The title alone of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s On Stalin’s Team is enough to surprise: Stalin, the great dictator, instigator of purges, the gulags, the Great Terror, was a member of a team? Yet Fitzpatrick demonstrates that this was in fact the case, that across nearly three decades Stalin worked closely with the same small group of men, and that this team even survived Stalin’s decline and death by some years. Who were these men? Their names are in danger of disappearing into the footnotes of history—but for the ballet company that carries his name, Kirov might be entirely forgotten. The image of Khrushchev at the United Nations, hammering on his desk with his shoe, is still vivid, but what do we now know of Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, Beria, and the others? They were not flamboyant figures—like Stalin himself, they were organization men, secretaries, administrators. Trotsky abused Molotov as one of “the Party bureaucracy without souls, whose stone bottoms crush all manifestations of free initiative and free creativity”. “We can’t all be geniuses, comrade Trotsky”, Molotov primly responded. It is notable that only one of the team was a military hero, the cavalryman Voroshilov—Stalin was ever wary of the popular prestige enjoyed by soldiers, his chief rival Trotsky in particular.
Ultimately it was the stone-bottomed bureaucrats who triumphed. The team took shape during the struggle for power within the Party following the death of Lenin. Stalin comprehensively outmaneuvered the mercurial Trotsky and his other rivals, using his powers as general secretary to dominate meetings and assemblies, place members of the nascent team in positions of power, and isolate the opposition. As the team settled into power, they drove the forced collectivization of farms and the breakneck industrialization of the Soviet Union through the 1930s. The transformation of the largest state in the world into an industrial powerhouse could not be achieved by the efforts of one man alone—Stalin’s team were capable, independent, powerful operators in their own right. Not content only to work together, Stalin and his team had apartments in the same buildings, socialized together, and joined each other’s family gatherings.
The subtitle of the book is no less significant than the title: “The years of living dangerously in Soviet politics.” Political life in Stalin’s Soviet Union was punctuated by a series of show trials and purges; thousands were executed, countless more sentenced to a slower death in the gulags. Team members became adept at taking the temperature of their relationship with Stalin. An unexpected demotion or a posting to a remote area presaged trouble—this was often Stalin’s first move in weakening a strong opponent. The scripted confessions of the accused in the show trials often included lists of those targeted for assassination—not to be included on that list was an implicit sign that Stalin no longer regarded you as a member of the inner circle. Family members might be arrested or imprisoned: despite his years of loyal service as Stalin’s number two, Molotov was forced to stand by as his wife was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately exiled to Kazakhstan for five years.
But the clearest sign was the regularity with which you were invited to keep Stalin company at night. After the (presumed) suicide of his wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, in 1932, Stalin increasingly relied on his team for friendship, requiring their presence for long nightly sessions of eating, drinking, and watching movies. Despite the physical toll taken by these hard nights after arduous working days, refusal to attend was unthinkable. Towards the end of Stalin’s life, these nightly gatherings even became the scene for a subtle revolt of the team against its leader. Stalin had decided that Molotov and Mikoyan were personae non gratae—the arrest of Molotov’s wife was only one strand in a campaign undermining his position. Despite this, both Molotov and Mikoyan continued to show up, uninvited, night after night, daring Stalin to eject them. The team was closing ranks against the ailing Stalin—someone was informing the two where the team was meeting each night.
The Team Leaves the Field
After Stalin’s death in 1953 the team continued to function. Steps were quickly taken to remove the overambitious Beria—as the head of state security he was widely suspected of holding incriminating files on his colleagues, and even of having hastened the death of Stalin himself. But the remaining team members focused on running the state with renewed freedom and energy. It was not until another four years had passed that Khrushchev emerged as sole leader—ironically it was an attempt by other members of the team to oust him that propelled Khrushchev to the top. When Khrushchev himself was deposed in 1964, it was by a new generation in Soviet politics, men who had not known Stalin. After nearly forty years, the team had finally left the field.