A chilling, riveting account based on newly released Russian documentation that reveals Joseph Stalin’s true motives—and the extent of his enduring commitment to expanding the Soviet empire—during the years in which he seemingly collaborated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the capitalist West.
At the Big Three conferences of World War II, Stalin persuasively played the role of a great world leader. Even astute observers like George F. Kennan concluded that the United States and Great Britain should view Stalin as a modern-day tsarist-like figure whose primary concerns lay in international strategy and power politics, not in ideology. Now Robert Gellately uses recently uncovered documents to make clear that, in fact, the dictator was an unwavering revolutionary merely biding his time, determined as ever to establish Communist regimes across Europe and beyond, and that his actions during these years (and the poorly calculated Western responses) set in motion what would eventually become the Cold War. Gellately takes us behind the scenes. We see the dictator disguising his political ambitions and prioritizing the future of Communism, even as he pursued the war against Hitler. Along the way, the ascetic dictator’s Machiavellian moves and bouts of irrationality kept the Western leaders on their toes, in a world that became more dangerous and divided year by year.
Exciting, deeply engaging, and shrewdly perceptive, Stalin’s Curse is an unprecedented revelation of the sinister machinations of the Soviet dictator.
Chapter 1: Making the Stalinist Revolution
Stalin was not the heir apparent when Lenin died in 1924. But within five years if not before, he was virtually the undisputed leader. A decade later he was the all-powerful dictator and creature of the Stalinist revolution, an extraordinary experiment in socialism. In his own lifetime he became a godlike figure, one to whom even the proudest comrade, wrongfully indicted by the Stalinist system, could willingly offer himself up for the cause. How was this possible? Here we will begin to put the pieces together and try to understand the emergence of Stalin, who became the Leader, Boss, or Master of the Kremlin.
Impatient for Communism:
Lenin’s leadership was marked by bouts of illness, overwork, and strain, and from mid-1921 his health rapidly deteriorated, with a series of strokes beginning the following year. The question of who would take his place was uppermost in everyone’s mind. Lenin was not exactly helpful in his political “testament”—two short notes he dictated to his secretary in December 1922. In those last words to his comrades, he worried about a “split” in the party and had negative things to say about all the leadership contenders. In a postscript dictated just over a week later (January 4, 1923), he said that Stalin was “too rude” and expressed the view that someone else might make a better general secretary.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that Lenin wanted to exclude a bad choice for party leader and that, had he managed to get rid of Stalin, the Soviet Union would have been saved from a monster. In fact, until nearly the end, he trusted Stalin more than anyone and never mentioned removing him from the powerful Politburo or Central Committee. Stalin’s “offense” was to slight Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, for not following doctors’ orders to stop her sick husband from dictating work.
In the course of Lenin’s illness, Stalin and his two weaker partners, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, formed an informal alliance (troika) in the Politburo. It was in place when Lenin died on January 24, 1924, and soon made its presence felt. In this alliance, Stalin’s “ruling style,” insofar as he had one, was collegial. By no means did he have everything his own way.
Arguably, the most powerful man in the country on Lenin’s death was Leon Trotsky, the famed people’s commissar for military affairs. However, Trotsky made careless mistakes, such as convalescing in the south and thus missing the great man’s funeral. It did not matter that Stalin had misled him about the date of that event. Moreover, in early 1924 the ruling troika leaked old documents showing that back in 1913 Trotsky had said horrible things about Lenin. Nor did Trotsky help himself when he said that the country would not accept him as leader because of his “Jewish origins.”
Next in line were Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were also Jewish. Their major failing was opposition to Lenin’s decision to go for power in October 1917. Then there was the younger and dazzling Nikolai Bukharin, who, Lenin had thought, might not be “Marxist enough.”
Although Stalin’s record was mixed, his policies, which had once distanced him from many party members, were now beginning to make sense to them. He had stood almost alone in opposition to Trotsky’s goal of speeding up the spread of Communist revolution. Then several such plans to foment revolution in Germany went badly wrong, and Stalin’s criticism of the strategy gained traction. In the aftermath of the failed 1923 effort in Germany, the Soviet party generally moved to his side.
