Tzvetan Todorov. Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions. Volume 5, Issue 1. Summer 2004.
Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), the most prominent Bulgarian Communist leader and the chief of the Komintern between 1935 and 1941, left a private diary which has recently been published (in Bulgarian in 1997; in English in 2003). One contribution of this remarkably rich document is the portrait of Stalin it draws: Dimitrov met him frequently and transcribed faithfully his words. Among other features revealed by this portrait are the nationalistic turn of his communism; his pragmatic appreciation of the balance of powers; and hypocrisy as a systematic strategy.
Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949) was the most prominent leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party during the first half of the twentieth century. Immediately after the repression of the insurrection led by the communists in September 1923, he left the country and became a member of the Komintern, the international communist organisation. He travelled, more or less legally, between Moscow, Vienna and Berlin. It is there that he was arrested in March 1933, a few weeks after Hitler took power. He was accused, together with other communists, of having caused the burning down of the Reichstag—a way for Hitler to discredit and repress the communist movement. But, against all expectations, Dimitrov defended himself brilliantly; international networks of sympathisers, led by Willi Münzenberg, ensured worldwide repercussions for the trial, which was held in Leipzig, and created universal sympathy for the main defendant. In spite of Goering’s and Goebbels’ presence in the dock, Dimitrov was acquitted and released.
Stripped of his Bulgarian nationality, he went to the USSR where he received a hero’s welcome. With the aura of his newfound glory, he immediately ascended the echelons of power and became general secretary of the Komintern, as well as a member of the Supreme Soviet, the equivalent of parliament in the USSR; in the minutely detailed hierarchy of the country’s leaders, he was in sixth place. He kept this position until war broke out in 1941, when the international communist movement was forced to change. After the victory over Germany in 1945, he returned to Bulgaria; a year later, he became Prime Minister there. It is he who organised the merciless repression of democratic opposition in 1947, including the legal murder of its leader, Nikola Petkov. Often ill, Dimitrov underwent treatment in the USSR; he died there in July 1949.
Dimitrov would only have been one of these pathetic or sinister figures of international communism of the time, if he had not stood out due to one extra activity: he kept a diary. In particular, he started one, as he was in jail in Berlin, on 9 March 1933, and he continued it with few interruptions until 6 February 1949. During these 16 decisive years in the history of Europe, every day he wrote down the main events of his life, which were largely devoted to public activity. The existence of the diary was not unknown to the Russian Chekists or to the Bulgarian communists. After Dimitrov’s death, the diary was placed in the archives of the Bulgarian Communist Party; apart from a few excerpts dealing with his trial in Leipzig, its content was kept a tight secret. But after the crisis of the regime in 1989, which worsened in 1991, the question of its publication became topical. The task was not easy: Dimitrov wrote indifferently in Bulgarian, Russian and German, with a lot of abbreviations and often using the pseudonyms of the time. It was nevertheless brought to fruition and the diary was published in its entirety in Bulgarian in 1997. In 2003 a first English translation was published by Yale University Press.
Dimitrov’s diary is an invaluable document for the history of the communist movement, of Eastern Europe, even of world politics in the first part of the twentieth century. It offers at the same time rich material for the reflection of political scientists, sociologists and psychologists. No other communist leader of that stature has produced a similar document; memoirs or interviews bestowed by some of them were written retrospectively, not day to day. We find innumerable details, for example, on the activity of the Komintern before the war or on the instauration of ‘popular democracies’ in Eastern Europe after the war. We can observe at the same time the life of governing milieus of the Soviet Union in close up.
One of the most enlightening contributions of the diary consists in Stalin’s statements reported by Dimitrov. Throughout this period, Dimitrov was part of the Soviet leader’s inner circle; he met him, not every day, but often. What Stalin said was deemed so valuable by Dimitrov that he transcribed it immediately in his diary. Thus we find there more or less official speeches as well as confidences shared with those people closest to him. The portrait of Stalin which emerges from these pages is striking. Does this mean that here we deal with the ‘real’ Stalin? Certainly not. First, some (elements) of his actions were too expected by Dimitrov for him to write them down; moreover, only international affairs receive sustained attention; last, even before Dimitrov, Stalin did not say everything. As a matter of fact, Stalin’s public interventions were no less important than the intimate facet revealed by the diary. However, Dimitrov’s contribution is essential and it deserves to be known to all who are interested in the Soviet leader’s activity or in the nature of communist practices.
