Editors’ Note: Grover Furr’s rejoinder to this critical review of his book, Khrushchev Lied, can be also read at this website. See Rejoinder to Roger Keeran.
Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence That Every ‘Revelation’ of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) ‘Crimes’ in Nikita Khrushchev’s Infamous ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956 is Provably False by Grover Furr. Kettering, Ohio: Erythros Press and Media, 2011. $25.00. Pp. 425.
In 1987 William Morrow and Company published a biography of a leading Soviet Communist, L. M. Kaganovich, written by Stuart Kahan, an American journalist and allegedly Kaganovich’s nephew, who claimed to have interviewed Kaganovich in Yiddish in Moscow and who portrayed Kaganovich as the “architect” of Soviet terror. In a blurb a Yale historian praised the book as “an important contribution.”
A few years later, Kaganovich’s daughter and five other close relatives of Kaganovich issued a statement that they never heard of this so-called nephew, that Kaganovich did not understand or speak Yiddish, and that no interview with Kahan ever occurred. They detailed lies that riddled the book from beginning to end.
This episode was emblematic of the difficulty of knowing Soviet history. No modern history is more lacking in reliable official sources or more shrouded in ideology, propaganda and disinformation than the history of the Soviet Union. Even though the Soviet archives were briefly and partially opened to researchers in the 1990s, the lack of official archival material remains a problem, and the end of the Cold War only slightly diminished the anti-Soviet vitriol of most writing.
On the whole, writing on the Soviet Union represented what a mainstream historian has called the “totalitarian thesis.” According to this thesis, the Soviet Union could only be understood as a top-down dictatorship driven by power hunger and paranoia that sustained itself by arbitrary authority and violence. Leon Trotsky’s writing on the Soviet Union supplied the original inspiration for the totalitarian thesis , and Hanna Arendt gave it an academic imprimatur in 1951.
After Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 supplied the thesis with seemingly unimpeachable verification from the inside, the totalitarian thesis became the dominant academic paradigm as found in the works of its most prolific and influential expostulators, Robert Conquest and Roy Medvedev.
Starting in the 1990s, Soviet scholarship experienced a change. Researchers for a time gained access to the Soviet archives, and studies emerged that historians J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning called “anomalous” to the totalitarian paradigm. Historian after historian found that the repression was not nearly as widespread as Conquest and others had proposed, that previous estimates of the number of victims of Soviet repression, figures of 20 million or 12 million, or 10 million, or 7 to 8 million victims, were simply phantasmagorical.
According to historians J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, a careful examination of archival records revealed that the number of persons shot during the repression of 1937-38 came to 681,692, and adding those who died in prison and exile “we reach a figure of nearly 1.5 million deaths due to repression in the 1930s.” These are large numbers to be sure but nowhere near the previous exaggerations. Other studies, from those of telephone directories in Leningrad to census data confirmed that previous estimates vastly overstated the size of the repression.
Still other studies discovered that the repression did not simply emanate from the top but developed a life of its own in factories, local party and government organizations and the army, where the accused were most often officials and where the repression, as ironic as it sounds, was accompanied by growing democracy at the grassroots level.
Also, the repression occurred in the context of economic problems, industrial sabotage, and plots against the regime. According to Getty and Naumov, three opposition groups actively conspired against the Stalin regime in the early 1930s: “The Riutin group, a reactivated Trotskyist organization, and the Eismont-Tolmachev-Smirnov group.”
Other studies provided a more nuanced view of Stalin, who emerged as less powerful, more competent, more hands-on, and more seriously theoretical than the brutal tyrant drawn by the totalitarian paradigm.
Though the new revisionist Soviet history contradicted or modified parts of the totalitarian paradigm, it did not overthrow it, but then in 2011 Grover Furr’s book, Khrushchev Lied appeared.
Furr aimed further than any previous revisionist account. Indeed, he aimed at a central pillar of the totalitarian paradigm, Khrushchev’s secret speech, in which Khrushchev made a broad indictment of Stalin’s leadership, including the “revelations” that that Stalin had created a “cult of the individual,” that in his “last testament” Lenin had warned of Stalin’s propensity to abuse power, that Stalin had been a fearful and incompetent wartime leader, and that he had engineered the trials of the 1930s that had devastated the leadership of the CPSU and resulted in phony trials, imprisonment and executions of countless numbers of good Communists and other innocents. Furr promised to provide evidence that “every ‘revelation’ of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) ‘crimes’ … is provably false.”
Given the importance Khrushchev’s speech played in all subsequent scholarship as well as in the thinking of most Communist parties, Furr’s book promised to be a tour de force of momentous historical and political implications. This turned out to be not quite the case.
