Two books about the Soviet Union

Tatiana Yablonskaya. “Grain”, 1949


Commentary on the Works of Lincoln Secco and Sheyla Fitzpatrick

Brief history of the Soviet Union

Sheila Fitzpatrick is Australian, born in Melbourne in 1941. The back cover of the now republished book states that she currently teaches at the Catholic University of Australia, and is also an honorary professor at the University of Sydney. She is the author of a dozen books, among which is the object of this review.

The book is dedicated to three Sovietologists, who died during the period of writing of the book: Jerry Hough, her ex-husband between 1975 and 1983; Stephen F. Cohen, who was a dedicated student of Soviet-Russian affairs at Columbia University, New York; in her thanks, she says he was a critic and a rival, becoming a friend over the years; and Seweryn Bialer, who she says was her interlocutor and provided her with a perspective on communist matters, as he was one of them.

In addition to the Introduction and Conclusion, the book consists of seven chapters, the last of which is dedicated to the “fall”. His posture, as he declares in the Introduction, is that of the historical anthropologist. According to her, “whatever socialism might mean in “theory”, something that in the 1980s gained the clumsy name of “really existing socialism” emerged “in practice” in the Soviet Union”. The purpose of the book would then be to tell his story, from birth to death. Taking into account the space restriction, this review will basically restrict itself to chapters 3 (Stalinism) and 4 (The war and its consequences), both centered on the historical role played by Joseph Stalin in the years he was in power.

At the heart of Stalin's revolution was industrialization, not collectivization of agriculture; however, economists maintained that the only way to finance industrialization was to “squeeze out” the peasantry. A program of total collectivization of agriculture was then launched in the winter of 1929, making the newly created collective farms the only legal traders in grain and the State its only customer. This program was accompanied by a parallel process of “de-culakization”, which had as its motto the “liquidation of the culaques as a class”. About 4% of all peasant families (from 5 to 6 million people) were victims of desculakization.

With the “Cultural Revolution”, the author completes the set of three aspects of the so-called “Great Break”, as named by Stalin, highlighting what she called affirmative action, in which women were also included. According to her, affirmative action was something new on the international scene in 1930, not even having a term in the English language to describe it.

The economic development of the Soviet Union took place on the basis of Five Year Plans. The first of these represented an early effort at economic planning and focused on the rapid development of heavy industry, particularly mining, metallurgy, and machinery. Without having much capital, the State resorted to cheap labor: women, urban unemployed and kulaques, whose deportation was considered by the author as one of the most significant factors in this process. In addition, millions of young peasants left the villages, some fleeing dislocation, others looking for job opportunities in the cities. Twelve million moved permanently from the villages to the city in the period 1928 to 1932 alone.

To make this process closer to the discussions that are taking place today around Ukraine, it is worth mentioning the author's opinion that one of the most heated and long-lasting debates was about focusing on the development of Ukraine, which had a more modern infrastructure. , and, in addition, it met the imperatives of security, one of the country's priority objectives. Because of them, Stalin was inclined to favor the Russian/Ukrainian heartland over non-Slavic regions for the deployment of defence-related factories.

During the first Five Year Plan, Russia achieved virtually full employment, with unemployment disappearing from the Soviet repertoire of social problems for the next sixty years. The great failure, in his opinion, was collectivization, which set back agriculture for decades. In many people's memory, however, the 1930s were a wonderful and exciting time to grow up, creating a sense of collective purpose, which was to be mirrored in literature and the arts by 'socialist realism'. There were even signs of political relaxation. A new Constitution was established, which guaranteed all basic freedoms, including those of speech and assembly. According to her, several candidates could run for office in the forthcoming elections.

