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Reviewed by:
  • Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953
  • Kevin McDermott
Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk, Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 248 pp. $45.00 cloth, $21.95 paper.

This mercifully slim volume by two internationally renowned scholars, Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk, sheds much new light on the underexplored postwar period of Iosif Stalin's rule, focusing on "high politics" and institutional reorganizations. The book is divided into three parts. The first covers the politics of reconstruction (1945–1948), particularly Stalin's fluctuating relations with Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan and Andrei Zhdanov. The second part examines Stalin's top-level purges and administrative changes (1949–1951), and the final section evaluates the socioeconomic costs of the late Stalinist system (1952–1953) and discusses the essence of Stalin's rule: "a crude and toxic mixture of ideology and repression" (p. 14). The book is based on extensive research in Russian party and state archives, including the normally inaccessible presidential archive; on recently published collections of declassified documents; and on a wide-ranging secondary and memoir literature. The two authors also interviewed several leading Soviet officials who were active in the period from 1945 to 1953. From this impressive archival and historiographical foundation, Gorlizki and Khlevniuk have unearthed a wealth of empirical detail, much of which was unknown until the mid-to late 1990s.

The main themes of the book are threefold. First, Gorlizki and Khlevniuk argue that Stalin dominated Soviet politics in the postwar years by means of a system that uneasily combined informal, capricious, and occasionally brutal personalized power with a more modern and regularized form of governance via commissions and other formal institutions, a system the authors call "neo-patrimonialism." Second, they maintain that 1949, the year of the "Leningrad Affair" and the execution of several high-ranking officials, marked a turning point in Stalin's relations with his top cohort. From then on, Stalin's subordinates recognized that personal intrigues among themselves could "swerve out of control," with deadly results. Hence, they refrained from attacking one another and tentatively developed an embryonic sense of "collective leadership" that would prevail after Stalin's demise. Third, the authors dispel persistent notions that Stalin faced challenges to his leadership, that cohesive "factions" existed in the party hierarchies, and that major domestic or foreign policy initiatives could be undertaken independently of the "boss." To this extent, Stalin reigned supreme. Also, contrary to received wisdom, Gorlizki and Khlevniuk insist that Stalin, regardless of his creeping ill health, paranoic tendencies, and odd flights of fantasy, pursued a largely coherent and rational pattern of rule that "vested authority in committees, elevated younger specialists, and initiated key institutional innovations" (p. 3), all with the goal of consolidating not only his personal hegemony but also the USSR's newfound status as an economic and military superpower. In this connection, Gorlizki and Khlevniuk make the salient point that internal and external policies were [End Page 168] closely interlinked and often reinforced each other. The authors conclude that Stalin's policies "followed a political and administrative logic" (p. 3).

These arguments generally are cogent and persuasive. However, my principal concern is with the interpretation of the concept of neopatrimonialism. The debate is not so much about the "existence" of this model of rule but about the relative weight given to the two opposing components: a "premodern" patriarchal authority and a "modern" institutionalized administration. Judging from the evidence presented here, on all matters other than strictly economic issues (for which Stalin was indeed prepared to delegate much, though not all, responsibility to the Bureau of the Council of Ministers), the "boss" preferred a highly autocratic style compelling his colleagues to display their devotion to him personally, vindictively humiliating all of them, notably Molotov and Mikoyan, and refusing to countenance any meaningful reform in the management of the country. We are left with the image of a man who obstinately and tenaciously clung to the reins of power, even as his mental and physical capacities markedly declined by the early 1950s. Although Gorlizki and Khlevniuk recognize these broad premises, they seem reluctant to concede the dictatorial...