Stalin: ‘He Couldn’t Have Done It Without Them’

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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…

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