The book begins with nine chapters in which Furr, a Montclair State University professor who is fluent in Russian, tries to rebut the sixty-one revelations that Khrushchev made in his speech. Then, follows a chapter in which Furr categorizes Khrushchev’s lies, a chapter on the “falsified rehabilitations” that followed the speech, and a chapter on the reasons, implications and legacies of the speech. Nearly half the book is taken up by an appendix, in which Furr supplies quotations from primary and secondary source material to support his argument.
Before taking up some of the problems with Furr’s book, I would like to give him credit for a number of contributions. First, Furr underscores the importance of Khrushchev’s speech, “the most influential speech of the 20th century,” in shaping all subsequent views of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
On this point, Furr reinforces the observation of the Italian Marxist Domenico Losurdo, who says, “Without a doubt there were two turning points that have determined the contemporary view of Stalin: the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947 and the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.”
The impact of the speech is what gives such gravity to Furr’s contribution in shining a spotlight on the fundamental mendacity of Khrushchev’s speech. Furr is certainly right that much in Khrushchev’s speech was false, even knowingly and maliciously false.
The disingenuousness marked even its publication, in which editors added such audience reactions as “commotion in the hall” and “indignation in the hall” and “applause,” even though those who actually heard the speech recalled “total silence reigned in the hall.”
The allegation in the secret speech that more or less tied all the other allegations together was that Stalin had built up a “cult of the individual” in order to enhance his dictatorial powers. Furr shows how misleading this accusation was. First, the existence of a cult of personality was no revelation since Party leaders had discussed it for years. Secondly, Stalin not only did not foster the cult but expressed distaste with it, or at least with some of its excesses. Third, all Party leaders bore responsibility for the glorification of Stalin. Indeed, no one surpassed Khrushchev when it came to sycophancy.
In his memoirs, Party functionary Dmitri Shepilov, recalled the 18th Party Congress in 1939, where Khrushchev lauded Stalin twenty-six times as “our genius of a leader,” “our great Stalin,” “our beloved leader,” and so on. Furr gives examples of Stalin resisting its excesses, as when he prevented the renaming of Moscow after himself. (Furr’s most amusing story concerns Stalin’s attitude toward idolatry. Once in chastising his sons’ arrogance, Stalin reportedly said, “Do you think you are, STALIN? Do you think I am STALIN? HE is StalinÂthere!” he said pointing to a pompous portrait.)
Yet, by trying to absolve Stalin entirely for the cult around him, Furr strains credibility. Stalin may have opposed renaming Moscow, but he apparently did not object when scores of other cities, towns, streets, squares, parks, factories and so on were named after him and when his pictures and statues became ubiquitous. Unlike Fidel Castro, Stalin did not do as much as he might have to discourage the cult that developed.
Another Khrushchev lie that Furr exposes concerns the so-called Lenin testament. Toward the end of his life Lenin wrote a letter in which he said Stalin had “unlimited authority,” and Lenin was “not sure whether he [Stalin] will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” Lenin also said Stalin was “too rude.”
Furr maintains that Lenin never viewed or labeled what he wrote as a “testament” and that Khrushchev most likely lifted this characterization from Trotsky. Moreover, Furr points out that Lenin never used the words, “abuses his power.” More significantly, Furr disputes Khrushchev’s implication of a rift between Lenin and Stalin. At the time of the letter, not only was Stalin in charge of safeguarding Lenin’s health, but also Lenin entrusted Stalin with his very life by making Stalin the caretaker of a cyanide capsule Lenin wished to take if his suffering became unbearable. Furr might also have pointed out that, however critical Lenin was of Stalin, he was even more critical of Trotsky and other top leaders.
Furr convincingly rebuts many other Khrushchev statements. Some of the falsehoods are trivial. Many are not. Several of the widely believed revelations concerned Stalin’s conduct during the warÂthat he was demoralized and inactive at the start of the German invasion and that he was an incompetent commander. Furr points out that this view is completely at variance with those who worked most closely with Stalin, including Marshall Georgii K. Zhukov, who (even after Stalin had demoted him) praised his wartime leadership.
The most extensive part of Furr’s book and of Khrushchev’s speech concerns the Moscow Trials and related repression of 1936-38. Here, Furr makes his most important contribution, though, it is a contribution beset with problems of its own. Throughout the secret speech, Khrushchev attempted to place the entire blame for the repression on Stalin and Beria.
For example, Khrushchev maintained that Stalin demanded “absolute submission” and those who opposed him were doomed to removal from leading bodies and “moral and physical annihilation”; that Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov’s telegram to the Politburo on September 25, 1936 was responsible for the appointment of Nikolai Ezhov as head of the NKVD and for pushing the NKVD “on the path of mass arrests and executions”; that Stalin justified “a mass terror policy” by the idea that “as we march forward toward socialism class war must allegedly sharpen”; that the repression involved the preparation of lists, 383 lists, of thousands of persons “whose sentences were prepared in advance” that were sent to “Stalin personally for his approval.”
