Chapter 14: Stalinism


Question in a Russian history book of the mid-twenty first century: Who was Adolf Hitler?
Answer: A petty dictator who lived at the same time as Joseph Stalin.
(Soviet joke from the post-Stalin period)

Monument to Stalin's victims in Kaluga.

Monument to Karl Marx in Moscow
Communist leaders did more than their fair share of contributing to the lexicon of “-isms”. Marx’ ideas are summed up as “Marxism”. Lenin’s contribution to this creed produced Leninism. (Engels missed out. There is no “Engelsism”.) Leninism could largely be summed up by the concept that the progression from capitalism to socialism and eventually to communism was not quite as inevitable as Marx had predicted, and therefore a small, dedicated group of leaders – the Party – would be needed to bring it about. Put these together, as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) claimed to do, and you have “Marxism-Leninism”. The study of Marxist-Leninist philosophy was one of the pillars of the Soviet system; whatever your subject, to make progress in any academic discipline you had to have a grounding in this, along with the History of the CPSU, Political Economy and Atheism.

So where does “Stalinism” fit into the development of Communist theory? The answer, in an intellectual sense, is that it doesn’t. There is no such thing as intellectual Stalinism. Whether or not you agree with Marx’ conclusions, Marx was a great thinker. Whether or not you accept that Lenin’s thoughts and writings really do extend to 55 volumes (as the official Soviet edition of Lenin’s Collected Works had it), Lenin, too, was a great thinker. Stalin, however, was not. Stalin was a scheming, paranoid opportunist who manipulated both allies and enemies to a point where he achieved total and supreme power in the Soviet Union. This was power to such an extent that when joining in with a standing ovation after one of Stalin’s speeches, people would be terrified to be seen to be the first one to stop clapping as this would signal disloyalty and a place in the labour camps of Siberia awaited. This was power exercised by making a whole, vast country live in fear.

But the term “Stalinism” exists. What, then does it mean? That depends very definitely on where you stand on the spectrum of Russian history and politics. For anyone who has made a study of the phenomenon taking into account a variety of opinions, there can be but one conclusion: Stalinism was one of the most brutal, repressive political systems ever imposed on people, which saw millions of innocent people suffer imprisonment, torture and death. There are those who disagree; those who see the results of Stalinism as bringing Russia into the modern industrialised world. But they are wrong. True, the USSR did develop much industry during Joseph Stalin’s time as leader of the country. But this was not the result of Stalinism per se. Stalinism – as an -ism – means the violent repression of the peoples firstly of the Soviet Union and then of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe who fell under Soviet domination after the Second World War.

The truth behind the Soviet black humour at the head of this chapter is shown by this quotation from Martin Walker’s The Waking Giant.

The victims of Stalin far outnumber those of Hitler. But the loss cannot be counted in statistics alone. Stalin’s victims were not only an unimaginably huge mass of individual people; they were whole classes. The hardest-working and most self-reliant of the peasantry were a threat, so they were exterminated. The old Bolsheviks who had helped bring about the revolution were a potential alternative government; they were liquidated. The officer corps could mount an effective challenge; they were wiped out. The old cultural elite, the thinking and the writing and the dreaming classes, were sifted, arrested, terrorised and killed. The idealists – those who had gone to Spain to fight against fascism, and had come into dangerous contact with an international left that was not yet fully drilled in Stalin’s ways – were shot on their return. The soldiers taken prisoner, who might have been infected by their constrained sight of a world beyond the Soviet borders, were imprisoned and worked and starved to death. An entire generation of the cleverest, the bravest, the most creative, the most able and even the most devoted was swept and scrubbed away.
(Walker, p.208; 1986)

As Walker says, it is not simply the number of the victims of Stalinism which is beyond belief. It was the way in which any citizen – especially but not exclusively those capable of independent thought – could be swept away. The effects of this devastation of the intellectual population are still being felt today. And yet if something in the cultural field appealed to Stalin’s tastes its creator might survive. Many were amazed that the writer Mikhail Bulgakov survived. His novel, The White Guard, hardly showed the Bolsheviks in the most positive light during the Civil War; and how, many have since asked, did Bulgakov get away with writing The Master and Margarita, with its strong religious references and flights of fantasy which were completely the opposite of socialist realism? It seems that for some reason unknown to outsiders, Stalin liked Bulgakov – sometimes.


