On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics

On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics

by Sheila Fitzpatrick


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The first chronicle of Stalin's inner political and social circle—from a leading Soviet historian

Stalin was the unchallenged dictator of the Soviet Union for so long that most historians have dismissed the officials surrounding him as mere yes-men and political window dressing. On Stalin's Team overturns this view, revealing that behind Stalin was a group of loyal men who formed a remarkably effective team with him from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. Drawing on extensive original research, Sheila Fitzpatrick provides the first in-depth account of this inner circle and their families. She vividly describes how these dedicated comrades-in-arms not only worked closely with Stalin, but also constituted his social circle. Stalin's team included the wily security chief Beria; Andreev, who traveled to provincial purges while listening to Beethoven on a portable gramophone; and Khrushchev, who finally disbanded the team four years after Stalin's death. Taking readers from the cataclysms of the Great Purges and World War II to the paranoia of Stalin's final years, On Stalin's Team paints an entirely new picture of Stalin within his milieu—one that transforms our understanding of how the Soviet Union was ruled during much of its existence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175775
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/30/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 770,136
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sheila Fitzpatrick is professor of history at the University of Sydney and Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago.

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On Stalin's Team

The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics

By Sheila Fitzpatrick


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7421-7



In the beginning, it was Lenin's team. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the captain, as he always had been since the days of the split among Russian Marxist revolutionaries between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks back in 1903. Lenin's lot took the title bol'sheviki, or majority group, leaving the minority label (men'sheviki) to the Opposition. But actually it was the other way around: it was the Bolsheviks who were the minority and Lenin — the most intransigeant and least conciliatory of the party's leaders — who provoked the split. There was no room for argument about who should be captain of the Bolsheviks. If you didn't want to play under Lenin, you had to go elsewhere. Lenin and many other revolutionaries were living in emigration in Europe in the years before the First World War, escaping the attention of the tsarist secret police; and his team included fellow émigrés like Grigory Zinoviev and the young Nikolai Bukharin brash enough to argue with Lenin about the theory of imperialism and state capitalism. But his party had supporters in the Russian revolutionary underground too, the so-called committee men, veterans of prison and exile, like the Georgian Josef Stalin and the Russian Vyacheslav Molotov.

The old underground people were a rougher lot than the émigrés, less well educated and several notches lower on the social scale. Many of them, like the Russian Mikhail Kalinin and the Latvian Jan Rudzutak, were workers, as befitted a self-styled "proletarian" party. Russia was a multinational empire, and the Russian revolutionary movement, including the Bolshevik Party, had as many non-Russians as Russians in its ranks, which reflected the resentment of national minorities against the Russification policies of the Old Regime. Jews — including Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin's future henchman Lazar Kaganovich — were one of the largest contingents, with substantial groups from the Caucasus, particularly Georgians and Armenians, and the Baltics, particularly Latvians, as well as Ukrainians and Poles. The Bolshevik Central Committee elected in August 1917 consisted of eight Russians, six Jews, two Latvians, two Ukrainians, a Pole, a Georgian, and an Armenian.

A liberal Provisional Government had taken over in Russia after the February Revolution, but its grip was precarious. Popular unrest increased as it failed to pull the country out of the First World War despite defeats, huge casualties, and, by the summer, mass desertions from the front. Spurred on by the impatience of radicalized soldiers, sailors, and workers, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in October. The main organizer of the coup was a former Menshevik émigré, Lev Trotsky, who joined up with his old opponents, the Bolsheviks, when he realized that Lenin was the man who was serious about taking power. But it was Lenin, of course, who led the new government. It was almost entirely Bolshevik, in line with Lenin's rooted dislike of cooperating with revolutionaries outside his own party. But even single-party rule was not immune from internal disagreements.