Furr convincingly argues that putting exclusive blame on Stalin and Beria is entirely misleading. For example, far from repressing dissent, Stalin showed great tolerance for disagreement. More importantly, no one had greater or more direct responsibility for the repression than the heads of the NKVD, first Genrikh Yagoda and subsequently Nicolai Ezhov (sometimes spelled Yezhov), and Party first secretaries like Khrushchev.
The memoirs of Party leader Dmitrii Shepilov completely supported Furr on this point. Shepilov said, “During the devastating purges of 1937-38, and later in Moscow and Ukraine, no individual cases were decided without Khrushchev’s personal knowledge and approval….Perhaps the most glaring and revolting aspect of Khrushchev’s activity was that many of the persons whom he sent to the gallows, he later, with a hypocrisy unsurpassed in history, mourned the demise of from the highest party and government rostrums. In these lamentations there was the added twist that the men held responsible for the deaths of our glorious communists were, of course, Stalin, and his colleagues, but never Khrushchev himself.”
Moreover, Furr points out that though Khrushchev blamed Stalin for the repression, he completely ignored that Stalin deserved credit for ending the repression in 1938 and for the punishment of Yagoda and Ezhov for their excesses. Historian Boris A. Starkov recounted that in 1938 A. A. Zhdanov, A. A. Andreev, K. E. Voroshilov, L. M. Kaganovich, A. I. Mikoyan and V. M. Molotov turned against Ezhov and convinced Stalin and the Central Committee that Ezhov’s excesses were undermining the morale, the economy and the defense of the country, and Stalin removed Ezhov. Shepilov said simply, “Stalin stopped Ezhov’s churning meat grinder.”
In short, Furr has come up with a valid and momentous insight that one of the most influential speeches in history was riddled with lies, distortions and fabrications.
This discovery, however, has made Furr (to use one of Stalin’s memorable phrases) “dizzy with success.” In his exuberance, Furr allows all sorts of problems to bedevil and enervate his account. First, there is a conceptual problem. The point of studying history is to understand what happened. Disputing Khrushchev’s views does not provide an alternative account of what happened. Furr admits this and says his study cannot satisfy the curiosity about “what really happened.” In spite of this disclaimer, Furr does suggest an alternative to Khrushchev’s view, and his alternative view is not credible.
Moreover, some of Furr’s specific refutations lack either the facts or arguments to be convincing. Instead, he often resorts to a tendentious and one-sided reading of the evidence, to innuendos and speculation, to overblown and hyperbolic language, and to unsupported allegations of his own.
The book’s problems start with its title and argument. To call every Khrushchev revelation a lie has dramatic appeal and a figurative truth, but no one in their right mind could buy this as literal truth, because no one in their right mind could imagine Khrushchev or anyone else speaking for hours before a congress of the Communist Party about revelations that contained nothing but falsehoods. Even Furr himself does not believe this.
A reader, however, has to wait until page 142 to hear the author acknowledge that “it would, of course, be absurd to say that every one of Khrushchev’s statements is false.” Yet, by not admitting that Khrushchev’s “revelations” artfully mixed truths and lies, this absurdity is precisely what Furr is guilty of. Having staked this extreme claim, Furr makes no effort to sort out the truth and falsehood of Khrushchev’s speech, but proceeds to focus only on what in Khrushchev’s statements were dubious, even if it means lumping together the trivial, disputable and half lies with the significant, provable and total lies. Moreover, when the evidence to make his case is unavailable, Furr slips into the role of a dubious defense attorney who nitpicks the evidence, badgers witnesses and kicks up sand.
Take Furr’s treatment of one of the most important episodes in Soviet history, the Kirov assassination. On December 1, 1934 in the Party headquarters in Smolny, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party of Leningrad, was shot in the head and killed by a Party member, Leonid Nikolaev.
Kirov was a supporter and friend of Stalin’s, (the two had vacationed together the previous summer), and Kirov had been sent to Leningrad at least in part to counteract the opposition elements in the party there. The day after the assassination, Stalin went to Leningrad and took personal charge of the investigation, which ended up implicating the opposition leaders, G. Zinoviev and L. Kamenev, and set off the Moscow Trials and associated repression. In the secret speech, Khrushchev implied that Stalin was behind Kirov’s murder.
Furr argues that Khrushchev’s insinuation was baseless and that the opposition leaders convicted were in fact part of a murder conspiracy. Furr is right on the first count but fails to prove the second. Moreover, his refutation is superficial and tendentious. Furr’s refutation takes up less than two pages and involves quotations from three historians, all of whom dispute Stalin’s involvement in Kirov’s murder.
