Russia's poisonous penpals

Stalin's Letters to Molotov, 1925-1936
January 5, 1996

Even before the attempted coup of August 1991, the directors of the various Soviet Communist party archives - plainly aware that their party's fortunes were dwindling - were seeking western partners who could assist in the mutually beneficial exploitation of the assets in their custody. Party archives especially were widely regarded as a gold mine. The care and organisation lavished by Soviet archivists on their records should have made their intelligent use for scholarly purposes a historian's dream. When the coup failed, local party archives were transferred to municipal control and central archives were taken over by the newly formed Russian State Archive Commission. Orderly access and publication of hitherto closed collections ought to have followed. Instead, access to and exploitation of the Russian archives became a complicated and chaotic aspect of the new economic life of the country, and for the most part dependent on individual initiative, and sometimes on the availability of hard currency.

Some orderly partnerships, however, were undertaken. Stalin's Letters to Molotov is a joint venture by Yale University Press and the former Central Committee Archives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, now called the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History.

If anyone in the Soviet establishment deserved the name of survivor, it was Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov. Close comrades as early as 1913, Stalin and Molotov returned to Petrograd from their exile in Siberia in March 1917 to take over the running of Lenin's newspaper, Pravda. That alone ought to have condemned Molotov to join the ranks of those other leaders who were to be tried and executed during the Great Purge of 1936-38, when Stalin liquidated practically everyone else who knew how insignificant his own role had been in the October revolution. As a disciplined Bolshevik functionary, Molotov was not, however, concerned with preserving the "truth". For years, readers in the Professors' Hall of the Lenin Library wondered if the little old man in rimless spectacles who came every day was doing research for his memoirs. But he died in 1986, aged 96, a year before glasnost, and nothing emerged. He had, however, engaged in a series of 140 conversations with a little-known writer called Felix Chuev who published his notes of these meetings in 1991. They are undoubtedly interesting, if unverifiable, but also show how seriously Molotov adhered to the Soviet equivalent of the Official Secrets Act: three times he denied the existence of the secret protocols appended to the Soviet-German Pact which bore his name. Within a matter of five years, the infamous protocols were published.

It is perhaps surprising that, as a disgraced ex-leader, Molotov had not been divested of this collection of letters from Stalin in 1957, when he was expelled from the leadership in Khrushchev's purge of the "Anti-Party Group". In the 1930s, when the NKVD came to arrest a leading figure, all his papers would have been confiscated. By the time of "the thaw", this rule was apparently being flouted. The outcome, represented by this volume, may ironically suffer by comparison: the lapse gave Molotov the opportunity to sift and sort the letters before handing them over in 1967 to the Central Party Archives.

The style of Stalin's letters is somewhat reminiscent of Lenin's: he marshalled his arguments point by point, he is almost always emphatic, rarely questioning his own judgement, his invective is outright and often obscene. Perhaps he operated under less external and internal pressure than Lenin. In any event, his letters have about them a more organised, more systematic quality which adds weight to the notion that his rise to power and his ability to cling to it were not due entirely to his murderous manipulation of the party machine.

The coverage, year by year, is extremely patchy. While the 1929 section includes interesting material on diplomatic and foreign affairs, for example, on the USSR's relations with the Ramsay Macdonald government in Britain, and the situation on the Chinese border, there is surprisingly no mention of the mounting German crisis and Comintern's ultimately disastrous policy of dividing the left. The period 1931 to 1936, which must count as among the most turbulent and bloodstained of the years covered in this book, is very sparsely represented, and 1934, the year of Kirov's assassination, is entirely absent. As the editors point out, Molotov must have assembled the collection with an eye on the criminal activities in which both the writer and the addressee had indulged and which must be kept from even this inner sanctum of party secrets. It is, of course, the presidential archive in the Kremlin which houses the ultimate repository of state and party records, and where, perhaps, Molotov's contribution to the correspondence may be found. Access to that repository is still strictly reserved and is the subject of some acrimony among Russian historians.

Considering the importance of Trotsky's role in internal party strife, he occupies a relatively small space in this collection. The Letters do, however, confirm the view, expressed by the late Dmitri Volkogonov in his books on Stalin and Trotsky, that it was as much Stalin's defeats of Trotsky in argument in the Politburo, as it was his position in the hierarchy, that led to his augmentation of power. In addition, on Trotsky, the recriminations over Lenin's "Testament", which were exacerbated by publication of a book by Trotsky's supporter Max Eastman, are elucidated in an appendix by the editors. Their introductions and explanatory endnotes deserve general praise, as they greatly clarify the often obscure signals Stalin sent to his all-comprehending right-hand man.

Molotov was, by all accounts, "different". The dedicated functionary who, almost uniquely, was on familiar terms with Stalin nearly to the end, even had to endure continuing to work uncomplaining at his master's elbow, while his Jewish wife languished in prison, a victim of Stalin's final spasm of vindictive paranoia, expressed as indiscriminate anti-Semitism. The Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once remarked that when Molotov smiled it was like the light going on inside a refrigerator. Molotov was indeed the consummate iceman, and one can only suppose that such a personality was necessary to survive to the great age he did. And the Stalin who emerges in these letters, as the American editor comments, is similarly without humour or generosity, an angry, vindictive and misanthropic individual.

The Russian archives, while no longer as freely accessible as they were between 1991 and 1993, still permit a degree of serious research to be carried out by western and Russian scholars alike. More valuable studies are now in the pipeline for publication in the West. It is to be hoped that the ambitious scheme proposed by Yale's Annals of Communism Series, of which Stalin's Letters to Molotov is the first, will flourish.

Harold Shukman is lecturer in modern Russian history, University of Oxford.

Stalin's Letters to Molotov, 1925-1936

Editor - Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov and Oleg V. Khlevniuk
ISBN - 0 300 06211 7
Publisher - None
Price - £16.95
Pages - 6

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