The true picture of Stalin?

In 1947, even as mutual suspicions were rising, Churchill wrote to Stalin: ‘your life is not only precious to your country, which you saved, but to the friendship between Soviet Russia and the English-speaking world’. There is a significant development in reassessing the Second World War, in which Stalin played the pivotal role. Geoffrey Robert’s Stalin’s Wars is a case in point. And it is being undertaken by historians who are by no means Marxists or Cold War warriors (plenty of those still around – you need only look at Germany). Roberts concludes that the contemporary assessment of Stalin is far closer to the truth than what followed. Not only did Stalin defeat Hitler and ‘save the world for democracy’, but also:

To make so many mistakes and to rise from the depths of such defeat to go on to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare (p. 374).



Stalin’s economics: the secret to Soviet success in World War II?

What was the deep source of Soviet success during the Second World War? A number of obvious factors played a role, such as Stalin’s leadership, excellent generals, German mistakes, tough discipline, good morale, and deal of luck. But underlying it all, as Geoffrey Roberts points out, was ‘a tremendous economic and organisational achievement’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 163).

To set the scene: by the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the Germans occupied more than half of European Russia, about two million square kilometres. It was an area containing 40 per cent of the USSR’s population, about 80 million people. The occupied area covered 50 per cent of the USSR’s cultivated land, the production of 70 per cent of its pig iron, 60 per cent of its coal and steel and 40 per cent of its electricity. Still, by the end of 1942, the production of rifles had increased fourfold (to 6 million) compared to the previous year. Tank and artillery production increased fivefold to 24,500 and 287,000 per annum. The number of aeroplanes produced more than doubled from 8,200 to 21,700.

How was this possible? Roberts writes that it was due to the mass relocation of Soviet industry to the eastern USSR and out of harm’s way in 1941-2. One of Stalin’s first instructions after Hitler invaded was the establishment of an evacuation committee that arranged the move of more than 1,500 large industries to the east. With them went hundreds of thousands of workers and thereby the single most significant wave of resettlement in Siberia. It is not for nothing that you find cities in Siberia of more than a million people. On top of this, 3,500 new industries were established, most of them related to wartime production. It is no wonder that by the time of the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to field 90 fresh divisions, fully equipped with new weapons. Or indeed that after losing almost 5 million soldiers in the first months of Hitler’s invasion, they were able to field 11 million the following year. One million of those were women.

Initially, Roberts is in two minds on this achievement. He tends to sit on the fence, relating debates about wartime ‘free enterprise’ versus the planned economy. He mentions western aid (much emphasised in European and American accounts), but points out that it amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the total economy and that it came largely after the dire threat of 1941-2 and after victory at Stalingrad. In the end he comes down on the side of the planned economy. Stalin emphasised the need to keep the armies properly supplied, but otherwise he left the job to his economic managers. And they could do so only by means of ‘the mobilisation power of the Soviet economy’ (p. 163).

But what was that economy? Given the energetic collectivisation of farming in the late 1920s and 1930s and the Five Year Plans of industrialisation and economic transformation, the result was as full a communist economic system as one is likely to find. Does this mean that only a planned, communist economic system could have pulled it off? It seems so.

Stalin and his generals

What was the relationship between Stalin and his generals during the Second World War? Apocryphal stories have it that when Hitler invaded to devastating initial effect in 1941, Stalin retreated in a depressed funk to his dacha and was eventually persuaded to return to active leadership by a council of generals and commissars. Or some of the generals themselves in their self-serving memoirs argued that when Stalin began listening to their advice, the Red Army began to win battles. The truth is, as Geoffrey Roberts points out (Stalin’s Wars, pp. 159-62), that Stalin always listened to and took the advice of his high command. After the stunning victory at Stalingrad in 1942 (the year the Germans had 1.5 million casualties), the fact is that Stalin listened more, the advice got better and he got better at taking it. They were all on a steep learning curve from day one of the war, but to their credit they learnt and learnt well from early defeats. They became better commanders and he became a better supreme commander. The result was an open and creative relationship, in which the leadership was clearly with Stalin but the generals had free reign to express their opinions.

A number of other factors played a role as well.

Loyalty: A crucial feature of the generals and indeed Stalin’s closest political associates was loyalty to communist project. That this included loyalty to the USSR and to Stalin held them together even more closely. Or rather, the question of disloyalty was never an issue. It was simply assumed that they would stick together through thick and thin.

