By John Helmer, Moscow
In fighting the first-ever war of elimination between the US and Russia, the ghost of Lenin is haunting the Russian oligarchs. But it’s the ghost of Stalin in the corridors of the Kremlin.
Shortly after the Kremlin meeting on February 24 between the oligarchs and President Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Potanin, one of the creators of the oligarch system in 1996, then the instigator of the state default and bank crash of 1998, announced that if Russian counter-sanctions extend to capital controls and nationalization of assets, he is opposed to them. Potanin likened these measures to the Bolshevik revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.
“Firstly, it would take us back 100 years, to 1917, and the consequences of such a step – global distrust of Russia on the part of investors, [which] we would experience for many decades,” Potanin declared. “Secondly, the decision of many companies to suspend operations in Russia is, I would say, somewhat emotional in nature and may have been taken as a result of unprecedented pressure on them from public opinion abroad.”
Potanin, whose assets dominate global markets for nickel, platinum, and palladium, was trying to repeat what the business lobby had told Putin at their meeting after Putin had announced the start of the military operation in Ukraine but before the sanctions were imposed by the US and its allies in response. “We must do everything to show as clearly as possible that Russia remains a part of the global economy,” Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, had told Putin then, “and will not provoke negative global events in world markets, including via response measures.”
In the Kremlin record, Putin replied by agreeing with the principle. But he warned the practice was likely to change – a forced change, he emphasized.
The oligarchs’ meeting at the Kremlin, February 24.
“What is happening is a forced measure,” Putin said. “There were simply no chances left for taking a different course of action. The security risks that had been created were so high that it was impossible to respond by other means. All attempts had come to nothing. Frankly speaking, I am even surprised – there was not one iota of progress on any issue. I would like to emphasise again that this was a forced measure because risks could have [been] created for us to the extent that it would have been impossible to conceive how our country could even exist in the future. This is the first point.”
“Second, all of us, including you, understand the kind of world we live in, and we have been getting ready in certain ways for the restrictions and sanctions that are being imposed on us now. Nonetheless, what I am about to say is something that I consider extremely important… Russia remains part of the world economy, and to the extent that it remains part, we are not going to inflict damage on the system we feel ourselves to be a part of. We are not going to damage the system of the global economy that we are in, to the extent that we are in it. So, I think our partners should understand this and should not try to force us from this system. Nonetheless, restrictions will be imposed, even for political considerations. In this context, I would like to appeal to you to be understanding of what is going on and cooperate with the Government to find ways to support production, the economy and jobs, though bearing in mind how things are shaping up.”
Over the next week it became clear to the Kremlin, and to the oligarchs, that the US was determined to force Russia out of the international economy entirely. The series of Kremlin and prime ministerial decrees which followed from February 28 to March 5 initiated the comprehensive capital, foreign currency, loan and debt repayment controls which the oligarchs had been able to block until now. Nationalization of foreign corporate assets and state bank purchase of Russian corporation shares are now under way. Follow in this report what these measures portend, and the faction fighting over the loopholes.
Potanin’s likening these measures to Lenin’s revolution cannot have been intended for the Kremlin because Potanin already knew that Central Bank governor Elvira Nabiullina and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov had agreed with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to give Norislk Nickel an exemption from the order that its bond and loan debts must be paid through the new rouble account system.
So who did Potanin intend to be talking to, and what was he signalling? Was he appealing to the US and NATO allies not to sanction him personally, as they have so far refrained from doing?
In a new book on Stalin, it is clear it isn’t Lenin, proponent of communist revolution worldwide, but rather Stalin, warfighter against Germany and then against the US, who is the historical model now for Putin – and for the faction of Russian officials advising the Kremlin to implement a centrally planned war economy. The book is by Geoffrey Roberts, just published by Yale University Press; it is titled Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and his Books. Roberts’ purpose is to uncover fresh evidence for what was on Stalin’s mind by examining the remains of Stalin’s large personal library — what he read, and more importantly, what he scribbled on the pages and in the margins. These marginalia are known in Russian as pometki.
