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Cold PeaceStalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953$

Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195165814

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195165814.001.0001

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(p.165) Conclusion
Cold Peace

Yoram Gorlizki (Contributor Webpage)

Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents some concluding remarks about Stalin's leadership, the events following his death, and his legacy. Stalin was in many respects a patrimonial leader. In his last years, most official business was transacted in private meetings between Stalin and his entourage. He secured the loyalty of his colleagues over and above their commitment to any office and, to underline this, he completely reshaped and renamed posts and committees, maneuvering his companions between them at will. Stalin's death opened the gates for the so-called new course on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, many of which were steered by the new collective leadership at the Council of Ministers.

Keywords:   Stalin, patrimonial leadership, USSR, postwar period

T he Russian archives, on which much of this book is based, do not allow us to see into Stalin's mind. They do, however, provide evidence of a pattern in Stalin's behavior and, more broadly, they present a picture of symbiosis between Stalin and the system he had created. After twenty years of cajoling and personal manipulation, the leader had learned how to steer and how to break his colleagues. He also knew better than anyone how to operate the levers of his system. Over two decades, Stalin had learned how to “work” the party, how to mobilize campaigns, and how to instigate purges. These talents would come to the fore in Stalin's final years, as the leader leaned almost instinctively on the dual apparatus of ideology and repression.

Stalin was in many respects a patrimonial leader. In his last years, much official business was transacted in private meetings between Stalin and his entourage. The leader secured the loyalty of his colleagues over and above their commitment to any office and, to underline this, he completely reshaped and renamed posts and committees, maneuvering his companions between them at will. Stalin was not, however, interested in maintaining this cozy system of governance for its own sake. He was always concerned with his own status as the leader of a great power. Although prone to fantasies and bouts of paranoia, as a leader he was pragmatic to the core. So as not to compromise the state's longer term economic and geopolitical ambitions, he accepted innovations, such as the separation of the Politburo from the Council of Ministers, which would make the administrative system more effective. It is this occasional will to delegate and to rationalize that characterizes his rule as neo-patrimonial.

Once Stalin died, the tension between a patrimonial leadership style and a well-ordered system of administration quickly dissolved and, in its stead, (p.166) a new cleavage emerged. Under Stalin, Malenkov had successfully resisted pressures to ally himself with either party or government by keeping feet in both camps. Lacking Stalin's patrimonial authority, he was unable to combine a senior position in both bodies and was forced, on 13 March 1953, to take sides.1 In the knowledge that according to a tradition going back to Lenin, sessions of the Politburo (Presidium) would be chaired by the head of the Council of Ministers, Malenkov opted for the leadership of Sovmin, relinquishing his secretaryship of the Central Committee in the process.2 Malenkov had his aides transferred to the Council of Ministers apparatus and began to identify institutionally with the government and managerial groups in a way that, Molotov later recalled, did not befit “a true member of the Central Committee.”3

Malenkov's decision was accompanied by a shift in the center of gravity from the party to the state apparatus.4 Certainly, judging by the frequency of its meetings prior to Beria's arrest at the end of June 1953, it was the Sovmin Presidium, rather than the Central Committee Presidium, that was the more active decision-making body. From 13 March to the beginning of July 1953, the Presidium of Sovmin met over three times as often as the rival Presidium of the Central Committee, and it began to discharge functions that earlier had been the prerogative of the Politburo.5 Only the most senior Soviet leaders attended meetings of the Sovmin Presidium, whose sessions may be regarded as gatherings of the new ruling circle.6

This institutional shift was in fact the continuation of an underlying trend that had been apparent since the war. Stalin's delegation of responsibilities after the war, especially in the economic realm, had led to a growing autonomy of decision making in areas where expertise mattered and from which “political” issues as such appeared to be absent. This was most apparent at the Council of Ministers and, especially, at its core committee, the Sovmin Bureau. From the late 1940s and, especially, from 1950, the Sovmin Bureau, which consisted of all members of Stalin's leading circle with the exception of Stalin himself, had met on a weekly basis. At these meetings, a Stalin-less leading group considered matters of national economic importance and acquired an experience of collective decision making that would put them in good stead once Stalin died. The rise of the Council of Ministers in the early post-Stalin period was thus little more than a continuation of its increasingly prominent role under Stalin.

