On Stalin's Team:
The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Princeton University Press 2015
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 http://dannyreviews.com/
The popular and in many cases the scholarly view of Stalin is as a solitary dictator, acting entirely by personal fiat. This is an implausible recipe for nearly thirty years in power, however, and in On Stalin's Team Sheila Fitzpatrick shows how Stalin relied on a close-knit group of colleagues both for gaining and holding on to power and for running the Soviet Union. They were something like a corporate management team with a dominant chief executive officer, but also a group that regularly socialised and was held together by ties of friendship.

There are some thematic sections, but the basic structure of On Stalin's Team is chronological, with its core a narrative history of the team from its emergence in the faction-fighting of the early 1920s down to 1957. This foregrounds events of importance to the makeup and dynamics of the team, but of necessity covers all the major events of Soviet political history and Stalin's own career. On many of these it sheds new light: another way of understanding the ruthlessness of the purges, insights into Stalin's decision-making, perhaps an entirely new way of thinking about the immediate post-Stalin years.

Into this narrative Fitzpatrick weaves details of the social and personal lives of the team: the relationships between them, their fashions in clothing, who used the familiar ty with Stalin and from when, who visited him the most in different periods, and so forth. This offers a novel view of Stalin, but is also fascinating in its own right, as a kind of group biography and a look at the personal lives of the Soviet elite.

A broad familiarity with the course of Soviet history is assumed, and endnotes provide full references, but On Stalin's Team is written for a relatively wide audience. To help lay readers there is a three page glossary and fifteen pages with mini-biographies of some seventy figures. Fitzpatrick only touches on historiographical issues: her introduction considers the choice of "team" (komanda) rather than a less neutral word such as "gang", for example, while the conclusion considers alternative models such as barons or ministers. There is no attempt to deploy any political theory or, for that matter, any anthropology or sociology. And there is only scattered discussion of sources, mostly woven into the narrative: the clear biases in the memoirs of team members and their children, the thinness of the Politburo record, the "work of art" that is Stalin's personal archive, and so forth.


"The Team Emerges" is an account of Soviet internal politics from Lenin's stroke in 1922 down to the exiling of Trotsky in 1929, focused on the core supporters Stalin gathered around him. His team was, in contrast to those of his rivals, "short on intellectuals, cosmopolitans, Jews, and former émigrés, but had more workers and Russians, as well as a substantial contingent from the Caucasus". Key early members included Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Kuibyshev, Radzutak, Andreev, Kalinin, Ordzhonikidze, Mikoyan and Kirov. (Many of these figures may be unfamiliar, and the brief biographies of them that Fitzpatrick provides at this point are a little dense, but as the book progresses she succeeds in conveying something of their distinctive personalities and leadership styles.) They were instrumental in Stalin's success in undermining the position of his rivals Trotsky and Zinoviev, working through elections and committee processes and debates. Stalin's use of a "dosage" approach, slowly isolating and weakening opponents rather than attempting knock-out blows, may have been necessary to build consensus among the team for attacks on friends and comrades.

With the Left Opposition out of the way the team had to switch from factional politics to governing. "The Great Break" saw Stalin take radical measures, ditching the New Economic Policy, attacking kulaks and introducing collectivization, and campaigning against untrustworthy "bourgeois specialists". This accompanied a falling out with the "Rightists" which was difficult at personal level for the team, since it involved purging people who had been team members or were close personal friends.

"While Rykov had always been an ally of Stalin's, rather than a member of Stalin's team, Bukharin and Tomsky had both been personally and politically close to Stalin in the mid-1920s. Indeed, during his vacations in 1925-26, Stalin addressed many of his communications jointly to Molotov and Bukharin, as acting team captains in his absence."

"In Power" describes how the team, and their wives and children, socialised in the early period and the complex network of family relationships and friendships interlinking them; it also delves into the backgrounds and employment of the team wives, most of whom had independent careers, and the context for the suicide of Stalin's wife Nadya. Most of the team had formal status as Politburo members, though Molotov headed the government and Kalinin the parliament. Politically the rural situation took a turn for the worse, with conflicts over collectivization and severe famines, most notably in the Ukraine. (Here, as elsewhere, Fitzpatrick is interested in questions of responsibility, but as historian rather than as a prosecutor.)

"Of the great and terrible events the team was involved in over thirty years, the famine is the one on which the team said least, either at the time or later. None of them appear to have gone out on a limb for aid to starving peasants. Even in the 1970s, the subject was so touchy for Molotov that, when a sympathetic interviewer cited critical opinions on Moscow's handling of the famine, he burst out that these were the petty bourgeois ideas of Communists who came along to an easy life when the hard stuff had already been done."

"The Team on View" starts with the XVII Party Congress in January 1934 and describes Mikoyan's visit to the United States in 1936, but mostly addresses three aspects of the team. The limited extent to which they shared in Stalin's cult of personality. Their lack of foreign experience and languages (which didn't stop them being involved in foreign policy, though Stalin liked to charm foreign visitors by himself). And their broader cultural and intellectual links: the team was mostly proletarian, but many became notable patrons of literature and the arts.