But in the mid-1930s, trends in the opposite direction also occurred. One of them is the threat of war, with the rise of Nazi Germany in Central Europe. Another was internal, resulting from the murder of Sergei Kirov, party leader in Leningrad, in December 1934. Zinoviev and Kamenev were tried for this murder and sentenced to death. Another was the terror process, which the author calls the “Great Purges”, which had among those accused of sabotaging the industry by its leaders, Ordjonikidze's deputy at the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry.

He committed suicide, after fighting futilely in the last months of 1936, to avoid witnessing the destruction of the group of industrialists he had created. In 1937, the purge affected Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski and practically the entire high military command, convicted in a closed martial court for conspiracy with the Germans and summarily executed. In 1938, a third staged trial was staged in Moscow against Bukharin and Iagoda.

After the great purges, the top echelons of all institutions began to be occupied on a large scale by novices, often made up of recent graduates from the lower class, with a party card hurriedly removed during training. Institutional memory had been lost, albeit temporarily, as the people who took over the posts learned to exercise them.

The author preferred to leave the war and its consequences to a separate chapter. It begins by indicating the signing, by Viacheslav Molotov, then newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of the country, of the Non-Aggression Pact with its German equivalent, von Ribbentrop. The document guaranteed that the two countries would not attack each other and secret protocols recognized their respective spheres of interest in Eastern Europe.

In these protocols, the Soviet Union explicitly recognized the Germans' right to take control of western Poland in exchange for the Soviet right to do the same in the eastern provinces ceded to Poland in 1921. received the message that it was an alliance of convenience.

The incorporation of eastern Poland was the first Soviet territorial acquisition since the end of the civil war. Polish territories were divided between the republics of Ukraine and Belarus, adding 23 million former Polish citizens to the population. A few months later, Soviet troops occupied the three Baltic countries, former provinces of the Russian empire that had gained independence between the wars, as well as parts of Bessarabia. The result was the addition of four more small republics to the Soviet Union: Latvia, Lithuania. Estonia and Moldova.

In June 1941 the Germans moved their troops to the new Soviet border, which in itself indicated the possibility of an attack. At least 84 attack warnings were received, but Stalin, desperate to avoid any "provocation" the Germans might use as an excuse to attack, refused to approve a military response. On 22 June, Operation Barbarosa began with a massive German attack, which destroyed most of the Soviet air force on the ground, advanced Wehrmacht forces across borders with frightening speed, and drove Soviet troops and the population back. in a disorderly withdrawal and evacuation.

On July 3, Stalin went on the radio to save the Russia from foreign invaders, not as a war to save the world's first socialist state. Miraculously Moscow did not fall to the Germans in October, and many government offices and many residents – around 12 million people at the end of 1942 – had already been evacuated to the East. The remaining citizens of Moscow were serving as volunteers in people's defense units, but many attributed Soviet success above all to "General Winter". By the end of 1942, 40% of the territory and 45% of the population of the Soviet Union were under German occupation.

The turning point came at Stalingrad in January 1943. After weeks of hand-to-hand combat in the streets of the city, the Soviet army managed to defeat the German troops, starting their withdrawal to the West, which lasted more than a year. Despite ardent appeals from the Soviets, no second front was opened in the West. The Soviet victory in Manchuria led Germany's ally Japan to sign a neutrality pact in 1941. At home, Stalin represented a new and charismatic figure on the world stage. A similar shift in Soviet public opinion boosted the popularity of the Allies, particularly the United States and Roosevelt.

The Soviet conduct of the war was predictably ruthless, Stalin declaring that anyone who allowed himself to be imprisoned by the enemy was a traitor, whose family, like himself, would be subject to punishment. The advance into Poland made the Soviet Union the first Allied power to reach and liberate the Nazi concentration camps, Majdanek in July 1944 and Auschwirtz the following January.

Soviet losses during the war were enormous and the task of reconstruction formidable. Population losses were estimated at 27 or 28 million people. In the country as a whole, nearly a third of the prewar stock of capital had been destroyed; in German-occupied territories, it was two-thirds.

