Stalin’s Secret War
Confiscated Power: How Soviet Russia Really Works
USSR: The Corrupt Society
Notes of a Revolutionary
When during the late war British military observers were first allowed to visit the Soviet Union and see the armed forces in action, a number of them came back appalled by what they had seen. War equipment was primitive, as was the cartography, the supply system was rough and inadequate, the troops looked backward, and so forth. It was difficult for them to understand why such an army appeared to be winning. But it was. What the British generals had failed to grasp was that the strength of the Soviet system of rule lay precisely in its ability to live with and to survive the chaos of the society which it ran. Primitive equipment was the only kind that was suitable for use by what was still largely a peasant army. That the regime worked amid the disorder and the confusion was ensured in large measure by its skill in concentrating on essentials, and in leaving the rest to muddle through. But as Count Tolstoy shows in his new book, a large element in the survival was the terror that Stalin unleashed against his own people, in his “secret war.”
Of course, there were other reasons too for Stalin’s immunity against the upsurge of popular resentment that was evoked by the Soviet Union’s involvement in a war with a country that, until the day before, had been portrayed as a reliable ally. There was the inertia that a system of terror creates of itself—it is a common observation that revolt against tyranny only becomes a real danger once tyranny is relaxed (a fact that became particularly relevant after the death of Stalin). An important factor was the wise decision of Stalin to reduce to a minimum appeals to communism and to replace them by traditional themes rooted in Russian history, by patriotic calls, and by the Orthodox church. Most important, perhaps, was the savage brutality of the invading German forces, which soon put an end to the initial hope and welcome by the population. The optimistic expectations (encouraged by the NKVD, presumably) that things would be quite different after victory also played their part.
But Tolstoy has done a great service in describing and documenting a much less publicized aspect of the war on the Eastern front—the time when Stalin suppressed a real or imaginary threat to his own survival from the population on which, for the previous ten or eleven years, he had inflicted so much suffering. The story in itself is not new, but it is told in this book with great dramatic skill and vigor. Like other Russian rulers before him, Stalin lived in constant fear, not only for his personal safety from assassination—this has often been described—but in panic that the whole ramshackle edifice of Soviet power would collapse under the onslaught of a wild, anarchical rising of the millions of camp inmates and national minorities. Tolstoy shows the extent to which this fear dictated Stalin’s policy—for example …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.