Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle

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Based on meticulous research in previously  unavailable documents in the Soviet archives, this compelling book illuminates the secret inner mechanisms of power in the Soviet Union during the years when Stalin established his notorious dictatorship. Oleg V. Khlevniuk focuses on the top organ in Soviet Russia’s political hierarchy of the 1930s—the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party—and on the political and interpersonal dynamics that weakened its collective leadership and enabled Stalin’s rise.


Khlevniuk’s unparalleled research challenges existing theories of the workings of the Politburo and uncovers many new findings regarding the nature of alliances among Politburo members, Sergei Kirov’s murder, the implementation of the Great Terror, and much more. The author analyzes Stalin’s mechanisms of generating and retaining power and presents a new understanding, unmatched in texture and depth, of the highest tiers of the Communist Party in a crucial era of Soviet history.


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Editorial Reviews


Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine

Journal of Modern History

"This book confirms Khlevniuk''s status as the leading authority on the highest Party bodies in the Stalin era."--James Harris, Journal of Modern History

— James Harris


Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine

Robert Service

“I have no doubt that this brilliant book will supplant all others as an analytical account of the Stalinist political system in the 1930s.”—Robert Service, St. Antony’s College, Oxford

Ronald Grigor Suny

“This is an extraordinary book, the prequel to Khlevniuk and Gorlizki’s Cold Peace, and an equally important contribution to our understanding of the ‘court politics’ of the Stalin era. It is simply unique, unparalleled, and indispensable to anyone who wants to understand how the Soviet Union was ruled in the 1930s. Khlevniuk is the master of the archives—no one knows them better.”—Ronald Grigor Suny, The University of Michigan
Journal of Modern History - James Harris

"This book confirms Khlevniuk's status as the leading authority on the highest Party bodies in the Stalin era."--James Harris, Journal of Modern History

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Oleg V. Khlevniuk is senior research fellow at the State Archive of the Russian Federation. He is author of The History of the Gulag and coeditor of Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936 and The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931–36, all published by Yale University Press. He lives in Moscow.

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Read an Excerpt


By Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University and the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11066-1

Chapter One

The Stalinization of the Politburo 1928-1930

AFTER LENIN'S DEATH the most important outcome of the power struggle among Bolshevik leaders was the formation of a majority faction within the Politburo that went on to become the Stalinist faction. Once Stalin managed to eliminate almost all of the prominent revolutionary figures who had been a part of Lenin's circle, he became the strongest figure in the Politburo and began to set the "general line" the party would follow. This was the main sign of the Stalinization of the Politburo. While a number of the traditions and procedures of collective leadership remained in place, from this point forward the Politburo had a leader who was concentrating power in his own hands.

Although it is possible to point to milestones along the way, the Stalinization of the Politburo did not happen in a single step, nor was it predetermined. Even the defeat of the Rykov-Bukharin group in April 1929 was not a decisive victory for Stalin. Ensuring victory demanded further efforts to crush leaders of the "right deviation" and, most important, rightist ideology, which life's realities had led many Communiststo embrace, whether or not they were consciously aware of it. That the fight was not yet over was confirmed by political events of 1930: new attacks against the rightists, fabricated cases against "terrorist organizations," the castigation of Sergei Syrtsov and Vissarion Lominadze, and reshufflings at the highest echelons of party and state power. The elimination of Rykov, the last of the rightist leaders, from the Politburo marked the definitive Stalinization of that body. This occurred a year and a half after the Rykov-Bukharin group had been destroyed.