Stalin’s paranoia meant that there was no-one in the field of culture who could ever feel that they were totally protected, especially if their art brought them more praise than Stalin himself received. The composer, Dmitry Shostakovich, was at times lauded by Stalin; at others he waited with a packed suitcase expecting to be arrested. A modern play, Stray Dogs, by Olivia Olsen, examines the relationship between Stalin and the poetess, Anna Akhmatova, and shows how Akhmatova wrote poems for Stalin in an attempt to have her son freed from a labour camp; yet at other moments was criticised by Stalin because she was too popular for the dictator’s liking. But if Stalin did like something, ideology didn’t matter. Leslie Woodhead cites one particularly bizarre example.




The jarring contrast between popular culture and the Great Terror found its ultimate expression in a film that reached Soviet cinemas in April 1938. As Stalin’s purge was murdering hundreds of thousands, and imprisoning another two hundred thousand for telling jokes seen as critical of authority, an upbeat film musical titled Volga-Volga – a kind of Socialist Showboat – became hugely popular. The movie’s songs were played in dance halls everywhere. “This free life will never end,” sang the joyful peasants in the closing scene. “Spring has come to our motherland.”
(Woodhead, p.48; 2013)

The only debatable point in what Woodhead writes is that he has probably erred on the side of caution with his figures. It is generally accepted that millions perished in the Great Terror; and probably more than 200,000 were arrested for telling a joke. Has any nation ever committed such self-destruction as the Russians did to themselves in the twentieth century? The sad answer is that although the Russians were the first, they have not been the last. China under Mao; Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge have followed. And all of these massacres have been carried out in the name of Communism. There is a lesson there.

Stalin chose various ways in which to assert his terrible authority upon his people, not least by murdering old Bolsheviks and the intelligentsia whom he considered inconvenient; and starving peasants by deliberately creating famines in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Natan Sharansky illustrates how well-meaning but naïve Western intellectuals who visited the USSR in the 1930’s were taken in by Stalin’s lies:

In the 1930’s, when Stalin was killing millions of his subjects and starving millions more, Western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Romain Rolland, and Leon Feuchtwanger waxed poetic about the contented Soviet masses…
  …The intellectuals fooled by Stalin in the 1930’s shared a sincere belief that communism’s egalitarian ideals promised a more just order than the one offered by their own capitalist countries. Convinced that the Soviet attempt to build a “new world” and a “new man” was a noble one, they refused to believe that those championing such ostensibly lofty goals could employ such reprehensible means to obtain them, and they filtered their observations accordingly.
(Sharansky, pp.48-54; 2006)

We saw in the chapter The March of History how throughout Russian history accounts of the past have been re-written to fit in with the current ideology, and this was never more the case than in the time of Stalinism, as David King shows in The Commissar Vanishes, which examines in particular the way in which photographs were doctored to fit the ideology of the day – long before Photoshop was available.


It was during the Great Purges, which raged in the late 1930’s, that a new form of falsification emerged. The physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence…
  Soviet citizens, fearful of the consequences of being caught in possession of material considered “anti-Soviet” or “counterrevolutionary”, were forced to deface their own copies of books and photographs, often savagely attacking them with scissors or disfiguring them with India ink.
(King, p.9; 1997)

And as Vassily Grossman says in Everything Flows it wasn’t only the well-known Bolsheviks who could be denounced; any citizen could help to destroy any other citizen.

It was so easy to destroy: just write a denunciation – you don’t even need to put your signature to it. Just say that your neighbour owned three cows, or that he had hired hands working for him – and there, you’ve set him up as a kulak.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, pp.127-128; c.1960)

Grossman refers specifically to the countryside, and as Francis Spufford demonstrates, it was collectivisation of the farms which was used to wipe out millions of potentially troublesome citizens in one fell swoop.

Collectivisation…killed several million more people in the short term, and permanently dislocated the Soviet food supply; but forcing the whole country population into collective farms let the central government set the purchase prices paid for crops, and so let it take as large a surplus for investment as it liked.
(Spufford, p.85; 2010)

Anyone in Stalin’s Soviet Union could end up in the Gulag or with a bullet in the back of their head; anyone. It may be the apparatchik who too quickly stops applauding Stalin; it may be the citizen who complains about the time spent standing in a queue, who finds himself arrested before he can get to the head of the queue; it may be, as Grossman writes in Life and Fate, someone who makes a small mistake in their work.

