One of the beautiful ironies of Russian history is the tendency of strong, autocratic leaders to surround themselves with strong, intelligent ministers. Behind every strongman or woman was a colourful supporting cast; even Putin has his fair share of deuteragonists. You might expect that stronger leaders have fewer high major players underneath them, but any such observation would fail to explain the motley crew that handled the day-to-day administration of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. Even a brutal tyrant who made a habit of killing or exiling anyone suspected of even a sliver of disloyalty had friends. (Well, “friends” is probably a little strong here…)
It turns out that running the Soviet Union took a lot of oversight. Governments compartmentalise naturally, but Communist states compound this by dividing administration of party and government into two separate yet mirror image hierarchies. The party half holds de facto power while the government merely acts with de jure authority. This naturally sets up a system that needs a lot of people to run, and the issue then becomes making sure that both halves of the state are staffed with loyal followers. Joseph Stalin, as the General Secretary of the early Soviet Union, was in a perfect position to stock positions with supporters. This is how he first achieved power in 1927 and then continued to gain power in the ensuing decades.
I guess it goes without saying that Stalin also had a lot of “enemies,” most of whom were imagined. Stalin directly clashed politically and ideologically with darling of the revolution and noted internationalist, Leon Trotsky. Otherwise, unfounded paranoia brought him into conflict with others, such as party theorist Nikolai Bukharin. Trotsky was sent into exile, where he continued to rival Stalin in leading the Communist movement until he was eventually assassinated in Mexico City by an ice pick. Bukharin met with an equally tragic end, being killed in the Great Purges of the late 1930s along with many other perceived enemies. Hell, even those who were pulling the triggers were not safe during the purge. The creepy Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the NKVD by Nikolai Yezhov, who took the Great Purge to new heights only to have his ruthless actions rewarded by being executed and replaced on false charges like so many of his victims.
In this brutal atmosphere, only the toughest, or the most sycophantic, could survive. By 1940 Stalin had a nucleus of favorites. I suppose first we should mention Yezhov’s successor. The position went to Lavrentiy Beria, who shared Stalin’s Georgian heritage. Beria was ruthlessly efficient as head of the NKVD, and after the Great Patriotic War he continued to be tremendously important to Stalin. A spymaster, Beria was critical to the subjugation of Eastern Europe and the nuclear program. He was also absolutely terrifying, what with amassing an army of highly loyal secret police and with having a penchant for abusing his authority to kidnap and rape young girls and women.
Beria was useful enough that Stalin kept him around, and following Stalin’s death in 1953 he became a prospective successor. However, he was scary enough that he did not last long after that. His comrades in the collective leadership scheme that replaced Stalin agreed that he was too dangerous to keep around, and Beria was executed with assistance from the military.
Beria wasn’t the only man close enough to Stalin to be in the running for the leadership: there were a number of other men close to the paramount summit. Andrei Zhdanov was a favorite of Stalin’s, and was considered by many to be his hand-picked successor. Zhdanov sought to purify Soviet culture of cosmopolitan influence, but his hard living and drinking brought about an early demise in 1948. Stalin used Zhdanov’s death to launch the Leningrad Purge, meanwhile other close associates found opportunity for advancement. Georgy Malenkov was a top contender. Intelligent, a ruthless supporter of Stalin, and quite round, Malenkov was a skilled operator in the Soviet bureaucracy, and once Zhdanov was out most people considered him the heir apparent of the U.S.S.R.
Was Malenkov really all that different though? He was a fervent Stalinist, even after 1953. Yet again, most people in Stalin’s inner circle were. They supported Stalin’s brutal approach to politics, and they were happy to actualize Stalin’s will. Vyacheslav Molotov was one of the most prominent offenders. With a warm smile and a huge forehead resting on his pince-nez glasses, Molotov seemed pretty jovial. In reality he was a shrewd and scheming expert on foreign affairs. He conducted policy exactly as Stalin wished, although perhaps with more deftness and charm. Like Beria, Molotov was useful, having worked tirelessly to engineer the titular Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then, 6 years later, the post-War peace. Molotov fell out of favor in the post-war years, but he remained firmly pro-Stalin, even after his beloved wife was held prisoner for her Jewish heritage.
