‘Lately, the paradoxical turns of recent Russian history… have given my research more than scholarly relevance,’ remarks Oleg Khlevniuk in his introduction. Indeed, in Putin’s Russia Stalin’s apologists and admirers seem daily to become more vocal. The language of the 1930s is used in televised tirades against ‘internal enemies’ and ‘foreign agents’. Stalin himself is upheld not only as a strong leader, but also as an ‘effective manager’ who, despite his mistakes, did what was necessary to modernise the Soviet Union; or, contrarily, as a benevolent dictator who was unaware of the corrupt actions of his officials.
In short, there could hardly be a more opportune moment for the publication of this authoritative, fluently written, concise life, the pinnacle of current scholarship on its subject. Khlevniuk, who has spent many years working in the Russian archives, commented in an interview that his aim was to produce ‘a narrative that rests entirely on what we know for certain about Stalin and his time’. So he swiftly dispatches several myths about the man. There is no evidence to suggest Stalin was an informer for the Tsarist police before the Revolution, and none, either, that he ordered the murder of Kirov in 1934; no record has emerged of him refusing a prisoner exchange for his son Yakov during the war, and the most likely cause of his wife’s suicide in 1932 was the combination of her mental fragility and his philandering.
What remains surpasses any fabricated horror. Terror was Stalin’s first choice as a means of government and his early control of the secret police was a key reason for his rise to power. Arbitrary torture and murder, applied via campaigns against various largely fictitious ‘internal enemies’, ‘fifth columnists’, ‘terrorists’ and so on, were used to subdue the country, Stalin’s closest associates, and the security forces themselves. Under Stalin’s aegis, over a million Soviet citizens each year were imprisoned, tortured, executed and exiled; many more — at least 60 million, or a third of the population — were affected by some type of repression.
Far from being unaware of his subordinates’ actions, Stalin was a micro-manager, as determined to oversee every seed sown in his dacha garden as every piece of fabricated evidence. In small details, as in large: ‘We do not know of a single decision of major consequence taken by anyone other than Stalin,’ states Khlevniuk baldly. Quite an extraordinary statement, when one considers the length and eventfulness of his regime.
The sociopathic cruelty of this approach was matched by its incompetence in all other areas. Stalin appears to have been completely ignorant of economics, believing that ‘class war’ and ‘revolutionary spirit’ were all that was needed to industrialise effectively. Fear and turmoil caused by constant purges did not make for a productive workforce, particularly with little or no financial incentive to work. Before the Revolution the Russian economy was growing at one of the fastest rates in Europe. Yet in the reasonably prosperous year of 1952 — after almost 30 years of Stalin’s management — the Central Statistical Directorate made a study of the country’s average daily nutrition. Free Soviet citizens, it discovered, were eating a very similar diet to the inhabitants of the Gulag.
The living standards of the Soviet people were of little concern to their Generalissimo. Khlevniuk argues convincingly that Stalin’s prime obsession was not the advance of socialism, not the might of the USSR, but overwhelmingly ‘the task of bolstering his personal power’. It is all the more extraordinary, therefore, that when Stalin achieved his goal of totalitarian power in 1929 it was only the beginning of the savagery. Thereafter each of his bloody campaigns served a dual purpose — to terrorise the people while dealing a pre-emptive strike against some perceived threat. Millions died for him to score his miserable political victories within the Politburo.
It is tempting to see his paranoid vengefulness as a pathology, and Khlevniuk includes a report from one of his doctors that his personality was affected by the hardened arteries in his brain. Nonetheless, Khlevniuk also shows that Stalin’s first essay in terror came in 1918, long before his illness. What’s more, one of his defining traits was his very lack of mental instability: his iron self-control. Throughout his long life there is no record of him ever hinting at what he knew to be true — that he had murdered dozens of his close friends and family.
In the absence of any evidence, I still suspect this corrupt, vicious, lonely man understood the power of fear so well only because he felt it himself so intensely.
In Stalin’s library, Khlevniuk finds a quotation that is attributed to Genghis Khan ominously underlined: ‘The conqueror’s peace of mind requires the death of the conquered.’