Yoram Gorlizki, Oleg V. Khlevniuk. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 248 S. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-516581-4.
Reviewed by James Voorhees (INDUS Corporation)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2004)
A New Look at an Aging Tyrant
Until the Soviet Union fell, scholars saw the Soviet Union, at best, through a glass, darkly. Reliable information about the country was hard to get; about Stalin and those surrounding him, almost impossible. Long after Stalin's death, scholars and analysts had to make do with public documents, tainted by the needs of the totalitarian state, and interviews with refugees and with foreigners who had met Soviet leaders. The archives were closed; memoirs, non-existent; the leaders themselves, unavailable. Ingenious methods were devised that took advantage of the Kremlin's need to communicate, however obscurely, with party members and others. But there was no way to know how the senior members of the leadership dealt with each other, either personally or politically. Were they rivals? Did they differ over policy? Did they share the consensus that propaganda assured us existed? Did Stalin manipulate rivalries to reach his goals? Did he simply give orders that his companions faithfully carried out? Later Stalin's daughter and the deposed Khrushchev gave us glimpses into life in the Kremlin. But until the collapse of the Soviet Union made it possible to open the archives, there could be no certain answers to questions like these.
Gorlizki and Khlevniuk have reached into those archives to construct a picture of Kremlin politics after World War II. It is a highly valuable work that dispels some of our earlier notions and confirms others. It provides new insights into the nature of the Soviet state during Stalin's last years, a period long thought to be the apotheosis of Soviet totalitarianism. The authors' basic argument is that Stalin behaved according to a clear political logic in the last eight years of his life. That logic had, in essence, two goals. The first was to preserve his own power. The second, related to the first, was to strengthen his position as the leader of a respected, powerful world socialist system with the Soviet Union at its head.
They found evidence for this in the official records of Politburo meetings and, more importantly, in the draft records of that body. They supplemented these and other archival materials, many of which have been used rarely if at all, by interviewing senior functionaries of the period.
They limit their work to the period between the end of World War II and Stalin's death in 1953. Their analysis is focused on the politics and policy of the period rather than on the personal relations between the members of the inner circle. In that respect, the title may be somewhat misleading, particularly if one comes to this book after seeing Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the other major, recently published, volume on Stalin. That book is focused on the personal lives of the members of the circle, rather than their political activity. Because of their different foci, the two books complement each other, though the latter covers the entire Stalin period rather than just the last few years.
As World War II ended, Stalin was faced with the task of rebuilding his devastated country in a world much different from the one he faced before the German invasion. The emergency measures required by the war were no longer needed, which meant that there could be a return to some kind of Soviet normality. But there were new domestic and international challenges that had to be met as well. Moreover, he had also changed. Not only had he grown older; the rigors of his wartime regimen had taken their toll. Physically weaker, he was compelled to leave more tasks to others.
Gorlizki and Khlevniuk argue that Stalin adopted a dual approach to governance to meet these requirements of the post-war period. The authors describe this dual system as neo-patrimonial. It is a useful concept, and perhaps the most important contribution of this study.
On the one hand, when dealing with the inner circle, Stalin fell back on the patrimonial methods that had served him well in the 1930s and before. After the war, he was the patriarch. He had no rivals; no one acted independently of Stalin. No policy was enacted that was contrary to his thinking. The Zhdanovshchina, the Leningrad Affair, and Lysenko's domination of Soviet biology were all products of Stalin's will. He met with whom he wanted, when he wanted, where he wanted. It is telling that the full Politburo met only twice between September 1946 and Stalin's death. Instead, Stalin met with a group of between five and seven men to discuss and approve decisions, often at the seemingly endless dinners held at one of Stalin's dachas that began late, often lasted until 4:00 a.m. or later. They were marked by the consumption of prodigious amounts of alcohol and, often, the humiliation of Stalin's ministers. The decisions made in the midst of this debauchery were circulated among the members of the Politburo for their approval "by correspondence."
In contrast, Stalin had no formal role in the Council of Ministers (SovMin), which developed into a formal administrative structure. Its inner cabinet, the SovMin Bureau, met regularly, almost weekly. Decisions were made by its committees, the bureaus, that were given responsibility for running the economy. The party's Central Committee and Orgburo came to adopt this model as well. One result of the adoption of this model for administration was that leaders such as Malenkov and Khrushchev gained experience working in a more formal milieu. It was not enough to simply give orders. They had to prepare for and attend meetings; they had to make decisions collectively.
The need to reach decisions collectively and collaborate in doing so became especially clear after the Leningrad affair showed that Stalin had not completely abandoned the murderous methods of the 1930s. Whereas the members of the inner circle had competed more or less openly with each other before 1948, the competition became muted from then until after Stalin died. The authors also suggest that an agenda for post-Stalin reform began to build after 1950. They point out that information on how the system was dysfunctional began to reach the people around Stalin. These changes helped prepare both for the succession and for the adoption of less "heroic" efforts by the successors to develop the Soviet Union.
The authors clarify much of what happened in the period they cover, yet their portrait of the dictator remains but a sketch. In part this is because the authors focus on policies and institutions rather than psychology. Montefiore, who relies more on memoirs and has a novelist's concern with character, is helpful here. In general, personal factors and personality were probably more important than Gorlizki and Khlevniuk suggest. For example, while the authors argue, convincingly, that Stalin had no rivals, they also contend that Stalin saw Mikoian and Molotov as challengers at the time of the XIX Party Congress in 1952 and threw these long-time companions out of the inner circle. Yet he did not kill them, as he did Vosnesensky and Kuznetsov in the Leningrad Affair, and he allowed them to stay in Moscow. A full explanation for the episode must lie in Stalin's psychology; no political imperative seems adequate.
In sum, however, this is a highly valuable book. It adds significantly to our understanding of Stalinist dictatorship, presents new evidence for what happened in the Soviet Union, and analyzes it insightfully.
. Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend, trans. Priscilla Johnson McMillan (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Svetlana Alliluyeva, Only One Year, trans. Paul Chavchavadze (New York: Harper and Row, 1969); Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers trans. and ed. Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970); Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament trans. and ed. Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).
. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). Khlevniuk, a Senior Researcher at the State Archive of the Russian Federation, provided significant assistance to Montefiore.
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James Voorhees. Review of Gorlizki, Yoram; Khlevniuk, Oleg V., Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953.
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