Although somewhat harder to discern, there were also underlying continuities in policy. Among the issues the government now considered was the growing crisis afflicting the countryside and the Gulag. In both areas, Stalin had insisted on a highly coercive regime throughout his tenure, a regime that extracted the maximum possible surplus from the peasantry and imposed the highest custodial terms on offenders. In their joint deliberations, members of the government had recognized the crushing cost of (p.167) such policies and approached Stalin with reforms. The leader's steadfast refusal to countenance reforms markedly deepened the crisis in these areas. It was, at the same time, a measure of the general consensus throughout the governmental apparatus that reforms in both areas were implemented almost immediately once Stalin died.

Stalin's death opened the gates for the so-called new course on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, many of which were steered by the new collective leadership at the Council of Ministers.7 It was only a matter of days, for example, before a series of political cases that had been fabricated under Stalin—including the Doctors' Plot, the Mingrelian Affair, and the Aviators' and Artillery Officers' Affairs—were reviewed. Molotov's wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, and Kaganovich's brother, Mikhail, who had committed suicide at the very beginning of the war following charges of belonging to a “right-Trotskyist organization,” were fully rehabilitated, as were various other victims of political repression. While this early selective rehabilitation may have served the personal interests of the country's new leaders, it also paved the way for a more general release of the victims of Stalinist terror. Over the spring and summer of 1953, the Gulag was transformed: a mass amnesty for prisoners convicted of nonpolitical crimes halved the camp population, while numerous enterprises and construction sites previously under the MVD's control were handed over to economic ministries. The list of regions covered by the restrictive passport regime was reduced, and the general softening of the state's repressive policies led to a drop in the flow of new prisoners. The new leadership also reduced tensions in the western parts of the Ukraine and in the Baltic states, where partisan divisions continued to operate. To obtain the support of the native populations and local intelligentsia, it was proposed that party-state bureaucracies be indigenized. Important changes were announced and, in part, achieved, in the economic sphere. A drop in taxes on the peasants and a rise in procurement prices were accompanied by a contraction in capital spending in heavy industry and a reduction in outlays on administration and on the military sector.

Stalin's successors were also to demonstrate their relatively peaceful disposition on the international stage. The ending of the Korean War served as a distinctive symbol of these changes. On 19 March 1953, a resolution of the Council of Ministers confirmed a policy of “concluding the war in Korea as soon as possible.”8 Following intensive negotiations, an armistice was agreed on 27 July 1953. With Moscow's encouragement, there was also significant liberalization of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. This was most pronounced in Germany. On 2 June 1953, a Council of Ministers directive encapsulated the main criticisms the Soviet leadership had of the East German government and looked for measures to improve the political situation in the country.9

(p.168) With Stalin's death and the ending of the patrimonial dimension of supreme decision making, no leader was able to straddle the top institutions in the way that Stalin had done. Malenkov and the Council of Ministers had to contend with a new dynamics of personal and institutional competition. Here, too, the late Stalin legacy played an important role. The XIX Party Congress in autumn of 1952 had seen a feverish wave of activity within party structures as redundant party committees were convened, elections held, and debates conducted ahead of the congress, the first in thirteen years. The general momentum built up by the congress campaign was to prove decisive on Stalin's death, when a group of party democratizers, led by Khrushchev, built on the political energy of the congress period by heading a campaign for the further reform of party structures.10

Not long after Stalin's death, and especially after the arrest of Beria in June, the battle between Malenkov, now firmly tied to Sovmin, and Khrushchev, linked to the party, fully came out into the open. While the party's cadres apparatus afforded Khrushchev the capacity to appoint allies to important posts, Khrushchev also took advantage of a continuity in ideological line not available to Malenkov and, by way of his populist leadership style, was able to forge a direct relationship of authority with officials that was somewhat reminiscent of the one Stalin had achieved through the cult of personality.11

This study of Stalin's leadership in the postwar period fills an important gap in our understanding of twentieth-century European dictatorships. An examination of the Soviet political system in the postwar period provides, in particular, a picture of dictatorship not available from the two other best known European dictatorships of the time: unlike the German or Italian cases, in the Soviet Union we see an autocrat and his system continuing to evolve and to adjust to the demands of running a mature, postwar order.

