Many of you will remember Kovane’s last effort, “A Short Overview of Russian Political Discourse”. It proved very successful in generating comment, and attracted the attention of some of the real heavyweights in Russian political blogging. Here, Kovane builds on those successes as he seizes a real lightning rod – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, he of the luxuriant mustache and the butcher’s reputation.
Most in the west dare not say anything positive about Stalin, for fear of being accused of glorifying his memory. For that reason, a recent modest resurgence in Stalin imagery in Russia – ostensibly just part of a celebration of Russian history – provoked screams of hate and vituperation from Russophobes around the globe. See, they stammered; Russia celebrates the great wickedness, whose evil lives long after his death!! However, this strikes me (and I am certainly no historian) as a very balanced view; when Stalin messed up horribly, Kovane covers it dispassionately.
We discussed before publication that it might well outrage some, coming as it does on the very eve of the anniversary of the Holodomor – a memory of bottomless grief and anguish for many, and none more so than Ukrainians, many of whom believe Stalin deliberately starved their grandparents’ generation to death. Is that what happened? It’s difficult to say based on historical accounts, and the memories of the elderly are often coloured by their personal demons. I’d read before, peripherally, the view that it was a simple case of bungling mismanagement complicated by poor harvests, but I’d never seen it covered in the kind of detail it is here. Without further ado, Kovane has the floor, including questions and comments.
“There is definitely no more polarizing figure in the history of Russia than Stalin. Other popular topics of debate attract mostly history buffs, such as who executed more people: Ivan the Terrible of Russia, or Henry the VIII of England (Vanya comes across as an amateurish loser with a pathetic 4 thousand against Henry’s respectable 72 thousand), if Gorbachev and Yeltsin were traitors to the Motherland (yes and yes) or if the hamlets Count Potemkin founded existed only to please the Tsarina’s eyes (no; for example, one of them wound up as Dnepropetrovsk, a major Ukrainian city). But hardly does someone bring up Stalin than the whole country is at each other’s throats. Polling agencies have been surveying public opinion of him year after year, far more often than any other historical leader, and we’re talking about a man who died more than 50 years ago. So, what do these surveys say? According to this one, 37% of Russians have a positive attitude toward Stalin: sympathy, respect or even admiration; 28% – indifferent and 24% – negative, varying between fear, hatred and contempt. Practically, it can’t get any more polarizing than that. The battle rages on the Internet, between historians and on the air at Yahoo Moskvy radio. It is amazing, though, that a majority of Russians still hold a positive view of Stalin after two full-scale smear campaigns against him: in 1956, by Khrushchev, and during Perestroika when everyone tried to get in on the action. The second one was especially fierce; different authors were competing for the title of who could invent the most inconceivable crime of the Soviets, and give the highest estimate of the victims of Stalinism. The record I’ve heard so far – a whopping 150 million people (voiced by guess who? Right, Nemtsov!), which is only possible if Homo Sovieticus bred faster than rabbits. So why do Russians keep clinging to the idea that Stalin was a good guy? Should we invoke the famous “slave mentality” trope? The only way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to inhale the dust of history books, and try to put the record straight ourselves.
Stalin was always more inclined to practical activity than theoretical, although he left 16 volumes of works. Before the Revolution he even organized bank robberies in order to fill the party coffers. Contemporaries noted Stalin’s tremendous industriousness; he often worked 12-15 hours a day. In the beginning of the Civil War his office was adjacent to Lenin’s, who became dependent on Stalin’s expertise. Another of his recognized traits was asceticism; while many fellow Bolsheviks indulged in a lavish lifestyle, Stalin lived very modestly, and had few personal belongings except for books. Having little formal education (he was expelled from a theological seminary), Stalin was always an avid reader. Foreign interviewers revealed him to be an extremely well-read person. That, coupled with Stalin’s suspiciousness, sometimes backfired on him; trying to look into the widest variety of matters, he influenced them too much. For example, Stalin’s decisions covered issues from the price of potatoes and naming a car to military regulations and the development strategy of the economy. Despite an existing cult of personality, Stalin never encouraged it, though he admittedly never struggled against it either. In the environment of his absolute power, that was more than enough for the cult to blossom. To Stalin’s credit, he was impervious to flattery and didn’t allow it to affect his decisions (for instance, he refused to accept the “Hero of the Soviet Union” title in 1945). Probably Stalin’s most notorious trait was a combination of distrustfulness and vindictiveness, which resulted in an atmosphere of intrigues and snitches. The Katyn executions have no cogent explanation other than Stalin’s desire to avenge his defeat in the Russian-Polish war and the death in Polish captivity of 60 thousand Russian soldiers. That gives Katyn deniers one of their many arguments (along with fishiness of the archive documents). And finally, Stalin demonstrated his craftiness and intelligence many times, a fact acknowledged by his opponents as well as his admirers.