Along with troika partners Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin acted through the Central Committee to put mild pressure on Trotsky, who resigned early in the new year as people’s commissar for military affairs. Trotsky said that he had tired of the insinuations, though by quitting he left the field to his enemies. When in due course Zinoviev and Kamenev began challenging Stalin’s apparent readiness to abandon the long-standing commitment to revolution in Europe, the future dictator switched alliances and linked up with Bukharin (then only thirty-three), and the new duo soon emerged in control of the Politburo.
The two friends differed on some important issues. Bukharin embraced the economic theory and political philosophy of the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced by Lenin back in 1921, when agricultural production was down to 60 percent of its pre-1914 levels. The NEP indicated that the Communists had to “retreat” because the country was in turmoil and desperation. It introduced a proportional tax on peasants, who were then allowed to sell privately any surplus that remained. This sliver of freedom gave agricultural production a boost, and by 1926 under the NEP the reforms were working. But the economy soon entered “a real, systemic crisis” because of the demands made on it. Stalin came out strongly against the NEP, and in what would amount to a second Russian revolution, he advocated a planned economy based on the collectivization and modernization of agriculture. The promise was that this approach would feed the country better and also, through a “regime of the strictest economy,” allow for the accumulation of surplus funds to finance industry. Ultimately, these five-year plans strove to convert the Soviet Union into an industrial and military giant.
Thus, Stalin and his supporters opted to restart the revolution that Lenin had postponed, but it took time to decide on the exact course. In his speeches and articles during 1925, Stalin began to identify himself with the “unorthodox” Marxist view that “socialism in one country” was possible. As usual when he innovated, he invoked Lenin’s name and liberally quoted him.
At the Fourteenth Party Congress (December 1925), Stalin was solemn while giving the conclusion to his political report. Workers in capitalist countries, upon seeing the Soviet successes, he said, would gain “confidence in their own strength,” and the rise in worker consciousness would be the beginning of the end of capitalism. In this scenario, as the Soviets created socialism at home, far from giving up on the international proletarian revolution, they were providing a model to inspire the workers of the world. His words were followed by thunderous applause.
However, by 1927 food shortages and high unemployment demanded action. In January of the next year Stalin, Bukharin, and others in the Politburo decided on “emergency measures,” a euphemism for expropriation campaigns in the countryside. Stalin directed top officials, including Anastas Mikoyan, Lazar Kaganovich, and Andrei Zhdanov—all of them his firm backers—to designated parts of the country. He went off by train to the Urals and Siberia, where agricultural deliveries to the state were down, even though the harvest was good. He learned that the peasants preferred selling to private traders, who paid more. At each stop he browbeat officials into using Article 107 of the criminal code (on withholding grain) to prosecute these kulaks (the more affluent peasants) and other “speculators.”
When Stalin returned to Moscow, Bukharin questioned these brutal “excesses.” However, for Stalin the trip east deepened his determination to solve the agricultural problem; it convinced him more than ever that peasant cultivation of small plots had to end and that collectivization was the ultimate solution. In all his years as leader, this was his only visit to the collective farms. Mostly he knew them only as abstractions, like chess pieces to be moved around.
Scarcity of food worsened in 1928 and into 1929, the result of poor harvests in some places, though the main reason was that the state offered too little in payment for grain. However, anyone who suggested giving the peasants more for their crops, as did Bukharin, was attacked as a “right deviationist,” because they appeared to be leaning toward a market economy. Stalin berated Bukharin for saying the kulaks would “grow into socialism” and instead affirmed that the accumulated wealth generated by peasants on collective farms would be taken as “tribute.” It would finance the industrial development of the country and the five-year plans. And it did not matter in the slightest that shortly before, he had scorned precisely such an approach as exploiting the peasants.