One would never know from Furr’s account that Khrushchev’s implication became the conventional wisdom among such Cold War Sovietologists as Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, and Amy Knight, Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery. In other words, a serious rebuttal of what Khrushchev implied would involve acknowledging what the Cold Warriors have written in support Khrushchev’s view and then refuting or at least disputing it. Furr does not do this. He does not even identify two of the historians he quotes, Pavel Sudaplatov and Alla Kirilina. Furr neither provides their credentials (though strong), nor gives any reason that they are more credible (though they are) than Amy Knight or Robert Conquest. In other words, sometimes Furr has a stronger case than he bothers to make.
Moreover, Furr is highly selective about what he chooses to use from his sources. He fails to acknowledge, for example, that though the three historians he quotes disputed Khrushchev’s view, none of them supported Furr’s view. That is, none of them believe that the oppositionists convicted in the Moscow trials were guilty of Kirov’s murder. For example, Kirilina dismissed Stalin’s culpability for the murder but argued that Nikolaev was a lone assassin.
A recent examination of the case by historian Matthew Lenoe (The Kirov Murder and Soviet History ) relied heavily on the recollections of Genrikh Samoilevich Liushdov, one of the lead investigators in the Kirov case, who subsequently defected to Japan, and whose papers were examined by Lenoe in the Hokkaido University Library in Japan. Lenoe provided evidence that Stalin had nothing to do with Kirov’s murder, hence proof that Khrushchev lied, but he also supported the lone assassin theory, hence not supporting Furr’s view either.
If Furr is right about the Kirov murder, he does not prove it here, and at best one will have to await his forthcoming study of the case. In spite of Furr’s claim about “every” Khrushchev revelation being a lie, Furr actually does not dispute much that Khrushchev said about the repression. He does not question that mass repression occurred, that it was directed not just against Trotskyites, Zinovievites, and Bukharinites, but against “many honest Communists”; that the repression involved “the fabrication of cases against Communists,” “false accusations,” “glaring abuses of socialist legality,” “barbaric tortures,” and “the death of innocent people”; that 70 percent of the Central Committee elected at the 17th Congress were “arrested and shot” and a majority of the delegates to the 17th Party Congress were arrested; that on January 10, 1939 Stalin sent a telegram to various bodies declaring that “methods of physical pressure” were permissible “in exceptional cases”; and so on.
Thus, while Furr accepts the major facts of the repression, he often quibbles over minor points, and without sufficient evidence, disputes the idea that everyone punished was innocent, and objects to laying the blame for the repression on Stalin (and Beria). Granted that many people besides Stalin carried out the repression and granted that Stalin played a role in ending the 1936-38 repression, the question remains how involved, aware and responsible was Stalin for the repression? If Khrushchev tried to shift total responsibility to Stalin, Furr seems bent on trying to deny Stalin any responsibility. In any case, Furr’s reasoning and evidence on this point are dubious.
For example, Khrushchev said that “mass repressions grew tremendously” after Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov sent a telegram to members of the Political Bureau on September 25, 1936 calling for N. I. Ezhov to replace Yagoda as head of the NKVD. In the telegram, Stalin said the NKVD was “four years behind” in “unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc.”  Furr says that Khrushchev lied about this. Furr narrowly focuses, however, on what Stalin meant by saying that the NKVD was four years behind. Furr says that what Stalin really meant was the NKVD was four years behind in unmasking the opposition bloc not four years behind in applying repression.
Furr is right about the meaning of those particular words, but Furr ignores the other truth in Khrushchev’s statement, namely that Stalin bore direct responsibility for increasing the repression by picking Ezhov, who broadened the scale of repression. In a similar vein, Furr asserts that Khrushchev “seriously distorted” Stalin’s words when he said that Stalin tried to justify mass repression by saying “as we march forward toward socialism class war must allegedly sharpen.” Furr asserts that Stalin actually said, “the further we advance…the greater will be the fury of the remnants of the broken exploiting classes, the sooner they resort to sharper forms of struggle.”
Does Furr really believe that the slight variation in words makes any difference in the meaning? Stalin’s words differ from Khrushchev’s paraphrase, but the meaning does not.
Molotov’s testimony made this clear. When Chuev asked Molotov whether Stalin was correct about the class struggle intensifying under socialism, Molotov did not equivocate: “It was correct in view of the periods analyzed then.” Furr contends, “Stalin went on to call for an individual approach and for political education, not for anything like repression or ‘terror.'” In reality, according to Furr, “it was the Party First Secretaries and others around the country…who turned to ‘mass repression.'”
Though Furr is correct about Stalin’s statements and the First Secretaries’ actions, this hardly proves that Stalin opposed mass repression. If anyone knew Stalin’s views on repression, it was Molotov, and Molotov said, “It was mainly Stalin who took upon himself this difficult task [of repression]” and that Ezhov “overdid it because Stalin demanded greater repression.” 