That Stalin survived the war was not the only factor that distinguished him from his German and Italian counterparts. Far more so than Hitler and more than Mussolini, Stalin was a machine politician. Never the grand orator that Hitler and Mussolini had been, Stalin was most at home scrutinizing files, intriguing on committees, and pulling the levers of the vast bureaucratic empire he had helped create. Far from shunning dossiers and files, as had been Hitler's wont,12 before the war Stalin had sat on committees, solicited documents, and positively craved information from below on the functioning of his system. When, as happened after the war, his capacity to process data declined, he sought other, more economic, ways of obtaining information. One such method was the stimulation of conflicts and disagreements. Rather than shying away from personal conflict, as was Hitler's tendency,13 Stalin actively courted it. “I cannot know every (p.169) thing,” he told the Minister of Communications, I. V. Kovalev, “that is why I pay particular attention to disagreements, objections, I look into why they started to find out what is going on.”14

By the postwar period, Stalin had honed his techniques of personal confrontation not only to elicit information about the inner workings of his system but also to intimidate and subjugate his companions. Immediately following the hostilities, Stalin moved methodically from one member of his inner circle to another with direct personal showdowns. Integral to these was a ritual of humiliation that involved a debasing apology and a statement of loyalty from the victim, usually in written form. Stalin often attacked his companions obliquely, either through his trademark arrests of relatives (for example, of Molotov's wife) or by demoting associates (such as Beria's confidant Merkulov), and then demanding the unconditional support of all his colleagues for the action, including, most of all, the leader whose relative or aide had been targeted. Stalin also had other ways of unnerving his companions and of reminding them who was in charge. He was often inclined, for example, to leave excluded colleagues in limbo, as he did Malenkov in the summer of 1946, letting him agonize while the leader lingered over his fate.

Stalin's ability to manipulate his colleagues was facilitated by an intimate knowledge of his own political system. Nowhere was the symbiotic relationship of leader and system more apparent than in the periodic purges that flared up after the war. As well as cleansing bureaucracies and rooting out enemies, purges were, for Stalin, a means of keeping his colleagues and agents under pressure. Purges increased the stress on officials and thereby heightened the chances of squeezing out information (as in the case of Riumin) or of converting functionaries feeling the pinch (for example, Shepilov) into special agents for campaigns, purges, and other leader-assigned duties. In purges, the broader goal of jolting bureaucracies into action coincided perfectly with Stalin's own power requirements.

Yet by the late Stalin period, the impulse to purge was more circumscribed than it had been in the 1930s. By now, there were a number of forces that kept Stalin's relations with his colleagues, and with their bureaucracies, at bay. Many sectors of the state, not least the criminal justice system, were now more institutionally robust than they had been in the early 1930s, and consequently less prone to the meltdown they had experienced later that decade.15 Following the experience of the Great Terror, Stalin may himself have been aware of the incalculable consequences of another society-wide blood purge and, accordingly, he may have chosen to exercise a certain inner restraint. For their part, Stalin's colleagues appear to have become aware of their own interest in preserving the balance of power and in preventing any sudden movements at the apex of the system. From bitter experience, they had come to know that antagonizing the (p.170) leader or rousing his suspicions was an extremely hazardous business. Once inflamed, Stalin's suspicions could easily claim more high-ranking victims, including, quite possibly, themselves.