Charm: The usual picture of Stalin is that he commanded such loyalty through fear and terror. At any moment, a loyal, abject and trembling follower would find himself in prison or before the firing squad. This is far from the truth, for Stalin was an absolute charmer. He charmed Roosevelt and Churchill, thoroughly enjoying a party, full of wit and humour. He charmed women to no end. And he charmed his generals, paying careful attention to their personal needs and those of their families. For example, Rokossovskii praised Stalin’s leadership qualities: ‘the concern displayed by the supreme commander was invaluable. The kind, fatherly intonations were encouraging and raised one’s self-confidence’. And in his memoirs Vasilevskii tells of an incident at a grave time during the battle of Moscow. Stalin wanted to promote him to general, but Vasilevskii declined, suggesting instead that some of his assistants should be promoted. Stalin agreed and promoted the lot of them, along with Vasilevskii. ‘This attention to us touched us deeply’.

Continuity: again this one goes against popular perceptions of Stalin purging anyone whom he vaguely suspected of threatening his power. To be sure, the Red Army was cleaned up during the uninspiring Finnish War of the late 1930s, and in 1941 Pavlov and some of the commanders on the Western Front found themselves out of a job after abysmal failures and questionable loyalty to the communist project. But what is remarkable is how stable the command was – as also Stalin’s inner political circle (Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Beria, Zhdanov, Malenkov, Mikoyan and Krushchev). As David Glantz points out, ‘most of the marshals and generals who led the Red Army to victory in May 1945 were already serving as generals and colonels in responsible command positions when the war began on 22 June 1941’ (Colossus Reborn, pp. 534-5). This continuity was especially noticeable among front commanders, in the infantry, tank and mechanised forces, in the artillery and air force. This means that Stalin generally did not scapegoat commanders for failure, allowing plenty of room for learning from their mistakes – as he did.

Talent: the key was to foster talent rather than yes-men. Even during the great losses of 1941-2, Stalin and inner circle constantly sought to identify those with creative flair and ensured they rose in the ranks. His personal emphasis on learning from experience, on experimentation and adaptation to changing circumstances, was a quality he valued in his high command. The experiences and lessons of combat and command were collated, assessed and used as the basis for review and reform – a constant process. In short, he fostered a culture of innovation and dynamism, so that by the last year of the war the Red Army was known as the most efficient and effective army in the world.

Zhukov and Rokossovkii



Stalin charming Churchill


In defence of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili?

Those of you who know me may recall an occasional comment, ‘Stalin’s day will come’, said half in jest. To be sure, Stalin has not had a good time in the minds of those who write the history books. Madman, butcher, paranoid dictator, responsible for countless deaths, proponent of the personality cult (his own), the only realistic contender with Hitler for the most evil man of the twentieth century. The right puts him forward as the logical outcome of communism; the left shies away, arguing he was an anomaly. So what is there to defend?

Let me be clear, Stalin made plenty of mistakes, from Lysenko to the Moscow trials, but was also responsible for at least two significant achievements – apart from studying theology (he was unable to sit his final exams since his parents couldn’t pay the fees).

The first was the collectivisation drive in the early 1930s. Collectivisation? Yes, since it was unfinished business from the revolution.

For the sake of the ‘civil’ war and the need to get the Soviet economy kicking, as well as come up with the bare modicum of grain needed to ward off the worst of the famines produced by the ‘civil’ war, Lenin relinquished his desire for collectivisation. So, when the NEP was winding down in the late 20s, Stalin issued an order in 1927 that collectivisation was to restart. Why? Grain production was falling short by about 20 million tons, needed to feed Russia itself, largely due to old peasant methods of agriculture that were becoming increasingly inefficient. However, the order was ignored and the shortages got worse, kulaks (rich peasants) began stockpiling grain and pushing up the prices, so the next year Stalin announced collectivisation would be enforced. In response, the peasants burned crops and barns and killed their animals. Stalin followed Lenin’s path for a short while, allowing small-hold production to continue. But in 1932 he lost patience and ordered full enforcement. By the end of the year, 67% of farms were collectivised, but peasants continued to burn crops and stockpile. Famine got worse in 1932-3, so now Stalin really got the shits: he rounded up the kulaks and used that tried and true Russian method of more than two centuries – he sent them off to populate (and perish in) Siberia. Meanwhile, by 1939, 99% of Russian farms were collectivised, modernised and were using machinery.