After work, Alexandra Vladimirovna had gone to her colleague’s house. There she had learned that this man had recently been released from a labour camp. He had been a proof-reader on a newspaper and had spent seven years in the camps for missing a misprint in a leading article – the typesetters had got one letter wrong in Stalin’s name.
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.348; 1960)

This quotation may be taken from a work of fiction but it is exactly the sort of “crime” for which hundreds of thousands of people were sentenced to labour camps in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Similarly, Spufford highlights not only the risks for those in the sphere of production, but also why so many lies were told about how much was actually being produced.

Managers of plants turning out “producer goods” were given dizzily increasing targets for output. If they met them, by whatever means they could contrive, they would be rewarded – and the targets would increase the next year by another leap and a bound. If they failed to meet them, they’d be punished, often by death. When things went wrong, in Stalin’s industrial revolution, someone was always to blame.
(Spufford, p.85; 2010)

The extent to which fear of arrest or death took a grip on society is well illustrated by Robert Kaiser:

I met the members of one family who stayed up every night for five years playing bridge until they dropped off to sleep from exhaustion – it was the only way they could overcome the fear of a knock on the door in the night.
(Kaiser, p.359; 1976)

From his detailed examination of KGB archive material, Mark Harrison shows how the system became a “revolving door” of violence and death.

Many of the perpetrators of terror became victims of the machine they helped to operate. At the same time, victims were recruited to keep it operating. The revolving door has made it easy to conclude that everyone was to blame and no one was to blame. Partly for this reason, Russia today prefers to remember Stalinism as a crime that had victims but somehow was carried out without perpetrators; no one has been held criminally responsible, and no law has named what they did as a crime.
(Harrison, p.206; 2016)

This went from the very top of the organisation. The two men who served as the Head of the NKVD as it was then known during the worst time of the Purges, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, were both devoured by the system which they had implemented against so many of their fellow citizens. A chilling description of how this happened came on Soviet TV when glasnost was at its height, as Hedrick Smith explains.

In one of Fifth Wheel’s most unforgettable scenes, Bella Kurkova and Sasha Krivonos tracked down a former Stalinist executioner, who was living in the cramped poverty of old age. Sasha persuaded him to show, on camera, how he shot people.
  “Tell me, Andrei Ivanovich,” Sasha coaxed the former gulag guard, “from what distance were people shot?”
  The bald old man moved around behind Sasha and raised his arm, not quite straight. He made a gun with his hand and pointed his index finger at the back of Sasha’s head.
  “Bang in the head,” he said, eyes staring wildly. “At approximately this distance.”
  “At the distance of an outstretched arm?” Sasha asked.
  “No,” the former executioner replied. “Arm slightly bent. You can’t shoot with a straight arm.”
(Smith, The New Russians, p.155; 1990)

Fifth Wheel (Пятое колесо) was a ground-breaking programme of investigative journalism, which ran, firstly on Leningrad TV, then nationally, from 1988 to 1996. It was a product of glasnost and perestroika, but ended not through censorship but because other programmes had taken its place. And by the mid-1990’s society had tired of revelations about the dark past.

Harrison puts forward a plausible thesis as to why Stalin let loose such terror on his own people.

A compelling interpretation of the Great Terror is that Stalin correctly foresaw what was coming – a huge war that would break out with Germany if not with Japan. Such a war would face millions of Soviet citizens with a choice. Would they fight for Soviet rule? Or would they oppose it, either actively or passively by adopting an attitude of wait-and-see? In Stalin’s calculus, it was best to find the waverers and kill them now: not only the actual, conscious enemies, but the unconscious ones. How could you be an enemy unconsciously, without knowing it? The unconscious enemies were those who would break faith with the revolution and go over to the enemy in a future war, even if they thought of themselves as loyal now. Better find them and kill them first, while they were only potential traitors, before they had done any harm, rather than wait for them to turn into real traitors when they could do critical damage.
(Harrison, p.8; 2016. Non-italics in original text)

