Depictions of Stalin: The Past and the Future
by Alf Wilkinson
new perspective. Volume 8. Number 2. December 2002
Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident, called Stalin ‘The greatest criminal in history’. Yet a Western historian writing in the 1960s, Hutchings in Soviet Economic Development, said unequivocally, ‘Stalin’s actions were vital to Russia’s capacity to resist the German invasion in 1941’. Stalin imprisoned and killed, by his own admission, millions of his own people and, yet, when he died, many of those imprisoned in the dreaded Gulags cried with grief. How can you make a sound assessment when there is such a range of views about the man, his actions and achievements?
Historians, of course, look at the evidence, don’t they? They beaver away in the archives, they read contemporary accounts from newspapers, they gain evidence from film and radio and they talk to eyewitnesses. They find out everything they can about the topic or person they are studying. They take great care to weed out the half-truths and the distortions, then they write a book. Why, then, do historians come to such differing conclusions? How can Stalin be both the greatest criminal in history - and there must be quite a few claimants for that title! - and, also, absolutely essential for the defence of the free world from the Nazi invader? In this article I will seek to point to some answers.
Soviet views of Stalin after 1924
When Stalin became undisputed leader of the Soviet Union in 1929 he needed to be seen as the legitimate successor to Lenin, hence the slogan ‘Stalin is the Lenin of today!’ Everything that was good inside the Soviet Union was said to be due to Stalin. Given the nature of Soviet society, there could only be one ‘official’ interpretation of Stalin. His background, his life, his work and achievements were all secondary to the needs of the Soviet State, and were adapted where necessary to fulfil that need. The part Stalin played in the Bolshevik party before 1917 was greatly magnified, and Stalin portrayed as the right-hand man of Lenin. Inconvenient facts were not allowed to get in the way of the needs of the party! Of course, in a one-party totalitarian state where there is no opposition or even room for alternative views, the party machine imposes its view on everyone. What happened to people in Russia in the 1930s who were openly critical of Stalin, for instance? How much credence can we place on what people at this time said about Stalin? It might be primary evidence, they may be eyewitness accounts, they may even be by Stalin himself, but how reliable are they? As the ‘cult of personality’ developed, and Stalin was projected as the ‘see all, do all’ omnipotent presence, sources from the period became even more distorted. How do we disentangle myth from reality?
Much of the writing critical of Stalin from this period emanates from ‘Old Bolsheviks’ and others pushed aside by Stalin in the struggle to succeed Lenin. Bukharin, for instance, wrote, ‘Stalin will strangle us. He is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his lust for power.’ And Bukharin was supposed to be a close friend of Stalin, or as close as Stalin let anybody become. Bukharin’s foreboding was sound: he was killed in 1938, a victim of the Great Terror. Trotsky had lots to say about Stalin and very little of it complimentary. Trotsky had every reason to dislike Stalin who had outmanoeuvred him at every step of the succession struggle. Trotsky’s exile, and eventual death, speaks volumes about Stalin’s methods of dealing with perceived opponents. Does that mean we cannot trust anything Trotsky has to say about Stalin? His views were personal, he would no doubt be bitter at his fate, but until his exile he was at the centre of events. He did, however, have access to papers, was at meetings, was involved in decisions - does all that suddenly become invalid once he is exiled from Russia? How do you separate the personal enmity from helpful historical comment? Because someone is a dissident - Roy Medvedev, for instance, in Let History Judge, and their work is, perhaps, published outside Russia rather than within, does that make them more or less reliable as commentators? As they are, by definition, dissidents they are likely to be more critical than other commentators but are they less trustworthy as judgement makers? As they are published illegally, or outside the Soviet Union, they wrote what was not officially sanctioned. Does that mean they are more honest, or more scurrilous? How do we, as historians, decide who to trust, and who to disbelieve?
Khrushchev on Stalin
After Stalin’s death Khrushchev became eventually undisputed leader of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had been a loyal supporter of Stalin and had managed to remain at the centre of events without himself becoming a victim of the Terror. Nevertheless, an official party enquiry into Stalin’s doings had begun to reveal some of the horrors of the time, and Khrushchev chose not to ignore this. His de-Stalinisation ‘secret’ speech of 1956 was an attempt to bolster his own position by distancing himself, and the party, from Stalin’s ‘misdeeds’. So the official line became what was to become known as the ‘debaucher of Lenin’ argument: that Lenin had set the Communist party on the right path but Stalin, alone, was responsible for deviation from Leninist policies. It followed, therefore, that the Communist party was right, and that Stalin alone was the source of all the wrongs committed during his time in power. It was in this context that Solzhenitsyn’s powerful story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, set in one of Stalin’s Gulags, was first (legally) published in Russia. Stalin became almost a non-person. An Official History of the USSR, by Yuri Kukushkin, published in 1981, even talks of the progress of the Soviet Union being held back by the mistakes made by Stalin!