The formation of a majority faction was a natural outcome of the fierce struggle for leadership among Lenin's successors. The key aspects of this struggle are well known and have been the subject of extensive scholarly investigation. Initially, from the end of 1923 through 1924, most members of the Politburo were united in their struggle against Lev Trotsky, whose political ambitions were a source of great alarm and resistance. A majority faction was established to coordinate this fight, in August 1924. The semyorka (group of seven) that headed it included six members of the Politburo (everyone except Trotsky)-Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Rykov, Stalin, and Tomsky-as well as Valerian Kuibyshev, chairman of the Central Control Commission (TsKK) of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), or VKP(b). The semyorka ruled the party, issuing ready-made decisions at official meetings of the Politburo (at which Trotsky was present). Once the former allies had removed Trotsky from power, they began to clash among themselves. Now a Politburo majority took shape in opposition to Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had previously formed a questionable alliance with Trotsky. By the end of 1926, all three leaders of the opposition had been removed from the Politburo. As a result of these changes, the Politburo membership included Bukharin, Mikhail Kalinin, Molotov, Yan Rudzutak, Rykov, Stalin, Tomsky, and Kliment Voroshilov. In November 1929, the important post of Central Control Commission chairman was taken over by Grigory "Sergo" Ordzhonikidze (party rules precluded this post from being held by a Politburo member). In December of 1927, Kuibyshev was made a full member of the Politburo.

In the 1930s, most of these men were part of Stalin's inner circle. It would be incorrect, however, to say that they all started out as loyal Stalinists. The alignment of forces within the Politburo on the eve of Stalin's clashes with the so-called rightists (Rykov, Bukharin, and Tomsky)-clashes that settled once and for all who would come out on top-was more complex. The collective leadership that had taken shape by the beginning of 1928 was based on a division of labor and a degree of rivalry among top party and government leaders. For this reason, Politburo members remained relatively independent political figures. To a certain extent, this was also true of those at the middle of the pyramid of power, members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, or TsK VKP(b), whose votes affected how leadership problems within the Politburo were resolved. Something akin to a patron-client relationship began to develop between members of the Politburo and members of the Central Committee. Taken together, all these organizational details and personal ties constituted a serious obstacle on Stalin's path toward establishing a dictatorship.

The clash that took place within the Politburo in the summer of 1927 shows the mechanisms of collective leadership. The breaking of diplomatic relations with Great Britain, the murder of the Soviet ambassador to Poland, and reprisals against Communists in China (which raised doubts about the "united front" policy) all provoked alarm and mutual recriminations among Politburo members. Letters that Viacheslav Molotov sent to Stalin, who was vacationing in the south, suggest that the primary disagreements within the leadership revolved around the policies related to China and Great Britain and the expulsion of opposition leaders from the Central Committee-Trotsky and Zinoviev were becoming increasingly active. Members of the Politburo conducted themselves independently in these disagreements, forming diverse and unexpected (given subsequent events) tactical coalitions. For example, Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, Rykov, and Rudzutak criticized the policy being conducted in China (Molotov complained to Stalin in a letter dated 4 July 1927 that Voroshilov "is going so far as to express sweeping disparagement of 'your leadership over the past two years'"). At the same time, Molotov and Bukharin, with Stalin's support, defended the correctness of the course being pursued. The votes were evenly divided on whether or not Trotsky and Zinoviev should be immediately expelled from the Central Committee. Kalinin, Rykov, Ordzhonikidze, and Voroshilov felt that this question should not be decided until the party congress. Stalin, who was out of town, protested in vain. On 20 June 1927, a bare majority voted to expel Trotsky and Zinoviev, but only after Stalin demanded that his vote be counted in absentia and Kalinin joined those in favor of immediate expulsion. This decision was implemented after a lengthy delay. The opposition leaders were not expelled at the next Central Committee plenum, which took place at the end of July and the beginning of August but in October. In the middle of the conflicts, Molotov sent Stalin an anxious letter, on 4 July 1927. "The worst part of it is the situation within the 'semyorka.' On the opposition, on China, on ARK [Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee], more or less clear divisions can already be seen, and a single vote will wind up being decisive [...]. I'm increasingly wondering whether you may need to come back to M[oscow] ahead of schedule. This may be undesirable from the point of view of your treatment, but you yourself see the situation [...]. The signs are bad, things may not hold. I haven't talked to anyone about this, but I feel things aren't going well."

