Orlando Figes. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991. A History. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2014.
Stephen Kotkin. Stalin. Volume 1. Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. Penguin, 2014.
Timothy Snyder. Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, 2010.
William Zimmerman. Ruling Russia. Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin. Princeton University Press, 2014.
The search for the truth in any field of study requires objectivity. Objectivity demands that the researcher distrust his own preconceived ideas and take concrete steps to prevent them from predetermining the conclusions of the research. Failure to do this will produce not history but a recapitulation of the historian’s biases. A second prerequisite is reliance on primary source evidence.
These well-known criteria of good historiography are routinely violated in the field of Soviet history. All of the books under consideration do so. The inevitable result is not good, objective historiography representing the best interpretation of the available primary source evidence, but “propaganda with footnotes.”
The issue is especially clear given the flood of new primary sources in the field of Stalin-period Soviet history. In January 1980 Trotsky’s personal papers, housed at Harvard, were opened for researchers. In Russia after 1991 an avalanche of documents from former Soviet archives have been published. These new resources thoroughly dismantle the post-Khrushchev, Trotskyist, and Cold War versions of the Stalin period. Consequently this new evidence is ignored by the books under review here, and by many other similar works.
Indeed, most of the newer studies of the Stalin period are really attacks on Stalin, the Soviet Union, and the communist movement generally. They are morality tales dressed up as scholarship. Most rely heavily on unexamined concepts such as “democracy,” “rule by terror,” and “dictatorship.” The contestations around these terms are not acknowledged. Rather, they cited as self-evidence qualities of Western capitalist countries or of the USSR during Stalin’s time.
William Zimmerman cites no primary research. His book relies entirely on works by others, some secondary sources (= studies of primary sources), many not. Zimmerman cites these indiscriminately. He has no source criticism – no attempt to assess which of his sources are reliable and which are not.
On page 114 Zimmerman states that Kleimenov, an accused prisoner, was “tortured severely,” citing an article by Asif Siddiqi. Siddiqi claims that Kleimenov was “beaten severely” and confessed to “trumped-up charges,” footnoting a Russian-language article by Anisimov and Oppokov.1 But that article states clearly: “It is not hard to presume the following version of events” – that Kleimenov and others “were subjected to physical and moral pressure.”2
That is, the Russian authors have committed the fallacy of “petitio principii,” “begging the question” (assuming that which ought to be proven). They assumed that Kleimenov was innocent, and so had to further assume that that his confession was obtained by “physical and moral pressure.” In reality, the guilt or innocence of the convicted prisoners and whether they had been subjected to “physical pressure” of any kind are precisely what must be proven, not assumed.
Another example: Zimmerman claims that Stalin “personally signed the death warrants of thousands.” (120) He gives no reference but can only mean the so-called “Stalin shooting lists” mentioned by Khrushchev and now available online. However, these lists are not “death warrants” – whatever that might be – but lists of names of persons facing trial for political crimes that were sent to the Party Secretariat “for review.” According to the lists’ anticommunist editors many of those whose names are on the lists were not in fact executed and some were freed:
For example, a selective study of the list for Kuibyshev oblast’ signed on September 29, 1938 has shown that not a single person on this list was convicted by the VK VS [Military Collegium of the Supreme Court], and a significant number of the cases were dismissed altogether.3
It was Zimmerman’s responsibility to check his sources such as Siddiqi and the “lists.” But he did not do so. His book is full of similar failings. The result is a work whose portrayal of Soviet history has no relation to reality.
Orlando Figes has constructed his book around his anticommunist and anti-Stalin bias that the Soviet period was one long disaster. Many of his fact-claims are not sourced, presumably because the evidence does not support Figes’ account.
Citing no evidence, Figes claims that 25,000 prisoners died constructing the Belomor Canal in 1931-32. The primary source 4 gives the fatalities as 3448 (1438 for 1931, 2010 for 1932), figures confirmed by Russian demographer V.M. Zemskov.5 This is less than 1/7 of Figes’ number.
Figes assumes that Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, convicted and shot in in 1938, was innocent. Once again, this is “begging the question,” assuming that which must be proven. In 2001 Zviagintsev and Orlov, two anti-Stalin researchers, published A-O’s confession.6 An anticommunist collection of documents published in 2000 reveals that A-O told investigators he had been recruited to an opposition conspiracy by Nikolai Krylenko.7 All the evidence we possess points towards A-O’s guilt. This is not “proof positive,” but it is the only evidence of any kind we have. Figes simply ignores it.
