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

Part X. THE GRATIFICATION OF CRUELTY

Our Ninika has aged,
His hero’s shoulders have failed him.
How did this desolate grey hair
Break an iron strength?

Sozeli (I. Jughashvili)

Chapter 60. Senescence

THE LAST SEVEN YEARS of Stalin’s life and rule are distinguished by a process of petrifaction, a hardening of the arteries at all levels. For all that he tinkered with the organization of party and government, the changes were more in nomenclature than in reality. While new henchmen were promoted, the old, for the most part, were retained. Stalin’s main concern was to establish his power structure in a perpetual state of balance and counterbalance, and his technique was to stimulate mutual jealousy and suspicion, and an overriding fear of himself, among his underlings. As 1947 approached, the suspicion and fear grew; every year ending in a 7 marked ten years since the revolution. In 1927 Stalin had jettisoned Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev and made the party overwhelmingly Stalinist; in 1937 he had launched the Great Terror; in 1947 his hangmen expected a new purge.

Yet Stalin was now a less energetic man, less able to see his measures through to the end. His memory began to let him down and the postwar world demanded far more attention than even the most paranoiac workaholic could devote. In the 1930s foreign policy had been a matter of balancing Germany against western Europe and keeping an eye on Japan. Now America and NATO were a hostile bloc; the Chinese revolution and the Korean War demanded massive Soviet involvement; the disintegration of the French and British colonial empires was creating instability around the world while eastern Europe had to be incorporated into a new Soviet empire; and the USSR, its morale, its economic, agricultural, and industrial might severely damaged by war, had to be reconstructed.

Stalin thus had to delegate, but he simultaneously immersed himself in areas that were esoteric for him including linguistics and biology, interfering simultaneously in favor of a dogmatic Marxist approach that defied all modern science but also in favor of pragmatic common sense. Similarly, in politics, Stalin pursued both a consistent doctrinaire line of vindictive repression and a logical pragmatic one of flexible incentives. His decisions and policies were not motivated by the desire to achieve the best or the most efficient outcome. He wanted to paralyze opposing views by limited support and limited condemnation of both sides, so that neither the fanatical Marxist nor the pragmatic realist would dominate in any field. That paralysis of Soviet thought and initiative which would eventually bring about the downfall of the USSR was Stalin’s way of disabling the succession. His henchmen understood this; they hedged their bets and quietly tried to build their own power bases.