Recent Russian assessments
Since Gorbachev and glasnost there has been a much more open approach to Stalin and Soviet history and a great deal of criticism of him. The work of Dimitri Vologonov who wrote Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, among many other writers, is an example. The opening of the Communist Party archives, NKVD archives, Politburo and Central Committee papers, as well as previously unpublished private revelations, has led to a freer, more open, debate about Stalin, his role in making key decisions, even the number of arrests and executions in the period. What is particularly interesting is that some aspects of Stalinism are now evoked with a longing for their return. As Russia has degenerated, with increased crime, corruption and poverty, many ordinary people long for the discipline and certainty of the Stalin years.
It is far too simplistic to split Western views of Stalin into those written by Communists and Communist sympathisers - pro Stalin - and those opposed to Communism as anti-Stalin. You would, of course, expect Marxist historians, such as E.H. Carr, author of Socialism in One Country, to be generally sympathetic to the Soviet Union and its achievements, and Liberal or capitalist historians to be opposed to the way Soviet life was regimented by the party and the State. In addition, supporters of Trotsky, and there are plenty, are scarcely likely to give Stalin an easy ride. And, with the collapse of the Soviet Union it is possible to claim, as some historians do, that the Communist ideology would necessarily fail in the long term. With a topic that is so controversial and ideologically charged, students must seek to separate the ideological preferences of writers from their accounts of the history.
Assessments during the 1930s
We need to remember that the 1930s was the time of the Great Depression. The developed economies were affected by mass unemployment, poverty and political instability. Every country except the Soviet Union, that is, where Stalin’s Five Year Plans seemed to be solving the problems that the Capitalist world could not. Many people, for example the American newspaperman, W. Durranty, who wrote Russia Reported, 1934, or the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, joint authors of Soviet Communism, 1935, who were not communists, saw Russia as a success story, and wrote about Stalin and his achievements accordingly. People visiting the Soviet Union described what they saw, or, more exactly, what they were allowed to see - jobs, prosperity, pride in the country, modernisation and vigour. This compared favourably with the despair in many places in the West. Not everyone, however, was taken in by the carefully stage-managed tours. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist wrote a series of reports for the Manchester Guardian that highlighted the hardship suffered by many peasants as a result of collectivisation. He pointed out that, while Stalin sold grain to the West to finance the Five Year Plans, people in rural areas often starved. Pro-Soviet journalists poured scorn on Muggeridge’s stories and consequently they received little exposure. After 1936, however, when Stalin alone appeared to be prepared to oppose the aggressive Fascist powers, and helped the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, more people were sympathetic to Stalin. After 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, he became ‘Uncle Joe’ and part of the free-world coalition against the Nazis. Suddenly, as an ally, he was viewed favourably by everyone.
After the end of the Second World War the coalition against Hitler rapidly fell apart. Churchill talked of an ‘iron curtain’ falling across Europe. As the Cold War developed, attitudes to Russia changed. Stalin was quickly depicted as an evil despot, out to conquer the world. It was hard for anyone to write dispassionately about the Soviet Union at that time. When China became Communist, in 1949, and the Korean War began, it seemed to some that the Free World was in trouble; Stalin was blamed.
