Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stalin

One of the consequences of the First World War was the Russian Revolution. The current issue of the Claremont Review of Books has reviews of new biographies of both Lenin and Stalin. From the latter: "Blood-Soaked Monster."
.... In 1928, Soviet peasants stopped selling their grain to the state in the face of low fixed prices and a lack of goods to buy. Stalin’s response was to order vast seizures of grain and then, beginning in 1929, to initiate collectivization. This entailed rounding up and deporting millions of “rich” peasants—who were supposedly hoarding grain—while simultaneously seizing and reorganizing the Soviet Union’s land into state-owned collective farms. Met by massive resistance, collectivization threw the Soviet Union into a low-level civil war for the next four years. Some of the seized grain and meat went to feed Soviet cities. But, more importantly for Stalin, much of the seized food was sold overseas for financial capital to buy machine tools and industrial equipment, which in turn he used to build more factories and expand the Soviet working class. The human cost was a famine that exploded in 1931-32, killing between five and seven million people—a year in which Stalin ordered the export of 4.8 million tons of grain. ....

The horrific violence Stalin unleashed between 1936 and 1938 is almost impossible to fathom. Never in history had a leader murdered so many of his own elites and bureaucrats—including old friends and many relatives—while simultaneously executing vast numbers of those tasked with the actual executions themselves. About one in every hundred Russians was arrested, with somewhere around 700,000 executed in less than two years. The army was decapitated, with 30,000 officers executed, arrested, or dismissed. Huge numbers of the diplomatic corps, intelligence services, and secret police were similarly slaughtered. What is perhaps most shocking is that, at the end of it all, Stalin acknowledged to the politburo that the vast majority of those shot or arrested—1.6 million people—had not been spies or guilty of any crime. Given that he had signed so many death warrants himself, Stalin’s monstrousness is hard to grasp. ....

In August 1939 Stalin, who had been negotiating a collective security pact with Great Britain and France, suddenly performed an about-face and signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler. Why? Half blinded by the purges, which had eliminated much of Soviet foreign intelligence and the Soviet diplomatic corps, he relied on his ideological worldview as he played what Kotkin calls “Three-Card Monte.” This was a triangular game of bluff among Hitler, Stalin, and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain to steer when and where the coming war would begin. Stalin’s aim was to entangle Germany and the Western powers into a long conflict from which he might benefit. To pick which side he would ally with Stalin held an “auction for spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.” Hitler won.

Stalin’s gamble failed, of course. As a result, for the next 18 months, Hitler had the initiative, overrunning much of Europe. During this period, Stalin supplied staggering quantities of oil and other raw materials to feed Hitler’s war machine, secure in his belief that Hitler would not dare start a two-front war. This false notion convinced him that Hitler’s build-up for invasion in 1940-41 was merely a negotiating tactic aimed at compelling the Soviet Union to provide more raw materials to Germany. It was a nearly fatal miscalculation, a product of the purges and Stalin’s ideological blinders. When Hitler struck in June 1941, the Soviet Union was completely unprepared militarily or institutionally. The Red Army would suffer five million casualties in the war’s first six months. ....