Furthermore, Furr’s notion that Stalin opposed mass repression is contradicted by the historians Getty and Naumov, who found in the Soviet archives “Stalin’s signature on documents authorizing mass executions.” Granted that authorizing mass executions of persons duly convicted by the courts was not the same as ordering them, still Stalin’s signature showed that he was fully aware and supportive of the most extreme punishment for those convicted of serious crimes against the state. Furr seems loathe to acknowledge this.
As for the so-called torture telegram, Furr may be right in questioning the provenance of this wire and whether it was ever sent. Moreover, Furr is certainly right that in quoting the telegram Khrushchev omitted sentences so as to put Stalin in the worst possible light, that is, omitting sentences where Stalin stressed that physical pressure was permissible only “as an exception” and those sentences where Stalin condemned those who had abused these methods.
Khrushchev’s skullduggery notwithstanding, the telegram clearly showed Stalin’s willingness to condone torture in exceptional cases such as where a convict refused to divulge the existence or whereabouts of co-conspirators still at large. Had Furr acknowledged this and thus sifted and winnowed the truth from the falsehoods in this matter, his account would have been forthright and useful rather than a strained effort to argue that every Khrushchev allegation was simply a lie.
A similar one-sidedness adheres to Furr’s treatment of Khrushchev’s and Stalin’s views of Trotskyism. Furr points out that Khrushchev suggested that Stalin favored annihilating Trotskyists even those who had long ago broken with Trotsky’s ideas and returned to Leninism. Furr correctly points out that Stalin never called for the persecution of such erstwhile Trotskyists, but instead called for “an individual, differentiated approach.”
Furr goes further, however. Furr says that Stalin opposed persecuting Trotskyists altogether. Here are Furr’s exact words: “Stalin did refer to Trotskyites in very hostile terms. But he did not advocate persecuting them [i.e. Trotskyites]. While stressing the need for renewed vigilance Stalin also proposed the establishment of special ideological courses for all leading party workers. That is, Stalin saw the problem of Trotskyism as a result of a low level of political understanding among Bolsheviks.”
One has only to read the complete texts of Stalin provided by Furr in the appendix to appreciate not only that Khrushchev lied but also that Furr misleads. Stalin made clear that two categories existed, those who had once been Trotskyists, and those who not only remained Trotskyists but who had become “a gang of wreckers, diversionists, spies, assassins, without principles and ideas, working for the foreign intelligence services.” The former should not be persecuted. For the latter, however, Stalin thought that “not the old methods, the methods of discussion, must be used, but new methods, methods for smashing and uprooting it.”
Of course, Furr knows that such recent historians as Getty and Naumov confirm the oppositional activity of Trotskyists in the 1930s and knows that Stalin thought these forces had to be smashed and uprooted. Yet, his narrow preoccupation with Khrushchev’s lies leads him into careless formulations that play fast and loose with the truth. Though Furr expends many words parsing Khrushchev’s statements in detail and indeed spends a whole chapter categorizing the various kinds of deceptions engaged in by Khrushchev, he makes little effort to sort the truth from the lies. In the end, one is left with two competing versions of the repression. Since Furr is content to act as a defense attorney and merely attack Khrushchev’s credibility without venturing his own interpretations of events, one never knows exactly what he thinks happened.
Still, Furr seems to hold a version of the repression something like this: A massive repression occurred in the Soviet Union in the years 1936-38. This repression took the lives and liberties of large numbers of Communist leaders, including members of the Central Committee elected at the 17th Party Congress. This repression involved torture and forced confession and the framing and punishment of many innocent people. The blame for this repression rested primarily with the regional party secretaries, like Khrushchev, and the leaders of the NKVD, notably Ezhov. Furthermore, many of those who suffered from the repression were guilty. Others were knowingly framed by Ezhov and his cohorts who were in league with the opposition and who used excessive repression to discredit the leadership. This version of the repression is thus the diametrical opposite of Khrushchev’s, which was more or less that no legitimate reason for the repression existed, that virtually all those punished were innocent, and that the only reason for the repression was to ensure Stalin’s unchallenged and absolute authority.
The problem with these competing narratives is that neither has much evidence to support them. To support his view that the vast majority of victims were innocent, Khrushchev relied on a review of cases prepared before the 20th Congress known as the Pospelov Report, which was cursory at best. To support his view, Furr repeatedly makes sweeping references to evidence about the guilt of those punished: “the evidence we know exists,” “all the evidence we presently have,” “all the evidence at our disposal,” “a great deal of documentary evidence,” “a great deal of evidence,” “the vast preponderance of evidence,” etc., but he never actually explains what evidence he is referring to.
Apparently, he is simply referring to the well-known confessions and interrogations of the condemned, because he takes pains to argue that just because someone confessed does not mean he/she was innocent. Furr never acknowledges that confessions, particularly when given under duress, are pretty useless as historical evidence.