After the Civil War, in 1923, the country was completely devastated. Having been in a de facto state of anarchy for more than six years, Russia was being torn apart by the nationalism of outlying regions, dissent among people who supported the Whites, and economic hardship. Industrial production dropped by a factor of 7 compared with 1913, agricultural by 38%. More than 80% of citizens lived in rural areas; the backbone of agricultural production was comprised of small farms with very low output; they consumed 85% of the grain production. 40% of the farms used wooden ploughs; more than a third of farmers didn’t have horses. As a result of low productivity, farmers couldn’t afford any industrial goods and cities grew very slowly: there was not enough food. In addition to all these woes, Soviet Russia was in complete international isolation and was therefore not the most attractive place for foreign investment and credits. The only way to earn precious foreign currency to buy industrial equipment was by selling grain. But the most serious problem was that the whole situation was very inert; the country was yet to undergo changes similar to enclosure in England or forcibly stripping land from poor peasants in Germany.
The Bolsheviks were equal to the occasion. Former military commanders with no idea about any specifics received administrative jobs. They carried old habits with them: force was the most popular solution for any problem. Even in the 30s, only 18.8% of party members had higher education. Problems with personnel plagued the state governance till the 40s. There was a lot of infighting between different factions in the Party’s top leadership. After abandoning the policy of War Communism and implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP), Russia got a desperately needed respite, and was at a crossroads. The power was concentrated in the Politburo, a collegiate body, comprised of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Trotsky argued for inflaming a proletarian revolution in Germany, and viewed Russia as only fuel for a world revolution; he was the most influential leader – after Lenin – at the time. Stalin favoured the idea of concentrating on developing Socialism only in Russia. Some theorists, like Bukharin, supported an evolutionary approach, and suggested keeping the NEP and slowly correcting the inequality of the market. All leaders used those ideas merely as banners, and the real struggle for raw power unfolded.
Initially, main contenders for power were Kamenev and Zinoviev versus Trotsky. They all viewed Stalin as a minor ally, and Kamenev and Zinoviev decided to use him to bring down Trotsky. It was they who lobbied for Stalin’s appointment as the General Secretary which was only a nominal position at the time. The trio succeeded in unseating Trotsky after Lenin’s death, cleverly using his arrogance against him. From that moment, Zinoviev realized what a golem they had created; Stalin gathered much support and influence, and his opponents could only struggle for their own survival, not supreme power. But Stalin decided to play this game the end; he pushed for Buhkarin’s inclusion in the Politburo, and played him off against former allies. After Zinoviev’s downfall, Bukharin remained the only opponent popular enough to pose a threat to Stalin. Foreboding of future war was in the air, and the Bolshevik leadership realized that the country would not be prepared. While the NEP successfully solved the most basic economic issues, it was by no means adequate to long-term development. And Stalin decided to adopt strategies originally proposed by his archenemy Trotsky: industrialization and collectivization. Bukharin, representing the right wing of the party, violently opposed those policies; but Stalin’s position was already too strong. By 1929 there was virtually no open opposition; Stalin obtained absolute power; his rivals moved underground.
One of the main charges against Stalin is the catastrophic consequence of collectivization and the engineering of the mass famine in 1932-1933. First of all, famines were frequent guests in Russia; they happened in 1901, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913, and 1921. The causes of that were rapid population growth in the XIX-XX centuries and extremely unstable grain crops in Russia. Bolsheviks had no source of income for industrialization, so they decided to carry out it at the expense of the peasantry. The goal was to increase the amount of produced commodity grain which can be used for feeding the growing worker population or for export. An old model for that, the state grain procurement program, gave results that had been worsening year after year. The proposed course of action was to merge small peasant farms into large state firms, kolkhozes, which could use modern agricultural technologies and be mechanized. The rich peasants who opposed that undertaking were to be deported. Of course, those changes hindered grain production, while a world crisis collapsed grain prices. Trying to make the most of that situation, the Bolsheviks exported a record amount of grain in 1931, while that year’s harvest was very modest. The Soviets’ balance of payments was in the red, and the plan for equipment purchases was in jeopardy. Such drastic measures drained state grain reserves, and a second consecutive bad harvest would be a disaster. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened. Initially a good crop was expected, and the government set high figures for grain procurement and export. As more information came in, these numbers were lowered, but about 1.3 million tons were exported before full realization of the situation (4.8 were exported in 1931). The cumbersome bureaucratic machine proved too slow, and distorted feedback at the time. Consequences were truly terrifying; casualty estimates vary from 2 to 10 million, but the most reliable survey shows 7 million people died then. That’s comparable to the number of victims of the Civil War, 10 million. The famine raged in the whole of the USSR, but the most affected were the southern regions: Ukraine, Caucasus, Volga region and Kazakhstan. Therefore, any implication that the famine was an act of genocide against Ukraine is preposterous: this map shows the intensity of the famine in the various regions. It’s the equivalent of trying to get rid of cockroaches in a flat by opening the gas and sitting next to the stove. Although the causes of the famine are disputed by many historians, the most coherent version is two consecutive bad harvests aggravated by the government’s mismanagement. Another factor contributing to the disaster was a sharp drop in the number of livestock in 1931-1932; many peasants were reluctant to hand over horses and bulls to kolkhozes, preferring to slaughter them for meat. That caused problems with plowing and sowing in 1932. But the Soviet leadership learned the lesson: it was the last large famine to this day (save for much less severe post-WW2 famine in 1946).
