Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stalin: An Assessment

It's easy to picture Stalin as this sinister characature. But then this raises the question wouldn't somebody have noticed?... you could hear them wonder, hey, doesn't that guy look like he's going to kill us all?

Once, again it’s easy to look upon Joseph Vassarionovich Stalin (Djughashvili) as completely sinister, mass murder as he was. But this doesn’t come close to explaining how he could rise above equals to dictatorship. Stalin was a masterful manipulator of people, who could be quite charming, and a sharp mind with an instinct for power and dominance, besides someone who loved to exercise his beautiful singing voice with friends. He had no problem charming party members and Roosevelt.

And so I characterize Stalin more as a thug, a gangster at the head of the powerful socialist ideology, not deranged maniac. Nonetheless, he became more and more suspicious as he grew older.

His vengeance could wait years to see itself satisfied. And few had his suspicion married with a hyper-sensitivity to personal slight. He demanded complete loyalty from his followers; high ranking members lost wives to his terror (to name a couple Molotov, Soviet Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Budonny, Defense Minister). Questioning him would sooner or later be very harmful to your health either in the labor camps or simply by execution. Yet, he could be very good with children; he doted on his daughter Svetlana until she reached the age of 15, when she began a romantic attachment to an older man.

But fundamentally Stalin was a megalomaniac with a decided punitive streak unhampered by conventional morality; his punitive streak led him to “break the back of the peasant” through forced collectivization, the Communist party and the military through purges, and ethnic minorities (exiled thousands of Germans and Chechens to name a couple) through forced migration.

In his rise to power after Lenin’s death he led the majority against Trotsky, the theorist, who deemed himself above politics and saw him eventually deported. He also took the seemingly unimportant position of General Secretary to Communist Party which became the most powerful position in Soviet Russia. The Secretariat, of which he was head, had great influence over the composition of those eligible for membership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Stalin's power of appointment had allowed him to gradually replace local party secretaries with loyal functionaries and thus control most regional delegations at the congress, which enabled him to pack the Central Committee with his supporters, mostly at the expense of Zinoviev and Kamenev's backers. [unattributed quote]

He took the majority theoretical position that the socialist revolution could be carried on in Russia alone, a largely agrarian society, without required assistance from more industrial societies. The internationalists including Trotsky insisted upon a world wide revolution. Lenin himself promoted international revolution as necessary to the success of the Russian Revolution. In contrast the main emphasis would be building Communism within Russia. This was popular with many a Bolshevik; communism could be pursued most vigorously and the NEP (National Economic Plan which had free market elements) could be and was set aside; the Socialist revolution within Russia was to begun in earnest. The political stances he took would vary with a view to eliminating his political opponents, whether they be Leftist or Rightist deviations.

Suicide of his wife, Natalya, sixteen years his junior in 1932, has been mentioned by more than one author as a turning point in Stalin’s life. A fellow student had told her of the famine in the countryside due to the forced collectivization. Its likely she questioned Stalin over it. Of course this was not the only factor and probably not the most important; she had unstable characteristics it is said. Nonetheless, her classmates paid for their information with their lives.

Stalin at this point had established dominance but not dictatorial position. He continued to meet with the leaders of Communist Party in the Politburo. Natalya’s suicide was viewed as a complete betrayal by Stalin. He had not yet begun the “physical destruction” of his enemies. There was an unwritten understanding that the execution of fellow Bolsheviks was out of bounds. Shortly this little guideline would be violated with the coming purges.

The ruling Bolshevik elite at the time was convivial, lived close to each other; vacationed together in the Black sea resorts for 2 or 3 months at a time. They were a Bolshevik clan, centered around Stalin. This began to change with Natalya’s suicide.

What precipitated it was the aforementioned political turn. Essentially the revolution was to be built on the backs of the tradition bound, backward peasant. In 1927 grain harvest was short; the Bolsheviks were offering low prices to the peasant with a hope to use the cheap grain as one means of building a modern socialist society. Of course the Peasant responded poorly. The Bolshevik had in their own way a very moralistic view point, and punished human failings as with religious fervor. As can be seen in the reaction to refusal to give up grain, which was termed betrayal of the Communist revolution, not just the natural inclination of individuals to better themselves in the way that capitalist societies view these things.

The Bolshevik was hostile to the Russian peasant society, traditional and conservative and largely Orthodox Christian in belief, similar in disposition as other traditional societies we still see today in India and other third world countries and formerly in China and Tibet, resistant to change and education and tied to the past. Oddly, these traditional societies are much more remote to us than the modern one that Stalin directed to be created in Soviet Russia. And this may contribute in some way to Stalin’s popularity in current Russian society; a modern society looking back at its creator and destroyer of the traditional and seemingly very remote peasant Russia society of pre-Communism. In a recent poll more than half teenagers consider him more a good than an evil to Russia.