Terrorising and Dancing
What were Dimitrov’s first impressions? Having arrived in Moscow on 27 February 1934, he was welcomed by Stalin, together with other members of the Politburo, on the following 3 March. Stalin’s first retort to be found in the diary related to the Bulgarian politician, Alexander Tsankov, who was responsible for the repression of the communists in 1923; it was lapidary: ‘Tsankov—let him be massacred!’
Stalin’s belligerence, at that time, particularly concerned the people he called ‘Trotskyists’, a convenient label to designate all the communists who disagreed with him. Trials against his former fellow travellers followed in rapid succession; these people elicited no mercy from him. ‘One must not believe the words of a former member of the opposition’, he said in response to Bukharin and Rykov’s justifications; and Tomski’s suicide was a ‘last desperate attempt to fight against the Party’ (4 December 1936). At a meeting to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the October revolution, he made the following toast:
We will crush all these enemies, even if they are old Bolsheviks, we will crush all their relatives, all their family. We will crush all those who, by their actions or thoughts (yes, thoughts) strike at the unity of the Socialist State. For all our enemies, themselves and their clans, to be crushed completely! (7 November 1937)
The ‘Trotskyists’ must be chased not only in the USSR but everywhere they might be. ‘We must chase, shoot and crush the Trotskyists. They are world agitators, fascism’s worst agents! … Münzenberg is a Trotskyist. If he comes here, he must be arrested. Make every attempt to draw him here’ (11 November 1937).
Towards his collaborators, Stalin was brutal and easily menacing. He found them too soft and therefore not efficient enough. General Merkulov, future head of the NKVD (Department of Internal Affairs), was one of them. ‘You must have a plan and apply it strictly, without taking into consideration that somebody will be offended’ (21 January 1941). The tone escalated during the war. In front of the Politburo hidden in the anti‐aircraft shelter, he threatened Khrushchev, considered responsible for the setbacks in the Ukraine. ‘Act as required. Otherwise—I am telling you plainly—I will do you in’ (16 August 1941). Marshal Kulik had to withdraw from a town; he was immediately downgraded, stripped of his medals and considered responsible for ‘criminal actions’, a very dangerous formulation. Voroshilov, incapable of winning, was sent to the rear (19 February 1942). Once the war was over, Stalin did not become less offensive towards those who did not satisfy him. Dimitrov himself was told off and humiliated like a little boy, in February 1948, for not having been able to decipher the master’s instructions exactly.
Merciless with individuals, Stalin was not much softer with groups he considered doomed by history. He already had the collectivisation of land under his belt, but he remembered as a feat moments when ‘one had to cut into the living flesh of the kulak‘s body’ (11 November 1937). In 1940, he attacked Finland, which put up a surprising resistance. He gave instructions: enemy forces were thought to be 150,000, ‘we killed 60,000, we must kill the others too and the whole thing will be over. Only children and the elderly must remain’ (21 January 1940). The shifting of population thanks to war did not move him any more: ‘If we win, we’ll give back Eastern Prussia to the Slavs to whom it belongs. We’ll populate it with Slavs’ (8 September 1941). We note that at that date—the scene was taking place in a shelter—the use of the conditional was required.
This was Stalin’s first register, as noted by Dimitrov: the practice of terror and the threatening of terror. The second register was more difficult to describe but no less present. Stalin always remained slightly vague about his intentions, he spoke firmly but left room for several interpretations; or he changed his mind rapidly. His interlocutors, who shook before him, tried their best to understand the ultimate meaning of his words but could never be sure. In this way, nobody could seek shelter behind any legitimacy drawn from the theory; the latter was constantly reformulated and legitimacy resided only with Stalin himself. On 7 November 1940, for example, he addressed the Party’s highest‐ranking dignitaries, gathered around him, starting with a telling off because Soviet planes were less good than the enemies’ (‘and for us all capitalist States are enemies’).
Nobody among you thinks of that. I am on my own … You don’t like to study, you live in self‐satisfaction … People listen to me but everything remains the way it used to be. But I will show you what happens if I lose patience. (You know how I can). I will strike the fat lumps, so that everything will collapse.
Of course, as far as aviation and many other things were concerned, no decision could be taken without Stalin, so why did he blame them for his own shortcomings? Never mind, his interlocutors all remained quiet and shook, for they knew where this kind of language could lead. Dimitrov observed: ‘In Voroshilov’s eyes tears appeared. While he was talking, Iossif Vissarionovich was turning towards Kaganovich and Beria in particular’ (7 November 1940).
