Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 37. Monolithic Power

BETWEEN THE MURDER of Kirov and the dismissal of Iagoda, Stalin operated with maniacal energy and cold, calculated purpose. Everything he did gave the Soviet state what later observers believed was its magical source of strength: its monolithic power. Stalin eliminated, politically and then physically, all politicians who had shown a capacity to act or even think independently. He set in stone a pyramidal power structure: himself, his Politburo, the NKVD, the party’s bureaucracy. He asserted total control over every government commissariat, from foreign policy to culture and light engineering. He structured the population so that there was no social basis for any revolt or dissent: the peasants were crushed, the intelligentsia suborned or terrified, the workers tied to their workplaces. Only the army remained self-governing, and not for long. Stalin pushed women away from power; a few token women did his bidding on the Central Committee but the valkyries of the revolution were all disarmed. He made divorce difficult, abortion nearly impossible, and homosexuality illegal. There was no prospect of a new generation shattering the monolith; children and adolescents were organized into the Communist Youth Movement, which kept a tight grip on their activities and ideology from puberty to adulthood. The class system was allegedly abolished although actually a caste system was emerging. The party became self-perpetuating. There were no more spectacular mésalliances like the marriage of Kollontai and Dybenko; party, NKVD, and intelligentsia interbred: Gorky’s granddaughter married Beria’s son and Stalin’s grandson Fadeev’s daughter.

A few genuine scientists, as well as a horde of charlatans, still contributed to Soviet thinking, but Stalin had congealed thought too. Genetics and modern physics were declared heretical. Music not in C major, poetry not paraphrasable, painting and cinema not monumental or strictly representational, were all banned. The whole country even began to look alike: from standard-issue clothing to standard housing and transport, Stalin created a seemingly unchangeable world where Everyman’s monotony was broken only by the garish pageants and uniforms of the party and police elite. Stalin’s precautions against his assassination reached absurd levels. Nothing but an invasion by outside forces— and here Stalin was convinced that his own cunning was defense enough—could shake the foundations of the world he seemed to have created single-handedly in 1935–6.