Stalin: Meticulous with His Word, Shaper of Faulty Information Systems
Historians Sarah Davies and James Harris spoke about their recent research in Stalin’s personal archive, discussing how the Soviet dictator used words and the way in which he processed incoming information, respectively.
Contrary to expectations, the release of the personal archives of a number of Soviet leaders influential in the 1930s showed “a shockingly small gap between what they said in public and what they said in private."
International Institute, UCLA, April 5, 2013—A careful editor of official and personal documents, Stalin was consumed by the task of editing, said historian Sarah Davies. So great was his attention to words, she said, that “in some senses, Stalin’s words were his deeds.”
Comparing incoming intelligence found in his personal archive against formal published Party decisions, historian James Harris concluded that the Soviet leader poisoned the well of intelligence gathering due to his perceptions and misperceptions of security threats—domestic and international.
Davies and Harris discussed their recent research in Stalin’s personal archive at a lecture organized by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies on April 5. Moderator Arch Getty, Professor of History at UCLA, set the stage by explaining that new materials were added to the public Stalin personal archive (known as inventory, or opis’, 11) about five years ago. These materials include Stalin’s correspondence; edits of his speeches and books, as well as of documents authored by others; incoming telegrams and diplomatic materials.
The dilemma for historians, noted Getty, is that they don’t know what exactly the current archive is—the materials differ considerably from the largely inconsequential historical materials (e.g., badges worn by Stalin) previously made available to the public. We don’t know, he explained, why these materials were selected to be made public or who made this decision.
Davies noted that the new materials in the archive gave historians their first chance to see unpublished texts by Stalin, as well as his edits of both his own published works and the writings of others.
“At the apex of a system in which extraordinary political importance was attached to the correct usage of words and phrases,” she said, “Stalin spent a remarkable amount of time on the business of words. He—and not only he—evidently considered his power over the verbal realm essential to his power in general.”
Soviet society, pointed out Davies, was a society of words and word games, with invented categories such as “kulak” (rich peasant) and “middle peasant” made real by the Soviet dictatorship. Identifying Stalin as the ultimate guardian of Soviet texts, Davies noted that no one was allowed to publish Stalin’s speeches or works—even if they had been previously published—without his express permission.
She related an incident captured in the archives that grew out of a May 1934 “Izvestiia” article by Nikolai Bukharin. In the article, Bukharin used the words “agrarian revolution” and “expropriation of the kulaks.” He was immediately attacked by Aleksei Stetsky (of the Central Committee Department on Culture and Propaganda) and Lev Mekhlis (then editor of “Pravda”) for using unorthodox language (the Communist Party then prescribed the expressions “collectivization” and “liquidation of the kulak class”).
In a letter to Stalin, Stetsky even specified that he was worried about Bukharin’s words (“rubbery words”)—not his ideas. After a back-and-forth of letters to Stalin from both men, Stalin wrote to the Politburo in support of Stetsky, concurring that, “The Bolsheviks do not need a game of new little words.”
Davies concluded that the incident was not simply an attempt to put Bukharin in his place as a former “oppositionist.” “It was also,” she said, designed to communicate a strong message about the need for verbal uniformity—for all to speak in the authorized idioms of Bolsheviks, of which by now Stalin was the anointed Custodian in Chief.”
Stalin’s ability to set the parameters of what could and could not be said about certain subjects could be seen in his approach to the working class. Beginning in the 1930s, said Davies, Stalin moved steadily to de-emphasize the central Bolshevik symbol of the manual laborer in favor of formulations of the “Soviet people” and the “Soviet intelligentsia”—a personal invention of Stalin that, she argued, became the key symbol of Soviet political discourse.
James Harris began his talk by remarking, “It is worth remembering that the Bolshevik state generally, and the Stalinist state in particular, was profoundly secretive.” Recalling the Bolsheviks’ expectations of foreign invasion by capitalist powers and their pre-revolutionary experience with “experienced conspirators,” he stressed that Stalin was not the only author of the institutional paranoia that characterized the Soviet regime, although he argued that the dictator contributed greatly to its spread and influence.
The controversy over whether the Soviet system was chaotic or whether it effectively served Stalin’s interests did not disappear with the sudden availability of enormous archival sources in the 1990s. Harris claimed that the then newly opened Communist Party archives showed evidence of a state characterized by both great chaos and by great personal control on the part of Stalin.
Contrary to expectations, the release of the personal archives of a number of Soviet leaders influential in the 1930s (among them, Molotov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, and Ordzhonikidze), showed that there was, in Harris’s words, “a shockingly small gap between what Soviet leaders said in public and what they said in private.”
According to his reading of the archives, the Soviet state under Stalin was unambiguously strong, with Stalin able to mobilize resources on an epic scale and to promote and kill millions of people. At the same time, however, Stalin perceived that the Soviet state was weak, surrounded by enemies (at home and abroad) and enjoyed weak support at home. Ultimately, Harris argued that it became impossible for Soviet intelligence gatherers to present information at odds with Stalin’s perceptions.
The unreliability of political police intelligence based on circumstantial evidence and confessions obtained under torture, combined with the Bolshevik dictate that those who were not with them were against them, led to a fundamental misperception of the domestic threat posed by spies, wreckers and saboteurs, said Harris.
A similar situation prevailed with respect to foreign affairs, where the highest priority of the secret police was also to identify threats to the Soviet regime. Time and again in the 1930s, recounted Harris, Soviet intelligence gatherers misread attempts to contain Germany as efforts to build an anti-communist alliance, despite withering criticism of such conspiracy-based interpretations by Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgii Chicherin.
Stalin’s perceptions and misperceptions also affected how he interpreted information about fulfillment of the five-year plans of the Soviet economy. In the 1930s, for example, Stalin declared that officials could not cite objective reasons for failing to fulfill plan targets 100 percent, claiming the Party did not simply adapt to objective conditions because the Party could influence and change those conditions.
As a result, said Harris, Stalin never grasped that the actions of Soviet officials to mislead the center and subvert central directives were a direct consequence of over-ambitious plans. “Throughout the 1930s, Stalin railed against the two-faced Soviet officials (dvulichnye) who supported Soviet policy in public, but worked to subvert it practice.” Despite three years of solid economic growth between 1934 and 1937, continued Harris, he moved to “rip the heart out of the economic apparatus” in order to wipe out the practices that his own policies had engendered.
“The information-gathering system that he inherited should have kept Stalin extremely well-informed and confident in the security of his position and the growing strength of the USSR,” concluded Harris. “Instead, it gave him a consistent, detailed and compelling picture of pervasive threat and vulnerability. How Stalin received and processed information is critical, in my view, to an understanding of Stalin’s vision and to an understanding of the Stalin era more broadly.”
Sarah Davies is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Durham University, UK. Her first book,“Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia” (Cambridge, 1997) was awarded the Alec Nove prize. James Harris is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Leeds, UK. His first book, “The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System” (Cornell, 1999), explored the relationship between the seat of Soviet power in Moscow and the regional party elites during the first two decades of Soviet power. Their forthcoming monograph, “Stalin on Stalinism: The Dictator on His World,” is due to be published in 2013. Arch Getty is Professor of History at UCLA. His publications include “Origins of the Great Purges” (Cambridge, 1985), “The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–39 (Yale, 1999), and “Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s ‘Iron Fist’” (Yale, 2008).