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About this book

Stalin's massive impact on Soviet history is often explained in terms of his inherent evil, personality defects and power lust. While not rejecting these notions, Kevin McDermott argues that Stalin's thoughts and actions are best contextualised in the inter-relationship between war and revolution in the first half of the twentieth century. The author presents the case for taking the Soviet dictator seriously as a Marxist revolutionary whose fundamental beliefs and modus operandi were forged in the cauldron of civil and international wars, ideologically driven class wars and revolutionary upheavals associated with the 'age of catastrophe', 1914-45. Only by so doing can the complex motivations for such cataclysmic events as the Great Terror be adequately addressed.

Incorporating recently declassified materials from the former Soviet Party archives, this new appraisal of Stalin also provides a critical review of the latest western and Russian historiography. It is essential reading for anyone studying the debates on one of the leading figures of Soviet history.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
31 March 2005: I have just heard on BBC Radio 4 news that a small town in Siberia has decided to erect a statue to Josef Stalin, the first new monument to the Soviet dictator in over fifty years. In Volgograd, he is to sit alongside effigies of Winston ChurchilI and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The same report informed me that in a recent poll in Vladimir Putin’s Russia over 40 per cent of participants believed that Stalin was a positive historical figure. Hence, it would appear that surprising numbers of Russians and Georgians, yearning for a ‘strong hand’, regard the tyrant as a great statesman and state-builder. Even if many others react with revulsion, it is evident that Stalin continues to exert a very powerful attraction not only on ‘ordinary’ people, but also scholars, journalists, TV broadcasters and their ilk. Why is this?
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 1. Revolutionary

Abstract
What made an ordinary bright Georgian lad a dedicated Marxist revolutionary and one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party? How, if at all, did Stalin’s formative years impact on his subsequent beliefs and actions? What aspects of his personality, upbringing, education and environment shed light on the mature adult? Although much of Stalin’s boyhood, adolescence and early manhood are still shrouded in mystery and myth, we know enough to trace his development from Orthodox seminarist to revolutionary activist to Bolshevik oligarch. This elusive task of reconstruction can best be undertaken if we eschew monocausal explanations for Stalin’s unusual odyssey and accept that multi-faceted approaches — psycho-historical, socio-cultural and politico-ideological — are required to grasp the complex forging of any individual’s identity. The historian’s work is made all the harder in Stalin’s case in that he took great pains to conceal evidence about his early life and deliberately fashioned and re-fashioned his own biography and identity for political purposes helped by a legion of propagandists and sycophants. Archival sources made accessible since the collapse of the Soviet Union have added a few new ‘facts’ and nuances, but still obfuscation all too often reigns. Hence, the following pages, which contain their fair share of ‘might haves’ and ‘it appears’, should not be seen as a definitive account of Stalin’s prerevolutionary pilgrimage, but rather as a brief narrative of his early life and a critical survey of existing historiography.
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 2. Oligarch

Abstract
The turbulent political history of the years 1922–9 has not been a favourite theme in recent historiography of the Soviet Union. There have been few archival ‘sensations’ on Stalin’s rise to power and most historians, particularly of the younger generation, have either preferred to re-evaluate the traumatic events of the 1930s and 1940s or increasingly have turned to sociocultural explorations associated with post-modernist methodology. In many ways, then, this chapter presents more difficulties than any other. On the one hand, I do not wish to simply rehash older accounts of Stalin’s fierce battles with his arch-rivals Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, but on the other there is relatively little new research to assess and critique. In terms of published archival evidence, we do now have Stalin’s letters to Molotov and other correspondence between Bolshevik leaders, plus several other important sources,1 but this constitutes a rather thin documentary base for such a pivotal subject. In this chapter I aim to synthesise the various approaches to Stalin’s ascendancy, incorporating new evidence where appropriate.
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 3. Moderniser

Abstract
In 1928–9 Stalin and his leading colleagues launched a state-sponsored drive for ‘modernity’ of unprecedented violence, scope and pace. The overriding goal of this self-proclaimed ‘revolution from above’ was none other than to overcome Russia’s perennial ‘backwardness’, to drag the USSR, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the twentieth century. All vestiges of the ancien régime were to be wiped out. This truly profound socio-economic and cultural transformation was designed to expand and modernise Soviet industry and agriculture at unheard-of tempos. An entire heavy industrial base was to be created almost from scratch and vast collective farms (kolkhozy) were to dominate the Soviet countryside. The USSR had to catch up and overtake the advanced capitalist states as rapidly as possible. This cataclysmic upheaval was aimed, above all, at ensuring the country’s military security. And it all had to be done in a decade, not generations as in the ‘bourgeois’ west.
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 4. Dictator

Abstract
On 7 November 1937 at a private banquet marking the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin uttered the remarkable words:
Anyone who attempts to destroy the unity of the socialist state….is a sworn enemy of the state and of the peoples of the USSR. And we shall destroy any such enemy, even if he is an old Bolshevik; we shall destroy his entire kith and kin. Anyone who threatens the unity of the socialist state, either in deed or in thought — yes, even in thought — will be mercilessly destroyed.
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 5. Warlord

Abstract
A week after the momentous and unexpected Nazi invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, Stalin reportedly blurted out to his shocked colleagues: ‘Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!’1 Regardless of the expletive, this statement reveals Stalin’s despair at the calamity that had befallen his creation. The ‘infallible’ Leader had inexplicably failed to foresee or adequately prepare for Operation Barbarossa. He had obstinately refused to accept the veracity of his own military intelligence that accurately dated the German attack. He had declined to mobilise the Soviet armed forces on the western fronts. He bizarrely held to the idea that the attack when it finally came was a ‘provocation’ against Hitler’s wishes. Even as he uttered the words above, he was overseeing a disaster of immense proportions as the Wehrmacht tore through the Soviet countryside, capturing and killing up to 5.9 million Red Army troops in the first six months of the fighting and eliminating an estimated ninety per cent of the Soviet tank strength.2 In addition, the Luftwaffe virtually destroyed the Red air force on the ground. Hitler’s betrayal of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was taken as a personal humiliation by Stalin, who had deluded himself to the last minute that the Führer would not voluntarily create a second front and would not launch his legions before 1942.
Kevin McDermott

Chapter 6. Statesman

Abstract
Stalin emerged from the immense stresses and strains of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ immeasurably strengthened. Proclaimed as the indefatigable infallible ‘Generalissimo’ who had ensured victory over the barbarian Teutonic hordes, he enjoyed, arguably for the first time, buoyant levels of popular support. The regime had proven its ability to survive the supreme challenge of Hitler’s ‘war of annihilation’, the most destructive in history. The imperative to expel the invader had forged a certain national unity between people and government and in this sense the successful prosecution of the war more than any other single factor legitimised the Stalinist system and Stalin himself as undisputed vozhd’. The dilemma facing the triumphant leadership after May 1945 was how best to reconstruct the shattered Soviet economy and society, while safeguarding the sole socialist bastion in an unpredictable international climate. In theory at least, the relatively moderate wartime policies could have been continued both at home and abroad and it is possible that some in the party-state elites favoured measured reform. For Stalin, however, this was anathema and soon the regime reverted to increased repression and state intervention, severely testing its citizens’ new-found loyalty and tentative trust.
Kevin McDermott

Conclusion

Abstract
By way of conclusion I will address three major themes: the centrality of war and revolution for Stalin and Stalinism, the recent debate on the ‘boss’ as a ‘weak dictator’, and Stalin’s historical legacy for his immediate successors and for the longer term evolution and ultimate collapse of the USSR.
Kevin McDermott
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