The Lost Politburo Transcripts: From Collective Rule to Stalin's Dictatorship


In this groundbreaking book, prominent Western and Russian scholars examine the “lost” transcripts of the Soviet Politburo, a set of verbatim accounts of meetings that took place from the 1920s to 1938 but remained hidden in secret archives until the late 1990s. Never intended for publication or wide distribution, these records (known as stenograms in Russia) reveal the actual process of decision making at the highest levels of the Soviet communist party. The transcripts also provide new, first-hand records of ...

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In this groundbreaking book, prominent Western and Russian scholars examine the “lost” transcripts of the Soviet Politburo, a set of verbatim accounts of meetings that took place from the 1920s to 1938 but remained hidden in secret archives until the late 1990s. Never intended for publication or wide distribution, these records (known as stenograms in Russia) reveal the actual process of decision making at the highest levels of the Soviet communist party. The transcripts also provide new, first-hand records of the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship.

The contributors to the volume explore the power struggles among the Politburo members, their methods of discourse and propaganda, and their economic policies. Taken as a whole, the essays shed light on early Soviet history and on the individuals who supported or opposed Stalin’s consolidation of power.

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Editorial Reviews

Lynne Viola

"The collection represents a significant contribution to the scholarship, offering new insights into the important topics discussed in each essay, topics that are of pivotal importance to our understanding of early Soviet history and the rise of the Stalin dictatorship."—Lynne Viola, University of Toronto

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Paul Gregory is Cullen Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of Houston. As a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he directs the Soviet Archives Working Group. He lives in Bellaire, TX. Norman Naimark is Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies, Stanford University. He lives in Stanford, CA.

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Read an Excerpt

The Lost Politburo Transcripts


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University and the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13424-7

Chapter One

Findings and Perspectives


The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended a seventy-four-year experiment in the building of a socialist society in what was territory of the former Russian Empire. It would be hard to look at that three quarter-century history without a sense of relief that it is over with. The lives needlessly expended, the resources squandered, and the suffering inflicted on society know few parallels in the annals of human history. The damage done to the members of what was called the East European bloc was immense. The countries of the region have broken with the past and joined the European Union, but the history of communism there has produced bitter and long-lasting legacies. The former Central Asian, Caucasian, and Baltic republics of the Soviet Union are also doing the best they can to break away from their Moscow-dominated past and start afresh. But especially in the case of those regions that shared the Soviet experience from the beginning, serious political reform and economic transformation come very slowly. In both the Russian Federation and Ukraine, the heavy burden of the Soviet past continues to weigh onpolitics, culture, and society, despite attempts to democratize and institute a market economy. Post-Soviet Russia sometimes appears as controlling and authoritarian as the Soviet state. The "new Russians" often seem garish, crude, and as self-satisfied with their extreme material prosperity as their Soviet predecessors were with their special privileges as members of the nomenklatura. There is no turning one's back on history and starting completely anew. The Bolsheviks learned that lesson after 1917; in some ways, history itself shattered their dreams and crushed their aspirations.

The opening of the Soviet archives after 1991 has greatly improved the ability of both Russian and Western historians to understand the development of the Soviet experiment and its successes and failures. This book provides a first look at the "lost" transcripts of the Politburo for the period 1923 to 1938, which have now been added to the growing collection of archives from the highest decision-making bodies of the Soviet Union.

Access to the Soviet state and party archives has not followed a linear path of increased openness and ease of use. The publication of verbatim transcripts of Politburo meetings, after years housed in closed archives, is no exception. Each scholar will have his or her own story to tell about successes and disappointments with the use of new materials on the Soviet period. But there can be no question that the number of important documentary publications has grown by leaps and bounds. More and more interesting and useful historical material is being made available to researchers by the Russian archives, and, more widely, in published form. For historians of the Soviet Communist Party, the collections of RGASPI (Rossisskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'noipolitcheskoi istorii/Russian State Archive of Social and Political History), which covers the pre-1953 period, and RGANI (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii/Russian State Archive of Contemporary History), for the post-1953 period, have been absolutely critical in generating new and exciting developments in the historiography. In fits and spurts, new materials from the Presidential Archive are being transferred to RGASPI and RGANI and declassified. The process seems painfully slow and uneven to scholars who are anxious to get to the most crucial archival sources for their research. But given the political and institutional restraints in Russia on declassification, one can be grateful for significant incremental improvements.