Within the late Stalinist leadership, every leader had his role. In defining these roles, Stalin appears to have been as hardheaded and utilitarian as ever. Older comrades, such as Molotov and Mikoian, were important to the leader as symbols and co-architects of the Stalinist system. Attacks on them were usually qualified and tended to be confined to smaller audiences. Lacking symbolic value of this kind, the use of younger figures such as Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev resided entirely in their work qualities, which the leader tested at regular intervals. With lower level figures, Stalin was equally pragmatic. Although he appears to have gone along with Riumin's fantasies of Jewish conspiracies for a time, once the evidence dried up, Stalin swiftly dispensed with his chief investigator's services. “Stalin,” concludes the writer Kiril Stoliarov, “did not tolerate chatterboxes.”16

Stalin manipulated not only people but also the political structures around him. By the postwar period, the traditional cabinet, the Politburo, had been entirely remolded to fit with Stalin's personal preferences and lifestyle. In contrast to the formal Politburo, which had been chosen after the XVIII Party Congress in 1939, the de facto Politburo, or ruling group, was handpicked by Stalin and met at his convenience. Without set procedures, agendas, minutes, or even prearranged meeting times, the Politburo complied entirely with the norms laid down by the leader. The Politburo was nonetheless valuable to Stalin. It allowed him to bind his companions and co-rulers in an easily monitored circle. Further, through the system of cosignatures on which he insisted, Stalin was able to lock his companions in a system of joint responsibility, much as a gang of criminals might undertake a blood oath.

Stalin's immediate legacy was a relatively secure and self-confident Soviet Union. Apart from gaining buffer states in Eastern Europe and new-found allies in Asia, the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin's death had tested an atom bomb and was on the verge of possessing the means to detonate it on its adversaries. In addition, the social and political system that Stalin had helped construct was to prove sufficiently sturdy to survive his death. At the same time, Stalin's own power goals had set the Soviet Union off on a frightful path. Apart from the human suffering they inflicted, Stalin's policies were, even in their own terms, not always successful. On the international stage Stalin committed blunders, some of which caused great damage to his country's reputation.17 The costs, moreover, of Stalin's policies to Soviet society were monumental. They led not only to hundreds of thousands of needless arrests, tortures, and executions but to cramped, (p.171) unhealthy housing, to near subsistence levels of nutrition, and to a sharply distorted internal distribution of resources.

Despite the major reforms of the early post-Stalin period, the legacy of Stalin's method of rule was profound. Twenty years after Stalin's death, the head of the security police, Iurii Andropov, informed the General Secretary of the Central Committee, Leonid Brezhnev, that the record of Stalin's speech to a meeting of a Presidium commission on intelligence, dating from November 1952, had been recovered. Andropov wrote:

Nearly all the observations of I. V. Stalin are fully relevant even today, in large part because they are general and are fit for all times. What personally struck me most was his comment that “communists who look askance at the intelligence services, at the work of the Chekha, who are frightened of soiling themselves, should be thrown head first down the well.” In its form, this sentiment is a little Asiatic, but in essence it is as true now as it was in that distant age of the cult of personality.18

The Stalinist legacy, inherited from the postwar period, included a distribution of resources skewed toward arms production and heavy industry, a bipolar world locked in mutual suspicion and conflict, and a role for informers and security agents who were not “frightened of soiling themselves.” To this we can add the reinforcement by Stalin of a traditional desire in Russia for a tough, powerful leader, who could show the way forward and save the country and the political order from itself. (p.172)


(1.) In the first division of power of 3 March, before Stalin died, Malenkov retained his position as Central Committee Secretary while becoming Prime Minister. Following the meeting of the Presidium on 13 March, however, he was forced to relinquish the secretaryship in order to focus on the Council of Ministers. Iurii N. Zhukov, “Borʹba za vlastʹ v partiino-gosodarslvennykh verkhakh SSSR vesnoi 1953 goda,” Voprosy istorii 1 (1995): 40–41, 46. Malenkov's aide, D. N. Sukhanov, also recounts that Malenkov believed it better to head the state than the party apparatus after Stalin's death. See “Stalin poshevelil palʹtsami,” Novoe vremia 48 (1991): 33. Also see Konstantin Simonov, Glazami cheloveka moego pokoleniia: Razmyshleniia o I. V. Staline (Moscow: Novosti, 1990), 227, 238–239.

(2.) Stalin had abolished the position of General Secretary of the Party at the XIX Congress, so that, strictly speaking, all party Secretaries were of equal rank. On this and on the Leninist norm that the head of Sovnarkom chair Politburo meetings, see Feliks Chuev, Sto sorok besed s Molotovym (Moscow: Terra, 1991), 325, 334–325, 354. Kaganovich suggests that, at the time, the (p.223) head of Sovmin was regarded as the most important position in the country. See Feliks Chuev, Tak govoril Kaganovich: Ispovedʹ Stalinskogo apostola (Moscow: Otechestvo, 1993), 85.