"The rapprochement of Soviet political leaders and the cream of the intelligentsia was just getting under way in the 1930s, and would develop further and faster in the 1940s as the team's children grew up and embraced intelligentsia values and, in many cases, professions."

Most of the team survived the Great Purges — Kirov's murder helped initiate them, while Ordzhonikidze committed suicide in 1936 after an argument with Stalin — but they were at risk themselves and many of their family members, friends and close colleagues were purged and in some cases killed. They were co-perpetrators as well as potential victims: Molotov and Kaganovich appear to have been closest to Stalin during the period. And a team perspective offers one explanation for the ruthlessness of the purges: the team may have provided an audience for Stalin to show off his revolutionary commitment and Bolshevik toughness; the need to set an example for them may be why he didn't spare his own family and friends.

The Second World War was a high point for the team, when Stalin's initial miscalculation and the necessities of war led to government by a State Defense Committee (GKO). The team played a crucial role in the Soviet Union surviving and going on to win the war: despite their lack of formal training — some lacked even a full school education — by this time they had acquired substantial management skills and specialist knowledge.

"In the partially formalized division of labor in the GKO, Stalin was in charge of the military side and the rest were in charge of the economy (whose performance, in the opinion of historians, was remarkably good, better than the military). Malenkov, Beria, and Mikoyan, along with Molotov, formed the operational leadership of the GKO. Mikoyan, as usual, was running supply, including that of the Red Army, and later also armament production; he was also still head of the foreign trade ministry and thus superintended lend-lease deliveries from the United States and Britain. This was one of the high points of his career, both in terms of operational effectiveness and closeness to the center of power. Tank production, aviation production, and the atomic industry were at different times under the charge of Molotov, Malenkov, and Beria, with a tendency for Beria to take over more responsibilities during the course of the war. Planning was under the fast-rising Nikolai Voznesensky, Stalin's new favorite."

After the war:

"One could have imagined a postwar future in which Stalin, his suspicious nature appeased by international fame and victory, and his companions, with some of the insularity rubbed off by foreign contacts and their minds broadened by their increasingly cosmopolitan grown-up children, would have lost their suspicion of the West and let the closed frontier — necessarily opened, as far as the Allies were concerned, during the war — remain ajar. It didn't happen."

Molotov was criticised by Stalin for currying favour with the West, Zhdanov was forced to crack down on artistic freedom, and Zhdanov's son Yury was slapped down when he attacked Lysenko.

As Stalin aged, he became increasingly lonely and depended on the team for personal support — most notably forcing them to join him in late-night drinking sessions — as well as politically.

"As Stalin's energy and competence declined, he handed over more and more business to other members of the team, just signing off on whatever they decided when it was sent to him at the dacha for signature. His judgment grew erratic."

The apparent servility of team masked their independence: Stalin himself saw it as "depriving him of valuable knowledge of their internal disagreements".

The Leningrad Affair, in which team newcomers Voznesensky and Kuznetsov were purged (and executed), may have benefited the old guard of the team. Stalin's anti-Semitic turn however created consternation amongst the team, many of whom were Jewish or had Jewish wives and friends; it may have been connected with his attacks on Mikoyan and Molotov, who was forced to divorce his Jewish wife. But the rest of the team — especially a core group of four, Malenkov, Beria, Bulganin and Khrushchev — supported them, and they continued to attend both formal meetings and even social events against Stalin's wishes.

In many ways the most interesting chapter is the one covering events after Stalin's death, when the team continued running the Soviet Union, largely without unrest or conflict, until 1957, when Khrushchev purged Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich (as the Anti-Party Group) and ended the team. The one major change before that was the collective action by the rest of the team in 1953 to arrest and execute Beria, who had shown the greatest eagerness for personal power and was pushing reforms hardest. The team perspective also sheds light on events such as the Secret Speech criticising Stalin and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when Mikoyan adamantly opposed the use of Soviet troops.

A final chapter recounts the fates of the survivors: Molotov and Malenkov worked effectively in the minor roles given to them and the former was eventually given his party membership back; Khrushchev himself fell from power in 1963 and died in 1971; Mikoyan died in 1978; and Kaganovich survived till 1991, just missing the breakup of the Soviet Union. The relationships of the survivors and their children were dominated by bickering, score-settling, and contestation of the past through memoir-writing.


There's the occasional place where too much information is dumped too rapidly, but On Stalin's Team mostly maintains its narrative drive. The dramatic events of thirty five years of Soviet history provide plenty of excitement, especially as Fitzpatrick's approach offers a new perspective on many of them, but the biographical and personal details are also engaging.

November 2015

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%T On Stalin's Team
%S The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics
%A Fitzpatrick, Sheila
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2015
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691145334
%P 364pp