The availability of new materials provides important stimuli to new research and writing on Soviet Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union also ensured that the discussion about the Soviet past will not just take place among Western historians. The addition of Russian historians to the scholarly mix marks a significant moment in the historiography, given the highly restricted ability of historians in the former Soviet Union to exchange ideas and materials with their colleagues in the West. Still, we can be reasonably certain that the political foundations of the historiography of the Soviet Union will not disappear anytime soon. As the eminent Soviet historian Ronald Grigor Suny emphasizes in his introduction to the recently published volume III of The Cambridge History of Russia, politics have always played an unusually prominent role in the writing of the history of the Soviet Union. Lev Borisovich Trotsky himself served as an important interpreter of the Soviet past, but, of course, from his position as the loser in the power struggle with Stalin and as an opponent of the bureaucratization of Soviet politics that he saw occurring during the "Thermidor" of the 1930s. Sympathizers of Trotsky, the redoubtable Isaac Deutscher and Boris Souverin, further shaped the way scholars and students approached the Soviet past. E. H. Carr's marvelous fourteen-volume History of Soviet Russia was no doubt influenced by a generally positive evaluation of the Soviet experiment, if not a specifically Trotsky-like understanding of where it went awry.

The professionalization of Russian historiography after World War II took place under the ubiquitous influence of the Cold War. Politics infused scholarship on Russia, as the West struggled to understand its new postwar opponent. In part because there were relatively few accessible documents and even fewer reliable archival sources, most academic historians stayed away from the Soviet period, leaving it to political scientists like Adam Ulam, Robert Daniels, and Robert Tucker, and historians outside the profession like Robert Conquest. That so much of what these scholars wrote has held up under the scrutiny of newer generations of historians with far greater access to primary documents is a tribute to their detective skills and perspicacity. The intense ideological war waged between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s gave considerable credence to the totalitarian model and fostered new studies of Soviet politics and society based on the Nazi analogy.

Politics again inserted themselves into the historiography of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the war in Vietnam and the emergence of a large and more diverse cohort of young scholars in the universities created a perceived need to reassess "Cold War" interpretations of the Soviet Union and world communism and look at the historiography of the USSR from a fresh viewpoint. This trend corresponded, as well, with new, if limited possibilities of communicating with Soviet scholars and conducting research in the Soviet Union. Sheila Fitzpatrick and Moshe Lewin were among the most influential proponents of the social history paradigm, which tried to get away from the totalitarian model and the focus on politics in general, and instead emphasize the nature of social change and the past experiences of normal men and women, workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, in the Soviet Union. But the social history "turn" gave way to yet more diverse challenges to the traditional historiography precipitated by the emergence of Gorbachev and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. The study of nationalities and of Russia as empire grew by leaps and bounds. At the same time, the actual collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of its own history invigorated a wave of scholarship from what might be called the neototalitarian school. Generally belonging to the Right of the political spectrum, the neototalitarians emphasized that the original sin of communism (whether committed by the French Revolution, Marx and Engels, or Lenin) had caught up with its Kremlin heirs and brought them down.