In April 1929, addressing the Central Committee, Stalin reiterated that the main idea of the first five-year -plan—already being implemented—was not merely to increase production but “to guarantee the socialist sector of the economy.” Now he ridiculed Bukharin’s suggestion to incentivize peasants with higher prices so that they would deliver more to the state. That heresy, he believed, would raise the cost of bread in the cities; worse, it would strengthen “capitalist elements” in the countryside.
According to Stalin’s theory, these “last elements” were the problem, and he postulated that as socialism grew stronger, better-off peasants like the kulaks would struggle harder than ever because no dying class in history ever gave up without a final desperate fight. Bukharin thought it “strange” to point to an “inevitable law” that the more the Soviet Union advanced toward socialism, the more class warfare would intensify. Then, “at the gates of socialism, we either have to start a civil war or waste away from hunger and drop dead.”
Nevertheless, Stalin’s arguments prevailed, and the first five-year plan was adopted at the Sixteenth Party Conference, which began on April 23, 1929. The plan called for nothing less than a second Russian revolution, encapsulated by the collectivization of agriculture, industrialization, and the transformation of culture. It set astronomical quotas, targeting agriculture to grow by 55 percent and industry by 136 percent.
Obtaining these results and getting what was needed from the countryside was a massive and complex undertaking involving state agencies, the directors of factories and collective farms, workers, and peasants. Stalin expected that some or all of them would try to get around the system, and his inclination was to use force as needed. Part of the revolution, therefore, would involve extending state control—which fell off dramatically outside the bigger cities.
On the twelfth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1929—celebrated, as customary, on November 7—Stalin published a key article on the “year of the great turn” (perelom). Today historians call this the beginning of Stalin’s revolution from above. In typically militarized language, he reminded everyone that Lenin had regarded the NEP as only a tactical “retreat,” after which there would be a run‑up and then “a great leap forward.” The party had already launched “a successful offensive against the capitalist elements,” the early results showed; “we are advancing rapidly along the path of -industrialization—to socialism, leaving behind the age-old ‘Russian’ backwardness.” Notwithstanding this official optimism, out in the countryside the peasantry was resisting the imposition of a system worse than they had known under the tsars. In 1929 the government had to resort to mass arrests, and the next year there were “disturbances” involving up to 2.4 million people. Police and brigades from the city clashed with peasants unwilling to surrender their harvests.
Moscow insisted that the resistance was led by kulaks, particularly in Ukraine, where nationalist sentiment was strong. In a speech to Marxist students on December 27, Stalin announced the ominous-sounding policy of “eliminating the kulaks as a class.” “To launch an offensive against the kulaks,” he said, was to prepare and then “to strike so hard as to prevent them from again rising to their feet. That is what we Bolsheviks call a real offensive.”
At Stalin’s urging, on January 30 in the new year, a commission led by longtime henchman Vyacheslav Molotov produced a far-reaching decree. It divided the kulaks into three categories, with appropriate punishments. The “first category” included any family of the top 3 to 5 percent of the peasants in each district. An astonishing initial execution target was 60,000 heads of these families. Quotas were also set for “category two” and “category three” kulaks, with instructions about how their land was to be taken and where they were to be sent. The strategy was like a military operation. In fact, that was how chief of the secret police (OGPU) Genrikh G. Yagoda spoke of it to his paladins. He worried only about “avoiding losses” of his men.
In some places no one was well off enough to be labeled a kulak. Villagers met to decide who would be sacrificed or drew lots. Some avaricious neighbors denounced as “kulaks” people whose goods, lands, or women they coveted.
Families branded as kulaks lost everything and were deported to “special settlements” (spetsposelenie). Trains rumbled eastward for weeks and often dumped their cargo in completely uninhabitable places, resulting in starvation, disease, even cannibalism. In 1930 and 1931, no less than 381,026 families, or 1.8 million people, were forced out. It is difficult to be certain about the death toll, though estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. And the process continued into the next year.
Excerpted from Stalin's Curse by Robert Gellately. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Gellately. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Robert Gellately is the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University and recently was the Bertelsmann Visiting Professor of Twentieth-Century Jewish Politics and History at Oxford University. He is the author of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe; The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945; and Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.