The subordinates tried to execute the master’s orders but he cancelled his directives, constantly reformulating them so that they never knew exactly where they stood. In this way, they felt doubly guilty: they lacked both intelligence and efficacy. But Stalin said one day: ‘Don’t hurry with this task’ (13 May 1943); and a week later: ‘We must hurry with this publication [concerning him]’ (20 May 1943). So, how to have satisfied him? Must one have tolerated opposition (after the war, in Eastern European countries) or crushed it? The people who carried out orders thought they had understood and rushed to act, only to find out once more that they were wrong. This mobility of strategy deprived them of all certainty and increased their dependence on the leader.
Last, Stalin’s third register was that of joking. To be true, Dimitrov did not report any formulation which could make us laugh today; but he affirmed that this trait characterised Stalin well. For example, his words on the shifts of populations in Eastern Prussia were introduced by the following formulation: ‘During all this time [spent in the anti‐aircraft shelter], the Boss was joking wittily’ (8 September 1941). How could the departure of the Germans have constituted a joke? Another time, in the Kremlin, Dimitrov asked Stalin for an appointment to discuss with him the affairs of the Komintern. Stalin answered: ‘No time for that. When I have a free moment, either I sleep, or I deal with funny things, not with serious questions’. Dimitrov added: ‘Stalin joked a lot. Teased Shvernik and Kholmin, forced Manuilski to tell new anecdotes, etc.’ (21 January 1943). We can see that the members of the governing body of the country had to show particular ability: to laugh at the boss’s teasing, or to be capable in turn of making him laugh.
Another astonishing scene took place on 6 December 1948, when Stalin designated Kostov, Bulgarian communist leader, as the next victim of the purges: Kostov was guilty of a willingness for independence from the Soviet Party, a fault which was particularly badly perceived in the days when the conflict with Tito’s Yugoslavia broke out. However, after reporting what amounted to a death sentence without possibility of appeal, Dimitrov noted: ‘We stayed until morning. Stalin was very bright and happy. Regaled his guests. Turned on the record player and played records. He himself joking a lot and dancing’. The king jested—Stalin danced while his companions trembled with fear.
Stalin was totally conscious of the exceptional position he occupied in the midst of millions of people making up the country’s population: ‘The innumerable masses have the psychology of a herd. They only act through the people they elect, through their leaders’ (7 April 1934). Dimitrov quickly learnt the lesson.
Such are the distinctive traits of the character with whom Dimitrov rubbed shoulders for 16 years. But what was his ultimate aim in acting in this way? What became of the communist doctrine in his hands?
In general, Stalin did not discuss doctrine with his closest collaborators. But when certain major events happened, he gave them his vision of the political life of the planet. In August 1939, he had just signed a pact of friendship with Hitler, the latter taking advantage of this to invade Poland; Great Britain and France committed themselves: the Second World War began. The following day, Stalin exposed his analysis to Molotov, Zhdanov and Dimitrov, invited by him to the Kremlin.
The war is led by two groups of capitalist countries (rich and poor in colonies, natural resources, etc.). The purpose is a redistribution of the world, the domination of the world! We are not against the fact that they fight against each other and drain each other’s forces. It is not a bad thing if thanks to Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries is weakened (in particular of England). Hitler, without understanding or willing it, shakes and ruins the capitalist system … We can manoeuvre, supporting one country against another, so that they tear each other apart. The pact of non‐aggression helps Germany to a point. The next moment will consist in encouraging the other side … At times of war, the division of capitalist countries into fascist and democratic loses its prior meaning (7 September 1939).
We can note that Stalin had not understood anything about the novelty Hitler represented. He applied to the Second World War the Marxist interpretation adapted to the First: the reasons for the conflict were for him economic, not political. At the same time we can see the total cynicism of the alliances: he would support one of the sides at war, then the other, until both were totally drained and he could clean up. Hitler would not leave him time to execute his Machiavellian projects.
Stalin’s blindness lasted rather a long time: on 25 November 1940, he asked Dimitrov to pass on to Bulgaria a proposal to sign a mutual agreement of non‐aggression. Neutral until then, Bulgaria was solicited from all sides. ‘As far as signing a pact of mutual help is concerned, not only do we not object to Bulgaria’s joining of the tripartite Pact but we will ourselves join this Pact’. We shake at the idea that Hitler could have accepted this proposal and that the tripartite Pact—Germany, Italy, Japan—could have become quadripartite! Europe today would have a completely different map. Fortunately for us, Hitler declined the offer.