According to Figes the charge that Zinoviev and Kamenev were part of a conspiracy to assassinate Stalin is “outlandish.” (194) This is another logical fallacy: the “argument from incredulity.”8 The fact that Figes finds the charges incredible is not a statement about the charges but about Figes himself.
We have long had much other evidence pointing towards the defendants’ guilt. We know that the “bloc of Rights and Trotskyists” alleged in all three Moscow Trials did in fact exist -- Pierre Broué discovered the evidence in the Harvard Trotsky archives in 1980.9 In 1992 the death sentence appeals of both Zinoviev and Kamenev were published. In them they reiterate their guilt in the strongest terms while pleading for clemency.10 Figes conceals all this and much more from his readers.
Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin has been translated into twenty-six languages and has won many awards. Snyder seldom uses primary sources; his main references are to Polish and Ukrainian secondary sources. None of the secondary (or, in a few cases, primary) sources Snyder cites as evidence actually support his fact-claims. I have documented this in my 580-page book Blood Lies. The Evidence that Every Accusation Against Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands Is False.
Snyder had the resources of the highly motivated and ferociously anticommunist researchers of Poland and Ukraine. Yet they were unable to find genuine evidence to support allegations of crimes and atrocities by Stalin. This may be as close as we will ever come to having evidence that, in reality, Stalin committed no crimes or atrocities.
Stephen Kotkin has published the first volume, to the year 1928, of a planned biography of Stalin. It is the most sophisticated of the works reviewed here. Kotkin rejects many of the anti-Stalin fables that mar so many other works, like the tale that Stalin was beaten by his father, which Kotkin calls “the trope of the traumatized childhood.” He pays no attention to the old turnip, still often retold, that Stalin was recruited as an agent by the Tsarist secret police. Although he believes (without any evidence) that Stalin helped plan the Tiflis robbery of 1907, he does not moralize about it. Kotkin accepts as a fact the allegation that Stalin had two children by a young Siberian woman. This story, which originated with Ivan Serov, Khrushchev’s KGB head, has its problems.11 There’s no evidence for the first child, and Kotkin, like Serov, gets the young woman’s name wrong. But he resists the temptation to condemn Stalin for it.
Kotkin’s account of some incidents is quite objective: that Stalin was appointed General Secretary in 1922 on Lenin’s recommendation; that Stalin was not responsible for the failure of the Polish campaign of 1920. Alone among anticommunist writers Kotkin accepts Valentin Sakharov’s conclusion that the so-called “Testament” of Lenin may well have been a forgery by Lenin’s wife Krupskaia, perhaps in collusion with Trotsky.12 Kotkin is reasonably objective about Stalin’s modest responsibility for the 1927 debacle of the Chinese communist party.
But Kotkin’s objectivity is undermined by his stubborn adherence to the required premises of the anti-Stalin paradigm. He insists that collectivization caused the famine of 1932-33 – completely wrong, as the research of Mark Tauger has proven and as Davies and Wheatcroft largely agree.13
Kotkin refers to “countless fabricated trials of the 1920s and 1930s” but cites no evidence that any of them were fabricated because no such evidence exists.14 He simply omits evidence to the contrary, like the 1971 revelation of Nikolai Bukharin’s friend Jules Humbert-Droz that Bukharin and his supporters plotted to murder Stalin as early as 192815; or Pierre Broué’s discovery that the bloc of Rights and Trotskyists did exist; or Arch Getty’s discovery that Trotsky really had maintained contact with supporters in the USSR with whom he claimed to have broken ties16; or the fact that Trotsky really was plotting “terror” against the Stalin leadership, as reported by NKVD agent Mark Zborowski, who successfully infiltrated the circle around Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son and chief co-conspirator.17
The spurt of new interest in Stalin over the past few years may be due in part to Western hostility towards Vladimir Putin, who has proven far less compliant to NATO than were his predecessors Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Right-wing political commentator George Will has called Russian President Vladimir Putin “Stalin’s spawn.”18 One way to express Putin’s unacceptability is to portray him as an “authoritarian” like Stalin, despite Russia’s multiparty elections. (Meanwhile Ukraine, a NATO ally, is called “democratic” despite the unconstitutional overthrow of its Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.)
