Studying Stalin: New research looks at his inner circle

Do dictators have any real friends? One of my history dissertation students at Kingston last year became very interested in the ‘inner circle’ around the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, and the extent to which any of the top officials around him became really close to the Nazi leader at a personal level, perhaps becoming a genuine friend in the process.

Many of us are now familiar with the home movies shot by Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, where the main Nazi power-brokers were seen relaxing informally on the terrace at the Fuhrer’s mountain-top retreat. But whether any of those leading Nazis were genuine ‘friends’ of Hitler is an interesting question. My student concluded that Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect and – later – his wartime armaments Minister, was probably the man who came closest to this role, and was a figure who the Fuhrer (whatever Speer’s own feelings about this) came to regard as an intimate friend. They certainly spent many private hours together, often discussing Speer’s designs for the proposed new ‘Germania,’ creating some jealousy of Speer on the part of the other key Nazis.

I was reminded of this when reading the fascinating new study of another major dictator, Joseph Stalin, by the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick: On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics, which was published last month in the UK by Princeton University Press. It has been strongly praised by critics, and rightly so.

On-Stalins-Team-PUPAlthough there have now been numerous studies on Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian regime in Soviet Russia, this well-written new book still manages to throw fresh light on the communist dictator, using an impressive range of archival sources and a real mastery of the extensive secondary literature. Fitzpatrick is able to do this by looking at the question of ‘friendship’ in politics and history, and how close personal relationships and informal bonds can sometimes shape policy actions.

Many previous historians have pointed to the role played by ‘personal’ relationships and social networks at the Kremlin during the Stalinist period, such as the selective patronage used by the Soviet leader, and also Stalin’s notably ruthless encouragement of the temporary alliances that were formed between ambitious Party officials. But Fitzpatrick goes much further and zooms in on the more authentic and genuine forms of friendship that possibly shaped the private behaviour of Stalin and those who formed his inner ‘team’. In the process, she challenges the usual image we have of Stalin as a kind of very lonely and single-minded Red Czar, surrounded by a bunch of mere ‘yes’ men.

Sheila FitzpatrickAccording to Fitzpatrick (pictured), Stalin often worked closely with his core ‘team’ of advisors and intimates. Not only did this ‘team’ work with him politically, but they also became his elite ‘social’ circle, and – in some cases – they came close to being what can only be described as personal ‘friends’. At any one time Stalin’s ‘core team’ was made up of about four to ten people; the actual make-up of the group inevitably changed over the years through purges, illness or natural death. But its membership was surprisingly steady.

In fact, astonishingly, some high Party officials, such as Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, and Klim Voroshilov were able to remain very close to Stalin throughout his time in power (he died of a stroke in March, 1953, apparently after an evening of heavy drinking). A few others also managed to join the ‘team’ for shorter periods, such as Sergei Kirov, Lavrenty Beria, Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev.

Fitzpatrick also notes that most of these men were veterans of the 1917 communist revolution and the brutal civil war that followed, and – leaving aside their political beliefs for a moment – they all tended to share a common set of attitudes towards life generally. In fact, in Fitzpatrick’s estimation, the civil war of 1918-21 was a key formative experience for these men and, for years afterwards, helped create a kind of macho ‘fellowship’ of close male friends around Stalin, a group who drank and smoked together alongside their boss, shared the same crude sense of humour as Stalin, and often wore an odd civilian version of military uniform whenever they appeared in public with the Russian dictator. Significantly, a number of them also came from Georgia, where Stalin was born.

Stalin and teamStalin regularly socialised with this small ‘inner circle’, either at the Kremlin, in his countryside dacha, or at the family homes of members of the ‘team’, and sometimes the wives and children became involved in this intimate social circle. At one point, Fitzpatrick notes a comment by the wife of Klim Voroshilov, who apparently commented years later, ‘What wonderful times those were! What simple, genuinely good, comradely relations’.

Moreover, Fitzpatrick provocatively argues that the Soviet dictator would sometimes even back off from a particular policy if he sensed that a member of his core team somehow felt uneasy about what was being proposed. A combination of co-operation, give-and-take, and some quite strong bonds of friendship may have played a more significant role than we have recognised at the very heart of Stalin’s decision-making.

On the other hand, of course – especially in the later years of his dictatorial rule – Stalin’s moods became more unpredictable and his informal ‘team mindedness’ went into serious decline. His close friends grew increasingly wary and fearful of Stalin’s private behaviour.

There are times when Fitzpatrick perhaps over-emphasizes the ‘team’ concept and loses sight of the central role of the ‘Man of Steel’, and I also think she underestimates the role of ideology, but her focus on the social aspects of Stalin’s time in office, and the rather hidden role of informal networks and friendships, is both thoughtful and grimly entertaining.

In addition, it may also help explain how this small and relatively stable team of friends were able to very quickly form a collective leadership after Stalin’s death.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

 

 

 

 

 

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