Once the alliances were turned around, Stalin felt no closer to the United States and to Great Britain than he did to Nazi Germany.
Between ourselves and the democratic fraction of the capitalists an alliance was born, because it had an interest in refraining Hitler’s domination, because this brutal domination would have led the working class to extremes and to the toppling of capitalism itself. We are now with one of the fractions against the other, but in the future we will also be against this fraction of capitalists (28 January 1945).
Stalin remained faithful to the orthodox interpretation grid inscribed in traditional Marxist doctrine, which made him ignore the aggressive nature of Nazism; this appeared to him under the surprising traits of the involuntary gravedigger of capitalism. We understand under those conditions why Stalin first chose to support it.
At the same time, in listening to Stalin’s concrete reasonings about this or that country, we have the impression that we face the representative of a big power rather than a communist theorist. He conceived relations between countries in terms of geopolitical balance, rather then in those of doctrinal victories. Quite early on in the war, he started to worry about an excessive weakening of Germany in post‐war Europe which would not allow him to counterbalance English influence: ‘It is necessary to signal to the Germans the danger of the carving up and annihilation of Germany’ (12 June 1943). On the eve of victory, he still had the same concern:
The English want to divide Germany (Bavaria and Austria, the region of the Rhine, etc.). By all means they aspire to annihilate their competitor. They bomb German factories and plants viciously. We will not allow their aircraft in our part of Germany. But they try to bomb there as well … There needs to be Germans to act in order to save what can still be saved in the life of the German people (17 March 1945).
Relations with another neighbour, Turkey, also seem to have been envisaged in ethnic rather than ideological terms. ‘We will chase the Turks to Asia. What on earth is that Turkey? There are two million Georgians, one and a half million Armenians, one million Kurds, etc. The Turks are only six to seven million’ (25 November 1940). Once the war was over, Stalin did not give up on his project, even if he postponed it until later. Bulgarians must inherit Thrace, the European part of Turkey. ‘The demand for Thrace by Bulgaria will give it positions for the future. Another war is necessary in order for questions of this kind to be definitively resolved’ (2 September 1946). Does this not sound more like the Tsar’s voice deciding on the fate of a recalcitrant neighbour rather than that of the communist leader?
Precisely in the years preceding the war, Stalin engaged in a strange revaluation of the Russian Tsars’ legacy: if we are to believe him, their policy inside the country deserved criticism but their attitude towards neighbouring countries deserved praise:
Russian Tsars accomplished many bad things. They looted the people, they reduced it to slavery … But they did one good thing: they created an immense state, all the way to Kamtchatka. We received this state in inheritance. And it is us, Bolsheviks, who for the first time consolidated and reinforced this state as an entity one and indivisible … This is why all who try to break the unity of the socialist state, all who aspire to detach parts and nationalities from it, are enemies, sworn enemies of the state and the people of the USSR (7 November 1937).
Georgian by origin, Stalin admired without restrictions the ‘Great Russian’ project of extension and consolidation of the empire.
At the end of the war, in the same spirit, Stalin welcomed the project of a federation of Southern Slavs, between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, a first step towards the unification of all Slavs. ‘In this way, we lay the bases for the union of all Slavic people. These people are obliged to help each other and to defend each other’ (27 January 1945). There again, ethnic unity seemed more important than ideological orthodoxy, even if it was not yet discarded. Stalin thought of the world in terms of a ‘clash of civilisations’—and the Slavs were one of them.
Hence, in Stalin’s speeches, there was an overlap and then a confusion between the ethnic and the ideological, which gave rise to Russian national‐communism. Any victory for one of the elements benefited the other. For example, following the German-Soviet Non‐Aggression Pact, Poland was divided up and occupied by the two allies. Expansion of the national territory at the same time as victory for communism: ‘the annihilation of this state under the current conditions would mean one less fascist and bourgeois country! What evil would there be if as an effect of the Polish defeat we extended the socialist system to new territories and populations?’ (7 September 1939). These were two sides of the same action, which became more and more difficult to distinguish; as Stalin said about the war against Finland, ‘actions by the Red Army are also the work of the world revolution’ (21 January 1940).
