New book also alleges that the 1932 Ukrainian famine was not deliberate
genocide but caused by harvest failure following collectivisation
By Catherine Elsworth
International News Electronic Telegraph, Issue 920
London, UK, Sunday 30 November 1997
A CLAIM that "Stalin the monster" was in fact a man of principle, unfairly
demonised and responsible for far fewer deaths than commonly thought is made
in a new book on Russian history, published by Oxford University Press.
The book, which promises to "strip away the propaganda, myth and mystery",
claims that 1.3 million people were murdered during the Great Purges rather
than the tens of millions previously claimed. It also alleges that the 1932
Ukrainian famine was not deliberate genocide but caused by harvest failure
Last night the claims were challenged by the West's leading Sovietologist,
Prof Robert Conquest - an authority on Stalin and the Great Terror who has
written extensively on the period. "The general figure for the number of
deaths is 20 million, although some bring it down to 17 or 18," he said.
"But I don't think in serious circles there is much argument."
The 13 international, chiefly American, authors of Russia, A History,
assembled the "new view" of the country's history using archives closed even
to party historians until 1991. The book purports to cut through "Cold War
rhetoric, idealised communist propaganda or demonisation by Western writers"
and use "hard evidence rather than conjecture and rumour" to evaluate the
Prof Gregory Freeze, general editor of the book, said: "Before, we had the
Pravda version of Soviet history - they told you the way it was supposed to
be. We have an unprecedented view of the politics and the personalities
involved in the purges, the numbers executed and the numbers incarcerated.
The estimate was millions and millions but now we know it was far less;
700,000 were executed in the Thirties."
Stalin, the book claims, rose to power not through terror but through his
policy of devolving power to "little" people (vintiki, or "little screws"),
encouraging them to do what they wanted. He was not simply an opportunist
driven by the desire for power but "a man of principle, who displayed
unwavering commitment to his own ideological manifesto, including a belief
in the importance of heavy industry".
Prof Freeze said: "The demonisation of Stalin in effect ignored his real
power and role in the system. Stalin had very clearly defined targets and
goals, not simply a brutal strategy to eliminate the opposition. He was a
workaholic who worked 16-18 hours a day. In the notion of industrialisation
he developed he certainly was clearly focused on the objective he wanted to
The dictator had achievements "even during the war years", Prof Freeze said:
"For example, in spite of all the anti-Stalin rhetoric under Krushchev,
Stalin was not so dysfunctional. He had a postive role during the
mobilisation of resources and popular support during the Second World War.
He was extremely popular even into the Fifties. One of the reasons that
de-Stalinisation failed is that it came from the top and not from below."
But Prof Conquest said that the authors were in danger of "simply trying to
be original". He said: "They play around with these figures but they don't
know what they are doing. It's ridiculous to say, if the figures are a bit
lower than we thought then it lets him off the hook. It's a fad. I'm
surprised that they are doing it."
He also said that it was dangerous simply to accept as fact the contents of
documents. "We know many of them were faked," he said.
On the famine claims, he said: "The responsibility has always been clear.
The state knew it was facing famine and the Politburo decided nevertheless
that the grain requisition would go forward as planned."
Robert Service, professor of Russian history and politics at the University
of London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and author of the
recently published Penguin History of 20th-century Russia, said: "There's
nothing new in saying there was an ideological dimension as well as a
pathological dimension to Stalin.
"But if the book is saying that the explanation for the rise of Stalin was
based upon just letting the little people loose at the bottom, then that is
obviously wrong. If they are taking an ultra-revisionist tone and saying
Stalin was pushed into the Terror by his highly principled way of dealing
with the economy, I would have to disagree. It's important to be balanced
and not use the extremes of sensationalism."
International News Electronic Telegraph, November 30, 1997
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