Peter Craven’s verdict on Magda Szubanski’s memoir
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