Sweeping historical judgments about the Soviet experience and its socialist experiment represented a serious and major tangent of postcommunist scholarship. At the same time, given new and stimulating access to Russian archival sources, micro-level studies of Soviet institutions and of social groups became much more widespread. Historians of the Soviet Union also became much more interested in the subjective individual experiences of Soviet citizens, as they attempted to create some kind of equilibrium in their own lives, faced with the ideological, social, and political demands surrounding them. The publication of important documents became a way for Russian archival administrations and Western scholars and institutions, hungry for new materials for research, to cooperate and serve the needs of this new wave of scholarship on the one hand, and the financial needs of the archives on the other. The Yale University Press Annals of Communism series has been an important institutional focus of this important work. But many presses, scholars, and institutions around the world, in Russia and in the West, have also contributed.

It is within this historiographical context that the present volume should be seen. Generally, the emphasis over the past dozen years has been on document publication, more than on the analysis and contextualization of these materials. This book reverses that balance, and asks eleven leading scholars of the Soviet past, significantly from both Russia and the West, to analyze newly available documents from the perspective of their interests and specialties. The documents are previously inaccessible Politburo transcripts ("stenograms"), minutes taken verbatim from twenty-eight Politburo meetings during the 1920s and 1930s. The transcripts were recently declassified after being transferred from the Presidential Archives to RGASPI. The distinguished economic historian of Russia, Paul Gregory of the University of Houston, working under the auspices of the Hoover Institution, put together the concept for this book of essays on the transcripts, which we have jointly edited. The transcripts themselves are being published simultaneously in their entirety in Russian in three volumes by the Rosspen publishing house, the Russian Archival Service, and the Hoover Institution.

The Politburo transcripts enlighten the history of the interwar Soviet period in several important ways. First, they demonstrate the depth of policy discussions and the multiplicity of factors that were taken into account by the Soviet leadership when deciding administrative, economic, and foreign policy matters. Second, they make apparent the quintessentially political content of virtually all decision making at the highest level of the Soviet party and state. If the discussions about economic matters, especially the recurring grain crises, appear to be more substantive than those regarding administrative and foreign affairs issues, every policy discussion is shot through with political determinants and outcomes. Sometimes, the political struggle of the 1920s and early 1930s is the very subject of the transcripts; sometimes, it underlies them. But in every case, the battle for political supremacy between Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, on one side and Leon Trotsky on the other, between Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky on one side and Zinoviev and Kamenev and Trotsky (the "United Opposition") on the other; and between Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, and Mikoyan on one side, and Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky (the so-called "Right Opposition") on the other, in these different combinations as time goes on and alliances shift, infuses the Politburo discussions. No one was yet aware-perhaps not even Stalin himself-that this would become a life-and-death struggle between the vozhd' and his alleged enemies. This fact makes the arguments, accusations, and counteraccusations all the more poignant.

The transcripts also are riveting examples of the internal personal interactions between the leaders of the Politburo in the 1920s and 1930s. The way they argue among themselves, address each other, and correct their opponents' alleged errors provides raw material for psychological portraits, individual and collective, of the main Politburo rivals. Their verbal jousting and sometimes good-natured kidding reveal a great deal about the atmospherics of leadership at the very pinnacle of Soviet power. The special language they use-episodically brutal, crude, cynical, immodest-speaks reams about the background and environment in which Bolshevik politicians were formed and operated. In some ways, we are witnesses to the rough-and-ready internal struggling within a close and affectionate Mafia family; in others, we can wonder at the highly personalized character of the criticisms of political rivals. In the transcripts, we can glean something of the ideological fabric and common background that kept the Bolsheviks together. We also learn a lot about the fundamentally different approaches to the serious problems of state and society that tore them apart.

Paul Gregory's chapter in this volume focuses on the provenance of the transcripts and examines the way they fit into the other Communist Party documents available to us from the interwar period. Clearly, the Politburo was the pinnacle of power in the Soviet system, and the transcripts were treated by those who had access to them as gospel from on high. The Politburo used the transcripts very purposefully as a way to circulate information from the inner circle of party leaders to the Central Committee and state and party leaders in the regions. They were also intended to discipline regional leaders and make them more responsive to the Kremlin's policies, eliminating much of the autonomy that had been enjoyed by these leaders. The Politburo oligarchs sometimes debated at length whether a particular meeting should have a transcript recorded or not. Important sessions that were planned to deal with political and economic issues were deemed appropriate for verbatim transcripts that in turn would be passed on to party and state hierarchs. In some cases, however, the transcripts were withheld from distribution because Politburo leaders determined that the discussions were too sensitive or indiscrete for dissemination.

