Archive for the ‘Stalin’ Category

Voroshilov, Gamarnik and Yakir: The Troika

Monday, November 21st, 2011

At the annual meeting of the ASEEES (the organization-formerly-known-as-the-AAASS), I presented some preliminary research on the Great Purges in the Red Army, looking at the specific figure of Iona Yakir, then commander of the Kiev Military District. That made him one of the two men intended to bear the brunt of any future war in Europe, alongside the commander of the Belorussian Military District Ieronym Uborevich. In looking at the process of the purges in 1937, I found links back to the Red Army’s annual maneuvers, particularly the obscure 1933 Antoniny maneuvers of the then-Ukrainian Military District, and then the celebrated 1935 Kiev maneuvers.

Krasnaia zvezda devoted extensive coverage the 1935 maneuvers, which involved four corps, 65,000 men, 1000 tanks, and the drop of an entire paratroop regiment. One thing that jumped out at me from the visuals associated with that coverage was a particular emphasis on individual. As expected, Stalin’s puppet at the head of the Red Army Kliment Voroshilov figured prominently, but Iona Yakir, who’d be dead in two years, was almost as important. Even more surprisingly, there was a pronounced emphasis on a specific troika of individuals: Voroshilov, Yakir, and Ian Gamarnik (nicknamed “The Beard”), head of the Red Army’s Political Directorate.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s the front page of Krasnaia zvezda, 15 September 1935. This picture makes Voroshilov look quite Hitler-like, which is not intentional. It’s an artifact of the original photo, the scanning, and Voroshilov’s mustache, an attribute that seems characteristic of Stalin’s inner circle:

Gamarnik, Yakir, and Voroshilov, KZ 15 September 1935

Gamarnik, Yakir, and Voroshilov, KZ 15 September 1935

The next day we get the same three individuals, again on the front page:

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 16 September 1935

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 16 September 1935

And finally the next day a large shot from an interior page of the same three:

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 17 September 1935

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 17 September 1935

A couple things to note: there are lots of other high-ranking officials of the Red Army present in Kiev; those particular three are the ones chosen for emphasis. Tukhachevskii, in case you were wondering, is almost invisible. I’m still unclear on precisely how to interpret all this; that’s research still remaining to be done.

Sheila Fitzpatrick on working in the archives

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Doyenne of Soviet historians Sheila Fitzpatrick has written a charming essay for the London Review of Books on her experiences as one of the very first outsiders to gain access to Soviet archival sources (Hat tip: Ralph Luker at Cliopatria). Reading her, it’s clear that much has changed, but to a surprising degree things have remained precisely the same.

Bureaucracy and lines are the obvious ones, but there’s more. We now have access to archival catalogs, but we are still subject to the whims and affections of archivists when it comes to the documents we can see, or perhaps even more important, where we ought to be looking for them. As Fitzpatrick remembers, the archivists were quite choosy about whom they might assist: “after a while, if they thought you were a hard worker and therefore a real scholar (not a spy), the archivists would cautiously begin to help you.”

This is precisely my experience, which is why I was so fortunate to be funded in 1994-1995 in a way that let me go to Moscow and stay for sixteen months, long enough to really establish my iron-assed credentials as a serious researcher. Fitzpatrick also was lucky enough to burst into tears at the right moment to get some additional material. I didn’t do that, but I did unwittingly benefit from the pitying maternal instincts of archivists who couldn’t imagine how a poor boy, all alone in Moscow, might manage to keep body and soul together.

Fitzpatrick also notes how historians can’t help to some degree identifying with the worldview and priorities of the people and institutions they study. Tongue-in-cheek, she remarks that the secret police would have been better off to

give Western scholars access to the most taboo of Soviet archives, the NKVD’s, so that the scholars would stop slandering this fine institution and see things from its perspective: the Central Committee cadres department reassigning any Gulag officers who showed signs of competence and sending the Gulag administration nothing but duds, the difficulties in setting up native-language kindergartens for Chechen deportees to Kazakhstan, and so on.

I found the same thing–going native–happening to me. It wasn’t that I decided that Stalin was a good guy (I didn’t), but that I began to sympathize with Stalin’s bureaucrats. They had tough jobs, and worked hard to solve real problems. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s minister of industry, was quite the cold-hearted bastard when it came to the politics of his native Georgia. I studied him, though, when he was trying to build steel mills and tractor factories amidst shortages of everything. He drove himself and others mercilessly, built real esprit de corps, and finally killed himself in despair over Stalin’s Great Purges. I couldn’t help liking him.

In the Red Army, Stalin’s long-time minister of defense Kliment Voroshilov never struck me as anything but an idiot far out of his depth. I likewise never warmed to the ostensible genius Mikhail Tukhachevskii. He was happy to persecute those with suspect pasts, was quite out of his mind on a number of questions related to tank production and military technology, and popularized the ideas devised by brighter minds junior to him. But lesser-known figures like Ieronym Uborevich and Innokent Khalepskii–they were bright, hard-working, and effective. Stalin had them killed, of course.

To be sure, there are limits to going native. I was looking at industrialists and military men. All modern societies have and need armies and industry, and so I could look at them to some degree independently of the regime they served. If, on the other hand, I had been studying those who carted kulaks and their families off to Siberia, I doubt I would have been quite so sympathetic.

RIP, Robert C. Tucker

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Robert Tucker, whose Marx-Engels Reader and Lenin Anthology are dog-eared veterans on my shelf, has died at the age of ninety-two.

Katyn Papers Released

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The Times Online is reporting that:

Secret documents detailing the Soviet leadership’s decision to murder 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn were released to the Russian public today on orders from President Medvedev.

In an unprecedented step, the Russian State Archive published documents showing how Soviet leader Joseph Stalin approved the World War Two massacre proposed by his secret police henchman Lavrenty Beria. Other prominent members of the ruling Soviet Politburo also signed off on the slaughter.

For the full story, go here.

The Kirov Murder Solved?

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Reuters has a story (picked up by Johnson’s Russia List and the New York Times) that Russian archivists have finally settled the question of who killed Kirov.

For those who don’t know much about Soviet history, Sergei Mironovich Kirov, party boss of Leningrad, was shot in his office on 1 December 1934. Stalin used this as his pretext for beginning the Great Purges–dismantling what protections existed against arbitrary arrest and execution.

The question then and since is whether Leonid Nikolaev, the man who ostensibly did the deed, actually did it, and if he was the one who did it, whether he did it at Stalin’s behest. As usual for these questions, the rumors in Russia run the gamut. My personal favorite is the one I was told over tea in one Moscow archive: Kirov, allegedly a notorious babnik (womanizer), had worked his charms on Nikolaev’s wife, and the assassination was payback.

In any event, the documents suggest that Nikolaev was the classic disgruntled loner, not part of any conspiracy, who shot Kirov out of a sense of personal affront. This certainly sounds plausible to me, though I’m under no illusions that it will settle the debate.