Review – The Lost Politburo Transcripts: From Collective Rule to Stalin’s Dictatorship

Recently, the Russian government transferred thirty-one Politburo transcripts, or stenograms, from the Presidential Archives to the Russia State Archive of Social and Political History.  This relocation essentially declassified the documents and opened them to academic research, and the present volume includes twelve essays from both western and Russian scholars whose studies attempt to elucidate the newly accessible documents.  The majority of the transcripts cover the years 1925-1932 with two outliers from 1938.  In the introduction to the collection, editor Norman Naimark observes that these verbatim transcripts reveal three important themes from the interwar years including the depth of policy discussed by Soviet leaders, the political nature of decision making at the highest levels of the Bolshevik party, and the personal interactions between the leaders of the Politburo.  As the editors asked the scholars to write in their specialized field, the essays are an eclectic collective, but the editors created three sections titled “The Power Struggle,” “Discourse, Ideology, and Propaganda,” and “Economic Policy.”  Although divided into these sections, the major theme of the work can be drawn from the book’s subtitle – “From Collective Rule to Stalin’s Dictatorship.”  As an assembled volume, these essays portray the methods, language, and action used by Stalin to consolidate his power within the Politburo and the Soviet state.

The first two sections of the volume essentially focus on Stalin’s ability to politically outmaneuver other leading Bolsheviks within the Politburo by declaring dissenters and oppositionists to his policies as threats to the ruling communist party.  Hiroaki Kuromiya demonstrates how Stalin presented himself as a loyal representative of the party making any attacks against him appear to be assaults against the party.  This allowed Stalin paint his rivals as oppositionists to Marx, Lenin, and the natural “laws of society.”  This is evident in the essays by Oleg Khlevniuk and Charters Wynn whose studies examine challenges to Stalin’s power after the setbacks to collectivization.   Khlevniul’s examination of the Syrtsov-Lominadze Affair shows that Stalin knowingly permitted his critics Syrtsov and Lominadze, who were not opposed to collectivization but angered by Stalin’s extreme policies, to secretly meet and then accused them of factionalism and planning to overthrow the party.  Stalin then used this pretense to remove those individuals threatening his position, expelling the leaders from all party position.  In the same vein, Wynn depicts the removal of two old Bolsheviks from the party who harshly criticized Stalin and the collectivization process over bottles of vodka.

Similarly, Alexander Vatlin’s lone essay on foreign policy also demonstrates the methods Stalin used to maintain power when challenged by other leading Bolsheviks.  Vatlin explores how the British General Strike of 1926 influenced the power struggle within the Politburo, and reveals that this event gave rise to the “United Opposition,” composed of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev.  The United Oppositionists, angered by Stalin and the majority of the Politburo’s decision to support the British Trade Unionists who ended the strike, argued that Stalin and others were giving into social democracy and not supporting the workers who remained on strike for months.  However, the majority argued that they could not abandon the trade unions because they were instruments of proletarian power.  Although this hotly contested argument played out in both the Politburo and the Comintern, Stalin and his majority survived by using their numbers to out vote the opposition and then remove them from the Politburo.  Although Stalin triumphed in this argument, open debate remained possible and Stalin still needed to follow the procedures of the party to remove his challengers from power.

Relating to these essays are the works by Robert Services and Rustem Nureev.  Service’s examination of the transcripts reveals that Stalin and his majority often acted in moderation and in an almost detached manner.  They allowed opponents like Trotsky to give long-winded speeches in which they contradicted earlier policy positions making it easier from Stalin to point out their deviance from the party line and remove threats.  While these essays depict Stalin’s ability to maneuver and remove threats, Nureev’s essay on the 1938 transcripts reveals a complete change to the Politburo’s internal functions.  The transcripts from the 1920 depict an organization that debated policy positions whereas the 1938 transcripts demonstrate Stalin’s total domination of the Politburo.  Nureev’s essay recounts the publication of Stalin’s book the Short Course of the History of the All-Union Communist Party and depicts how Stalin used this book to create a new party history which expunged prominent Bolsheviks from the revolution, particularly those Stalin had systematically removed during the 1920s and 1930s.  Moreover, the short course acted a propaganda piece for Stalin’s version of Soviet history.

The third section explores economic discussions within the Politburo transcripts and demonstrate how party interest led to the removal individuals who advocated pragmatic economic policy against the interest of the party.  R.W. Davies essay examines a transcript from late 1925 in which the Politburo discussed the independent Central Statistical Administration (TsSU).  By 1925, this agency’s independent statistics showed that a majority of the surplus grain came from only 14% of peasant households, possibly indicating a shift towards capitalism.  Unwilling to admit the problem, the Central Committee quickly conducted its own study found the TsSU numbers to be false.  With these new “official” numbers, the Politburo removed the head of the TsSU and reformed the agency.  David Woodruff explores the interaction between grain, industrialization, and the gold standard and the internal politics of the Politburo.  In 1925, a grain shortage resulted in a large import of grain which decreased the amount of gold held by the state.  At the same time, industrialists were poised for a large expansion program which required large imports as well.  This resulted in intense debates within the Politburo over how to handle the situation without running out of gold.  Ultimately, Politburo decided to decrease the amount funded to industrialist in 1925.  Mark Harrison examines the Politburos role in controlling food prices and how incremental decisions over the years finally resulted in the command economy.

As a whole, this collection clearly accomplishes the broad themes set out by the editors, however, the volume’s real strength is depicting the transformation of the Politburo as Stalin slowly consolidates his power.  The meetings from the 1920s clearly show that the Politburo was an open forum for policy discussions and individuals brought their own ideas which were openly discussed.  This is not to say that factions did not exist, but because no member or faction completely dominated the Politburo it was possible to challenge idea or individual without fear of reprisal.  Prior to Stalin’s consolidation of power, he was forced to maneuver within the Politburo and work with other dominant figures such as Bukharin until he could stand on his own.  Moreover, even Stalin remained unable to liquidate those old Bolsheviks he removed from power during the 1920s, and they often lived far from Moscow until the show trials of the 1930s.

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