Monday, February 3, 2014

Window on Eurasia: In Leningrad Affair, Stalin Repressed 32,000 Ethnic Russian Leaders

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 3 – During the last eight years of his life, Stalin organized attacks not only on ethnic groups on the periphery but on two major communities at the center of political life of the Soviet Union, against the Jews in the infamous Doctor’s plot which was cut short by the dictator’s death and against the ethnic Russians in the still-murky Leningrad affair.

            In a 6,000-word article on the “Stoletiye” portal, Vladimir Kuznechevsky, a historian at the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, reports on his investigation into Stalin’s war against his ethnic Russian colleagues and argues that war provides lessons for the future (

            The events now known as the Leningrad Affairs, Kuznechevsky says, were of course about the struggle for power under and even more in anticipation of the death of Stalin.  But they were also about policy and about Stalin’s fears that Russian nationalism could develop in ways that would threaten the Soviet Union.

            When Stalin promoted two younger Russians, Nikolay Voznesensky and Aleksey Kuznetsov, and suggested they could be the next generation of leaders, Kunechevsky says, he opened a “Pandora’s box” by threatening the positions of his much closer party and state colleagues, most of whom were like himself not ethnically Russian.

            The latter felt threatened both personally – they might not have a chance to succeed Stalin – and politically – the Russian cadres were openly promoting the idea that Moscow should change course in two ways, shifting from armaments to consumer goods and from support of the non-Russian republics to improving life for the Russians in the Russian Federation.

            Those concerns were certainly hinted at in the trials and more directly stated in now declassified party documents, Kuznechevsky says, but the real evidence that the so-called Leningrad Affair was an anti-Russian measure is that “more than 32,000 ethnic Russian leaders of the party, state and economy” were subjected to repression as part of it, removed from their jobs, dispatched to the GULAG or executed.

            What is most striking from the archives, the RISI investigator says is that “only ethnic Russian leaders were subjected to repressions” as part of this case.

            Those who try to defend Stalin’s actions as reasonable moves against a conspiracy within the leadership never talk about this, Kuznechevsky says, nor do they focus on what the ethnic Russian party and state leaders were really concerned about: the impoverishment of the ethnic Russians in order to support the non-Russians.

            According to the RISI author, the affair happened because of Stalin’s fears about the new portion of the top leadership of the USSR which came to power at the end of the war “not from the union republics but from the central oblasts of Russia” and who believed that the Russians should be compensated for their contribution to victory.

            That allowed their opponents within the leadership to argue, Kuznechevsky says, that the “Leningraders” were wanted to create a Russian Communist Party and thus set the stage for the demise of the centralized Stalinist state which unlike most empires impoverished the center in order to develop the borderlands.

            The RISI historian cites with approval Harvard’s Terry Martin that Stalin took such extreme measures against the “Leningraders” because he “was panically afraid of the awakening of Russian national self-consciousness, viewing that as the greatest threat to his indivisible power in the USSR.”

            That argument always Kuznechevsky to raise the question that interests him most: “Is an ethnic Russian government possible in Russia?” or,  put another way, is it a good idea for people to “strive for an ethnically pure Russian government in Russia?”

            That is not a simple question, the RISI historian says.  Ethnic Russians do form an overwhelming part of the population and define the culture of almost all its residents.  From that perspective, “the Leningraders” raised the right question and correctly insisted that “the state-forming nation which makes up an absolute majority of the population cannot remain at the third-level positions and roles in the political administration of society.”

            Those denounced in the Leningrad Affair were not the only ones who felt at the time that Stalin’s successor would have to be an ethnic Russian.  Anastas Mikoyan, an Armenian, wrote in his memoirs exactly the same. If the “Leningraders” or better the pro-Russian faction had won, Kunechevsky says, citing another expert, the USSR would not have fallen apart as it did.

            Of course, it might have disintegrated in another way had the rise of Russian nationalism sparked more nationalism in the non-Russian republics and regions. But Kunechevsky’s article is important even if it is not ultimately correct on that point.

            On the one hand, he provides a wealth of archival about one of the darkest periods of Soviet history. And on the other, even as Vladimir Putin tries to impose a common history on the country, articles like Kuznechevsky are a reminder that history doesn’t fit neatly into a single procrustean bed and that arguments about the future are often made in discussions about the past.

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