Stalinism revisited

February 28, 2003

Stalinism has always been controversial. Stalin was criticised by Trotsky and Bukharin, and the violence suffered by the population during the purges can be seen as illuminating Stalin's attitude towards criticism.

Both the population of Russia and historians have struggled with the reasons for the horrors. For many years the debate was conducted in ideological terms. What was the role of Marxism in Stalin's policies? Was Lenin the precursor of Stalin? Or did Stalin change Marxism-Leninism fundamentally? Divisions over these questions were often dictated by political differences.

Since glasnost, new material has become available. There is more information on government polices and on Stalin's role, and it has become easier to examine popular reaction. A range of opinions existed within the USSR. Some were highly critical of government policy and were not convinced by propaganda: there were women's revolts during collectivisation and widespread passive resistance to the regime. Others tried to make themselves better citizens. Critics had argued that terror and violence had made Soviet citizens passive and unable to react to the horrors of the regime, while supporters asserted, in Stalin's words, that "life had become better, life had become happier". But it can now be shown that throughout the turmoil of Stalinism, people learnt to cope and, as Sheila Fitzpatrick shows in her work, Soviet citizens were survivors.

These developments have useful parallels in the study of Nazi Germany. In 1945, when the full horror of the Nazi regime was revealed, there was a tendency to accept the regime's claims of total power. Gradually, however, archives revealed its inefficiencies and inconsistencies. A similar process is happening with respect to Stalin. He was more enigmatic and secretive than Hitler, was in power for much longer and had greater control. But the picture of Soviet society under him is becoming less monochrome than it was.

The extent and variety of scholarship on these questions can be baffling for those new to this subject, and David Hoffmann has produced an invaluable volume for them. He has taken 11 extracts from the work of leading scholars, and divided them into two sections: the origins of Stalinism and the consequences of Stalinism. In addition to a general introduction, he has written short introductions to each extract, emphasising the contribution to the debate by the scholar concerned and providing a guide to the literature on these questions in the footnotes. He has done this very successfully, and these readings should encourage both students and their teachers to find the original publications and to investigate the sources. Implicitly, if not explicitly, Hoffmann shows how scholars have benefited from each other's work. In time, perhaps, this should make the rigid divisions between opposing views increasingly unnecessary.

The essays make thoughtful contributions to the debate on the nature of Stalinism. Not all are recent. Moshe Lewin's article is taken from his Making of the Soviet System (1985). It illustrates the development of new approaches to the subject. He makes the case that the state alone could not dictate policy but that it was the interplay between state and society that determined many aspects of Stalinism. He emphasises that the nature of peasant life and attitudes was a major force in reshaping the Soviet state as an industrial power. Peasants formed the bulk of the population and streamed into the cities in search of employment following collectivisation. Their inability to deal with urban life was an important influence on many aspects of Soviet policy. Many of the arguments in Lewin's work are amplified by Fitzpatrick in her work on social attitudes.

Frequently portrayed as the opposing pole of the debate, meanwhile, Martin Malia stresses the importance of ideology that determined the actions of the leadership and the party. Malia shows that despite Stalin's personal contribution, the system was not the product of one individual.

Oleg Khlevniuk's Objectives of the Great Terror (1995) is of fundamental importance. He showed to what extent Stalin was involved in the arrests of certain people, citing previously unpublished documents to show how much of the terror was orchestrated by the centre. While not rejecting arguments that Stalin's own paranoia may have added to the extent of terror, Khlevniuk argued that the terror was determined by the need to eliminate opposition in the case of war. The hostility of the imperialist world to communism had been stressed after 1917. Once Hitler came to power, it was clear that war could not be avoided. Paradoxically, the purges (particularly of the army) weakened the armed forces, the state and, potentially, Stalin's own position.

Elena Zubkova, in her article on the postwar years, outlines some of the effects of the conflict on postwar Soviet society. She quotes one veteran:

"There was much in the system that we did not accept, but we could not imagine any other kind." The irony is that though this showed the potential for hostility towards the regime, it was also the shared experience of suffering and victory that helped to hold postwar Soviet society together when ideological bonds weakened.

My main criticism is that there is little reference to artistic culture.

This would probably have extended the scope of the volume too far, and the subject has not been central to the debates among historians. Yet here one may find the notion of loyalty to one's people even if the legitimacy of the state might be questioned. This was as true under Stalinism as it had been during other periods of Russian history.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, University of Oxford.

Stalinism: The Essential Readings. First edition

Editor - David L. Hoffmann
ISBN - 0 631 22890 X and 22891 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 317

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