Did the promotion of the Russian national project not clash with the traditional internationalism advocated by Marxist doctrine? Stalin avoided the difficulty with a lexical hocus‐pocus: the new nationalism was opposed not to proletarian internationalism but to bourgeois cosmopolitanism. ‘Between a well‐understood nationalism and proletarian internationalism there isn’t and there can’t be contradiction. Uprooted cosmopolitanism, which negates national feelings, the idea of homeland, has nothing in common with proletarian internationalism’ (12 May 1941). The latter is apparently defined by default as faithfulness to the Soviet Union, since this country is the embodiment of a universal project.
The Balance of Forces
Stalin did not spend much time elaborating doctrinal points in front of Dimitrov. On the other hand he liked to ponder on the means which must be deployed to reach his goal—a goal which was not defined in relation to dogma but which consisted in conquest, consolidation and extension of power. Here was the general rule: an action must be undertaken only if one has good chances to win; any other consideration must be cast aside. Stalin developed these ideas in particular in relation to the situation in Greece immediately after the war.
Greece was left outside of the Soviet zone of influence by the agreements between the Allies. In frustration, the Greek communists tried to seize power through violence and set off an insurrection. Stalin evaluated the balances of forces and disapproved. ‘They have undertaken a work for which their forces are not enough. Apparently, they were counting on the fact that the Red Army would go down to the Aegean Sea. We cannot do it. We cannot send our troops to Greece. The Greeks have acted stupidly’ (10 January 1945). They were just as wrong to boycott the legislative elections. ‘One can boycott elections when this boycott leads to their annihilation. Otherwise, boycotting is not a reasonable thing to do’ (2 September 1946).
Bulgarian and Yugoslav communist leaders, whose countries served as back‐up base to the Greek partisans, thought they must do everything to support their fight—since they fought for a just cause. Stalin did not agree—since they risked losing. Political action must be geared towards a probable result, not by the protagonists’ motivation.
When we go to war, we must build the front as suits us, whereas here we are simply exposing our backs for the Americans to beat … I start from the analysis of the forces in presence, the partisans and their opponents. Recently I have started to doubt the victory of the partisans. If you are not convinced that the partisans will win, the partisan movement must retreat … If the prospects for the partisan movement in a country diminish, it is better to postpone the fight until better days. What is lacking in the relations of power cannot be compensated by exclamations and moans (10 February 1948).
At that point Stalin elevated the debate to the level of principles. Still addressing Bulgarian and Yugoslav leaders, he said:
You are afraid of asking the question crudely. You are impressed by ‘moral duty’. If you can’t lift the weight you have taken on, you must admit to it. You must not be afraid of a ‘categorical imperative’ regarding the question of moral duty. For us, there are no ‘categorical imperatives’. The whole question is in the balance of forces. If you are strong, strike. Otherwise, don’t agree to fight. We agree to fight not when an opponent wants to, but when it is in our interest (10 February 1948).
Stalin’s whole attention was focused on the outcome of the struggle. As a paroxystic disciple of Machiavelli, he eliminated all relation between moral virtues and political qualities. He who succeeded was a good politician, not he who defended a just cause. The cause itself ended up being confused with the victory: one must win the battle simply to win the battle, power was an end in itself.
This attitude dictated Stalin’s reactions in all circumstances. For example, at the beginning of the war against Germany, we see, in the shelter, Kalinin, a member of the Politburo, praising to Stalin the bravery of the Soviet soldiers—he believed that he pleased the chief in this way. The latter interrupted him brutally. ‘Any old fool can be brave. One must know how to fight’ (8 September 1941). Kalinin made the mistake of confusing virtue and virtu. Several years later, it was Dimitrov’s turn to suffer the master’s wrath. The Bulgarian leader tried to justify himself: he thought he was doing the right thing, never had a hostile thought towards the USSR crossed his mind. Stalin, who seems to have reread Weber’s pages on the difference between an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility, retorted: ‘You are a politician, and you must not only think about your intentions, but also about what results from your actions’ (10 February 1948).