And, writing in 1990, Smith explains why debunking the myths of Stalinism was so important for Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev understood that before his people could begin to define and build their future, transform the Soviet system, they had to consciously reject the legacy of Stalin, to confront the nature of the society that Stalin had created. Khrushchev had begun the task in 1956 when he dethroned Stalin personally, exposing the raw terror of his reign. But Gorbachev had a larger target: not just Stalin the person, but Stalinism, the entire Stalinist system. He was intent on digging deeper, on uprooting and casting off the Stalinist system by discrediting it morally, especially among generations in their middle and younger years.
(Smith, The New Russians, p.127; 1990)

But therein lies another part of the explanation as to why so much criticism of Stalin was then buried. The confused legacy Gorbachev left – notably the collapse of the USSR and the feeling for many Russians that the country’s place in the world had been lessened – is one reason why Stalinism has not been eradicated in Russia. There is still a palpable nostalgia for those days. The lessons of the dangers of Stalinism which were trumpeted so loudly in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by Solzhenitsyn and the works of Grossman, Rybakov and others have largely been forgotten. And society is paying the price for turning away from those lessons.

As Anne Applebaum points out, Stalinism had already been “saved” once already – by the Second World War.

Stalinism – and Stalin – was fortuitously rescued by the Second World War. Despite the chaos and mistakes, despite the mass deaths and vast destruction, victory bolstered the legitimacy of the system and its leader, “proving” their worth. In the wake of the victory, the near-religious cult of Stalin reached new heights.
(Applebaum, p.xxix; 2012)

This is vividly illustrated, too, by Grossman in Life and Fate. And how do people cope when the old beliefs are suddenly blown apart? The psychological blow dealt to Russians by the process of de-Stalinisation is summarised excellently by David Shipler.

The iconoclastic campaign that began in 1956 against the venerated memory of Stalin shook loose an elaborate structure of unconditional beliefs. It destroyed not only the legacy of Stalin’s authority but the very notion of belief itself, trust in the permanence of an idea. Russians, schooled in the perfection of Stalin and in the complete identity of the man, the party, and the country, were now being told by the same thunderous voice of the party to scratch out his name, blacken his picture, erase him from history. The earlier devotion had been a lie, a false passion generated by a demented “cult of personality”. And nobody who learns that his entire faith has been a fabrication can ever think the same way again; the upheaval changed the political and emotional landscape of Russia.
(Shipler, p.305; 1983)

When Nikita Khrushchev opened the lid of the Pandora’s Box that was de-Stalinisation, it was the first of a number of seismic shocks which were to leave millions in limbo, not knowing where to turn or what to believe. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was another – so many lies were told and there was so much uncertainty which put people’s lives at risk. The one million soldiers who went through the experience of the war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 came back to spread the word that the reality there was not as it had been portrayed in the heroic tales churned out by the Soviet press. And the final, catastrophic, earthquake for many was the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. More than a quarter of a century later, the aftershocks are still being felt.

Speaking to Hedrick Smith in 1990, the film director, Andrei Smirnov points out how, if Russians are to come to terms with their past, and notably Stalinism, they have to accept that when they ask their favourite question of “Who is to blame?” they must first look at themselves.

“I agree with Solzhenitsyn that without repentance, we cannot change ourselves or our society. We must feel responsibility for our history. Who was it who made Stalin’s terror? It was we – our fathers – and we must now pay for our fathers. But this is repulsive to most people. They want to blame others. They accuse Jews or someone else. They do not want to accept responsibility.” – Andrei Smirnov, Film Director, March 1990
(Smith, The New Russians, p.121; 1990)

Plaque at the Monument to Stalin's Victims in Kaluga:
"TO THE CITIZENS OF KALUGA WHO WERE
THE VICTIMS OF POLITICAL REPRESSION.
YOU WILL ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED"

In 1989 I interviewed the Russian playwright, Mikhail Shatrov, whose latest play, Дальше…дальше…дальше! (Further…further…further!) had caused a stir when it had been staged the year before, because of the way it portrayed the relationship between Lenin and Stalin before Lenin’s death. I asked him why he had focussed on this. “Because Stalin still hasn’t left the stage,” he replied with a sad smile. Shatrov died, aged 78, in 2010. Were he still alive I believe he would find it even sadder to see that not only has Stalin not left the stage, but under Vladimir Putin he has been placed almost centre stage once again.


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