An example of the warring narratives occurs over the most sensational of Khrushchev’s allegations, namely that the ninety-eight members and candidates (70 percent) of the Party’s Central Committee elected at the 17th Congress and the majority of the delegates to the 17th Party Congress who were “arrested and shot” were in fact innocent. Furr claims that “a great deal of evidence” suggests that “a significant number” of these high ranking Communists “appear to have been guilty after all.” A little later, Furr strengthens his claim by asserting that “the vast preponderance of evidence” points to their guilt.  Strong words, however, are no substitute for proof. What is Furr’s evidence? Does he just mean the confessions and interrogation reports? He refers to nothing else.
One is left with warring assertions: Khrushchev’s baseless claims of innocence and Furr’s baseless claims of guilt. No doubt serious anti-Soviet activity and plots existed. No doubt the repression took the lives of countless innocents. But how great was the anti-Soviet activity and who was guilty and who was innocent remain unresolved questions.
Still, these are extremely serious questions. The construction of the first socialist society, the lifting of an illiterate, impoverished, oppressed and backward people into an era of literacy, culture, material well-being and atomic energy; the Soviet defeat of fascism, the Soviet role in the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions and in the liberation struggles of the third world arguably make the Russian Revolution the most important event of the twentieth century. Understanding that history, its failures and its accomplishments, consequently has the utmost interest not only to professional historians but to socialists and revolutionaries worldwide.
For this reason, some persistent writing and editing anomalies in Furr’s book are particularly annoying. While the second edition has corrected the most egregious errors of the first, the book still contains some inconsistent spelling of Russian names, a lack of identification of persons, and an uncommon amount of speculation, insinuation and overstatement. The seriousness of the problems under discussion deserve more care in the writing.
However glaring, the manifest weaknesses of Furr’s book should not obscure the conclusion that Furr and other revisionist historians have driven a stake into the reliability of Khrushchev and historians like Conquest who relied on Khrushchev.
If Khrushchev’s portrait of Stalin as an all-powerful, megalomaniacal, paranoid and bloodthirsty tyrant was wrong, still what is one to make of the Stalin in Furr’s dodgy portrait? One can hardly avoid concluding that Furr views Stalin as a leader who was removed from, or even opposed to, the mass repression occurring around him, a leader who sought individual and educational remedies to those who sought to undermine or overthrow him, and who was unfairly blamed for repression committed by others? This Stalin is no more believable than Khrushchev’s.
Both portraits ignore a simple ideaÂthat first and foremost, Stalin was a revolutionary, and the repression of the 1930s must be understood in the context of revolutionary violence.
The great American sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote about the difficulty that most Americans have in accepting revolutionary violence. In Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba, Mills wrote as if a Cuban revolutionary were speaking to an American. In response to American outrage over the pictures of the revolutionaries summarily executing five or six hundred supporters of the dictator Batista without “a fair trial,” the Cuban says:
This was war. During the Batista regime, thousands of our people were murdered….So what would you expect? Maybe in easy moral terms, no killing is excusable….But however immoral the purposes and the results of killing are quite different in different places and at different times. Because you see it does matter who is getting killed and why. But whether you think so or not, you certainly have no grounds for talking about injustice: Who gave any trial to the people of Hiroshima? Well, this, too, was a war. Remember, too, Yankee, that morals are easy to come by sitting in your quiet suburbs away from it all protected from it all. Morals are easy to say out [sic] when you’re rich and strong and all the unpleasantnesses of the world are hidden from youÂby distance, by amusements, by your own indifference, by your own private way of life.
Not much has changed. If anything, it requires an even greater stretch for Americans today to imagine the strain on Soviet revolutionaries, who were surrounded by hostile imperialist powers that actively plotted their overthrow, faced with ambitious and unscrupulous internal foes that were masters of political intrigue and convinced that they knew better than Stalin how to lead the country. The Soviet leaders were confronted with the daunting tasks of constructing a socialist society, collectivizing a recalcitrant peasantry, industrializing at breakneck speed, all while bracing for an inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany.
To empathize with these revolutionaries and to understand the repression of the 1930s, one must do what Mills did, seek the voice of the Russian revolutionaries of the 1930s. The two revolutionaries who provide the best insight into Stalin and the repression were Lazar Kaganovitch and Viacheslav Molotov. Both were veteran Bolsheviks, who played a variety of crucial roles in building socialism and defeating German fascism. Both were extremely close to Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s. Both were demoted by Stalin in the 1950s (Molotov’s wife was even imprisoned), but neither turned against Stalin or the revolution. Both opposed Khrushchev, were defeated by him and expelled from the Communist Party. Both lived long lives. Molotov died in 1986 and Kaganovich died in 1991, and both left behind memoirs that present remarkably similar views of Stalin and the repression.