There is also an attempt to minimize the Soviet role under Stalin’s leadership in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. Putin was not invited to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, where Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna claimed that it was “Ukrainian” troops who had liberated the death camp (it wasn’t).19 This is part of the general denial that the Red Army “liberated” anybody, since the Poles and other Eastern European anticommunists deny that the Red Army “liberated” their countries. Jewish groups disagree, since the Red Army liberated Jews not just from the Nazis but from anti-Semitic Polish and Ukrainian nationalist killers who are now celebrated as heroes in those countries for their anticommunism.
A central purpose of Zimmerman’s book is to tie Putin to Stalin’s under the term “authoritarianism.” Figes is gentler on Putin (293-5) but he repeats hoary falsehoods such as the one about Stalin’s “loss of confidence” during the first week of the war (218). Figes alleges a crucial role for “terror and coercion” in “forcing” Red Army soldiers to fight (221), a tale refuted in Jochen Hellbeck’s recent study of Stalingrad.20 Figes claims that Stalin regarded soldiers as “cannon fodder” and that “the individual counted for nothing,” (227) again without evidence. A comparison with Allied commanders in both world wars would have been relevant here.
Leon Trotsky was evidently the first person to yoke the Soviet Union together with Nazi Germany by adopting the term “totalitarian.”21 The political usefulness of this connection blossomed after World War 2. It reinforced the concept of the “Free World,” which embraced all anticommunist states including the most violent and repressive, and the pro-Nazi forces of Eastern Europe, now rechristened “nationalists,” whose atrocities often exceeded even those of the Nazis themselves. It also distracted attention away from the violence and repressiveness of Western imperialism in Southeast Asia (Indochina, the Dutch East Indies), Africa (Kenya), and Latin America. Here the “Free World” refused to grant the freedom and democracy they claimed to support.
Snyder’s Bloodlands is devoted to arguing the moral equivalence of Nazi Germany and the USSR, and its greatest supporters are the apologists for Ukrainian and Polish “nationalists,” who, despite their enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust, were useful in the anticommunist cause to the extent their fascist essence could be obscured. Snyder himself has cautiously distanced himself from the Ukrainian Nazi Stepan Bandera,22 though not from the equally anti-Semitic Polish Home Army.23 Some historians of the Holocaust have called Snyder out for giving aid and comfort to the fascist nationalists in the way – after all, the Red Army did liberate the Jews.24 These historians do not criticize Snyder’s falsifications about Soviet history.25 Perhaps they are ignorant of them.
As the politics of the regimes in the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe move steadily to the Right, their need to equate the USSR with Nazi Germany, Stalin with Hitler, and communism with Nazism, grows ever more pressing. Poland has outlawed any display of communist symbols, even by the communist party itself. Ukraine recently outlawed the communist party altogether, while “nationalist” Ukrainian militia openly display swastikas and SS runes. Ukrainian nationalism is based upon the twin myths of the “Holodomor” and of the mass murderers of the Ukrainian anticommunist underground as “freedom fighters.”
The field of Soviet history was founded as servant to the political project of attacking and destroying the Soviet Union. After Nikita Khrushchev’s assault on Joseph Stalin in his “Secret Speech” of February 1956, Western historians eagerly accepted and repeated Khrushchev’s claims. But Khrushchev cited no evidence; in fact it was clear from the first that much of what Khrushchev said was false, e.g. that Stalin planned military campaigns “on a globe.” (It has since been shown that all of Khrushchev’s accusations against Stalin are false.26) But Khrushchev’s speech proved to be too valuable a weapon to abandon simply because it was not true. The same bias continues to poison the historiography of the Soviet Union during the Stalin period to the present day.
The anti-scientific, politicized nature of research into Soviet history is an attack on the canons of rational inquiry. If politics dominated medicine as it does the research into Soviet history, we would still be burning witches to cure murrain in cattle. It is always in the interest of capitalist states to depict the most successful socialist revolutions as negatively as possible. Meanwhile, there are no loci of influence devoted to discovering the truth. A truthful history of the Soviet Union during the period of Stalin’s leadership remains in the hands of individual historians, working without institutional support, who are committed to discovering the failures and triumphs of the first great socialist experiment.