Stalin did not like to see his collaborators claim a legitimacy other than his orders, which is why he preferred ideology to be left aside, or to be reduced to such abstractions that a new interpretation was constantly necessary. References to the past did not impress him much, they did not provide justifications for present actions. ‘You talk about history. But sometimes you need to correct history’ (7 April 1941). ‘Do not hold on to what is in the past. Take rigorously into account the new conditions’ (20 April 1941). Improvisation must prevail over tradition: there again, Stalin inscribed himself powerfully in the great current of modernity. Not to stick to dogma, to take immediately into consideration every new particular: this was the rule he set for himself at the beginning of the war: ‘The beginnings of great wisdom: 1. To recognise one’s mistakes and faults. 2. To correct these mistakes and faults’ (28 July 1941).
For this reason too, Stalin preferred to change the men who surrounded him regularly, and, more specifically, to replace the old with the young. ‘Old people value the past. Young people look forward. Replacing old people with young people is very important’ (6 February 1941). This principle explains not only the purges of the 1930s, but also, 50 years later, Pol Pot’s strategy: the Cambodian leader would surround himself, advisedly, with child soldiers.
At the time of the German-Soviet Non Aggression Pact, Stalin showed no hostility towards Hitler. However, he saw a real failing in his system: namely, his racist ideology. It was not because it offended Stalin on a moral level, but because adhering to such an inegalitarian ideology, and moreover proclaiming it, appeared to him to be a handicap to political action proper.
Germany now pursues the war under the banner of the subjection and submission of other peoples, under the banner of hegemony. It is a great disadvantage for the German army. Not only does it not have the sympathy of a range of countries and peoples, but on the contrary it has numerous countries it occupies hostile to itself (5 May 1941).
In this respect, communist ideology was, according to Stalin, a much better weapon. ‘Lenin has created a new ideology for humanity, an ideology of friendship and love between peoples, of equality between races. An ideology, which places one race above the others and demands all races to be subjected to it, is a dead ideology, it cannot subsist for long’ (22 April 1941). One could replace in this sentence ‘ideology’ with ‘propaganda’ with no loss at all. Ideology was reduced here to a merely instrumental role, it facilitated the conquest of power. It was a servant not a master. The Soviet Union was a pseudo‐ideocracy, a state which pretended to submit to ideology but which in reality made ideology serve the progress to absolute power. Propaganda services were as necessary—and as carefully controlled—as the Red Army or the KGB.
A Convenient Mask
Though subordinate, the ideological window‐dressing was no less indispensable. We even have the impression that precisely because its role in generating action tended to vanish appearances had to be saved at all costs. But which appearances were most adapted? Stalin deemed that at the present time it was better to advance under concealment: not to proclaim one’s aim to institute communism everywhere or to demand submission to the Soviet Union, but on the contrary to present one’s actions as a fight for national liberation, a national front, a coalition of all progressive forces. It was imperative, Stalin hammered on, to dissimulate the Soviet project behind a facade which did not intimidate anybody. Without ever conceding on the essential, of course, which was the preservation of power. As he put it to Togliatti (who repeated it immediately to Dimitrov), ‘For Marxists, form is never decisively relevant. What is decisive is the bottom of things’ (5 March 1944). The essential here was not to know whether Italy was going to be a monarchy or a republic, but that the communists made sure that they shared the power.
The same was true for Eastern Europe: one must know how to adapt, as Stalin patiently explained to Dimitrov.
In Bulgaria, you must create a Labour Party … It is not advantageous to have a workers’ Party and moreover to call it communist [which is the case in Bulgaria] … I advise you strongly to do it … It will be a popular party. I assure you that you won’t lose anything, on the contrary, you will only win. And from the point of view of the country’s international situation, it will make things considerably easier. In fact, the party will be communist, but it will have a wider basis and a convenient mask for the current times. This will help you reach socialism by a particular route—without the proletariat’s dictatorship … Don’t fear to be accused of opportunism. It is not opportunism at all, it is an application of Marxism to the current situation (2 September 1946).
The mistake of his Eastern European collaborators was not to have this or that objective, but to have revealed it publicly without concern for the effects which may have resulted. When Dimitrov proclaimed the necessity of a customs union between socialist countries, Stalin was angry: Westerners risk doing the same. ‘If you want to unite, why make so much noise?’ (10 February 1948). The Yugoslavs sent their army to Albania: why shout it from the rooftops? ‘The Yugoslavs are visibly scared to be robbed of Albania. You must take Albania, but intelligently’ (10 February 1948). Dimitrov spoke of ‘the destruction of all aggression hotspots’ as a current goal of the socialist camp. The Soviet leadership was scandalised. Molotov exclaimed: what are these screams? ‘You will lead a preventative war?’ Stalin added: ‘These are leftist deviations’ (10 February 1948). A statement was never judged according to right or wrong but only according to useful or harmful; Dimitrov’s fault was to have told the truth.
