Review: Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle
Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle
By Oleg V. Khlevniuk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov
Yale University Press, 2009
HC: 344 pages
$38.00 ($30.41 on Amazon, click here)
What the author set out to write was a detailed study from Soviet archives intended to refute a prior theory that Stalin’s rule in the 1930’s involved Stalin as a balance wheel between radical and moderate factions within the Stalinist clique at the top of the party – state apparatus. He makes an excellent case that this was not so. He shows personal alliances across the supposed moderate – radical fault line. He shows that supposed radicals and moderates changed their supposed ideology as they changed positions within the overlapping spheres of state and party bodies governing the Soviet Union. He shows Stalin making a show of leadership by committee long after the internal archives show that no decision of any serious consequences could be made without him, much less in opposition to him. On all of this the author makes a quite convincing case but, as is often the case with archival research, even in far more open societies than Putin’s Russia one should be wary of accepting that any conclusion is truly final until far more decades of archival mining have taken place. All that one can truly say at this point is that the earlier analysis based on memoirs and similar less exacting sources needs new evidence from the archives to again be taken seriously.
However, in demonstrating his thesis, the author has done something of far greater import. He provides a top down nuts and bolts view of how such an intricate overlapping party-state structure worked and evolved. Even in our current hypercomputerized age, basic administrative governance has proven to be an illusive goal for large organizations both public and private. Watching the Stalinists make an overlapping maze of party, all-Union and republic organizations function provides a wealth of instruction in how to make even a dysfunctional machine work. One of the things it shows is that the gap between what is supposed to be done and how the actual chief power holders operate is both large and tends to grow over time. Short cuts and expedients develop their own bureaucratic trappings which, in turn, require further short cuts. The author also shows why the demands of such a complex bureaucracy require that even a near man-God such as Stalin required colleagues. He could afford to kill any of them but not all at once, as promoting new ones took training time.
The book is weakest on failing to explain the source of Stalin’s vast power. It is essentially treated as a given. This in turn presumes a bit of background on Soviet and party history from the Civil War through the beginnings of collectivization. While this is not a specialist work per se it does require more than a novice’s background knowledge to fully make sense. The second weakness is breaking off with the approach to war. The period 1939-45 was the great test of the Stalinist system. One awaits with hope a successor volume.