The post-Stalin debate
Until recently, historians in the West have had to work with limited reliable Soviet evidence. Most of what they did have was based on personal memoirs, dissidents’ writings, and captured documents seized from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War. It has been hard to get hold of what might be called ‘insider’ information - from those at the centre of power and involved in decision making. Nevertheless, there has been a lively debate about Stalin and his policies. The main areas of argument have centred on what might be called the ‘individual versus system’ debate. How much were the terrors of Stalin’s rule down to him, his personality defects and ambitions, and how much were they to do with the system put in place by Lenin? Another major area of debate centres on whether the Soviet Union was ruled rigidly from the centre, or did the regions provide some of the direction? Was the system based mainly on terror or were there degrees of consent? Were policies centrally planned and rigidly applied, or flexibly adapted in the localities? Was change only ‘top-down’, or partly ‘bottom-up’? Increasingly, as more evidence becomes available, historians are challenging the ‘monolithic party’ view of the Soviet Union and recognising that, despite the propaganda portrayal of Russia under Stalin, he was not omnipresent and he was not in full control of what was going on. He was at the centre of decision making, and he undoubtedly set the direction, but newer interpretations of the purges and the Terror (see, for example, J. Arch Getty’s Origins of the Great Purges, 1985), show Stalin as often responding to pressure from elsewhere in the system. However, Graham Gill, Stalinism, 1990, points out that ‘… although he was not aware of the identity of all who were purged, his signature on lists of many to be purged directly links him with their fate; his sanction was necessary for the purging of leading members of the party. Furthermore, his position ensured that he could have called a halt to the purges whenever he felt was appropriate and, therefore, the fact that they rolled on for as long as they did must be attributed to his direct responsibility.’
Chris Culpin and Ruth Henig, in their recent A-Level text, Modern Europe 1870-1945, published in 1997, entitle their chapter on Stalin, ‘Was Stalin really necessary?’. Among historians opinion is divided. Some argue his policies were necessary to turn Russia into a modern industrial power, capable of resisting Nazi Germany (and just think how different history would be if Hitler had won!). The only way to drag such a backward country into the contemporary century, as Peter the Great had found, was by ruthless implementation of State policy at the short-term expense of living standards and personal freedoms. Alternatively, others assert there were different ways of doing this. Bukharin, in his Notes of An Economist, published 1928, suggested a continuation of the NEP, which could have achieved the same results in a much more humane way. The economy was developing quite well in the late 1920s. Production had already surpassed 1913 levels. There was no need to forcibly collectivise the peasants. All the evils of the period, some suggest, are therefore down to Stalin. Martin McCauley, in Russia 1917-1941 published in 1997, writing on the first and second five-year plans, comments ‘Given the huge sacrifices, 5.1 per cent annual growth is modest and arguably could have been achieved by adopting more traditional methods’.
Dealing with diversity of depiction
Despite the increasing amount of evidence available, opinions on Stalin are still strongly divided. He makes an interesting historiographical case study. Given the enormity of his actions it is inevitable, perhaps, that we cannot view him dispassionately. After all, he himself told Churchill that collectivisation cost 10 million lives! As I have indicated, there are many reasons why historians write the way they do about somebody. What evidence is available, what they choose to use, and how they choose to interpret that evidence will all play a major part. So, too, will their own background and beliefs which form the foundation assumptions on which they write about the past. Further, the contemporary perspective can be important: people often see the past in the light of their own place in time and associated concerns. The collapse of the Soviet system in 1990 can get in the way of seeing Stalin’s actions with the eyes of a contemporary in the 1930s and 40s.
With this diversity of judgements on Stalin there are four ways ahead. First, a judgement on Stalin should be assessed in the way any source is viewed by use of the skills that are developed at GCSE, Advanced Level and beyond. What was the intent of the writer? Was she/he well placed to make a sound judgement? Are there indications of marked bias and prejudice? In what context was the judgement made and was there a relationship of the writer with Stalin and Russia? Second, Stalin’s decisions and actions, the development of a governing system and social and economic change, can be placed in a longer timespan, several centuries, in Russian history. How exceptional were his policies and their execution within a longer Russian timeframe? Third, when assessments of Stalin are considered, an attempt to isolate his influence from the influence of the party (and State) apparatus is needed, as mentioned above. How far did Stalin’s influence extend beyond setting goal and the ‘big picture’? How great was Stalin’s influence on policies and their implementation (especially with regard to the purges), and how much did the party apparatus develop a culture and momentum of its own, hidden from the key leaders? Fourth, if, as an exercise, the major decisions of Stalin’s period of power are taken as given (and leaving aside his part in the policies and their implementation), how far were the means of implementation needed? There can be no ‘historical’ answer to this hypothetical question because all countries are unique in geography, society and history, but a counterfactual analysis may render some insights. Overall, and in emphatic conclusion, it is important to emphasise that, as you grapple with this man and period of turbulent history, understanding and sound assessment will be impeded unless an appreciation of Stalin’s singular personality is gained and the Russianness of Stalin, his policies and actions, is understood.
debate. We welcome comments on this article.