Before turning to what they had to say, it is important to remember that just as the Cuban revolutionaries were shaped by the violence they had experienced at the hands of Batista and his men, so Stalin and his colleagues were shaped by the repression they had endured at the hands of the tsar and the tsar’s secret police. In Stalin & Co.: The Politburo Â The Men Who Run Russia, Walter Duranty, a correspondent for the New York Times in Moscow, put a fine edge on this point.
Duranty noted that the conflict in the Soviet Party after Lenin’s death involved two camps, the “Western Exiles,” those like Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had spent a considerable amount of time before the revolution abroad, and the “Home Guard,” those like Stalin and his close associates who had stayed a struggled at home. The latter had to endure spies, provocateurs, arrests, imprisonment, torture, threats to family and friends, conditions unknown to those in exile. The experience of struggle under dire conditions made Stalin’s suspicious and hard as well as contemptuous of those whose circumstances had been easier. To understand the ruthlessness displayed by Stalin and his associates in the 1930s, one must never forget the ruthlessness they had endured.
Kaganovich and Molotov viewed Stalin and the repression, differently than Furr does. I would paraphrase their views like this: The period from 1930 through the start of World War II constituted an extremely perilous time for Soviet socialism. The danger was represented by a combination of circumstances. The Soviet Union was surrounded by hostile imperialist states and the inevitability of war increased with every passing year. To survive the Soviet Union had to industrialize quickly and to obtain the resources and manpower to do this, it had to quickly collectivize agriculture. Industrialization and collectivization involved wrenching social transformations that directly threatened the interests of some of the people and demanded great sacrifice.
Those whose interests were threatened and whose conditions worsened provided a base of opposition to these policies. These circumstances put immense strains on the unity of the Communist Party and the Soviet government. Some in the Party leadership and government opposed the policies of industrialization and collectivization, and in some cases this opposition developed into a determination to end these policies and overthrow of the Soviet government even if that meant resorting to assassination, industrial sabotage, inciting insurrection, and cooperating with foreign governments. Even where opposition stopped short of such extremes, it nevertheless meant an insupportable violation of unity and democratic centralism.
Stalin showed patience with opposition for years, but after the dissemination of the openly oppositional Riutin Platform, the assassination of Party leader Kirov, and signs of industrial sabotage impeding growth, Stalin reacted. He supported the appointment of Ezhov as head of the NKVD and endorsed the repression under Ezhov, including the arrest and punishment of Party leaders in the three Moscow Trials. Many excesses occurred that in retrospect were regrettable: torture, forced confessions, the railroading of innocent people.
Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and others viewed these measures not simply as “terror” or “political repression,” but as a Party “purge,” that is, measures necessary to rid the Party not just of demonstrably treasonous, criminal, and opposition elements but of all elements that were divisive and unreliable because under the circumstances weakness, divisiveness, and unreliability were tantamount to treason.
In this sense, even with their excesses, the purges were necessary to give the Party and hence the nation a unified and resolute leadership with which to prepare itself to wage a life-and-death war with fascism. If Stalin had not had the foresight, the courage, and toughness to preside over these purges (and to end them when they became became counterproductive), the revolution and the country may not have survived the German invasion and millions of more people would have suffered and died than actually did.
Both Kaganovich and Molotov regarded Stalin’s ruthlessness or hardness not as a personal defect but as a quality that the times forged and demanded. It was a steeliness for which Stalin was named. It was a quality necessary and admired by true Bolsheviks. It had nothing at all to do with vainglory, or power hunger, or paranoia. It did, however, become more and more pronounced as Stalin experienced the betrayal of former colleagues in the Party leadership.
Yet, his ruthlessness did not reflect a desire for personal power or for the wealth or luxury or flattery or deference and the other trappings of power. Rather, Stalin’s toughness, like his intellectual prowess, his hard work, long hours, and modesty were traits totally in service of the Party and the revolution. This more or less was the view of Kaganovich and Molotov, two of Stalin’s closest associates, who lived through the hardest times with him, and lived long enough to write memoirs.
Furr ends his account with some speculation on the reasons Khrushchev engaged in his meretricious attacks on Stalin and Beria. He suggests four possible explanations: that Khrushchev wanted to shift blame from “his own role in the unjustified mass repressions of the 1930s,” that Khrushchev wanted to take the USSR on a “sharply different” political course, that Khrushchev wanted to gain an edge on his rivals in the leadership who had been close to Stalin, and that Khrushchev wanted to stop the “democratic reforms with which Stalin was associated.”
All of these are plausible explanations, and they are not mutually exclusive. Yet, the second of these is the most consequential. In the book, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Thomas Kenny and I argue Khrushchev did take the Soviet Union on a new course domestically in many ways that sowed the seeds of the collapse under Gorbachev. So, we hold no brief for Khrushchev.
