Stalin targeted the relatives, assistants and friends of his inner circle. Yet his lieutenants kept the Soviet state together after his death.
In February 1946, when rumors of Joseph Stalin’s failing health were circulating in the West, the American diplomat George Kennan dispatched his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow to the State Department. Among his many observations about the nature of Soviet power, Kennan noted that the Soviet state had not yet “demonstrated that it can survive [the] supreme test of successive transfer of power from one individual or group to another. Lenin’s death was [the] first such transfer, and its effects wracked [the] Soviet state for 15 years.” Stalin’s death or retirement, Kennan said, would be the second transfer of power and could lead to another convulsion.
It didn’t turn out that way. Once Stalin suffered a stroke on March 1, 1953, his “comrades in arms,” as they liked to be called, quickly consolidated their collective authority, surprising their country and certainly the West when they kept the government together and then initiated a host of reforms. Dwight Eisenhower had been inaugurated seven weeks earlier after a campaign in which he and his foreign-policy adviser John Foster Dulles had emphasized their determination—as Dulles wrote for the 1952 Republican platform—to “roll back” Soviet control of Eastern Europe and end “the negative, futile and immoral policy of ‘containment.’ ” In an article for Life magazine during the campaign, Dulles had urged replacing the “treadmill policies” of the Trumanadministration with a “policy of boldness.”
On Stalin’s Team
By Sheila Fitzpatrick
Princeton, 440 pages, $35
But it was Stalin’s heirs who took the initiative. Within weeks of his death they ordered the release of a million criminal prisoners from the Gulag and substantially lowered retail prices for food and manufactured goods. They also publicly disavowed the so-called Doctors’ Plot, Stalin’s sinister accusations against a handful of Moscow doctors, most of them Jewish, who were said to be plotting against the state and furthering an imperialist and “Zionist” conspiracy. The charges, announced in January 1953, seemed designed to bring years of anti-Semitic demagoguery to a climax with the executions of the doctors and even, it was rumored though never confirmed, the mass deportation of Jews from Soviet cities. The new Kremlin leaders, by releasing the accused men, signaled to the public that arbitrary terror would no longer be the basis of state policy.
ON STALIN’S TEAM
By Sheila Fitzpatrick Princeton, 440 pages, $35
In “On Stalin’s Team,” a superb group portrait of the dictator’s closest lieutenants at a pivotal moment in history, Sheila Fitzpatrick shows in detail how and why Stalin’s heirs were ready for his passing. Some, like Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan and Lazar Kaganovich, had started working for Stalin in the 1920s. Others, likeGeorgi Malenkov, Lavrenti Beria andNikita Khrushchev, had joined the team later. Together they helped to run the Soviet government, collaborated in Stalin’s crimes—even signing execution orders at his direction—and held the regime together under the terrible strain of the German invasion in 1941. Without question they were beholden to Stalin and feared losing his favor. But they were not ciphers. Charged with managing important ministries, they showed competence along with obedience, particularly during World War II, when Stalin relied on them more than ever.
But he also played with them to ensure their loyalty. He targeted their relatives, assistants and friends. “Nobody on the team could consider himself safe,” writes Ms. Kirkpatrick, a noted scholar in Soviet history and a professor at the University of Sydney; no one was “guaranteed immunity in the hunt for enemies.” Lazar Kaganovich’s elder brother, the minister of aviation at a time when the aviation industry was coming under fire for “poor performance,” was mocked by Stalin and told that the security police were preparing to charge him with being “a wrecker and a German spy.” He committed suicide in 1941; Lazar Kaganovich never tried to intervene on his brother’s behalf.
Molotov, the longtime foreign minister, was humiliated on several occasions. He had to accept the arrest of assistants, even the exile of his beloved (Jewish) wife in January 1949, and he was of course not allowed to object when Stalin insisted that he and his wife divorce. On one occasion, Molotov interceded on behalf of a girl whose father (one of Molotov’s chief secretaries) had killed himself rather than face arrest. She alerted Molotov that she was left with no winter clothing after her parents’ apartment was sealed. Molotov forwarded her letter to security officials, adding that she “should be given warm clothing.” Such was life in Stalin’s kingdom.
And Stalin did not spare his own relatives. After his wife committed suicide in 1932, he gradually targeted a large group of her family members. “The casualty rate in Stalin’s own family and intimate circle during the Great Purges [was] as high or higher than that of other team members,” Ms. Fitzpatrick writes. She goes on to argue that Stalin “felt that his moral authority with the team required him not to intervene on behalf of his own intimates once the team were unable to do so for theirs.” The logic of this claim, however, is hard to accept. Surely Stalin, possessed of absolute power, didn’t have to establish his “moral authority” with his team or anyone else. In any case, there was no one to “intervene” against except himself. In this instance Ms. Fitzpatrick’s focus on team dynamics causes her to lose sight of Stalin’s cruelty.
In the final months of his life, Stalin turned on Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan, a longtime Bolshevik leader, accusing them of espionage. At last, “the rest of the team resisted. He couldn’t even stop the two in disgrace from showing up uninvited at his dacha, because the other team members were tipping them off.” But it was only Stalin’s collapse and death in March 1953 that freed them of their dread. Once he was gone, they were ready to take control and avoid the upheaval that George Kennan and others had predicted.
Mr. Rubenstein is the author of “ Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.