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The “ultimate” Bolshevik August 23, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Interesting podcast here from last year on Stalin from Australian radio ‘On Stalin’s Team’ – an interview with Sheila Fitzpatrick who has written widely on him. She makes some interesting points about historiography in relation to individuals like Stalin – and indeed his team, and suggests (and she’s no fan of the man) that the picture that generally is understood of him is one that is largely defined by Trotsky’s views from the 1920s as a mediocrity, and the latter’s incomprehension that Stalin could rise to the level he did, and therefore incomplete in relation to his clear abilities and energy. Stalin was no mediocrity, more an appalling force of nature. The USSR in the 1920s and 1930s was no mediocrity either – something that – perhaps ironically – Hitler recognised better than most.

It’s fascinating to hear her talk about how his ‘team’ managed almost immediately, indeed a fraction before he died, to have their government ready and waiting to step in at that point and – and this is crucial – reverse many of the decisions he had made at the end (from 1945 on his health and mental strength declined sharply). Economic policy, relations with the West, releases from Gulag, reversion the anti-Semitism and the release of the Doctor’s Plot prisoners and a sort of liberalisation (albeit from a low point), all were changed or ameliorated. Stalin had famously argued they weren’t up to the task – which is a curious attitude for a statist and Marxist, but they clearly were equal to it and more. Fitzpatrick argues that in the last years of Stalin ‘there was an understanding that things had to change, but they can’t change while the old man is still around, but he won’t be here forever’.

Fitzpatrick believes that the Doctor’s Plot was in essence Stalin’s means of getting at the team, part of it was about ‘Jewish conspiracy’ with the US to bring down the USSR. The other is the idea put forward, by the by in interrogations against those like Molotov’s wife, that Molotov and Mikoyan were trying to come to terms with the US and the British – i.e. they were next in line for purging.

What’s astounding is just how much time was wasted on all this stuff. To what purpose? One almost has the sense that it was because it could be done, rather than for any fundamental reason. An exercise in power. An exemplary display to some extent, in that it offered a lesson for those far beyond the politburo about how they were expected to conduct themselves.

And that leads to a further thought. If, and it’s one view of his life, Stalin spent his time attempting to forge the strongest possible party at literally any expense, one has to wonder at whether he was able to appreciate at any point that such a task was ultimately unfeasible, beyond any human to do so. The seeds for reform were in the very team he had had around him. There was no collapse of the system after him, they were however (a further irony) able to use it divert it from the path he appeared to have sent the USSR on – albeit a path that was remarkably unclear and would be difficult, if not impossible, to retain in his absence – with remarkable ease. Moreover and tellingly, each successive wave of leadership diverged yet further and further. And the Soviet citizenry did not revolt at this – anything but. For all the Stalin nostalgia that is spoken of when push came to shove there was no shove back from Soviet man and woman to ensure that the approaches taken prior to his death were continued in full.

Logic suggests then that this was a system that simply could not persist beyond a single man in a very specific position. How could it be otherwise? Fitzpatrick suggests that the reason those around him complied with his orders was because they looked up to him, regarded him as it were the ultimate Bolshevik (albeit not necessarily in such terms). But they weren’t, even though they had been through the fire with him. At some point they decided unconsciously, or perhaps consciously and collectively, that he had gone too far, that the system could not bear it, and perhaps as importantly, they could not either.

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