In 1927, Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov appeared generally to be Stalin's most reliable and absolute supporter in the Politburo. The son of a shop clerk in Vyatka Province, he had entered the party in 1906 at the age of sixteen. Molotov was a simple but hardworking Soviet functionary who in the 1920s held the important post of secretary of the Central Committee. That was when he made his political choice to cast his lot with Stalin. Molotov's unconditional loyalty was one of Stalin's greatest advantages in the struggle for power. This struggle erupted with new force in 1928, after the defeat of the united opposition of Trotsky and Zinoviev, when members of the Politburo lost the common enemy that had united them for several years.

Personal ambition and pretensions to leadership fueled this discord, but so did matters of principle. Facing serious economic difficulties in 1928, especially in the countryside, the Politburo embarked on a path of repressive-or, to use the contemporary name, emergency-measures, including the forced expropriation of grain from the peasants and the suppression of private merchants. At first there was no disagreement over this chrezvychaishchina (emergency regime) within the Politburo. But when the emergency measures not only exacerbated the situation but seemed poised to turn into a permanent policy, two groups within the party leadership came into conflict. The first, led by Stalin, insisted on continuing the emergency measures. The second, represented by Rykov, Bukharin, and Tomsky, demanded a retreat from the emergency regime, even at the risk of certain political and economic consequences.

During this final stage in the struggle for power, Stalin and his supporters had important advantages. They held key posts within the party apparatus. Their battle cries for an "offensive against the kulaks" and in favor of forced industrialization struck a chord with a significant portion of party officials. But this did not mean that Stalin's victory was inevitable. Among mid-level functionaries, who constituted a majority in the Central Committee and in the Politburo itself, the prevailing mood favored unity. Almost everyone was worried about new clashes, not only because a critical situation was developing in the country, creating a growing threat to the regime itself, but also because conflict at the top endangered the existing balance of power and undermined the system of collective leadership that was advantageous for mid-level politicians. A schism within the Politburo would force them to immediately take sides and be drawn into the fight, placing their careers at risk if their side lost.

Those members of the Politburo who supported Stalin did not view the Rykov-Bukharin group the same way they had viewed previous opposition forces, such as Trotsky and Zinoviev. Even during the bitter conflict, Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, and Nikolai Uglanov tended to be viewed as "one of us." The rightists were less inflexible and tried to act within the framework of party legality, not making categorical demands about Politburo staffing changes, which is why they were labeled a "deviation" rather than an "opposition." Before their fall, the rightists had good personal relationships with many members of the Politburo, with whom they had shared years of merciless struggle against a common enemy, the Trotsky-Zinoviev opposition.

All of these circumstances forced Stalin to act cautiously against the Bukharin group in 1928 and at the beginning of 1929 and keep an eye on the mood of his comrades-in-arms. We can see this in letters he wrote to Molotov in August 1928. "I was at Sergo's. He's in a good mood. He's standing firm and decisively supports the TsK line against the waverers and vacillators. [...] It appears that Andreev visited Sergo and talked to him. Sergo believes that Andreev firmly supports the TsK line. Apparently Tomsky tried (at the plenum) to 'corrupt' him [...] but he wasn't able to 'lure' Andreev." And, "Under no circumstances should Tomsky (or anyone else) be allowed to 'turn' Kuibyshev or Mikoyan."