Hiroaki Kuromiya's contribution examines Stalin's vaunted drive for ascendancy in the party in light of the new Politburo documents. His central observation, which is generally shared by all of the authors in this book, is that Stalin was a master tactician when faced with opposition and resistance among his comrades. He knew just when to back off and show restraint and he understood when he was free to attack and browbeat his opponents. Stalin took great pains, Kuromiya tells us, to portray himself as interested only in principled issues, not in his own political power and influence. In Stalin's rhetoric, the party was the only thing that mattered; the class struggle was the soul of his Manichean view of the universe. He managed in this way to portray himself as the party's humble servant. Kuromiya also emphasizes, as do a number of authors in the book, Stalin's hypersensitivity to perceptions of Soviet Communist Party politics outside the country. There could be no demonstrations to the outside world of party weakness or divisions in the ranks; otherwise the capitalist powers, in Stalin's view, would be tempted to intervene. Even if there were factional struggles, every effort had to made to conceal them, while bringing them to an end.

Robert Service, an estimable biographer of Stalin, focuses like Kuromiya on Soviet politics in the late 1920s. In particular, Service analyzes the transcript from the joint meeting of the Politburo and the Central Control Commission Presidium of September 8, 1927. This famous meeting was the denouement of the political struggle between Stalin and Bukharin on the one hand, and the "United Opposition" (Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev) on the other. Service underlines the fact that the arguments on both sides were remarkably open and frank. Trotsky and his allies could say pretty much everything that was on their minds. Although Stalin and V. M. Molotov were direct and sharp in their criticisms of Trotsky's historical role in the party, by their very restraint in allowing him to speak, they gave Trotsky rope to hang himself through his own extreme, intemperate, and self-important rhetoric. Service's fascinating portraits of Trotsky's self-destructive behavior and of Bukharin's weakness in face of the critical importance of this Politburo meeting provide the reader with a deeper understanding of why Stalin and his clique emerged supreme in this confrontation.


Excerpted from The Lost Politburo Transcripts Copyright © 2008 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


I. Introduction 1. Findings and Perspectives Norman Naimark....................3
2. The Politburo's Role as Revealed by the Lost Transcripts Paul Gregory....................16
II. The Power Struggle 3. Stalin in the Light of the Politburo Transcripts Hiroaki Kuromiya....................41
4. "Class Brothers Unite!" The British General Strike and the Formation of the "United Opposition" Alexander Vatlin....................57
5. Stalin, Syrtsov, Lominadze: Preparations for the "Second Great Breakthrough" Oleg Khlevniuk....................78
6. The "Right Opposition" and the "Smirnov-Eismont-Tolmachev Affair" Charters Wynn....................97
III. Discourse, Ideology, and Propaganda 7. The Way They Talked Then: The Discourse of Politics in the Soviet Party Politburo in the Late 1920s Robert Service....................121
8. Making the Unthinkable Thinkable: Language Microhistory of Politburo Meetings Leona Toker....................135
9. The Short Course of the History of the All-Union Communist Party: The Distorted Mirror of Party Propaganda Rustem Nureev....................165
IV. Economic Policy 10. Grain, Class, and Politics During NEP: The Politburo Meeting of December 10, 1925 R. W. Davies....................181
11. The Politburo on Gold, Industrialization, and the International Economy, 1925-1926 David M. Woodruff....................199
12. Prices in the Politburo, 1927: Market Equilibrium versus the Use of Force Mark Harrison....................224
List ofContributors....................259
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