Saturday, 20 February 2016

On Stalin's Team

On Stalin's Team
By Sheila Fitzpatrick

Okay here is the thing about Stalin and historiography. He manages to crystallize every major ideological conflict of the twentieth century. As a result, the debate about Stalin oscillates between those like Robert Conquest who portray Stalin's regime as the embodiment of totalitarianism and Stalin as the greatest mass murderer in history and a bungler to boot; those like Simon Sebag Montefiores whose Court of the Red Tzar depicts Stalin as brilliant, charismatic and cruel; and the revisionists, such as Sheila Fitzpatrick and Arch Getty, who seek  to interpret Stalin as a rational albeit ruthless political operator.

One thing is for sure, while Stalin was the boss (and that's what they called him in Russian) millions and millions of Soviet citizens died. Now admittedly, about twenty million of those were killed by the Nazis but that still leaves a massive butcher's bill.

And yet, what if Russia had not industrialised during the twenties and thirties at break neck speed and at the cost of massive human suffering? Well no T-34 tanks for a start. And the Germans could probably have held onto Festung Europa until they developed nuclear weapons. It really does not bear thinking about.

In On Stalin's Team Sheila Fitzpatrick seeks to revise the view that Stalin operated as dictator surrounded by sycophantic yes men. The opening of many Soviet era archives since the 1990s does mean that it is possible to revisit the Cold War Robert Conquest view of Stalin; the risk is - as Fitzpatrick acknowledges in her introduction - that by humanising Stalin and interpreting his actions as, in a sense rational, one can be seen to become an apologist for his crimes.

Fitzpatrick makes a pretty compelling case for her argument, at least up until the post war period. It is indeed striking that Stalin's own family suffered as much or more in the Great Purge as other Politburo members. Also the phenomenon of "dosage" - the way in which team members fell gradually from high office to the  Gulag or worse  - is indeed best explained by Stalin's need to sell his decisions to other team members.

What the book lacks however is a detailed analysis of what the various team members actually achieved in their areas of relative autonomy (with the exception perhaps of Molotov).  Orzhonikidze in industry and Mikoyan in trade for example have fascinating stories to tell but, to be fair to Fitzpatrick, this would require a much larger book.

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