He himself only ever said what must be said. After praising the new slavophilia, he added:
The old slavophilia expressed Tsarist Russia’s aspiration to submit all other Slavic peoples. Our slavophilia is entirely different—reunifying Slavic peoples as equal, in order to mutually defend their existence and future. We don’t want to impose anything to other Slavic peoples. We do not meddle with their internal affairs. Let them do what they can (28 January 1945).
At the same time he sent KGB advisers to these countries and minutely oversaw nominations to the government. Thus he illustrated his systematic recourse to a use of language in which he had become a master: words were not there simply to designate things but also to conceal them. When saying the opposite of what one thinks, one wins on two counts: one acts in all liberty, while protecting oneself from the negative effects of one’s actions.
It was never Stalin’s intent to leave the smallest liberty to his allies, but precisely for this reason, one had always to say the opposite. If he intervened in the governing of their affairs it was because he cared for their inteerests even more than they did. ‘We cannot accept this situation anymore because it harms Bulgaria’s interests’ (15 March 1946; this formulation is Molotov’s). One must know that when Stalin said ‘coordination’ he meant ‘subordination’. Addressing Kostov, who was guilty of a deviation towards autonomy, he indicated: ‘Between communists a friendship, a collaboration “without lies, without arrogance” is necessary’ (6 December 1948). Or: we only want peace and love between peoples (therefore we must reinforce armament so that the next conquests take place without incidents). And last, but particularly juicy, one must avoid insisting on Stalin’s dominant role, because he did not like flattery! A word to the wise was enough!
However, Stalin never forgot that these verbal concessions must touch, to use his own terms, form and not content. Thus, at the time of the annexation of the Baltic countries:
We think that in the pacts of mutual help (with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) we have found the form which will enable us to place a series of countries within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. But to succeed, we must respect strictly their internal regime and their autonomy. We do not aspire to their sovietisation. The time will come when they will accomplish this themselves (25 October 1939).
Stalin was not in a hurry: it is useless to complicate one’s life with rushing. At the end of the war, he instructed the Romanians: ‘Do not touch the land belonging to the Palace and to the monasteries for the time being … Do not pose the question of their nationalisation now’ (4 January 1945).
Dimitrov would have to suffer the immediate consequences of the choice of the most convenient mask, because they concerned the Komintern’s activities at the very time when he took the leadership. Stalin thought that the time when it had been useful to claim allegiance to communism and to affirm international unity was over; now it was important to emphasise anti‐fascism and democracy, and to insist on national autonomy. This was true for countries currently experiencing civil war, such as China or Spain, but also for France and Italy, Great Britain and Germany, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. In other words, the communist International was destined to disappear and Dimitrov, in spite of being so proud to be its chief, had to become its gravedigger.
During the German-Soviet Non‐Aggression Pact, the new strategy was definitively set.
The communist parties should become entirely autonomous instead of being sections of the Komintern. They must transform into national communist parties with different labels: workers’ party, Marxist party, etc. The name matters little. The important thing is to penetrate the middle of their people and to concentrate on their specific tasks. They must have a communist programme, they must lean on a Marxist analysis and not look towards Moscow … Now the national tasks of each country come first (20 April 1941).
The communist programme remained unchanged; the name of the party on the contrary must change.
From the first day of the war Stalin, who, judging by Dimitrov’s diary, had lost none of his self‐control, announced that the Komintern must take a step back. ‘For the time being, the Komintern must not act openly … Do not raise the question of the socialist revolution. The Soviet people leads a patriotic war against fascist Germany’ (22 June 1941). Inside the country, it was better to talk of patriotism than of communism; to the outside world, national defence must conceal the international project. Dimitrov still believed in his toy, tried to coordinate actions abroad; but his requests for meetings with Stalin were pushed aside. On 11 May 1943, the decision fell: ‘Experience shows that there must not be an international governing body for all countries’. Stalin explained to a saddened Dimitrov: ‘Communist parties are wrongly accused of being the agents of a foreign state, and this harms their work among the great masses. With the dissolution of the Komintern, we take away this asset from the hands of the enemy’ (21 May 1943).