By Roberts’ count, at the end of his life (1878-1953), Stalin had accumulated 19,500 books; 25,000 if pamphlets and periodicals are also counted. Russian researchers still working on this library in the 1990s estimated that he marked up at least 500 of them. Roberts, a professor of Soviet military history and specialist on Stalin at University College Cork, in Ireland, debunks many of the claims made about the hidden meanings of Stalin’s comments by revealing the pometki which weren’t in his handwriting at all.
The evidence of this library, and Stalin’s scribblings in red, blue and green pencils, have been added to what Stalin was saying in public at the time, as well in official records and memoirs of those who met him. From the combination, Roberts has produced a history of Stalin’s inner mind – his intellectual curiosity, his preferences in Russian political and military history, his convictions, his prejudices. Roberts also made the following discovery about Stalin that’s human — he read so often and so many books “mainly to learn something new”.
In coming to this conclusion, Roberts says, “no smoking guns are to be found anywhere in the remains of Stalin’s library. His pometki reveal preoccupations not secrets.” Roberts signals he’s afraid of smoking guns. He wants it to be known at the start, and emphasizes many times over throughout the book, that Stalin was a “bloody tyrant”; the show trials he ordered in the 1930s were “gruesome”. On the other hand, his annotations have been uncovered to reveal a wide range of his less than tyrannical and evidently unpathological feelings.
Left, Geoffrey Roberts. Right, a page of Stalin’s doodles and comments on the back of Alexei Tolstoy’s 1942 play, Ivan Grozny.
“Among his choice expressions of disdain were ‘ha ha’, ‘gibberish’, ‘nonsense’, ‘fool’, ‘scumbag’, ‘scoundrel’ and ‘piss off’. But he could also be effusive – ‘yes yes’, ‘agreed’, ‘good’ ‘spot on’, ‘that’s right’ — and pensive, which he sometimes signalled by writing m-da in the margin…his most frequent annotation was NB (in Latin script) or its Russian equivalent Vn (vnimanie – attention).”
Roberts has also covered his rear after years of academic attacks for being too soft on the evidence against Stalin. Every twenty pages he camouflages his own judgements by attributing them to others – “as Sheila Fitzpatrick has written”, “to use Alfred J,. Reiber’s memorable phrase”, “to paraphrase Walter Benjamin”, “what H.J.Jackson has called”, “what Igor Halfin has called”, “as Wendy Goldman so aptly summarizes”, “as John Barber pointed out,” etc. Thirty-three pages of notes and references have also been added to 212 pages of text – a security blanket of one page for every six. Not enough for the Guardian whose reviewer accuses the book of being “startlingly forgiving towards Stalin”.
Stalin wasn’t particularly original, in Roberts’ judgement. His “mind was an accumulator and regurgitator…Yet he was an intellectual until the end of his days”. By comparison with Lenin, though, and the rest of the original Bolsheviks including Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s originality was in his grasp of the military requirements for Russia’s defence.
“The history of old Russia consisted among other things,”” Stalin said in 1931, according to Roberts’ report, “in her being beaten for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal rulers. She was beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. Everyone gave her a beating for her backwardness… They beat her because it was profitable and could be done with impunity… Such is the law of the exploiter: beat the backward because you are weak… We must close that gap in 10 years. Either we do this or we will be crushed.”
By the start of the second world war, he had come to the certainty that “under conditions of capitalist encirclement, the Soviet Union needed a strong state apparatus to defend itself against external threats and internal subversion”. In Roberts’ review of the evidence of what Stalin said, what he read and scribbled inside his books, Stalin’s innovation on Lenin was as a warfighter.
This is the point which Putin has acknowledged reaching himself in his speech to the Russian officer corps on December 21 last; his Donbass recognition speech of February 21; the Ukraine military operation declaration in the early morning of February 24; and Putin’s warning to the oligarchs the same afternoon.
It’s a point which most Russians at the moment believe Putin reached in the nick of time, compared to Stalin on June 22, 1941. They share the sentiment Stalin scribbled in August 1948, according to one of Roberts’ discoveries. Stalin had been reading an academic article on the history of the US military intervention in Siberia during the Russian civil war. Against the line reporting the US government’s announcement at the time that the invasion was prompted by “love” for the Russian people, Stalin scribbled in coloured pencil: “Ha ha”.