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The structure of Stalin's rule 1945-1953.

Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953. Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk. Oxford University Press. [pounds sterling]25.00. ix + 248 pages. ISBN 0-19-516581-0.

It is surprising how much there is still to discover about Stalin's Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was the promise of the release of large amounts of documentation. In certain areas this has been realised. But many collections remain closed, hampering our understanding of the political system and government policies. The last eight years of Stalin's rule from 1945 to 1953 remain something of an enigma. This excellent new book, a happy collaboration between an academic at the University of Manchester and a member of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, attempts to explore this period more deeply than any previous scholars.

The authors have used a much wider range of sources than any other study. Earlier works were based upon newspaper articles and a small number of leaked reports. Gorlizki and Khlevniuk use archival sources as well as memoirs and published material previously unavailable. In particular they use Central Committee resolutions and the personal correspondence between Stalin and junior and senior members of the Politburo. They have even managed to secure limited access to the Presidential Archive. From these documents they establish a picture of an ageing and distrustful despot picking on and humiliating his comrades in the ruling circle. But, they argue, this was not merely capricious. Rather it had a political logic. The aim of their book is to unravel its purpose.

In the first years after the war, Stalin ruled with the assistance of four leaders: Molotov and Mikoian from the older guard and Malenkov and Beria representing the younger membership of the party. Stalin's relations with these leaders were characterised by 'relentless severity'. His technique was to keep his deputies on edge, to find fault so as to keep them in line. But he 'stepped back from the brink of radical or irrevocable acts against members of his ruling circle'. He avoided 'behaving in an anarchic or uncontrolled way'. This repressive and informal mechanism of personal loyalty was the first of two opposing elements in Stalin's approach. The second was a system of committees. In particular, there was the Council of Ministers and its sectoral sub-committees covering aspects of the economy. The aim of this structure was to maximise the long-term potential of the Soviet economy.

According to the authors, 1949 was a pivotal year for this system. The Soviet position was strengthened by the successful explosion of an atomic bomb and by the Communist victory in China. But there were setbacks with the signature of the North Atlantic Treaty, the Soviet climb-down on the Berlin blockade and the creation of a West German state. In addition there were problems with Yugoslavia. This last case seems to have contributed to Stalin's concern for 'enemies' and the consequently sterner attitude to the East European satellite states. Within the Soviet Union he also adopted a much tougher attitude over two issues. Officials in Leningrad held a wholesale fair in January 1949 without authority. In addition, Gosplan officials, who were responsible for co-ordinating various parts of the Soviet economy, were accused of manipulating the figures. Two individuals, a Politburo member and a Secretary of the Central Committee, were killed on Stalin's orders--the only occasion in this era when he resorted to such measures. His motives remain unclear but the authors speculate that a major consideration was his determination to show that he 'still possessed the power and the will'.

If the Politburo was more wary thereafter, then Stalin, whose seventieth birthday coincided with these episodes, was more lethargic. Removal of these two figures also led to a reconstitution of the Council of Ministers. Meanwhile, we hear of the wider costs to Soviet society and the economy of the later Stalinist system, in particular, agriculture and the Gulag. Stalin and his inner circle pursued policies that 'left large swathes of their country in dire poverty'. There were nearly four-and-a-half million people in camps, prisons or special settlements. Despite his frailties, Stalin continued to dominate. 'As he reached the end of his life, Stalin fell back on the essence of his rule, a crude toxic mixture of ideology and repression'. Although he was ill from the summer of 1952 onwards, there was no sign of rebellion from his colleagues. But they did 'privately begin to question his leadership'.

For Gorlizki and Khlevniuk the source of the political logic behind Stalin's behaviour lies in the fundamental character of the man himself. He was the quintessential machine man who manipulated men and structures. He was more at ease examining files than playing the role of orator. As his powers to process the data declined, he stimulated conflict and disagreements so as to elicit information and to subjugate colleagues.

This is a marvellously succinct, fluent and astute study. It is a compact distillation of a substantial amount of research. It tells us a great deal about the nature of the Stalinist system and rationale behind it. Unfortunately, there is much less attention to the key policy decisions taken by these figures within this structure. A final regret concerns the fascinating illustrations taken from the archives. Each has an informative caption. Curiously, there is no attempt to integrate these points into the main body of the text. So, for example, beneath the picture of Stalin giving his 9 February 1946 speech to voters the authors observe that it 'signaled [sic] a hardening of Soviet policy to the West'. This speech, however, is not covered in the text. Yet it occasioned a critical analysis by George Kennan at the US Embassy in Moscow, known as the 'Long Telegram', which is one of the formative documents of the Cold War. It would have been interesting to compare Kennan's assessment with what the authors thought was behind Stalin's words.
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Author:Hopkins, Michael F.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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