Stalin Was Wrong About His Team, Fitzpatrick Says

The team that took over the leadership of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin proved to be surprisingly cooperative and efficient, according to Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor at University of Sydney, who talked about Stalin’s team in a lecture hosted by CEU’s Department of History on October 14.

“Though many anticipated disaster, and the atmosphere was frantic after hundreds were trampled to death due to bottlenecks while Stalin’s body was on display, this was a failure of crowd control rather than that of leadership. The achievements of Stalin’s team are often overlooked, but they proved decisive,” Fitzpatrick said.

An internationally acclaimed expert on the history of the Soviet Union, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s lecture was based on her book “On Stalin’s Team”, recently published with Princeton University Press.

Before his death, Stalin often reminded his colleagues that “they would be lost without him”. According to Fitzpatrick, however, Stalin’s team was effectively running the country even before he died. The key party members were Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, Anastas Mikoyan, Nikita Khrushchev and Lavrentiy Beria.

“They were yes-men, sure, but the purpose of their yes-saying was to keep Stalin happy, to keep him busy with his hobbyhorses,” said Fitzpatrick. Nevertheless, Stalin had absolute veto power, and he could still get his initiatives through even before his death. Chief among these - silently opposed by his whole team - was his anti-Semitic campaign that was crowned by the persecution of Jewish doctors for their alleged participation in the so-called “Doctor’s plot” aiming to kill the leaders of the Soviet Union.

Sheila Fitzpatrick talking to a packed classroom at CEU. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel
Sheila Fitzpatrick talking to a packed classroom at CEU. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

After Stalin’s death the “team” soon embarked on major reforms, including the release of 1 million prisoners from the gulag, a normalization of foreign affairs with Western states, improving urban living standards and easing the burden on the peasantry, softening repression by the police, the de-Russification of the leadership of the Soviet satellite-states, and calling off the anti-Semitic campaign.

“They simply did not have time to develop these complex reforms, and could not have executed them so fast without an implicit consensus on their necessity,” said Fitzpatrick, emphasizing that no written sources remain about possible agreements on these policies before Stalin’s death. That’s no surprise, because any such document would have been enough for Stalin and the secret police to eliminate members of the team, especially since the ailing and increasingly paranoid Stalin was “gunning for Molotov and Mikoyan” for years before his death.

The level of their disenchantment with Stalin was surprising even to the children of the team. Mikoyan’s son proudly telling his father that he attended all three days while Stalin’s body was on display was curtly rebuked: “You were wasting your time”.

The cult of personality surrounding Stalin ended abruptly. References to Stalin’s wisdoms – obligatory elements in any article that time - disappeared from the newspapers. “In a media culture where anniversaries were meticulously celebrated, Soviet newspapers failed to mark the first anniversary of Stalin’ death,” Fitzpatrick said.

Changes did not go unnoticed by the public. Letters from readers testify that the disappearance of Stalin from the media was shocking to some, and the acquittal of the Jewish doctors was also suspicious.

“Our greatest leader of all, Stalin, did after all die from a disease, possibly at the hands of a doctor,” readers speculated. The influx of one million prisoners from the gulag to cities was also an unsettling experience for many citizens. The public mood was, however, fundamentally calm.
The power struggle among leaders that most observers awaited did not start for a while.

Sheila Fitzpatrick signing her book "On Stalin's Team". Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel
Sheila Fitzpatrick signing her book "On Stalin's Team". Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

According to written sources, the meetings of the highest echelon, called the Presidium, were conducted in a democratic manner with the presidency of Malenkov. Proposals, debates and common deliberation preceded most decisions in the style of “collective leadership”. Beria’s “frantic pace”, aggressive style and arrogance, however, upset the others, and Beria, as chief of the secret police, was feared even by his peers.

It was Khrushchev, who organized the arrest of Beria with the consent of the others. The following interrogations were inconclusive, largely due to the abolishment of torture during interrogations, ordered by Beria himself as part of the reforms. Beria was therefore convicted on fabricated claims, reminiscent of the style of Stalin’s purges. As opposed to Stalinist era practice, his family was left alive.

“Khrushchev could not stop boasting about his involvement in Beria’s removal. And indeed, that was the starting point of his ascent,” Fitzpatrick said. It is notable that Khrushchev later claimed many achievements of “liberalization and relaxation” as his own, though it was in fact a common effort by the Presidium.

The decisive denouncement of Stalin in Khrushchev’s Secret Speech during the 1956 Party Congress was also a result of deliberation with members of the Presidium, the “branding”, the condemnation of the personality cult, coming from Malenkov, according to Fitzpatrick. It was Khrushchev, though, who “accepted” the role of speaker at the Congress, and who, no doubt taking a big risk, reaped the benefits afterwards, and cemented his position as the first man in the Soviet Union, ending a short period of collective leadership.