AMONG twentieth-century statesmen perhaps none was so self-contained, enigmatic, mysterious and unapproachable as the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. To his closest comrades-in-arms and to foreign statesmen and diplomats he was a man of few words, reticent, patient and imperturbable, pacing or smoking quietly while he worked his way through a problem. His calm, thoughtful demeanour convinced even Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that they could work with him and, to a degree, take him at his word. In the Soviet Union and in the Communist Bloc created after First World War, by coercion or as a voluntary act of allegiance, Stalin was the wise, omniscient, certainly unchallengeable, leader. His portrait appeared everywhere; the slogans praised his genius; and the history books told only of Stalin and his unerring capacity to be right. His was the steady, purposeful hand which, however dreadful the sacrifices, would guide the masses on the arduous path to Communism.
Such an unreal representation was, of course, achieved through Stalin's extraordinary personal self-control, and through absolute state control of every public--and private--source of information. By such means was established, in Nikita Khrushchev's phrase when he denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the `cult of personality'. This is an odd, evasive phrase. In fact it was used by Khrushchev as a criticism of the system of arbitrary one-man rule established by Stalin, rather than of any `personality' which engendered and maintained that system. One-man rule was simply anti-Leninist, contravening the ideal Of rule by the party of the working class; and hence the act of criticising this allowed Khrushchev to re-assert the validity of a Leninist system which, in this view, had been perverted by Stalin. Nor, interestingly, did Khrushchev dig too deeply into the `personality' of Stalin since that would have opened up all sorts of embarrassing questions about morality and personal responsibility, perhaps even touching on the moral responsibility of such people as Khrushchev himself. Of course, Khrushchev intended not to open up Stalinism for historical examination, but quietly to bury the more odious and unsettling parts as quickly as possible and re-assert some sort of normality and governing capacity in a Soviet Communist party which had been largely destroyed by its own leader.
For Western historians, however, Stalin's creation of his own myth and the concealment and distortion of truth at all levels has always been a stumbling block to understanding. There were, of course, accounts by exiles and defectors (including, not least, by Svetlana, Stalin's own daughter), or by the disaffected, but only enough of this sort of material to allow historians to scratch the surface of the history of the Stalin era and obtain some limited understanding of the nature of a ruthless tyranny. But now, fifty years after the death of Stalin in March 1953, knowledge and understanding of the man and his era are growing, fuelled particularly by access to Soviet-era archives, although those archives are only partly open, with much of the most sensitive material strictly off limits.
Of course, even if the archives were freely open we might find that crucial evidence does not, in fact, exist. Thus, while we now have records of Stalin's engagements--those whom he saw, and for how long--and even some of his early letters, as far as we know he never kept a diary; and similarly, many of those who ruled alongside him did not record their memories or have, for obvious reasons, sanitised them. Furthermore, many records have simply been destroyed, either deliberately or as a result of war. Nonetheless, even limited access to the archives has begun to establish some of the truth of those times, to make historical sallies behind the palisade of the myths and distortions. Paradoxically, as we shall see, this has engendered a considerable argument over the real meaning of what we know about Stalin. …