Victory Day was first celebrated in June 1945 on Red Square in Moscow. The Soviet Union had been a pariah on the international stage before the war, but by the end of it it was an emerging superpower.

The United States and the Soviet Union would be the post-war superpowers, no longer allies, but ideological and geopolitical antagonists. In 1947, Churcil, already out of power, but with the support of American and British leaders, indicated in a speech the existence of an "iron curtain" that divided the continent. In 1948, the conflict over Berlin nearly escalated into war, and Western concern about Soviet intentions sharply increased when the Soviet Union successfully tested its own atomic bomb.

During the war, hope was cherished that victory, if it came, would bring relief and general improvement, even though it was known that in reality, things would not be easy, in view of the tense international situation and the enormous challenges of reconstruction cost-effective, carried out without external assistance. The number of Communist Party members had grown significantly – almost 2 million. As the state budget expanded in the postwar years, so did spending on social assistance, education, and public health. There has been an astonishing liberalization in many spheres of post-war life. But another kind of liberalization could be discerned in the flourishing of bribery and corruption.

In a familiar dialectic, liberal and repressive tendencies coexisted in Stalin's last years, most alarming of all being the rise of anti-Semitism. The official line condemned him, but the Jewish Antifascist Committee, created during the war, was dissolved and its main members were arrested.

International tensions were steadily rising between the two superpowers. In retrospect, it gives the impression of an overreaction, but that doesn't lessen the reality of Stalin's fear of “going to war”. He died on March 5, 1953. According to the author, even before Stalin took his last breath, the Politburo met in his office in the Kremlin to decide on the composition of the new government and write the press release. It was normalcy to an almost bizarre degree. The Soviet Union had a “new leadership collective (SF), in effect Stalin's Politburo, without Stalin.

history of the soviet union

Lincoln Secco is a professor of contemporary history at the University of São Paulo.

The book, in addition to the preface and a timeline, in which it inserts, by date of occurrence, the historical facts that marked Russia, since March 2, 1917, with the abdication of Nicholas II in favor of Grand Duke Miguel , until 1991, date of the official dissolution of the USSR, has 7 chapters, conclusion, glossary and bibliography. According to professor Lincoln Secco, the book, being brief and didactic, is restricted to some decisive moments in the history of the country.

To compose this review in terms with the writing about Sheila Fitzpatrick, it will have Chapter IV – Stalinism as its theme. It begins prosaically, with the information that Khrushchev, general secretary of the CPSU, at a meeting with militants in which he read his famous report on Stalin's crimes, received a written question from one of them, asking why the new general secretary did not he had denounced all that in Stalin's time. The answer came with a question: “who signs the question?” When no one responded, Khrushchev said, “Here is the answer. We were silent out of fear.”

On February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev read at the XX Congress of the CPSU the famous “secret report” that, according to Lincoln Secco, would mark the process known as “de-Stalinization”. The internal analysis of the document, as well as the external one, will show that it was not, nor was it intended to be secret.

Stalinism was a term coined by Stalin's opponents. Being hegemonic in the international communist movement, the Stalinists rarely assumed themselves as such, simply calling themselves “communists”. After the XX Congress of the CPSU, the expression “de-Stalinization” was used worldwide and it was assumed that between Lenin and Khrushchev there would have been another regime. The report advocated a “return to Lenin” and in this too, according to Professor Secco , the idea of ​​a deviation from the “objective” course of Soviet history is implicit.

As the official Marxism-Leninism of the 1940s affirmed the primacy of physical production in the explanation of phenomena and human action as a reflection that at most ruled over the economic base, the theory could be used both to condemn and to support any voluntarist policy. Objectivism and subjectivism followed each other. Voluntaryism and materialism cohabit Stalinist thought. If, on the one hand, ideology could transform everything, on the other hand, human actions were rigidly determined by laws of historical development.