During the Civil War that raged from 1918 to 1921, various factions formed in the party, one around Trotsky, but Lenin was determined to squash them. His way of doing so was a learning experience for Stalin and a number of those who ended up on the Stalin team. What Lenin wanted, and actually achieved in 1921, was a ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party. The way he did it was to create a faction of his own, much more tightly organized than those of his opponents, particularly Trotsky, who was more interested in his policy issue of the moment (labor conscription in the wake of the Civil War, fiercely resisted by the trade unions) than forming a faction. Lenin's faction was complete with conspiratorial arrangements, secret meetings, and lists of Opposition candidates to be voted down in the elections of provincial delegates to the forthcoming national party congress. He even suggested calling in an old comrade from underground with an illegal hand printing press to run off leaflets. As a veteran conspirator, Lenin greatly enjoyed the whole process and teased Stalin, his right-hand man for party organizational matters, for his qualms about so blatantly engaging in factionalism in order to pass a ban on factions. Molotov, future no. 2 man on Stalin's team, was proud to be "part of Lenin's plot against Trotsky in 1921." Out in the provinces, two young Bolsheviks, both future team members, caught Lenin's and Stalin's eye by their sterling service on the side of Lenin's faction: twenty-two-year-old Armenian Anastas Mikoyan and twenty-seven-year-old Lazar Kaganovich, Jewish working-class from the Pale, who were organizers of victory in tough local factional fights in the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod and Turkestan, respectively. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a Georgian whose ties with Lenin went back to 1911, was another who fought for the Lenin faction against lively opposition down in the Caucasus.

The brilliant and arrogant Trotsky was the second man in the country at this point, thanks to his Civil War achievements as creator and leader of the Red Army. Forty-two years old in 1921, thus Stalin's near contemporary and Lenin's junior by nine years, he was a member of the Politburo, the party's top decision-making body, along with Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, and a trio of junior "candidate" (nonvoting) members, Molotov, Bukharin, and Kalinin. As Trotsky later told the story, he and Lenin remained close despite the 1920–21 conflicts. On Lenin's side at least, it was a wary closeness. Not only had Trotsky been a vigorous opponent in various prerevolutionary polemics about Marxist theory, he was also the charismatic hero of the 1905 Revolution, the October Revolution of 1917, and the victorious Civil War. In other words, he was serious competition for Lenin, regardless of whether he had any intention of challenging his leadership. For the Bolshevik young, especially those who had served in the Red Army during the Civil War, Trotsky was something of a cult figure. But those who had been in the Bolshevik Party before 1917 — "Old Bolsheviks," as they came to be called — tended to view him with suspicion as a Johnny-come-lately.

Stalin, by comparison, was still a shadowy figure. A cobbler's son from the Georgian provinces with an unfinished seminary education, he was one of the underground "committee men" for whom conspiracy, prison, and exile were formative experiences. His connection with Lenin went back before the revolution — he had visited him in Poland in 1912, earning the sobriquet of "marvelous Georgian" — but they had worked closely together only since Lenin's return in April 1917. Initially taken aback, like other Russia-based Bolsheviks, by Lenin's intransigeance and unwillingness to cooperate with other revolutionary parties, he soon hewed to Lenin's line, supporting him on the controversial issue of seizure of power (which Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed). Serving in Tsaritsyn (later, Stalingrad) during the Civil War, he and his friend Klim Voroshilov had such serious conflicts with Trotsky, head of the Red Army, that Lenin had to mediate. A bit of a loner, Stalin's social connections in the Bolshevik movement were improved by his second marriage during the Civil War to Nadya Alliluyeva, the young daughter of a well-known revolutionary from the Caucasus. He was a behind-the-scenes man, rarely in these early years expressing an opinion in the Politburo. Where he shone was in party organization and personnel management, keeping tabs on which local party branches needed propping up and which delegates could be relied on to vote for the Lenin faction at the annual party congresses.

Neither a good public speaker nor a prominent participant in the party's theoretical debates, Stalin didn't look much like a contender in the early 1920s, and assessments from this period are almost uniformly negative. "Mediocrity," "nonentity," and "small-town politician" are among the condescending characterizations from Trotsky and other party intellectuals. Nikolai Sukhanov, a revolutionary intellectual who knew everyone who was anyone in the Bolshevik Party, despite not being a member, retained only "the impression of a grey blur, looming up now and then dimly and not leaving any trace." Another cosmopolitan intellectual remembered Stalin in 1919 as "frightening and banal, like a Caucasian dagger" — but perhaps everything but "banal" was hindsight. To a fellow worker in the Central Committee in the early 1920s, Stalin seemed self-disciplined, secretive, and cautious, conscious of being less educated than many of his Politburo colleagues, and had a vindictive streak. The proud and touchy Stalin knew what the others thought of him, and resented it. But Lenin turned to Stalin "whenever toughness or underhandedness were needed."