The darkest stain on Stalin’s times certainly remains the subject of repressions. Unfortunately, all information on this period of time is confusing and a lot of myths and falsehoods are in circulation, even among professional historians. First of all, the laws of the Stalinist USSR were very harsh; modern China looks like Norway in comparison. But it’s a mistake to forget the specifics of the situation; nobody could have stayed in power with more lenient laws then. Initially, small scale repressions were directed at White collaborators: that was an answer to the terrorist actions of the ROVS, a White emigrant union abroad. The second wave of repressions came during the mass collectivization. Everyone who objected to those measures (organized resistance) and their families were deported to distant regions; most rich farmers were also deported. The rest of the “kulaks” (well-off peasants) were resettled within the same region and given land. Around 1.8 million people were moved during this campaign. Series of show trials (the Shakhtinsk case, etc.) can also be attributed to repressions, they were designed to set an example for saboteurs and the corrupt. Some of the organizers were executed. But in the beginning of the 30s the situation was becoming more lawful and peaceful. Everything changed in 1934, after the murder of Kirov (the leader of the Leningrad Party organization). Stalin used this opportunity to launch a campaign against his former opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev. They were convicted in an obviously fabricated case, and executed. Their former associates were broadly arrested. And once again the wave of repressions subsided; a new set of laws was enacted, limiting the capacity of the NKVD to arrest people.
The bell rang again in 1937. One of the most eminent Soviet generals, Tukhachevsky, along with his alleged accomplices, was arrested on a charge of plotting to overthrow the government. Contrary to popular opinion and later Khrushchev’s exoneration, not everything is clear in this case. There was some incriminating evidence, although whether that was a brilliant play by German intelligence or real information is unknown. Tukhachevsky was executed in June, and in July the infamous NKVD Order No. 00447 was signed, and the Great Purges officially began. History will probably never reveal the true reasons and motivations behind this act; most likely Stalin was alarmed by a possibility of a military coup. Under the order’s provisions, special judicial organs were created: “troikas”. They had power to review criminal cases in a simplified form and sentence to death, with an immediate execution. It was up to regional departments of the NKVD to decide who was under suspicion, they were only limited by hard-set quotas on how many people could be arrested and shot. The quotas could be exceeded only by the NKVD head Ezhov’s dispensation, but he didn’t hesitate to approve any quota extension. The level of terror was truly unimaginable. The troikas’ workload was insane; sometimes they reviewed more than a thousand cases a day. There’s no need to talk about the quality of investigation. One can only imagine how many personal scores were settled during those times. Out of approximately 880 000 people that were executed during 1921-1953, more than 700 000 fall in the years 1937-38. Stalin’s apologists usually try to present this as some sort of collusion in the NKVD, which probably is not without reason, but any attempt to whitewash Stalin is destined to fail here. A statesman of his stature had to realize the consequences of such actions: besides, he signed many documents personally. Despite Khrushchev’s statement that those repressions were directed at Party members, more than two thirds of the convicted were common people. The Great Purges ended as abruptly as they started, in the end of 1938. Stalin offloaded all excesses on Ezhov, he was arrested and executed on charges of spying and conspiring to overthrow the government (he was even accused of “performing acts of sodomy, acting with anti-Soviet and venal purposes”). The Great Terror is definitely the largest of Stalin’s crimes. Having a chance to be written in history books as the greatest Russian leader ever, he obliterated it by the 1937-38 years, and became but one of many murderous dictators. These actions had terrible consequences, and it’s not even the explicit moral implication of killing nearly a million men. The events of the Great Terror smoldered in people’s memories for years, and were used to smash the Soviet Union in the 80-90s, bringing catastrophic suffering. Perhaps if not for them, the Soviet Union would have been reformed more peacefully. After 1938, the Soviet government applied its efforts to creating solid legal foundations for the state, and mostly succeeded. Stalin even abolished capital punishment briefly in 1947, but reinstated it in 1950.
