- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004


By Roy and Zhores Medvedev

Translated by Ellen Dahrendorf

The Overlook Press, $29.95, 335 pages


This is one of the most remarkable books about Joseph Stalin I have read for many years. I speak not as a professional Sovietologist but as one who has long followed Soviet history, especially the era of Stalin.

It is a remarkable book because it has given me a feel, as it will to other readers, of what life and death among the ranking Soviet elites were like in the Soviet Union during the genocidal years of Stalin’s reign, roughly from 1928 to 1953, when he died under still-mysterious circumstances. It was a period during which this onetime Georgian bank robber and revolutionary became the undisputed leader of a socialist empire that stretched from Berlin to Hanoi, to the thunderous applause of Western intellectuals.

A lot of the reportage in this volume, authored by two dissident Russian historians, is based on Soviet archives which, with the fall of the Soviet Union, were opened in 1991 and to which the authors had special access. (The book has been superbly translated by a British scholar.)

What makes this history a fascinating read is that it is not told from the standpoint of Stalin’s victims. It is a behind-the-scenes story of what happened on a day-to-day basis inside the Kremlin. It all seems so ordinary, so routine — except it isn’t. The documented archival revelations are about a large number of government and Communist Party officials trying not to be singled out by Stalin for demotion, arrest, exile or execution.

Some of the weird happenings in Stalin’s USSR we know; some are new to me. There was the imprisoned wife of Foreign Minister (and onetime Prime Minister) V. M. Molotov who met daily with Stalin. His wife had been jailed by Stalin for some mysterious crime, probably because she was Jewish.

It would have been impossible for Molotov to ask that his wife be given a trial. Stalin ordered her jailed and that was that.

Or a semi-literate like Nikita Khrushchev, a man without even a primary school education, who could become ruler of Stalin’s empire and almost start a war with China and a nuclear confrontation with the United States.

The wife of Alexandr Poskrebyshev, one of Stalin’s most loyal subordinates, was arrested and shot for no other reason than that she was the sister of Leon Trotsky’s daughter-in-law. The GPU (the state secret police) supplied him with another wife.

There are 15 chapters in “The Unknown Stalin,” each with a tantalizing title such as the first, “Riddles surrounding Stalin’s death.” Three chapters comprise Part II, “Stalin and Nuclear Weapons.”

One of the most fascinating sections is Part III, “Stalin and Science”; it tells the story of a 37-year-old colonel named Yevgeny Razin, a military historian, whose books became important texts at a time when Stalin on the eve of World War II was purging and executing his military commanders from the top down.

Razin’s published admiration of the great Prussian military strategist, Karl Clausewitz, collided with Stalin’s party line debunking Clausewitz. Razin was arrested, tortured and sentenced to 10 years in the gulag.

A few years later, Stalin decided to bone up on military history in preparation for an upcoming meeting with Mao Zedong. So Stalin began reading Razin’s works and asked his aide Poskrebyshev to find out what Razin was doing.

Panic ensued among all those Politburo members who had participated in the Razin frame-up. The scrawny, semi-starved prisoner was flown back to Moscow. He was immediately promoted to general, appointed head of the prestigious Frunze military academy and ordered to pick up his textbook writing at the point where due to a “misunderstanding” he had been interrupted by his arrest. And he never even got to see Stalin.

One chapter in “Stalin and Science” deals with another semi-literate, the biologist Trofim Lysenko, who denied the existence of genes. He persuaded Stalin that genetics was a phony bourgeois theory and that acquired characteristics could be inherited.

The Lysenko story is well known but the Medvedevs supply some new material about how Russian geneticists had to repudiate their science to stay out of the gulag.

Perhaps the most touching chapter is the story of the fall of Nikolai Bukharin. His biography was told well many years ago by Stephen Cohen of New York University. But there is new material here. To read it is to appreciate the genius of Arthur Koestler and his great novel “Darkness at Noon,” which was based on Bukharin’s rise and fall.

Bukharin’s farewell letter to his wife in 1937, which in return for her doomed husband’s confession Stalin promised would be delivered to her, was seen by her 55 years later when the Stalin archives were opened.

How could Stalin have happened? Because highly intelligent men like Bukharin became enslaved to a totalitarian ideology, created by Lenin, and to Marxist slogans like “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

With us or against us — or as another highly intelligent Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, in an act of self-betrayal told the 13th Communist Party Congress: “The Party in the last analysis is always right because the Party is the single historic instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its fundamental problems … I know that one must not be right against the Party. One can be right only with the Party, and through the Party, for history has created no other road for the realization of what is right.”

And it all began in the mid-19th century when a bearded German living on his wife’s pawned silverware in his London exile began to scribble in the British Museum. “The Unknown Stalin,” based on Stalin’s personal archive, documents how Marx’s dream became a global nightmare, as well as a well-deserved nightmare for the top-ranking Soviet mobsters and their families.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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