Anyone interested in the life and times of Joseph Stalin can now consult his personal archive, a massive collection of documents. Indeed, thanks to a joint undertaking by Yale University Press and the Russian archives, some 390,000 digitised pages are now easily accessible online. Sarah Davies and James Harris used these and other materials in a study that provides a wealth of information, mainly about Stalin’s domestic policies.
However, the authors would have helped their cause if they had formulated a more probing research question. As it is, they first tell us that while other historians have written on Stalin’s ideology, beliefs and political thought, this book will “focus more closely on his words”. Then they reveal that their question is this: “How did Stalin interpret, or misinterpret, his world?” There are, as they soon discover, endless methodological difficulties in trying to solve such a riddle.
The book reinforces the view that Stalin, firmly in control by 1928, came to see that the Soviet Union faced dire challenges, and promptly launched the first five-year plan. While his country had “the most advanced political system” in the world, he said, it retained “an extremely backward industrial base”. Given this contradiction, and in order to “achieve the decisive victory of socialism”, he defined his mission as catching up to and overtaking the capitalists. “Either we do that or they will wipe us out.”
As we soon see, Stalin’s reading of Marxist-Leninist texts, combined with an either-or mentality, made him impatient and ruthless. In 1932, convinced that agricultural targets were realistic in spite of collection failures, he traced the cause to anti-Soviet elements, double-dealers and even spies. Yet Davies and Harris join other historians in not finding an order to starve whole nations, such as Ukraine, so that implicitly at least they question those who accuse Stalin of genocide. Without doubt, the Soviet boss was irresponsible to the point of criminality in refusing to recognise that his policies led inexorably to the starvation of hundreds of thousands, just as he failed to understand that his ferocity cowed regional bosses into reluctance to report the emerging catastrophe and even to deny that there were any problems. In 1933, when Moscow agreed to reduce grain quotas, it was not because the men in the Kremlin “accepted that there was a shortage of grain”. Instead, they relented because they had failed to address what they saw as the weak will of the party and administration.
For a book on Stalin’s world, the authors say little about what was happening on the global front, and even Hitler’s looming menace warrants scarcely a mention. In a chapter dealing with the prelude to the Great Terror, readers will search in vain for anything about the Gulag, and the text breaks off before the mass murders began, ostensibly because other scholars have covered the topic.
Moreover, it would have helped to convey a sense of Stalin’s world had Davies and Harris said something about the tragic fates of his wives and children. We know that after Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva committed suicide in 1932, and as the war approached, he became gloomier and lonelier, seeking comfort in drinking parties in which he enticed top leaders to overindulge and embarrass themselves. Such shenanigans were integral to the often strange everyday life at the top during Stalin’s era. As it is, the leader that emerges from the book is something of a disembodied abstraction: hardest of the hardliners; an impatient, rigid Communist; and a nocturnal creature showing up to make far-reaching pronouncements or impossible demands and unflinchingly to dish out punishments, only to vanish again in the morning fog.
Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order
By Sarah Davies and James Harris
Yale University Press, 360pp, £50.00
Published 8 January 2015