One of the most spun myths in the West is GULAG, owing mostly to Solzhenitsyn’s exaggerations; it’s supposed to mean some scary death camps, much worse than Auschwitz. In reality it was nothing more than a government agency that controlled a network of labor camps. The favourite trope of anti-Soviet historians is to overstate the number of prisoners in GULAG and make an emphasis on the fact that their labour was used, thus drawing the USSR as some sort of slave state. Their dream is smashed to bits by archive data. In the 30s, the total number of prisoners fluctuated around 1 million people, sharply rising in 1938. The record was set in 1950, when all Soviet prisons and camps contained 2,760,095 inmates. (for the sake of comparison, there were 2,304,115 prisoners in the USA in 2008). The death rate in camps was slightly higher that the country’s, spiking in the years of famine and the hardest period of war.
Speaking of Stalin’s economic and social achievements, they were truly tremendous. The Soviet Union went from the ruins of at best the sixth economy in Europe in 1923 to the third economy in the world in 1940 (after the USA and Germany). This growth was not only limited to heavy industry, common people enjoyed a rapid increase of the real incomes as well; compared to 1913 they had grown almost threefold (1940). Stalin introduced free health care and education systems with mass coverage: under his rule the country overcame illiteracy and mass epidemics. Life expectancy had grown from 30.5 years in 1913 to 67-69 years in the 60’s. Soviet science also was at its zenith, solving the main among Russia’s problems for many years – a constant menace of large invasions – by creating the nuclear shield. All that, along with active propaganda, was the reason why the Soviet society hadn’t been split by the repressions. Seeing constant improvement in their lives, people believed that everyone who was arrested was guilty, even knowing the preposterous charges. It’s fair to say that of all Soviet leaders, Stalin best understood the great importance of a solid economy; he managed to create a system that combined the advantages of a planned economy and private initiative. Those who worked hard received high wages, but the price of mistakes was very high. The Soviet Union was doomed after Stalin’s death: Khrushchev’s mistakes ensured that.
But the foremost reason for Stalin’s enduring popularity lies, in my opinion, in the tragic events of WW2. The Eastern front of it (the Great Patriotic War) was drastically different for Russia than for any other Western country. The German plan “Generalplan Ost” left no doubts about Russia’s probable future: most of the people were to be destroyed. While occupying the European part of Russia, Nazis killed nearly 14 million civilians, and they didn’t even have enough time to give the task their full attention. The future of Russia itself was at stake. While Stalin’s decisions in the military sphere are debatable (and there is a lot of debate), the performance of the Soviet economy was extraordinary. Despite losing the most developed region, the USSR outdid Germany in the production of every type of military equipment. By different estimates, the share of the military sector quickly rose to more than 50 percent. One of the most impressive efforts was the state evacuation program. Giant plants were dismantled under constant bombing, transported to Siberian regions and unloaded into frozen wilderness. And they began producing the so-needed shells and rifles for the front within a month, often manned by women and children. Nowadays there is a popular notion that Soviet people won the war DESPITE Stalin. This is the most schizophrenic thought I ever heard; the Stalinist USSR certainly was a totalitarian state and had a planned economy. And by definition, a totalitarian state controls every sphere of society’s life, which shows the role of Stalin in the victory. The country was united then; tremendous efforts of the people were put to good use by the government. To my mind, only the Stalinist system could have withstood Nazi Germany’s attack, and many people share this view. The salvation of Russia redeemed Stalin.
I hope I was able to show how controversial the figure of Stalin is. Should we file him under the “benevolent ruler” category? I personally can’t extol the virtues of a man who overlooked the murders of thousands of innocent people. But I can’t condemn a man to whom we owe the lives of millions of people – including my own – either. Allegedly, in 1943, Stalin said: “I know that after my death they’ll heap a lot of garbage on my grave, but the wind of history will mercilessly scatter it.” I think we owe him that: to inseparably study Stalin’s crimes with Stalin’s achievements. Today, Stalin’s fame among young Russians is growing, despite his constant vilification on state television. That clearly shows how lopsidedly propaganda works. As nothing makes you want to vote for Putin more than reading the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, one can hardly resist the desire to buy Stalin’s portrait after watching the deceitful hysteria of some “historians”. A more balanced view on Stalin is absolutely essential.”