This expression of confidence in Ordzhonikidze's firm stance was probably calculated to encourage Molotov, but it did not reflect Ordzhonikidze's actual frame of mind, which was more complex. In a letter to Stalin dated 18 August 1928, Ordzhonikidze himself demonstrated an attitude that was fully "conciliatory." After informing Stalin about his conversation with Bukharin, who had shared his concerns about the current policy and assured Ordzhonikidze that he wanted to avoid a confrontation within the Politburo, Ordzhonikidze wrote, "Even now, in my opinion, he wants to restore good relations with you, but he doesn't know how. I think everything possible should be done to avoid losing him, and without him Al[eksei Rykov] will instantly stop his grumbling." 5 Based on the evidence, it appears that Ordzhonikidze had a sincere desire to preserve the status quo in the Politburo. Despite the obvious escalation of the situation, he wrote the following in a letter to Rykov in November 1928: "I am begging you to try to reconcile Bukharin and Stalin [...]. It is ridiculous, of course, to talk about 'replacing' you, or Bukharin or Tomsky. That would be crazy. It appears that the relationship between Stalin and Bukharin has significantly deteriorated, but we have to do everything we can to reconcile them. This is possible [...]. In general, Aleksei, we have to be incredibly careful in dealing with any issues that could trigger a 'fistfight.' The greatest restraint is needed to keep a fight from breaking out."

Signs that many Politburo members still held the rightists in high regard were evident even after the Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky group suffered their decisive defeat in April 1929. For example, in June 1929 the Politburo was deciding on a post for Bukharin, who had by then been replaced as editor of Pravda. Stalin insisted on appointing Bukharin people's commissar of education. This was an honorable but dangerous form of political exile for Bukharin. The post of education commissar looked like an important and prestigious party assignment. Stalin had proposed this solution, feigning impartiality and a readiness to reestablish a working relationship with Bukharin. In actuality, things were quite different. Maximally removed from real political power, the Education Commissariat was subject to constant attacks and criticism from party functionaries, the All-Union Leninist Youth League (Komsomol) leadership, labor unions, and other quarters. Nor was the situation within the commissariat simple. As education commissar, then, Bukharin would be drawn into a maelstrom of endless arguments, squabbles, and public censure, which would guarantee his being cut off from the center of political power. Understanding this, Bukharin resisted, and made an unexpected move-he asked to be given the unpretentious post of head of the Scientific-Technical Administration of the Supreme Economic Council. This demotion would have made Bukharin's disgrace and Stalin's true aspiration to drive him out of the party leadership more explicit. Unlike the post of education commissar, this post guaranteed a relatively peaceful and easy job and would have left Bukharin time to follow high-level policy decisions.

Despite Stalin's objections, the Politburo supported Bukharin. We know what happened from a letter dated 8 June 1929 from Voroshilov to Ordzhonikidze: "Bukharin begged everyone not to appoint him to the Commissariat of Education and proposed and then insisted on the job as administrator of science and technology. I supported him in that, as did several other people, and because we were a united majority, we pushed it through (against Koba [Stalin])." Stalin had to deal with the possibility of such conflicts and the prevailing inclination toward solidarity. He acted carefully, publicly supporting unity while delivering stealthy blows behind the scenes. In the end, his ruthlessness, decisiveness, and cunning led to his victory, as did a number of serious political blunders on the part of the rightists, especially Bukharin. The entire sequence of intrigues and clashes within the Politburo and the party apparatus over the course of almost two years fully supports the arguments of historians who assert that Stalin achieved victory by playing the role of advocate of the golden mean, impressing others with his pragmatism and his "calm tone and quiet voice."

There is reason to believe that Stalin gained the loyalty of some Politburo members through blackmail. The Ordzhonikidze archive includes pre-revolutionary police records, which he received in December 1928 and March 1929 (when he was serving as chairman of the Central Control Commission), indicating that Kalinin and Rudzutak gave candid testimony while in the custody of the tsarist police-testimony that enabled the police to make further arrests within underground revolutionary organizations. Such materials could well have served as the basis for expulsion from the party or even arrest. It is probably not a coincidence that these documents surfaced at this decisive stage of the confrontation with the rightists.