So was it a failure? Let’s look at the following statistics:

In 1928, 73 million tons of grain were produced.

In 1933, at the height of the struggle, 69 million tons  were grown.

However, by 1937, the yield was 97 million tons.

In other words, on the eve of the Second World War, production had increased by more than 24 million tons, or by about 33%. It needed a man with a bite as strong as his bark to get it done. Along with the massive reorganisation of industrial production, this put the USSR in a very strong position to resist Hitler’s attack in 1941.

Before I get to that, however, let us look at the political situation. By the late twenties, Stalin was still following Bolshevik policy outlined by Lenin: avoid violence and allowing the peasants to keep small-hold farms and use old methods. In opposition were Trotsky and Zinoviev, who urged collectivisation. But now Stalin outfoxed the left opposition, taking over their policy with gusto. They were left with no room to move, and many Trots ended up getting behind Stalin on this one.

What about the war? I have already posted on this, but now a few more details. We can thank the man with the fried egg on his forehead, Gorbachev, for this one, since he opened the archives to foreign historians. Since then, they have been rewriting the history of World War II, since the Soviets kept far better records than anyone. Up until then, three factors had influenced the understanding of the war. First, Churchill in his ‘history’ had played down the Soviet involvement, arguing that the war was won on the western front (Churchill appropriately won the Nobel Prize for ‘literature’ – it was largely a fabrication). Second, western historians relied on what the German generals told them. Good move that one, since we got fables about the Russian rabble, unarmed soldiers, machine-gun fodder and so on. And they stressed Hitler’s mismanagement, the size of the Red Army, and that their supply-lines were too long. Incidentally, the USA employed former Wehrmacht officers to provide them with information on the new Cold War enemy. One of them, Franz Halder, was Hitler’s chief of the Army General Staff from 1938 to 1942 and was complicit in the effort to wipe out Jews, gypsies, gays and communists. After the war, he was head of the project on the USSR in the US Army’s Historical Division. And for his wonderful contribution, John F. Kennedy gave him the Meritorious Civilian Service. Third, Krushchev is at fault here as well, since in his famous speech in 1956 he blamed Stalin for everything, with the result that Soviet historians came up with their own version of the war: despite Stalin’s idiocy, the good, solid Russian people won the war on their own.

All of that is now so much rubbish. While the Left has been focusing on politics and avoiding Stalin, the war historians have been providing a completely different picture of Stalin during the war. David Glantz, Mark Harrison, Nikolai Litvin, Anthony Beavor, Catherine Merridale, Rodric Braithwaite, Omer Bartov, Wolfram Wette (who has showed that German officers in general and not merely the SS freely engaged in murder and genocide), Christopher Browning, Saul Friedländer, Richard Overy, Evan Mawdsley, Geoffrey Roberts and Norman Davies – all have been using the wealth of material now available.

The result: it was Stalin’s war and he won it. Over 400 divisions battled on a 1600 km front for four years, compared to 15 each for the Germans and allies on the western front at its most intense. 88% of German military dead fell on the eastern front, and the battle that broke the Wehrmacht was Kursk, in July and August of 1943. Here the Russians showed everyone how to beat a blitzkrieg – with a meticulously planned, flexible and in-depth defence. By comparison, the British, American, Australian, Canadian etc contribution on the western front was a sideshow.

However, Stalin didn’t start off well, trying to run the whole show himself, misjudging German attacks in 1941 and 1942, and launching ineffective counter-attacks. Then he sat back, puffed through a few pipes full and had a good think. The result was a transformed man: he called on his most creative generals, engaged in extraordinary efforts to rally the people, and became adept at high diplomacy. For example, at the end of the war at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February, 1945), he had obtained information that the good Winston Churchill didn’t mind and tipple or three. So Churchill was plied with grog, got plastered, and Stalin got a very good deal indeed.

Meanwhile, back in 1942, a well-organised, equipped, supplied and trained Red Army began winning battles, from Stalingrad onwards. They waged increasingly sophisticated ‘deep operations’, namely, rapid, multiply-arms advances that pushed deep into the Wehrmacht’s rear, inflicting creative and utterly debastating defeats, much greater than any army in the war. And the responsibility for these stunning succcesses was Stalin’s. He fostered and was part of a dynamic, flexible and innovative team, discussing, debating and planning each move. So much so that historians now use phrases such as ‘awesome military achievement’ and ‘greatest military victory in history’.