The Orthodox Church, so much a part of peasant life, had to be destroyed with its thousands of monasteries and churches to propel Russia into modern socialist state. Even in pre-revolution Russia, the urban centers with its urban elites had little interest in the Church and its archaic beliefs. This “Westernization” began with Peter the Great in the early 18th Century and was carried on by the Westward leaning aristocracy until the Revolution swept them away.

One example of a work of art created for this ruling elite in the late 19th Russia can be made to illustrate this. Present-day audiences continue to appreciate the beloved Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; it’s very close to modern sensibilities and can easily be appreciated today. This was composed specifically for the ruling aristocracy and wouldn’t have been even recognizable to the Orthodox peasant as a proper Christmas celebration. On the other hand the old peasant society is nowhere to be found; it’s back broken in Stalin’s modernism.

Shortfalls in grain also threatened hunger in the cities, the Bolshevik power base. A forced collectivization began in 1928 and the Kulak (once again Stalin, with his punitive streak, locates the culprits) in the “rich” peasant with maybe a cow or horse is singled out. The Chekists (state police) carried out a forced confiscation of grain. The peasant was forced to give all their property to the collective. Some were shot immediately, some sent off to camps in the far north and some exiled to Siberia with virtually no means of sustaining oneself. Countless thousands, hundred of thousands even millions it is said died in this collectivization. The figures are in some dispute since who was counting? Certainly not the Soviet regime. Stalin broke the back of the peasant, knowing how resistant to change they would be, and transformed Russia forever. Surplus labor and grain also found its way to the cities to work in the new industrial facilities.

The ridiculous goals of the 5 year plan to industrialize Russia beginning 1928 onward were fraught with mistakes and accidents on a massive scale. In Stalinist Russia the search was on for those responsible, Trotskyites, the Trotskyite Centre and Capitalist wreckers. One author saw this a part of Stalin’s religious training seeing people as sinners needful of punishment and Stalin who had an extremely punitive disposition exercised on political allies and family members, even wives of Politburo members (Molotov for example). And this could be attributed even more easily to his harsh upbringing from an alcoholic father. Others see import in a Georgian historic legacy in the connection with the harshness exhibited by Georgian tyrants attempting to maintain independence fighting the Russian, Persian and Turkish yoke.

Large numbers of the party faithful in the 1934 Communist Party Congress voted for an alternate candidate, Sergei Kirov. Kirov was suspiciously assassinated later that year in Leningrad. Stalin attributed vast counter-revolutionary plots for the assassination. The purge saw the execution of countless thousands from the Communist Party and likely a million overall. Also something like 3/4th of the officer corps was purged as well, under Stalin’s paranoia.

Written confessions of conspiracy, which seem preposterous today, played an important part in convincing the doubtful especially other party leaders of the guilt of those otherwise seemingly loyal party cadres and thus providing support for the purges, despite the fact that these outlandish charges originated from otherwise stalwart Communists; they were deemed proof of betrayal and persuaded the otherwise doubtful to accept outlandish accusations and drastic measures against putative members of Trotskyite centers or foreign influence. This was dovetailed with the Stalin’s canard that the closer they got to ideal socialism the more desperate the forces of opposition would become and more draconian the measures against them would be justified. We must remind ourselves Russia was invaded in the Civil War of 1919-1922 by Western European powers, to little avail mind you. This invasion would have been used as proof the Soviet Regime was under attack.
Stalin refused to see Hitler’s warlike intent prior to Germany’s massive invasion in June 1941. Communist and Anti-Fascist Russia made a pact with Nazi Germany, virulently anti-Communist in September 1939, much to everyone’s shock. Stalin neither trusted Western Democracies nor saw them as reliable allies, seeing how they folded in the face of Germany’s demands upon Czechoslovakia in 1938. Germany was allowed to overrun, under a peace agreement with Britain, the Sudetenland, the predominantly German portion of the country.

Another stumbling block was that Stalin, in talks to reach a mutual defense accord with Western Democracies, insisted on freedom of action against Baltic countries and Finland. I suppose Stalin was thinking of terms of the same forbearance granted Germany in swallowing up Austria and Czechoslovakia, a kind of quid pro quo. Western democracies wouldn’t accept those terms. Nazi Germany didn’t have those scruples. I think Stalin was buying time and guessing Germany and France fight long prolonged war, much like the conflict in World War I. I suspect no one was more surprised than Stalin, when the Wehrmacht, sliced through France like butter in May of 1940.