Outplaying his opponents in political intrigue, Stalin transformed himself into Politburo leader. He no longer faced opposition from any in the first circle of Soviet leaders who had begun the fight over Lenin's legacy. The positions of rank-and-file members of the Politburo and the Central Committee, who were no longer able to maneuver between different centers of influence, were also seriously undermined. The former balance of power at the highest echelons of power had been destroyed. Nonetheless, Stalin's own position could not be considered absolutely secure. His political future depended on the success of the program he had advocated throughout his march to victory. In 1928 and 1929 this had been the program of forced industrialization and the strong-arm amalgamation of peasants into kolkhozes.


Excerpted from MASTER OF THE HOUSE by Oleg V. Khlevniuk Copyright © 2009 by Yale University and the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The Stalinization of the Politburo, 1928-1930 1
2 Power in Crisis, 1931-1933 39
3 A Facade of Liberalization, 1934 85
4 Terror and Conciliation, 1935-1936 127
5 Stalin and the Great Terror, 1937-1938 166
6 On the Eve of War: The New Structure of Stalin's Government 203 Conclusion: Master of the House 246 Appendix 1 Politburo Membership 263 Appendix 2 Visits to Stalin's Office by Politburo Members and Central Committee Secretaries 266 Notes 273 Index 303
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  • Posted January 12, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Fine study of the Soviet government in the 1930s

    This is a fascinating study of the Soviet government in the 1930s. Khlevniuk presents evidence that refutes Khrushchev’s claim that during the Stalin years there was always a split in the leadership, between the good guys, pre-eminently Khrushchev himself, and the bad guys. So, as Khlevniuk writes, “New versions of events, countenanced from above, entered into circulation through a variety of channels. There were new accounts of meetings of high-level party functionaries, who purportedly were hatching plans during the 17th Party Congress to replace Stalin with Kirov as general secretary of the Central Committee; a new notion that Kirov was killed by order of Stalin, who saw in the Leningrad party secretary a political rival; a new version of the circumstances of Ordzhonikidze’s death and allegations that it resulted from conflict with Stalin; and a new suggestion that Postyshev spoke out against repression during the February-March 1937 Central Committee plenum, among others. “None of these accounts were backed up with documentary evidence. Even Khrushchev, who had the entire party archive at his disposal, preferred to rely on the recollections of old Bolsheviks returning from the camps. This did not faze historians. The complete inaccessibility of Soviet archives and the lack of candidness, to put it mildly, of Soviet political leaders were both taken for granted. Given the unavailability of hard evidence, for many historians the slightest hint in a speech by Khrushchev or in the official Soviet press took on the weight of fact. As a result, every scrap of evidence that there was conflict within the Politburo was stitched together into a confused patchwork in which it was hard to distinguish rumor from hard fact or opportunistic falsification from mistaken recollection.” Khlevniuk concludes, “Archival sources do not back up widely held beliefs about the reformist role of Kirov and his supporters within the Politburo. … Historians have yet to offer a single solid piece of evidence to sustain or develop the hypothesis that Kirov was seen as an alternative to Stalin. Analogous conclusions can also be drawn in regard to other suppositions about a struggle within the Politburo between moderates and radicals.” Further, Khlevniuk presents much evidence that refutes claims that Stalin worked as a solitary dictator. For example, he cites Stalin’s letter to Ordzhonikidze in September 1931, “I don’t agree with you about Molotov. If he’s giving you or VSNKh [Supreme Economic Council] a hard time, raise the matter in the PB [Politburo]. You know perfectly well that the PB will not let Molotov or anyone else persecute you or the VSNKh. In any event, you’re just as much to blame as Molotov is. You called him a ‘scoundrel’. That can’t be allowed in a comradely environment. “… Do you really think that Molotov should be excluded from this ruling circle that has taken shape in the struggle against the Trotsky-Zinoviev and Bukharin-Rykov deviations? … To isolate Molotov and scatter the ruling Bolshevik circle … no, I won’t go for that ‘business’, however much that might upset you and however close our friendship might be. “Of course Molotov has his faults, and I am aware of them. But who doesn’t have faults? We’re all rich in faults. We have to work and struggle together – there’s plenty of work to go around. We have to respect one another and deal with one another.”

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