There were no shortage of Stalinists. Of special note is Lazar Kaganovich. Aside from having a great first-name and a vaguely Stalinesque appearance, Kaganovich was virtually Stalin in miniature. Yet again, everyone was Stalin. Everyone was covered in blood to a certain extent. It was impossible to oppose the brutal, bloody excesses of the Holodomor and the Purge and stay alive. At times Stalin’s inner circle was directly guilty of bloodshed. At times they were merely complicit.
Still, some of Stalin’s associates apparently had some moral misgivings about Stalin. Of course they weren’t able to voice these until after 1953, but still there were glimmers of hope. The main man we talk about here is, of course, Nikita Khrushchev, who would come to become the absolute leader of the Soviet Union once the dust settled after Stalin’s burial and the subsequent in-fighting. Bouncy, fat, fun, and poorly educated, the miner’s son Khrushchev turned out to have a knack for leadership. If his memoirs are to be believed, Khrushchev was willing to challenge Stalin and his peers in the name of common sense. Undoubtedly there is some embellishment here, but you can’t deny that Khrushchev was devastatingly savvy. He was tremendously charming and, as he would show in the 1950s, a true master of rough-and-tumble politics. Despite being complicit in Stalin’s regime, especially in the oppression of Ukraine, Khrushchev would later immortalize himself by thawing the Soviet Union, introducing a program of de-Stalinization.
Certain members of Stalin’s circle would come, in time, to be members of Khrushchev’s circle, usually as long as they approved of de-Stalinization. Among them was my personal favorite of Stalin’s clique, Anastas Mikoyan. Armenian, Mikoyan was a bit of a black sheep, and yet he was enormously successful in fulfilling a variety of odd jobs. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen discusses how Mikoyan was also something of a chief gourmet, overseeing nutrition, dietary guidelines, and the publication of cook books. Mikoyan had blood on his hands, no doubt about it, but his backing of Khrushchev and overall versatility ensured that he would stay around.
Stalin didn’t just surround himself with government and party officials, but also with artists and scientists who he became a patron of. Maxim Gorky helped to pioneer Socialist Realism, which essentially amounted to art directed at social purposes. In the fields of science Stalin found a useful associate in Trofim Lysenko, whose counter-current concepts regarding genetics and promises of solving the Soviet agriculture curse arrested scientific advancement in the Soviet Union for decades.
Say what you will about Stalin, but he had a fantastic capacity for selecting supporters and manipulating them. A madman was able to hold a nation hostage by instilling loyalty throughout both party and government. But Stalin wasn’t just some evil emperor sitting along in the Kremlin issuing out orders to peons (alright, he did this sometimes). Stalin also ruled from the dinner table. From 1946-53, Stalin increasingly spent time in his private dacha, hosting dinner parties into the wee hours of the morning. It is here that he organized politics while keeping an eye on his “trusted” comrades. He usually used excessive amounts of vodka to make them pliable so that he could observe them. It was during these parties when decisions as to how to run the U.S.S.R. were made. Stalin was undoubtedly plotting his next murders while watching the latest American Westerns, feasting on shashlik, and sampling his favorite Georgian wines.
I think it is important to break down the image of Stalin as cold, aloof tyrant. He certainly was distant, brutal, and despotic but his methods were diverse and varied. He could coldly stack Party committees and replace loyal supporters, but he could also mingle and manipulate people. Stalin could make friendships serve his interests and further his goals of centralising the U.S.S.R. Even Churchill and Roosevelt noticed Stalin’s personal magnetism and ability to manipulate emotions and people, and stock footage of Stalin at the Big Three Conferences and beyond show a smiling, jovial manipulator.
So that explains this great irony of Soviet history. How exactly was a totalitarian tyrant able to co-exist with so many strong personalities? It wasn’t just because they were useful, but it was because Stalin needed all these people. The key to his leadership style wasn’t that he was a strong man who could bury opponents and suppress individuals, but rather that he was able to find competent, staunch supporters and manipulate them. Stalin was an expert at human resources. Furthermore, he was an expert at making everyone complicit in his crimes (a must for any leader of Russia). Perhaps you should remember that the next time you deal with your local HR department at work. Or perhaps you should make an effort to learn some of the unconventional names and look into some individual policies that define the support actors of Russian history.