As a “political technique”, Stalinism would go beyond its context of origin (the Soviet Union of the 1930s – LS). Professor Secco says in the text that he considers it a phenomenon limited to the Soviet Union and that exercised, more than influence, also a control over the international communist movement.

Regarding its genesis, Stalinism was sometimes seen as a “revolution from above”, sometimes as a “thermidorian reaction” or “bureaucratic counter-revolution”. The Stalinist regime was in fact not totalitarian, but Professor Secco understands that in the analysis, “we cannot limit ourselves only to the formality of government decisions”. He cites the historian Hobsbawm, who argued that Lenin's pragmatic bigotry knew no bounds, but that his views would never go unchallenged and there is no evidence that he accepted or even tolerated the secular cult that Stalinism developed after his death.

Trotsky offered a convincing materialist explanation in this case. The 1917 party disappeared a few years later. That is, according to him, 70% of the members joined during the civil war. Zinoviev said in 1923 that party members with affiliation before 1917 in all of Russia did not number ten thousand (roughly 2,5% of the total). By 1927, three-quarters of the members had joined after 1923, and less than 1% were veterans who had participated in the October Revolution. The raw data of CPSU membership growth is displayed in a table, discriminating between effective members and prospective members.

There were purges, including at the top of the army, one of its victims being Marshal Tukhatchevski, summarily shot in 1938. Old Bolsheviks pointed to the Moscow processes of 1936-1938 as the moment of consolidation of Stalin's personal power. In 1937 alone there were three hundred thousand denunciations. Professor Secco reproduces data discovered by Moshe Lewin on Stalinist repression, supplemented by discoveries by other historians. According to some sources, in the years 1937 and 1938 arrests of 1.371.392 people were recorded, of which 681.692 were killed. In the Khrushvov Report, mentioned earlier, 1.500.000 prisoners and 68.692 dead are indicated. In the years 1937-1938, the forced labor camps received approximately 1.200.000 prisoners. The head of the NKVD (security service) himself, Iagoda was shot in 1938 by his successor Yezhov, who would later also be sentenced to death and shot. The total number of condemned was approximately 4 million people, of which 800 thousand were sentenced to death.

With Stalin's passing, terror definitely disappeared, but arrests for treason, espionage, anti-Soviet propaganda, illegal border crossing, contacts with foreigners, political demonstrations, disclosure of state secrets, misdemeanors and common crimes did not stop. Death sentences ceased to be counted in the hundreds of thousands and dropped from 5.413 in the period from 1959 to 1962 to 2.423 in the period from 1971 to 1974. The practice of abortion was legalized again in 1955. Women had more social importance recognized in the Union Soviet Union than in any other country. In the 1970s, it was perhaps the only country in the world where they constituted more than half of the social workforce (51%).

In dealing with Stalin's role in the 2nd. world war, Lincoln Secco dedicates a good part of this section to anti-Semitism, which was one of the accusations made against Stalin; he would have executed his Jewish opponents in the struggle for power, such as Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, in a social context where anti-Semitism was popular in Europe. On June 22, 1941, the Nazis entered the Soviet Union and in September surrounded Leningrad; in October they attacked Moscow. Part of the government left the city, but Stalin remained in Moscow, and on 7 November, the anniversary of the Revolution, he gave a speech in the Underground Underground.

The Battle of Moscow ended in January 1942. Between July 17, 1942 and February 2, 1943 the Battle of Stalingrad took place. It symbolized the turning point of the war, but according to Lincoln Secco, if Moscow had fallen like Paris, the Soviet Union would have been lost. The accusation that Stalin would have been disastrous as a conductor in the Second World War collides with the very idea of ​​him holding absolute power in the country. The Soviet victory and the testimonies of Churchill and Roosevelt made Stalin a real leader, whatever his real participation in the conduct of the war.