(3.) See Chuev, Sto sorok besed, 337. On the transfer of Malenkov's aides, see Yoram Gorlizki, “Party Revivalism and the Death of Stalin,” Slavic Review 54, 1 (1995): 17. Even those, such as Azrael, who deny that Malenkov had a distinctly “managerial” cast of mind under Stalin, accept that he allied himself with the managerial elite after Stalin's death. See Jeremy R. Azrael, Managerial Power and Soviet Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), 124–126.

(4.) Evidence included the liquidation of the standing commissions at the Central Committee Presidium and the restoration to their former ministerial positions of Molotov and Mikoian. At their meeting of 5 March 1953, Stalin's successors demolished other party structures erected by the leader in October 1952. Instead of the Presidium and the Buro of the Presidium of the Central Committee, a new, significantly reduced Presidium was created, which accommodated the previously out-of-favor Molotov and Mikoian, while finding no room for some of those recently promoted by Stalin.

(5.) There are only eleven records of Central Committee Presidium meetings, as opposed to thirty-seven of the Sovmin Presidium, for this period. Principal foreign policy decisions—on the situation in Germany and ending the war in Korea—were now drawn up as directives and resolutions of the Council of Ministers.

(6.) This seems to be confirmed by the fact that, apart from Malenkov, Beria, Molotov, Kaganovich, Bulganin, Mikoian, and Voroshilov, the meetings were attended by Khrushchev, who was not formally a member of the Sovmin Presidium.

(7.) For the leading documents on these reforms see Lavrentii Beria. 1953 (Moscow: MFD, 1999), 18–64; Reabilitatsiia. Kak eto bylo (Moscow: MFD, 2000), 15–16, 19–20, 38, 41, 50.

(8.) A. V. Torkunov, Zagadochnaia voina. Koreiskii konflikt, 1950–1953 godov. (Moscow: Rosspen, 2000), 272–279.

(9.) This was largely in response to the large-scale flight of East German citizens to the West. See Lavrentii Beria. 1953, 55–59; Iu. V. Aksiutin, Poststalinskoe obschestvo. Problema liderstva i transformatsii vlasti (Moscow: Nauchnaia kniga, 1999), 30–34.

(10.) Gorlizki, “Party Revivalism,” 10–11, 17–19.

(11.) For more on the question of ideological continuity, see ibid., 5–11; for more on Khrushchev's populism and on Stalin's direct relationship with officials and masses achieved through his cult, see George Breslauer, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1982), 10–11, 52–58. Although the leadership struggle should not be viewed as a straightforward conflict between “party” and “state,” the two leaders did increasingly align themselves with constituencies from these respective institutions. T. H. Rigby, “The Government in the Soviet Political System,” in Executive Power and Soviet Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Soviet State (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992), 29.


(12.) On Hitler's infamous lack of discipline for systematic work, his dislike of administrative and organizational matters, and his aversion to files, see, from a voluminous literature, Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1999), 20, 39, 156, 300, 534.

(13.) On Hitler's aversion to personal conflict and on his reluctance to manipulate the personal rivalries of his deputies, see Hans Mommsen, “Hitler's Position in the Nazi System,” in From Weimar to Auschwitz: Essays in German History (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 171–172; and Martin Broszat, The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich (London: Longman, 1981), 202.

(14.) Simonov, Glazami, 160–161

(15.) Yoram Gorlizki, “Rules, Incentives, and Soviet Campaign Justice after World War II,” Europe-Asia Studies 51 (7) 1999: 1255–1262.

(16.) Kiril Stoliarov, Palachi i zhertvy (Moscow: Olma Press, 1997), 116–117.

(17.) Stalin's diplomatic failures, especially the lifting of the Berlin blockade in May 1949, are discussed in Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 46–47, 52.

(18.) “Razvedka—sviatoe, idealʹnoe dlia nas delo,” Istochnik 5 (2001): 130 (emphasis original).