Thus the turn had come for anti‐fascist movements. But let’s not get this wrong: no essential change had occurred. The Komintern was a body for Soviet policy; after its disappearance, the same policy was pursued more than ever. And in fact, a replacing body emerged immediately: on 12 June 1943, Stalin created a Bureau which took up the functions of the Komintern. ‘To create an International Information Section, within the Central Committee, which will have the responsibility of monitoring of anti‐fascist committees, of illegal national radio broadcasting, of connections with foreign countries’. This time the bureau was presided by a Soviet comrade; Dimitrov was only its vice‐president.
Immediately after the war, a series of Eastern European countries came into the orbit of the Soviet Union. How should this mutation be presented? Local communists (always tempted by ‘leftist deviations’) talked of soviets, dictatorship and communism. Stalin was against this: why scare people and scandalise the Allies? He developed therefore the idea of two ways towards socialism. Here was how he explained it to Bulgarian and Yugoslav leaders, whom he invited over:
In the history of Marxist thought two possibilities or two forms of dictatorship of the proletariat revealed themselves … One of them is the democratic republic with the predominance of the proletariat … not a democratic republic like in America or in Switzerland, but a republic in which the working class has a great weight. Later, Lenin discovered the Soviet form of dictatorship of the proletariat as the most appropriate and adequate for our conditions … We eliminated the kulaks‘ and the bourgeoisie’s votes. Over here, only the workers had the right to vote. We had to deport two million kulaks to the North, and after having liquidated the kulaks as a class, we gave everybody the vote … But you must defeat the enemies on a legal basis … The Soviet way is good because it solves everything quickly—with blood, but quickly—but you can do without because your capitalists gave themselves up straightaway (6 December 1948).
We see that Stalin in no way hid the extent of the massacres for which he was responsible, justified in the name of efficacy (‘with blood, but quickly’); moreover, he made sure to distinguish between two forms of democracy, bourgeois and popular democracies. He made a parallel distinction between two forms of opposition. To the American Secretary of State, who deplored the absence of pluralism in Bulgaria and thus the persecution of the opposition, Stalin replied: ‘As far as the opposition is concerned, it can be, as we know, either loyal or disloyal’ (23 December 1945). The first was acceptable: it was the one willing to collaborate with the communists in power. But regarding the second, he gave Dimitrov precise instructions: ‘To take a series of well thought‐out and craftily organised measures to suppress the opposition’ (28 March 1946).
Reading Dimitrov’s diary, Stalin’s character as a formidable statesman appears in all its power. We could say that he did not seek power for his own benefit: as much as communism and the Soviet state had become indistinguishable for him, he has become identified with his own function, that of the supreme leader of the USSR. What was good for the power of the country was good for communism and at the same time for himself; the Soviet Union must acquire power in the world as Stalin obtained absolute power in the Soviet Union. The efficacy of Stalin’s methods—’with blood, but quickly’—was unquestionable, just like their radical amorality—’for us, there exists no categorical imperatives’.
His results on the international scene were more mitigated, even if they were far from negligible. One can say that he made a serious mistake concerning Hitler: trapped in his Marxist conceptions, he did not recognise the novelty of his project. But in another way, Stalin was right: Hitler was, in turn, trapped in his own ideology, he did not obey Stalin’s principle enough: ‘If you are strong, strike; otherwise, do not accept the fight’. Hitler thought he was stronger than he was, declaring war simultaneously on Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States; he acted according to his convictions and not according to the calculated effects of his acts. He, Stalin, never did that. If Hitler had behaved as intelligently as Stalin, they would both have won. Stalin in fact believed too much in the similarity between the two of them and did not imagine Hitler’s madness. Stalin was right, but only in the long term: four years of a draining war and 25 million Soviet victims were necessary for him to win.
Stalin’s other setback related to Tito, whose case appeared in the last pages of Dimitrov’s diary. Tito managed to resist the greatest leader because contrary to Hitler he had learned the lesson well. He took Stalin literally: since he pretended to respect national autonomies, Tito would liberate himself from Soviet supervision. He chose his moment well: Stalin then feared American reaction and renounced armed intervention. Tito perceived all the advantages of the national‐communist doctrine and adopted it to his own use. From this point of view, Milosevic is a distant disciple of Stalin’s, but he has forgotten that for his project to succeed, one must have the necessary power; otherwise, one risks just ‘exposing our back for the Americans to beat it…‘.
Stalin died in 1953; the lessons of his actions remain alive among us.