Peter Craven’s ver­dict on Magda Szuban­ski’s memoir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously in Soviet Pol­i­tics By Sheila Fitz­patrick MUP, 364pp, $59.99 (HB) Ju­dith Armstrong’s most re­cent book was War and Peace and Sonya.

Another book by Sheila Fitz­patrick is good news for any­one in­ter­ested in the old Soviet Union. Pre­vi­ous works such as Ev­ery­day Stal­in­ism (1999) and The Cul­tural Front (1992) did much to ex­tend our grasp of the re­al­i­ties of so­cial and cul­tural life un­der the Soviet regime, while Po­lit­i­cal Tourists: Trav­ellers from Aus­tralia to the Soviet Union in the 1920s–1940s (co-edited by Carolyn Ras­mussen, 2008) was a re­minder that although Fitz­patrick’s post­grad­u­ate stud­ies and aca­demic work were con­ducted in Bri­tish and Amer­i­can univer­si­ties, she was the Mel­bourne-based daugh­ter of the Aus­tralian his­to­rian Brian Fitz­patrick.

She re­marks in her in­tro­duc­tion that On Stalin’s Team, her ‘‘first large-scale foray into high pol­i­tics or bi­og­ra­phy’’, is con­ceived as a pop­u­lar book also in­tended for schol­arly read­ers. The ti­tle care­fully tar­gets both au­di­ences. While the Rus­sian word ko­manda cov­ers sev­eral nu­ances, her cho­sen trans­la­tion, ‘‘team’’, is part of our pop­u­lar and po­lit­i­cal par­lance (con­sider for­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott urg­ing us all to be on ‘‘ Team Aus­tralia’’, ex­pos­ing the term to wide media satire).

In con­se­quence, a new kind of com­rade­ship may per­haps be read into Joseph Stalin’s pha­lanx, one that ren­ders them all less ... threat­en­ing? More like us? Not nec­es­sar­ily. The firstchap­ter run-through of the team’s ini­tial mem­ber­ship, which in­cluded an in­ner core and an outer ring but sub­se­quently un­der­went sev­eral changes due to early deaths, new re­cruits and the grisly ef­fects of the great purges, may daunt non-spe­cial­ist read­ers con­fused by un­pro­nounce­able Rus­sian names and job de­scrip­tions (ex­cept for those that have en­tered the vo­cab­u­lary, such as Vy­ach­eslav Molo­tov).

How­ever, once the nar­ra­tive gets go­ing no one will have any prob­lem fol­low­ing the drama of un­fold­ing events. The clear, step-by-step progress from the team’s for­ma­tion in the early, post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary 1920s to its demise fol­low­ing Stalin’s death in 1953 is sign­posted by head­ings that shout the chrono­log­i­cal march of history as well as the con­tents of each chap­ter: The Team Emerges, In Power, The Great Purges, Into War and so on. More­over, Fitz­patrick’s judg­ment as to whether mat­ters can be con­sid­ered gen­eral knowl­edge, such as the blow to Stalin’s con­fi­dence from Hitler’s be­trayal of the Molo­tov-Ribben­trop pact, as dis­tinct from those that re­quire more ar­cane ex­pla­na­tion, for ex­am­ple how the Bol­she­viks (mean­ing the ma­jor­ity) were ac­tu­ally the mi­nor­ity (Men­she­viks), is well judged.

So is her abil­ity to bal­ance the per­sonal lives of a dozen or so in­di­vid­u­als against the grand themes of Com­mu­nist Party as­pi­ra­tion. The post-1917 ob­ses­sion with the sur­vival of ‘‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit’’ in the face of in­creas­ing ‘‘bu- reau­crati­sa­tion’’, the use of five-year plans to strengthen the 20s push to in­dus­tri­alise, the deadly in­sis­tence on col­lec­tivi­sa­tion in the early 30s, cast an over­head light on the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try as a whole, while at the same time we see clus­ter­ing be­neath it the col­lec­tive and in­di­vid­u­alised lives of the team and their wives and chil­dren. The fam­i­lies in­habit large flats, en­joy priv­i­leged shop­ping and so­cialise at var­i­ous dachas. As the chil­dren grow into teenagers they be­come a kind of club, find­ing friends, form­ing re­la­tion­ships and even mar­ry­ing within the se­lect group of peers.

Fitz­patrick does her best to give all these peo­ple faces, but the lon­gi­tu­di­nal scope of the book as well as its large cast mean that read­ers may not greet ev­ery reap­pear­ance with in­stant recog­ni­tion. Two stand­out play­ers we re­ally get to know are Anas­tas Mikoyan, nearly 40 years in the pre­sid­ium, and Molo­tov, nick­named ‘‘stone-bot­tom’’, though he cer­tainly did more than sit on it. Enor­mously hard­work­ing, he was in­stru­men­tal in the req­ui­si­tion­ing of Ukrainian grain that cre­ated hor­rific famine in that coun­try, and the cham­pion of the Soviet Union’s aim to gain in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, ul­ti­mately re­ceiv­ing the ac­co­lade of be­ing the ‘‘sec­ond citizen’’ af­ter Stalin.

But we also learn that he dearly loved his strong-willed, Pol­ish-Jewish wife Polina, called Zem­chuzhina, who built up the Soviet cos­met­ics in­dus­try, be­came min­is­ter of fish­eries, and was ex­pelled from the party for her ties with ‘‘Jewish bour­geois na­tion­al­ists’’. (Her hus­band ab­stained from the vote, but af­ter­wards re­tracted on the grounds that he had failed to prop­erly guide this per­son ‘‘very dear to me’’). In 1949, Zem­chuzhina com­plied with Stalin’s com­mand that she di­vorce Molo­tov, but was nonethe­less ar­rested and ex­iled to Kaza­khstan.

Four years later, Stalin died. The day of his fu­neral, March 9, was Molo­tov’s 63rd birth­day; his present from Lavrenti Be­ria, then in charge of in­ter­nal af­fairs, was Zem­chuzhina’s im­me­di­ate re­turn from Kaza­khstan, her com­plete ex­on­er­a­tion from guilt and the restora­tion of her party mem­ber­ship. She and Molo­tov re­sumed their con­ju­gal life in a rare tri­umph over the puni­tive ir­ra­tional­ity of the regime.

The fo­cus of this book is specif­i­cally the play­ers rather than the cap­tain, but one can­not dis­cuss a team with­out men­tion­ing its leader. Nei­ther for­get­ting nor for­giv­ing Stalin the mon­ster, the per­pe­tra­tor of atroc­i­ties that wors­ened as his para­noia grew more ma­ni­a­cal, Fitz­patrick’s ac­count also leaves an em­blem­atic snap­shot of a des­per­ately lonely man-at­the-top. His wife had com­mit­ted sui­cide, his daugh­ter was alien­ated, and his un­will­ing col­leagues had to be dra­gooned into fill­ing the so­cial and emo­tional vac­uum in which he passed rage-driven days and heavy-drink­ing nights.

Af­ter his death the rem­nants of the team suf­fered a kind of coup de grace when the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, de­liv­ered his fa­mous 1956 speech.

Stalin, cen­tre, at his 50th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions in 1929; Mikoyan is third from right

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