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Response to Review no. 450

We would like to thank Miriam Dobson for her careful and generous review of our book. As well as providing a cogent summary of our argument, Dobson situates our work in its historiographic context. Our aim here is to elucidate some nuances of the book which are slightly glossed over in the review. We also follow up references in the review to authors whose stances do differ rather more sharply from ours. In so doing, we briefly stake out our position on wider debates on the post-war period, one of which has only begun to take shape over the last year, after the publication of our volume.

Dobson cites a 2004 article by Chris Ward which contends that writing on late Stalinism ‘focuses almost exclusively on “high politics”’. While such a statement would have been accurate twenty years ago, it is not so today. Since the early 1990s there has been a growing body of work on the social and cultural history of the late Stalin period, which has recently culminated in a spate of influential monographs. By contrast, the last major monograph on the ‘high politics’ of the late Stalin period, Werner Hahn’s Postwar Soviet Politics, was published almost a quarter of a century ago, long before the opening of the Soviet archives. It is, in good part, for this reason that students of Soviet history have, in Dobson’s words, continued to be ‘mystified’ by some of the most momentous political episodes of this period.

In terms of its subject matter, our book is a study of the high-level politics of the late Stalin era, and we see no reason to apologise for this fact. We did not, however, intend the book to be an updated version of the old-fashioned ‘kremlinology’ of the 1950s and 1960s. In view of the glut of newly available sources, we feel that the old methodological distinction between the cryptic decoding of official pronouncements on the one hand, and the comprehensive, multi-layered, research that went into the study of social and cultural history on the other, is no longer tenable. There are now wonderful opportunities to transcend this gulf and to examine the links and interconnections between social and political history. In fact, as should be apparent from our dedication (to R.W. Davies and Moshe Lewin), we have the highest regard for some of the excellent social history of the last forty years. At the same time, to neglect how political – and in particular party – structures operated would be to lose sight of one of the most distinctive and unusual features of Soviet society. Our concern for the interface between societal pressures and political structures is such that we devote an entire chapter to this theme. Indeed, more than simply considering ‘the effect of Stalinist leadership on society,’ as Dobson suggests, the main goal of chapter 5 was to trace how formidable pressures, be they in the form of break-outs from the camps or angry petitions about the state of agriculture, were progressively building up, presenting insuperable problems to middle-level bureaucrats and the supreme leadership. It is precisely in the light of the enormous societal pressures that were accumulating in this period, that Stalin’s steadfast opposition to reform seems so perverse.

Crossing another divide, between political and cultural history, we were equally interested in penetrating the ‘culture’ of high level politics. The supreme leadership and its bureaucratic apparatus exhibited a number of quite distinctive traits, which set this dictatorship apart from other contemporary autocracies. The resuscitation of the peculiar quasi-judicial ‘honour court’ from the Tsarist period, the triumphalist anti-Western rhetoric of Russia as a ‘Great Power,’ and the forced adherence of large swaths of the upper level bureaucracy to the nocturnal regime of the dictator, so that officials ate, drank and slept in time with the autocrat, all bore the stamp of Russian tradition. Even more so, our albeit cursory appraisal of how networks were formed and broken, of how ‘tails’ were carried from one rung of the federal system to another, and of how the formal and informal aspects of the official patronage system, the nomenklatura, interacted, could provide a basis for comparison with the behaviour of provincial and other lower-level politicians, so that, in time, we could paint a broader picture of the political culture of this period.

Dobson posits that a recent article by David Brandenberger, in which he suggests that the Leningrad Affair was driven in large measure by ‘fundamental ideological issues’ (specifically the future of a Russian party within the RSRSR), can be contrasted with our attribution of the purge to ‘factional infighting in the Kremlin’. We do not discount the possibility that on certain secondary issues ideological differences did exist, especially towards the very end of Stalin’s life (see for example p.176 fn.29). What we do not find, however, is the expression of these differences in rival ‘programmes’, especially on issues, such as that of the future of a Russian party, over which Stalin himself would have had strong views. We discovered no evidence of this in the archives, nor do we find convincing evidence of it in the Brandenberger piece which Dobson cites. Indeed, Dobson slightly misrepresents our position when she attributes to us the argument that ‘the rivalry between the two factions within the ruling circle – one originating in Leningrad (Voznesenskii, Kuznetsov and Kosygin), the other headed up by Politburo old-timers (Malenkov and Beria) – erupted when Stalin’s faith in Voznesenskii was shaken by errors he committed as head of Gosplan’. In fact, it is highly unlikely that Malenkov and Beria wanted the Leningrad Affair to ‘erupt’ as it did. The real fault line was not between two or more ‘factions’ within the leadership, but between Stalin on the one hand and a putative network of ‘Leningraders’ on the other. Equally, in the Gosplan Affair, the enmity between Beria and Voznesenskii was secondary. What triggered the purge was Stalin’s outrage that his supposed ‘truth-teller’, Voznesensky, had lied to him.

Towards the end of the review Dobson suggests that, on the basis of chapter 5, ‘the reader starts to sense that Stalin’s right-hand men perhaps had more capacity for independent reflection than is allowed elsewhere in the book’. Stalin’s immediate deputies were astute, well-organised and extremely hard-working opportunists. It is likely that towards the end of Stalin’s life the younger cohort in particular had formed their own views on the best way forward for the Soviet system. What living with Stalin had taught them, however, was that they could not openly articulate these views to Stalin, nor engage in communications which could give Stalin grounds for suspecting that he had a ‘network’ on his hands.

No less pleasing for many authors than a complimentary review is one that fully engages with the content of a book, even when this leads to differences of opinion. What we set out to do in this book was to write a sober, scholarly, account of the upper echelons of the late Stalinist political system. We also sought, however, to present an analytical narrative which would address earlier debates on the topic. Rather than providing the ‘last word’, our aim was to push some of the existing debates forward and to help open up new vistas for research. Were we to elicit more of the kind of thoughtful and sustained reading of our book which Miriam Dobson provides in her review, we would be more than pleased with our efforts.