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Stalin’s personality

LAURENCE REES: Let's talk about Stalin’s personality. What’s your own assessment of him?

ROBERT SERVICE: Stalin was an exceptionally competent political leader. He didn’t have all of the skills - he was a pathetic orator. Well, I say a pathetic orator, he was good at doing the simple things. He was a sort of barking speaker. Not in the sense of being mad, but he barked like a dog. Now, he didn’t have any of the flights of fancy of Trotsky or the eloquence of Lenin, so even as a speaker he wasn’t at all bad, but as an organiser, as someone who could master a brief, as someone who could appeal to his leading comrades, as someone who could think geopolitically across the whole range of politics, society, economics and culture and as an active dictator, as someone who was going to poke his nose into everything and instil fear in his subordinates, he was an exceptional leader. Not just a brute, he was a brute, but he was an exceptional leader, a very bright and intelligent man as well as almost a psychopathic killer.

LAURENCE REES: And why did he find it so important to rule by fear, if that’s what he was doing?

ROBERT SERVICE: He started from a low base because he was so derided by the other leaders in the Bolshevik Party apex. He didn’t know German or French or English, he hadn’t lived in the so-called emigration. He played along with this actually, he pretended that he hadn’t got much of an education when in fact he had, but he suffered because of this as other leaders and people just somewhat below the leadership tended to condescend to him. He hadn’t played a prominent role in the October revolution of 1917, and his career in the civil war that followed was less than glorious, so he didn’t have the ease that anyone else would have had in taking over the leadership, and in rallying opinion that a very worthy successor to Lenin had arrived. And this made him much more vengeful and much more violent in establishing his personal despotism than probably would have been the case if Leon Trotsky had succeeded to the position occupied by Lenin. So there’s a sort of prickliness.

LAURENCE REES: So, in part, he rules by fear because he perceives a lack of respect?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think it comes from a lack of respect that he knew about. He knew so well about it because he had all of the offices and telephones bugged. He knew exactly what the others were saying about him. But the other aspect of his violence doesn’t have a lot to do with him, but has a lot to do with the communist regime which trampled on religion, trampled on peasant traditions, arrested people in their millions, and was deeply resented and was powerful, but insecure in its power. So anyone ruling the Soviet Union at the end of the 1930s would have felt the impulse to turn on millions of people just for reasons of state security, not just personal security, and that would have been the case not just for Stalin but also for whoever else you can imagine such as Trotsky.

LAURENCE REES: Are you saying that Communism was not as popular in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as Nazism was in Germany?

ROBERT SERVICE: There’s a big, big difference between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union: millions of Germans were enthusiastic about Hitler. They might not like some of his policies, but generally speaking he was a very popular leader. Stalin wasn’t. Stalin had brutalised millions of Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union; and most of the peasants, for example, knew exactly who it was who had collectivised their agriculture and taken off so many members of communes which had lived peaceably by themselves for years. So Stalin knew very well that he was unpopular and people knew exactly who to blame because of the cult that surrounded Stalin and the plaudits that official spokesmen showered him with. So there was no doubt in the popular imagination that this single figure had caused so much misery. That’s not to say that lots of people didn’t admire him, there were millions of people who also admired him who were beneficiaries of industrialisation and mass education. It wasn’t the entire population that hated him, but most people who hated him.

LAURENCE REES: But there’s a paradox here. Because he then grows during the war into this incredibly popular figure, doesn’t he?

ROBERT SERVICE: His popularity does increase during the war. He becomes the symbol of the patriotic effort.  Part of the way he manages to pull this off is to retreat from the public media, not to have his photograph appearing every week, and to operate behind the scenes. For example, when the small nationalities are deported brutally from the Caucuses towards the end of the war there’s total secrecy about this; nothing is said about Stalin’s orders for this until years after the event. So by keeping himself clear of complicity in the actions of brutality, he’s given credit by millions of people who might otherwise have continued to associate him with brutal policies. He’s very, very cunning.