The Iron Grip

The Moscow Times
Arts & Ideas
July 23 – 29, 2004

The Iron Grip

Even Stalin’s most fearsome henchmen were putty in the dictator’s hands, a
new study by Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk maintains.

By Sam Thorne
Published: July 23, 2004

Of the numerous books that have been written about Josef Stalin, relatively
few have focused on the twilight years of his dictatorship, from the end of
World War II to his death in March 1953. Those works that do address this
period tend to depict Stalin as an increasingly paranoid figure, struggling
to cling to health and power as his deputies jockey for position to succeed
him. In “Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953,”
historians Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk challenge the prevailing
version, using formerly unavailable archive material to shed light on the
internal workings of the top Soviet leadership during Stalin’s final years.
They attempt to show a clear political logic to Stalin’s behavior, however
irrational it may seem, and dispel the notion that there were ever any
serious contenders to usurp him (or even conspirators to kill him).

Following the war, Gorlizki and Khlevniuk contend, Stalin’s consistent aim
was to consolidate the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower, and, in the
face of growing decrepitude, to maintain his hold as leader of that power.
The authors describe how Stalin created a dual political order: informal and
personalized in some spheres, orderly and institutionalized in others.
Realizing, for example, that he no longer had the energy to oversee many
aspects of government, Stalin initiated key organizational changes, setting
up a Council of Ministers to manage the economy, while he and his inner
circle in the Politburo concentrated on a smaller set of policy issues,
among them state security, ideology and foreign affairs. Unlike the
Politburo, the Council of Ministers met regularly, worked to deadlines on
individual assignments with a clear division of labor and suffered minimal
interference from Stalin — except when economic issues touched on matters
of state.

The other side of this arrangement was a Politburo entirely obedient to
Stalin’s whims, comprising five members in 1945 and 10 by 1953, including
Stalin himself, two long-standing colleagues in Vyacheslav Molotov and
Anastas Mikoyan, and younger members, such as Lavrenty Beria and Nikita
Khrushchev. In contrast to the Council of Ministers, Stalin personally
selected the Politburo’s membership, set its agendas, fashioned its
procedures and organized the locations and timings of its meetings to suit
himself. Often, meetings would take place in the dining room of Stalin’s
dacha in the early hours of the morning — and when not dining with the
leader, Politburo members were often phoned by Stalin’s secretary as late as
4 or 5 a.m. to be told that Stalin had gone to bed and that they, too, could
leave their desks and go home. A Yugoslav envoy who visited Stalin during
this period described how a significant part of Soviet policy was shaped at
these dinners. “It all resembled,” he wrote, “a patriarchal family with a
crotchety head who made his kinsfolk apprehensive.” Gorlizki and Khlevniuk
term Stalin’s style of leadership “neo-patrimonial” in that he attempted to
combine a modern, committee-based system of administration with a more
primitive method of rule based on personal fealty.

After World War II, Stalin moved quickly to reassert his authority over his
deputies, who had come to enjoy a measure of autonomy in their respective
fields as the war took its toll on the dictator’s health and stamina. Within
a year, Stalin launched a series of savage attacks on every member of the
Politburo, using a variety of methods to intimidate them, including
face-to-face confrontations, demotions, assaults on allies and the threat of
physical repression. In each case, the victim was required to apologize
speedily and abjectly, usually in writing. Mikoyan, for example, after being
blamed by Stalin for grain shortages that crippled the country in 1946,
issued this cringing statement: “Of course, neither I nor others can frame
questions quite like you [Stalin]. I shall devote all my energy so that I
may learn from you how to work correctly. I shall do all I can to draw the
lessons from your stern criticism, so that it is turned to good use in my
further work under your fatherly guidance.”

In the years that followed, Stalin continued to exert fierce psychological
pressure on his deputies. Whenever they showed signs of independence, he
slapped them down ruthlessly. Molotov was even forced to divorce his wife,
who was subsequently arrested on trumped-up charges that she was linked to
“Jewish nationalists.” The lesson was that nobody, not even a spouse, could
get in the way of a Politburo member’s primary allegiance to Stalin. More
important still was the demand that personal devotion to Stalin should
supersede any loyalty to an “office.” At the drop of a hat, Stalin could
create or destroy institutional positions and all the personal incentives
and authority that came with them.

Stalin established a dual political order — part informal, part unyielding
— to maintain a hold over his subordinates.

Although Stalin sought to inspire in the last years of his dictatorship the
submissive attitude that the Politburo had displayed toward him immediately
after the Great Terror, he did not plumb the same depths of brutality to
achieve it. There were none of the large-scale purges of the political elite
seen in the 1930s; instead, Stalin appeared to value order and continuity
within his entourage. When he denounced his closest colleagues, the ensuing
charade of repentance and chastisement was usually played out in front of
only a small audience. If the victim was less important, Stalin’s criticism
might leak out into wider circles or appear in the papers.

At the same time, members of the Politburo learned not to rock the boat,
knowing that any advantage they might gain from having a rival removed could
not make up for the lethal climate of uncertainty and suspicion that
inevitably followed. If they needed reminding of this, it came in 1950 when
Stalin executed the head of the state planning agency, Nikolai Voznesensky,
for allowing a trade fair to go ahead in Leningrad without permission from a
high enough authority: As ever, Stalin hated any sign of autonomy in others.

Gorlizki and Khlevniuk write persuasively of how fear of Stalin’s
unpredictable behavior united members of the Politburo in a tacit alliance,
and how their experience of working together laid the foundations of
collective leadership after Stalin’s death. Whereas earlier historians of
this period have relied largely on newspaper articles, leaked reports and
memoirs — many colored to show Khrushchev, Stalin’s eventual successor, in
a positive light — Gorlizki and Khlevniuk have trawled through piles of
newly available Central Committee paperwork and personal correspondence to
create an admirably objective and balanced account of Stalin’s relationship
with his ruling circle, backed up with copious notes.

For the lay reader there is, if anything, too much detail, and the book
sometimes becomes bogged down in tracking the constant reorganizations and
personnel changes that Stalin made to keep his subordinates on their toes.
Even the personalities of the main actors become submerged eventually in
this morass of intrigue, although perhaps this is how things really were:
Certainly the underlying banality of Stalin’s dying regime comes through
strongly. Ultimately, the “cold peace” alluded to in the title is perhaps a
bit too glacial to appeal to a popular readership, but for scholars seeking
a hard-nosed analysis of high-level Soviet politics after the war, this book
could hardly be bettered.

A former editor at The Moscow Times, Sam Thorne now free-lances from

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