Then, in only the fifth year of Soviet power, disaster struck. Lenin had his first stroke on 24 May 1922, followed by a second in December of the same year, which ended his active participation in political life. For more than a year, as Lenin lay dying, the party was in the grip of a leadership crisis. Running the party and, by extension, the country in Lenin's absence were Politburo members Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Mikhail Tomsky, and the newly elected Alexei Rykov, who had been Lenin's deputy at the head of the government and now succeeded him in that capacity. Stalin was general secretary of the party, Kamenev headed the Moscow Soviet, Zinoviev headed the Leningrad party organization, Trotsky was in charge of the military, and Tomsky of the trade unions. Sidelined by illness, Lenin developed a critical and almost hostile attitude to the entire team, accusing them of "oligarchical" tendencies. Whether or not this represented a belated conversion to democracy, as some have claimed, Lenin was clearly upset at being effectively excluded from decision making by his illness. A week after his second stroke, Lenin produced a rather incoherent document, known in retrospect as his "Testament," surveying the field of potential successors — all negatively. The two "outstanding leaders" were Stalin and Trotsky, he wrote, but their personal qualities were such that they might "inadvertently lead to a split" in the party. Stalin had "concentrated enormous power in his hands" as the party's general secretary, but might not always use it prudently, while Trotsky, "personally the most able man" in the leadership, was overconfident and prone to rule by command. A few weeks later, Lenin added a postscript, very damaging to Stalin: he was "too rude," Lenin wrote, and should be replaced as general secretary by someone who is "more patient, more loyal, more respectful and attentive to comrades, less capricious, and so on."

Part of Lenin's annoyance had to do with his disagreements with Stalin about nationalities policy, the only field in which Stalin claimed special expertise. The newly formed Soviet Union included territories in the Caucasus — the future republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan — which had been part of the old Russian Empire, incorporated in the new revolutionary state with various degrees of willingness. Georgia had been the biggest problem, and the touchy issue of the early 1920s was whether it should retain the status of a separate republic or be incorporated into a Transcaucasian Federation. Stalin was the strongest advocate of the Federation, which Lenin supported, but with more sensitivity than Stalin to the concerns of the Georgian Bolsheviks who opposed it. When it was reported that Stalin's ally in the region, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, had actually struck one of his local opponents, Lenin was outraged. It was as if, in his illness, he had reverted to the code of honor and decorum of his respectable, provincial upbringing in the 1880s.

Lenin's curiously non-Bolshevik reaction on the Caucasus question was matched by his fury with Stalin for the latter's rudeness to his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Stalin, an only partially reconstructed Georgian macho man in his personal relations, was never at his best with wives like Krupskaya, uncompromising women who were party veterans themselves, who disliked being bossed around and scorned feminine wiles. When Stalin was landed by his Politburo colleagues with the unpleasant task of seeing that Lenin followed doctors' orders to rest and not work, he was almost bound to come into conflict with Krupskaya. As a loyal wife (or, as she would have put it, comrade), she was systematically flouting the doctors' orders, at Lenin's urgent request, by bringing him newspapers, taking messages to colleagues, and generally keeping him informed. Stalin rudely abused her for this, and when Lenin heard of it, shortly before his third stroke in March 1924, he wrote icily that he considered an insult to his wife to be an insult to him — another reversion to the norms of his upbringing, since Bolsheviks did not talk about their wives in such terms. He threatened to break off relations unless Stalin apologized. Stalin was devastated to be turned on by the man who, as he told Lenin's sister, he "loved with all his heart." Still, he offered only the most grudging apology: he thought Lenin was being totally unreasonable and Krupskaya was the one in the wrong. To Molotov, he said resentfully, "So because she uses the same toilet as Lenin, I'm supposed to value and respect her like Lenin?" The better-brought-up Molotov, though no great admirer of Krupskaya, thought this crass.

