Photoquest/Getty Images

Joseph Stalin lying in state, attended by Vyacheslav Molotov, Kliment Voroshilov, Lavrenty Beria, and Georgii Malenkov, Moscow, March 8, 1953

There seems to be an insatiable appetite for biographies of Stalin. The catalog of Harvard University’s library lists 690, 203 of them published since the year 2000. Although Stalin plays a central part in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s latest book, this is not a biography but something more unusual: a story of the circle or “team” of which he was the leader but on which he was also dependent. She calls Stalin “the lynchpin” and stresses that the team members helped him run the country of which, after 1928, he was the undisputed leader. Yet he relied on them not only politically but also emotionally, especially in his later years. To reveal this mutual dependence is a major contribution of this innovative book.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is a native of Australia and the child of Brian Fitzpatrick, a radical writer of the “fellow traveler” school whose portrait she provided in My Father’s Daughter (2010). Although she obviously absorbed some of his radicalism, in time she distanced herself from him and his world outlook. She left her native land to attend Oxford University, where in 1969 she received a doctorate from St. Antony’s College. Ultimately, she ended up in the United States, where she taught Soviet history at the University of Chicago. She returned to Australia after a fifty-year absence. She is the author of numerous books, virtually all of them dealing with the Soviet Union.

Fitzpatrick belongs to the school of historians of the USSR known as “revisionists.” This school tends to emphasize the complexity of the Soviet regime, rejecting as simplistic the concept of “totalitarianism.” It stresses social history at the expense of politics. The totalitarian concept was first formulated in Fascist Italy in the early 1920s: Mussolini defined it as “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Neither Mussolini nor Hitler established truly totalitarian regimes because both retained private property, which limited the power of the state. The founder of the first totalitarian state was Stalin, who nationalized all of the country’s economic resources, be they land or industry. Revisionists have made some valuable contributions to the understanding of Soviet history, but they have tended to underestimate its horrors.

Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest adviser and a member of the Politburo with access to all the documents of Lenin’s and Stalin’s regimes, estimated the victims of the two dictators’ reign at 20 million. Some revisionists minimize the evils of terror on the grounds that it not only caused deaths and incarceration but also increased social mobility by allowing others to take over the victims’ jobs. This kind of reasoning, if applied to the Holocaust, would see its benefits in the “Aryans” taking over the positions and possessions of the slain Jews.

The head of the “team” in this book’s title was, of course, Stalin. Fitzpatrick rightly insists that he was not the kind of nonentity that Trotsky and many others had depicted. In her words, he was “a whole lot cleverer and better-read” than commonly believed. At the same time she characterizes him as “a great evildoer,” a man with “sadistic instincts.”

The leading member of the “team” until the eve of Stalin’s death was Vyacheslav Molotov. A bureaucrat with a stony face, he was far from a striking personality: Fitzpatrick says that he could have been “a clerk in a government office” while Trotsky dismissed him as “mediocrity personified.” Molotov joined the Bolshevik faction early and eventually became editor of its organ, Pravda. When in 1922 Stalin was appointed the Party’s general secretary, he became his de facto deputy.

From then on, he was Stalin’s shadow, the Bolshevik in whom Stalin placed the greatest trust, and who reciprocated this confidence by supporting all of Stalin’s actions, including the murderous purges of the 1930s. Stalin’s reliance on Molotov became apparent in 1939 when he entrusted him with the signing of the treaty with Nazi Germany. This loyalty remained steadfast even after 1948, when Stalin ordered the arrest of Molotov’s Jewish wife for “treason.”

Another prominent member of the group was Anastas Mikoyan, an Armenian who joined the Bolshevik Party in 1915 and from the early years of the Soviet regime attached himself to Stalin. He was active both before and during World War II in developing the Soviet food industry. At various times, besides Molotov and Mikoyan, the group included Nikolai Bukharin, Nikolai Bulganin, Lavrenty Beria, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Georgii Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev.

Fitzpatrick makes it clear that membership in Stalin’s team did not ensure security:

Stalin was a suspicious man. He was suspicious even of his own team…. He kept tabs on them, encouraged informing, liked to keep them off balance, and sometimes set traps for them…. Nobody on the team could consider himself safe.

Khrushchev in his memoirs graphically described how precarious was the position and even the life of every member of Stalin’s intimate circle. Toward the end of his life, for no known reason, Stalin became suspicious of both Molotov and Mikoyan, his oldest associates. In 1952, he called them “hirelings of American imperialism” and accused them of being English or American spies, which suggested that their days were probably numbered. Publicly, Stalin


attacked Molotov with particular viciousness…. He brought up the old charges of currying favor with Western journalists…; he also raised the question of why Molotov wanted “to give Crimea to the Jews” and why he had told his wife about secret Politburo decisions. As for Mikoyan, Stalin said he had probably been plotting…to sell out Soviet interests to the Americans.

In March 1949, Stalin removed Molotov from the post of minister of foreign affairs and Mikoyan from the post of minister of foreign trade. The lives of the two were likely saved by Stalin’s sudden death three years later.

