


The team had been justifiably fearful of themselves falling victim to Stalin’s manic punitive suspicion (some were, indeed, ‘eliminated’) but fear was not the main glue binding the team to Stalin – they shared his values and beliefs in their perverted vision of ‘building socialism’.


Stalin’s team do, however, find a measure of redemption through Fitzpatrick’s method of historical exposition which prioritises the characters and personal drama within Stalin’s team.  She acknowledges that this risks humanising her subjects with cosy, ‘at-home-with’ vignettes but she argues that this is not in principle unacceptable, that she is an historian not a prosecutor for the anti-Stalinist cause.


This is tricky historiographical territory, however, if it leaves out, as Fitzpatrick does, the broader analytical context of the societal interests that personal actors represent and serve.  In post-revolutionary Russia, wracked by war, blockade, backwardness and isolation, the party-state bureaucracy became a politically and materially privileged stratum whose protector was Stalin.  His team was the elite of the elite, committed to preserving their status by waging violence against the principles of socialist democracy, equality and internationalism.

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