Nonetheless, I would suggest that Furr neglects yet another reason for Khrushchev’s behavior, namely, a desire to close the door decisively on the period and practice of harsh and widespread political repression. And he did. For all his limitations as a leader, when he expelled Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich from the leadership and from the party, Khrushchev understood that neither the times nor circumstances required their imprisonment or execution.
Furr concludes his account on an utterly false note, namely by proposing that Khrushchev’s ignominious lying can be traced to Lenin, Marx and Engels. Thus, Furr goes from ignoring an obvious reason for Khrushchev’s behavior to entertaining an incomprehensible reason. He ignores Khrushchev’s undeniable contribution in ending the practice of mass repression, but then suggests a trail of blame worthy of the most hard-bitten Cold War ideologues. Just as they would fancifully trace the repression and all other problems of the Soviet Union to Marx and Lenin, so Furr would do the same with Khrushchev.
This is a troubling but fitting coda for a book that provides a much needed but deeply flawed re-assessment of Khrushchev’s secret speech and the totalitarian paradigm the speech did so much to foster.
November 23, 2011
1. Stuart Kahan, The World of the Kremlin: The First Biography of L. M. Kaganovich, The Soviet Union’s Architect of Fear (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987).
2. “Statement of the Kaganovich Family,” http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org and http://.oocities.org/capitolhill/embassy/7213/kagan.html (accessed July 2011).
3. Christopher Read, “Main Currents of Interpretation of Stalin and the Stalin Years,” in Christopher Read, ed., The Stalin Years a Reader (Houndmills, Basingstoke, and Hampshire, England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 9.
4. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1937).
5. Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951).
6. J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, “Introduction,” Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, England and New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4.
7. Getty and Manning, 10-13.
8. J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 591.
9. See essays by Hoffman, Manning, Fitzpatrick, Nove, and Weathcroft in Getty and Manning, and Wendy Goldman, Terror and Democracy in the Age of Stalin: The Social Dynamics of Repression (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
10. Getty and Naumov, 52-68.
11. See for example essays by Davies and Harris in Sarah Davies and James Harris, eds., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
12. Grover Furr, Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence that Every “Revelation: of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) “Crimes” in Nikita Khrushchev’s Infamous “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956 is Provably False (Kettering, Ohio: Erythros Press and Media, 2011).
13. For an example of the immediate impact of the speech on western Communist Parties, see The Anti-Stalin Campaign and International Communism: A Selection of Documents Edited by the Russian Institute of Columbia University (New York: Columbia University, 1956).
14. Domenico Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement: Failure, Betrayal or Learning Process,” Nature, Society and Thought vol. 16, no. 1 (2003), 41.
15. Furr, 141.
16. Dmitrii Shepilov, The Kremlin’s Scholar: A Memoir of Soviet Politics under Stalin and Khrushchev (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 72.
17. See for example, “List of places named after Joseph Stalin,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wike/List_of_places_after_Joseph_Stalin (accessed July 2001).
18. Furr, 11-20.
19. Furr, 95.
20. Khrushchev quoted by Furr, 22, 41-42, 43-44, 73
21. Shepilov, 71.
22. Boris A. Starkov, “Narkom Ezhov,” in Getty and Manning, 36-38.
23. Shepilov, 41.
24. Furr, 143.
25. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York and Oxford: Oxford Universuty Press, 1990), 479.
26. Amy Knight, Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery (New York: Hill & Wang, 1999).
27. Matthew Lenoe, “Key to the Kirov Murder on the Shelves of Hokkaido University Library,” Slavic Research Center News No. 3 (February, 2006), http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/eng/news/no13/enews13-essay3.html (accessed July 2011).
28. Matthew E. Lenoe, The Kirov Murder and Soviet History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
29. Khrushchev quoted by Furr, 35 and 79.
30. Khrushchev quoted by Furr, 42.
31. Furr, 42.
32. Furr, 43.
33. Furr, 43-44.
34. Albert Resis, ed. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics Conversations with Felix Chuev (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993), 259.
35. Furr, 44.
36. Furr, 45.
37. Resis, 258.
38. Resis, 263.
39. Getty and Naumov, 25.
40. Furr, 330-331.
41. Furr, 30.
42. Stalin in Furr, 262.
43. Getty and Naumov, 62-64.
44. Furr, 26, 29, 30, 37, 39.
45. Furr, 37, 39.
46. C. Wright Mills, Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (New York: Ballantine Books, 1960), 51.
47. William Duranty, Stalin & Co.: The PolitburoÂThe Men Who Run Russia (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949), 18-19.
48. See for example: “Thus Spake Kaganovich,” http://www.oocities.org/capitolhill/embassy/7213/kaganovich.html (accessed July 2011).
49. Furr, 197-199.
50. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: International Publishers, 2004).