When the Germans attacked the USSR in June 1941, Stalin was so shocked that for a week he withdrew from public life and fell into some kind of coma. As Fitzpatrick points out, he had expected his alliance with the Nazis to last several years during which he could bring his military establishment into “full operational and fighting trim.” For this reason, he ignored repeated warnings from the West and his own agents that Hitler was preparing an imminent invasion. This had disastrous consequences leading to the destruction of much of the Soviet military in the early months of the war. During World War II, when Stalin oversaw grand strategy and the appointments of top commanders, much of the day-to-day management of the country fell into the hands of his associates organized as the State Defense Committee (GKO). As Fitzpatrick writes, citing Mikoyan:

When the GKO’s core Group of Five (Stalin, Molotov, Malenkov, Beria, and Mikoyan) met, as they usually did late in the evening without a precirculated agenda or minutes taken, “each of us had full possibility to speak and defend his opinion or suggestion,” and Stalin’s attitude was “reasonable and patient,” even if he didn’t like what someone said. It quite often happened that Stalin, “convinced by our arguments,” changed the opinion he had had at the beginning.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the architect of Soviet victory in World War II, was not a member of the team but of Stalin’s informal military “brain trust,” yet he did not fear contradicting Stalin. During the war, Stalin was in charge of military affairs while his associates ran the economy. The partnership worked well and brought the Soviet Union victory.

Matters did not change after the war. Indeed, the responsibilities of the team increased as Stalin spent ever more time in the south, away from the Kremlin. As he grew old, Stalin looked to his team not only for assistance in running the country but also for succor in his loneliness:

Stalin had been lonely since the breakup of his prewar social circle, first through his wife’s death and then through the arrest of various relatives during the Great Purges, and he grew lonelier after the war, with a total estrangement from the old network of in-laws and no new friends or partner to fill the gaps. This threw him back on the team for companionship. A wartime habit of team meetings late in the day, ending in a shared supper, was continued in less spartan form. Since Stalin hated to be alone, the team was drafted with increasing frequency for dinners at Stalin’s dacha that started late, often after a film showing at the Kremlin; [they] were marked by heavy (compulsory) drinking, as well as a certain amount of work discussion; and went on until the not-very-early hours of the morning (4:00 or 5:00 AM).

Milovan Djilas, a prominent Yugoslav Communist who visited the USSR during the war, found these dinners to be rather congenial occasions: “It all rather resembled a patriarchal family with a crotchety head whose foibles always made his kinsfolk rather apprehensive.”

As his energy declined, Stalin handed ever more business to members of his team: he let them make decisions that he simply approved. The government now was run by Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev and Bulganin. The last policy Stalin initiated was a drive against Soviet Jews, a policy that the team did not approve. (When Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1939 and 1940 complained that there were too many Jews in the Soviet government, Stalin promised him and the Führer that as soon as he had enough Russians to run things, he would eliminate Jewish officials.)


In January 1953, he charged a number of Jewish physicians working in the Kremlin with having caused the death of some prominent Soviet personalities. The “Doctor’s Plot” led to the arrest of some Jewish physicians. More ominously, preparations were made for the deportation of several million Soviet Jews to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Fitzpatrick, by this time Stalin’s paranoia knew “no bounds.”

When Stalin died, the team quietly took over. It was designated as “collective leadership” consisting of Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov. The transition was smoother than one might have expected after a quarter-century of Stalin’s dictatorship. The team promptly released the arrested Jewish doctors, declared an amnesty that led to the release of more than a million prisoners, and talked of a “détente” in the cold war. Beria, the hated and feared head of the secret police, was executed. It was generally expected that either Molotov or Malenkov would succeed Stalin but since neither showed an inclination to challenge the collective leadership, they remained in place for the next five years, until 1958 when Nikita Khrushchev took over.

As Fitzpatrick points out, some of her interpretations have been anticipated. In particular, the Russian scholar Oleg Khlevniuk did pioneering work with his Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, originally published in the 1990s, in which he stressed the influence of Stalin’s staff. Similar contributions were made by Stephen Wheatcroft and Arch Getty.

On Stalin’s Team is an important book because it modifies the prevalent view of Joseph Stalin as a lone dictator and his staff as flunkies who merely carried out his orders. It shows that, in fact, Stalin’s dictatorship was something of a collegiate arrangement in which the dictator had the ultimate power to appoint his staff and take or reject its advice. Yet, Fitzpatrick writes, “they couldn’t have done it without him. But the corollary is also true: he couldn’t have done it without them.” In her conclusion, Fitzpatrick refers to the totalitarian model:

Based on observation of similarities between mid-twentieth-century fascist regimes and the Soviet regime under Stalin, the totalitarian model posited a regime headed by a charismatic leader, ruling through a mobilizing party aspiration and a secret police force, and aspiring to total control over society. Much ink has been spilled, including by me, on the applicability of this model to Soviet history. As far as the present study is concerned, however, the model’s relevance is quite limited, as it never focused on Stalin’s relationship with his closest advisors or attached particular importance to it.

This kind of “revisionism” is persuasive. In my opinion it does not invalidate the totalitarian concept nor does it, as the Princeton University Press blurb claims, paint “an entirely new picture of Stalin within his milieu.” But it does add a new dimension to the totalitarian model. As such, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book is to be warmly welcomed.