By the end of it, the Soviet Union controlled a part of Europe and Stalin emerged as an anti-fascist leader on the covers of major US magazines, being praised by poets around the world. According to Lincoln Secco, it was a preamble to the Cold War, but it allowed the international communist movement and the Soviet Union to survive, although no longer as a world revolutionary center and less and less as a model of society.

The apogee of Stalinism took place with the turn in internal politics in 1934, marked by the last moment of opposition to Stalin, at the XVII Party Congress. There were contradictions in which Stalinism moved: maximum repression on the inside, the search for consensus on the outside. The assassination of Kirov, general secretary of the CPSU in Leningrad, was the trigger for the great terror. In 1940, the phase of terror ended and that of war began; finally, the last phase was marked by the model for the new socialist countries and the resurgence of the purges (1946-1953).

De-Stalinization began timidly in 1952, with Stalin himself at the 5th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He died on March 1953 of the following year and the succession, according to Professor Secco, maintained an unstable balance of forces within the party. The idea of ​​collective leadership was reinforced, with Malenkov as president of the Council of Ministers. In September 28 Khrushchev was confirmed as general secretary of the party, and on 1955 April XNUMX he visited Belgrade and lifted Marshal Tito from excommunication from the international communist movement.

The Khrushchev Report was not confirmed by the Soviet leadership; read on February 25, 1956, at the end of the Party Congress, it was only published in the New York Times, in an inaccurate and poorly translated version. In the Soviet Union it was only published in full on March 3, 1989, in a monthly supplement to the newspaper Izvestia. He indicated the XVII Party Congress held in 1934 as the break with Leninism; and, precisely because the opposition had already been defeated, he criticized the expansion of repression, the replacement of ideological struggle by administrative violence and the use of extreme methods at a time when the Revolution had already triumphed.

According to Lincoln Secco, retrospectively it is possible to evaluate the report as a geopolitical mistake, from the point of view of the interests of the Soviet leadership. Without Stalin and the Komintern and under the Cold War, collective leadership would be the only possible one, but public criticism of Stalinism only weakened international communist unity. The Kominform was abolished exactly in 1956.

The Khrushchev Report made references to the criticism of the role of individual personality in History, with support from Marx; he criticized the abandonment of the Leninist collective leadership and cited Lenin's “Testament” and texts by his companion Krupskraia, with criticism of Stalin. Later, historiographical discussions focused on how the Report was released. Multiple copies of it were made and read at thousands of meetings. The new policy resulted from an agreement at the top bureaucratic level to end the physical elimination of opponents and guarantee the stability of the ruling group; society had become more complex and the reading of the Secret Report at the XX Congress of the CPSU aimed to control the spontaneous discussion on the subject.

De-Stalinization was never complete, although it left mass terror behind and allowed timid freedom in the arts. Stalin continued to be cited as a great statesman, although this diminished over the years. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Old Guard were not rehabilitated at that time. Between 1917 and 1939, of the 214 people who were presidents and vice-presidents of the Secretariat, the political and organizational bureau, the Central Committee and Sovnarkom, 62% were victims of terror and only 30% of them were rehabilitated. Militants who extrapolated in the criticism were expelled and fired from their jobs.

The victory over fascism brought prestige to the country; but it is often forgotten, according to Lincoln Secco, that the antifascist alliance resulted in the permanent withdrawal of Western communists for a revolutionary option. The Cold War cooled European revolutionary moods and, in the Third World, revolutions had more of a national liberation character than a properly socialist one.

But in capitalist countries too, hope for the future has become the nightmare of the XNUMXst century. The mass parties of the left, established trade unions and a self-confident working class all declined. Fascist movements returned and neoliberalism attacked the welfare state.

*Lenina Pomeranz is a retired professor at FEA-USP.

Text published in Maria Antonia Newsletter.


Sheila Fitzpatrick. Brief history of the Soviet Union. São Paulo. However, new edition, 2023.

Lincoln Secco. history of the soviet union. An introduction. São Paulo, Maria Antonia, 2nd. Edition, 2023.

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