Lenin died on 21 January 1924. At his funeral on 27 January, all the Politburo members — Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Tomsky, and candidates Molotov, Bukharin, and Rudzutak — were pallbearers, along with Felix Dzerzhinsky, the respected Polish Bolshevik who had been the founding head of the Cheka (security police). Trotsky, bruised by political struggles with his Politburo colleagues and recuperating from illness in the South, declined to return to Moscow for the funeral — a strange personal decision in light of his declared attachment to Lenin, and a politically suicidal one.

Jockeying for succession was well under way. It was an odd kind of contest. In the first place, there was no formal position of party leader to fill. The remaining leaders were unanimous in saying, and probably for a time feeling, that nobody could replace Lenin. The Politburo had never had a formal head; it was understood as a group of equals, although among these equals Lenin was definitely first. The second oddness, a consequence of the first, was that what historians call the succession struggle was not overtly a struggle for leadership. Rather, it was a struggle for unity against "factionalists," whose resistance to majority rule was held to cover (illegitimate) personal ambitions to assume the role of leader. Factionalism, although formally banned, remained a bugbear in the party: "we had the thinnest stratum of party leadership," Molotov later recalled, "and in that very thin stratum cracks were appearing all the time." Like the Jacobins in the French Revolution (a precedent of failed revolution very much on the minds of the party's leaders), the Bolsheviks could be undone by factionalism. Their tenuous grip on power could fail and the whole revolution be overthrown, no doubt with the aid of hostile "capitalist" powers of the West who had already tried to achieve this once by their intervention in the Civil War.

Trotsky was the obvious threat. He was not an Old Bolshevik; he had been considered a factionalist in 1920 on the basis of policy disagreements, and on top of that — always remembering that the French Revolutionary analogy loomed large — his leadership of the Red Army leadership during the Civil War made him easy to cast as a potential Bonaparte. In fact, he was not a natural organizer of factions, being impatient, opinionated, sarcastic, and contemptuous of people of lesser intellect. He was probably not even interested in becoming party leader. But he liked to have his own way, loved arguing about policy, and considered himself the party's foremost Marxist theoretician. It's not surprising that his Politburo colleagues, to whom he showed little respect, thought he was out for the leadership, especially those who may have wanted the top job for themselves, namely, Zinoviev and Stalin.

Lenin was not the only one to worry about a withering of revolutionary democracy. To be sure, all Bolsheviks were in favor of centralized control by a single party, but they were accustomed to a fairly freewheeling situation that accommodated lots of arguments within the party and, in practice, considerable independence at the local level. Making revolution was what the Bolshevik Party was used to, but now that it was a ruling party, its modus operandi had to change. The process was called "bureaucratization," and all Bolshevik leaders professed themselves to be against it and blamed one another for its emergence.


Excerpted from On Stalin's Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Explanatory Note vii

Glossary ix

Introduction 1

ONE The Team Emerges 15

TWO The Great Break 43

THREE In Power 64

FOUR The Team on View 89

FIVE The Great Purges 114

SIX Into War 143

SEVEN Postwar Hopes 171

EIGHT Aging Leader 197

NINE Without Stalin 224

TEN End of the Road 255

Conclusion 269

Acknowledgments 279

Notes 281

Biographies 317

Bibliography of Works Cited 333

Index 349

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From the Publisher

"On Stalin's Team is an utterly absorbing and sometimes blood-curdling account of the domestic and office life of the most bourgeois of proletarian dictators. Sheila Fitzpatrick's group biography of Stalin's inner circle of meritocratic bureaucrats and squalid mobsters is unputdownable."—Bernard Wasserstein, author of Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time

"On Stalin's Team is an extremely readable, lively, and exciting account of the lives and work of the men who were closest to the unpredictable dictator. The reader is a kind of voyeur, peeking into the personal and political relationships of powerful people who worked together on a knife's edge. It is hard not to become fascinated by these characters, whose portraits Sheila Fitzpatrick so deftly draws in this seductive book. Her scholarship is impeccable and the stories she tells are dramatic, engrossing, and tragic."—Ronald Grigor Suny, author of The Soviet Experiment

"This important book focuses on the team led by Stalin and on its members' relationships with him and each other: the Politburo after hours, as it were. Here we have fascinating details about real people with recognizable personalities, likes and dislikes, and wives and children. Written in an attractive style, this book should have a broad audience."—J. Arch Getty, author of Practicing Stalinism

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