J. Arch Getty on Stalin and Kirov

“Stalin and Kirov, along with other high-ranking party leaders, sought a restoration of the party apparatus through education, self-criticism, reorganization, and an attack on bureaucraticism at various levels. Stalin had said that the struggle was now for ‘men’s minds’; both he and Kirov claimed that the vast majority of the party’s problems could be solved through political education….

In the first place, virtually no evidence suggests that Kirov favored or advocated any specific policy line other than Stalin’s General Line. One scholar has recently concluded that ‘the problem exists of establishing to what extent the rise of Kirov and the new direction of Soviet policy were connected. As we have seen, they are often so interwoven that it is difficult to single out a line put forward by Kirov which is distinguishable from the official one.’ The rumor that Kirov favored lenient treatment for dissidents, for example, is offset by opposite contemporary speculations… A contemporary article in Nicolaevsky’s Sotsialisticheskii [Socialist herald] labeled Kirov a hard-liner. If Kirov was soft on the oppositionists, the opposition certainly did not know it.

Certainly Kirov’s public speeches do not reflect a moderate attitude toward members of the opposition. In his speech to the Seventeenth Congress, he ridiculed members of the opposition, questioning their ‘humanity’ and the sincerity of their recantations. He sharply denounced Trotsky’s ‘counterrevolutionary chatter’ and applauded the services of the secret police, including their use of forced labor on canal construction projects. It was upon Kirov’s motion that Stalin’s speech was taken as the basis for the congress’s resolution…

Indeed, as one scholar has recently shown, Stalin had identified himself with more relaxed social and educational policies as early as 1931. Stalin made conciliatory gestures to the ‘bourgeois specialists’ and relaxed educational restrictions that had excluded sons and daughters of white-collar specialists. In May 1933, Stalin and Molotov ordered the release of half of all labor camp inmates whose infractions were connected with collectivization. The following summer, the political police (NKVD) were forbidden to pass death sentences without the sanction of the procurator of the USSR. The November 1934 plenum of the Central Committee abolished food rationing and approved new collective farm rules that guaranteed kolkhozniki the right to ‘private plots’ and personal livestock…

The end of the violent class struggle in the countryside, the time for rallying supporters (the winning over of ‘men’s minds’ in Stalin’s Seventeenth Congress speech), political education, and a fight against bureaucratism had been parts of Stalin’s analysis of the situation and are not attributable solely to Kirov. A ‘policy of relaxation’ was also perceived on the literary scene. At the Soviet Writers’ Congress in August 1934, the venerable Maksim Gorky contrasted ‘proletarian humanism’ to vicious fascism. This, in the wake of the dissolution of the contentious Russian Association of Proletarian Workers (which, in the name of ‘proletarian literature’ had attacked writers considered too ‘bourgeois’), seemed to augur a more tolerant attitude toward literature. Previously suppressed artists were now allowed to return and work within the new Union of Soviet Writers. Young Andrei Zhdanov presided over these affairs in the name of the party.

If Stalin and Kirov were antagonists, it would be difficult to explain Kirov’s continued rise. Stalin chose Kirov for the sensitive Leningrad party leadership position and trusted him with delicate ‘trouble-shooter’ missions to supervise critical harvests (like Kirov’s journey to Central Asia in 1934). Kirov was elected to the Secretariat and Politburo in 1934, and Stalin wanted him to move to the Central Committee Secretariat in Moscow as soon as possible. Unless one is prepared to believe that Stalin did not control appointments to the Secretariat and Politburo (despite his alleged practice of manipulating ballots at congresses), one must assume that he and Kirov were allies.

Much more probable than a Kirov-versus-Stalin scenario is one in which Stalin, Kirov, and Zhdanov collaborated to overhaul the party’s educational curriculum. These efforts would eventually result in significant revisions in educational curricula and formed the foundation for the famous History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Short Course, in 1938. Such a collaboration would explain the thrust of Stalin’s and Kirov’s remarks at the Seventeenth Congress. Kirov’s promotion to the Secretariat, and Stalin’s wish for Kirov to take up his work in Moscow.

More obvious than ‘terror’ in 1934-5 was the continuation of the Kirov-Stalin policy of socioeconomic relaxation combined with the activation and radicalization of party work. Although many of these social and political measures have been attributed to Kirov in opposition to Stalin, it is more likely that Stalin supported the new policies.”

J. Arch Getty. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. pp. 92-95.

2 responses to “J. Arch Getty on Stalin and Kirov

  1. your sources are a little dated. try reading this book, getty collaborated on it.
    The Kirov Murder and Soviet History (Annals of Communism Series) by matthew e. lenoe
    like getty he pretty much blames nikolaev and uses his diary as a primary source indicating that nikolaev suffered from severe depression, and was not an agent of stalin, or for that matter foreigners. lenoe includes nkvd interrogation transcripts questioning why he had the phone numbers of the german and latvian consuls in his pocket and he proclaims (not verbatim just my spotty memory) “i was planning on killing myself after i shot kirov and i put the numbers in my pocket for sensationalism”. the nkvd didn’t believe him at first but eventually they came to believe it as the truth. it was however such a lame excuse that stalin himself actually conducted a personal interrogation of nikolaev since he thought the “sensationalism” was a lame excuse for a foreign agent. the transcripts that lenoe includes of the stalin interrogation are kind of funny and worthy of reading as nikolaev goes on a rant with “rude words” the stenographer was not allowed to type when he recognized stalin.

  2. Pingback: J. Arch Getty on Stalin and Kirov | marxismo leninismo

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