All Stalin’s Men

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“Our Politbiuro of the Central Committee is the organ of operational leadership for all branches of socialist construction,” noted Lazar Kaganovich in his report to the Seventeenth Party Congress in February 1934. It was this, but it was also more than this. Established as a permanent body in 1919, the Politbiuro stood at the apex of the Soviet political system. Formally elected by and responsible to the Central Committee, it deliberated on and resolved questions of both major and minor importance and frequently was the source of laws and decrees that appeared under the names of other bodies such as the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, the Council of People’s Commissars, and the Council of Labor and Defense. The inner workings of the Politbiuro and in particular its relationship to Stalin’s unchallenged leadership have long been obscured by its secretiveness and the inaccessibility of its records. Much though has been learned in recent years as archival research has begun to lift the veil of secrecy.

Initially composed of five full and three candidate members, the Politbiuro grew to seven full and four candidate members by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924. By 1927 after Trotsky’s removal, it contained nine full and eight candidate members. Both the Sixteenth Party Congress in July 1930 and the Seventeenth Congress in 1934 elected Politbiuros of ten full and five candidate members. These numbers declined to nine and two respectively after the Eighteenth Congress in 1939. Four individuals were full Politbiuro members throughout the years 1927 through 1941: Lazar Kaganovich, Mikhail Kalinin, Viacheslav Molotov, and, of course, Iosif Stalin. Kaganovich and Molotov presided over meetings of the Politbiuro in Stalin’s absence. From 1930 to 1936 the Politbiuro met on average forty-six times a year with a marked decline in the frequency of meetings after 1932. Protocols of its meetings indicate that an average of approximately three thousand items appeared on its agendas every year during the 1930s. On April 14, 1937 the Politbiuro on Stalin’s initiative resolved to form two five-man standing commissions, one to prepare and “in case of especial urgency” to resolve questions of a secret character including foreign policy, and the other to deal with economic issues. Stalin, Molotov, and Kaganovich served on both commissions which functioned as inner circles that replaced the full Politbiuro during the next few tumultuous years. It is likely that after the removal from the Politbiuro of Ezhov and Chubar the two commissions merged, with Klement Voroshilov and Anastas Mikoian comprising the other two members.

It long has been argued that even after the consolidation of Stalin’s power at the beginning of the 1930s there existed two factions within the Politbiuro: a moderate faction and a radical faction. Frequently, Sergei Kirov is cited as the leader of the moderates, and his assassination in December 1934 is understood to have been engineered by Stalin with the support of the radicals. Still later, “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze is supposed to have tried to exercise a moderating influence particularly with respect to industrial policy and the purges. It now seems more likely, however, that while disagreements occurred frequently among members, no firm factions existed. Some who were relatively “moderate” on certain issues were “radical” on others, and this includes Stalin. What is even more clear is that no issue of any importance was decided by the Politbiuro without Stalin’s participation, and certainly not against his will.

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