Attempts to analyze Russian history by non-Russian historians can give rise to the issue of being able to understand the underlying reasons behind any political and economic decisions undertaken by the country’s government, as well as the way the Russian nation was shaped by these decisions and its own cultural legacy. Utilizing personal experiences and looking at a different country through the lens of another state’s development can also complicate attempts to evaluate choices made and actions taken. The essay by von Laue tries to investigate these subjects and prove that Russia’s history cannot be viewed through the lens of capitalist countries or capitalism as a whole. Instead, the author attempts to show that Stalin’s decisions were guided by a variety of reasons connected to external threats to the country’s security and the nation’s need to survive the fallout from previous conflicts, particularly World War I and the October Revolution of 1917 (von Laue 375-376).
The narrative that von Laue introduces is based on the notion the Stalin’s way of governing can be explained by seeing the goal of the country to achieve similar results as developed Western countries and to become more advanced in terms of industry, politics, and economy – to “catch-up-and-surpass” (von Laue 374). This narrative causes the author to forgo the usual considerations of Stalin’s rule rooted in concerns for people’s lives and long-term effects on the state’s environment and, instead, focuses on Stalin’s personality as a leader and the necessity of such a persona for Russia’s future. While investigating the history of Russia, the Bolsheviks, and Stalin, von Laue makes some compelling arguments to support the necessity of Stalin’s approach to government, evaluating the situation in the country as realistic, although grim, due to some internal and external factors.
The Essay’s Arguments: Strengths
The essay presents some strong points that should be regarded as valuable additions to the discussion about Stalinism. First of all, the author notes that historical depictions of Stalin and Russia as a whole are often not put into the context of the country’s actual needs and cultural differences. Instead, the analysis of decisions is viewed through the lens of Western writers and philosophers who have a vision shaped by their own unique experiences (von Laue 374). Thus, it is vital to remember that the interpretation of events by the author is from the American point of view to ensure a full understanding of the underlying beliefs of such authors. By acknowledging that such an investigation is based on theories available to, and understood by, Western scholars serves to make von Laue’s own narrations stronger.
First of all, von Laue mentions the problems that Russia had faced after the war, the political unrest that followed, and the subsequent revolution. He notes that, “World War I led to a national catastrophe of the utmost severity” and that the country’s governing structure “collapsed” as a result of the revolution (von Laue 375). Thus, the state’s chances of survival were uncertain which created a need for urgent and major decisions. The new government discarded previous ways and established a new philosophy guided by the feelings that the country had developed as a result of such military conflicts. Socialism, coupled with a totalitarian regime, was inherently different from Western capitalism – a possible attempt by the government to further distance itself from the process of westernization.
Furthermore, the need to convert people to one cause after the revolution was seen as a solution to the country’s problems. The revolution certainly increased the level of mistrust between the people and nations, as some other states attempted to support the side that failed to become the ruling party. For example, the British North Russian Relief Force (NRRF) was compiled of people who wanted to help White Russian forces, Mensheviks, who were opponents of the Bolsheviks party (Churchill). After the conflicts were over and the Bolsheviks became the governing party, the supporters of the Mensheviks were seen as traitors of the nation, resulting in mass imprisonments and killings. Therefore, a notion that a controlling government and socialism were required arose from these beliefs. This point of view was voiced by Stalin himself who stated that “the path of socialism” was the way to prevail.
The desire to not only rebuild the economy but also to surpass other nations in development and innovation was guided by the belief that Russia must be better in everything to thrive (von Laue 376). The comparison with Western power is another point where von Laue’s argumentation is supported by evidence from historical events. According to the author, the Russians’ urge to compete with other countries, especially Great Britain and the United States, was based on the desire to oppose Russia’s path to westernization and implement a unique way of modernizing the state (von Laue 377). However, as von Laue points out, this approach was not successful, and the country could not avoid some aspects of westernization (374). These comparisons, and strong sense of competition, affected the government and influenced decisions.
In Stalin’s speech about industrialization, one can see that he wanted the workers and manufacturers to achieve high levels of growth within short periods of time, even faster than was initially planned. Such ambitions were the reason that caused the dictatorship and had a severe impact on the country’s environment. However, von Laue argues that such a drive was necessary to achieve significant economic growth that would not have otherwise been possible for the state (380). He states that even in Western countries the process of industrialization was challenging (von Laue 380). The speed and scope at which manufacturing was introduced in Russia further shows how eager Stalin was to elevate the country’s position. However, it also reveals the underlying desire of the country to reinstate itself after the fall of Tsarist rule. Thus, von Laue’s argument can be seen as viable. Stalin was guided by beliefs that were rooted in a need to compete and protect the country from external influences.
The fear of annihilation and foreign invasion also arose – and it drove the country and its leader away from capitalism down the socialist path. According to von Laue, it was this fear that further increased the need for strong leadership. More importantly, it was what called for a unique personality from the leader. Here, von Laue turns to the examples of Russian life, taken from literature, both non-fictional and fictional, to describe the history of the nation and analyze its outlook on the world (382). Such evidence can be considered as a realistic view of the country as it includes many accounts of actual historical events. This literature reveals that the country’s people were disoriented and needed guidance to move the country forward. In this case, Stalin’s personality was strong enough to govern a nation with vast territories and resources (von Laue 384). Thus, his choices were also guided by the fact that he was established not just as a governing entity but as a spiritual leader as well.
The Essay’s Arguments: Weaknesses
While presenting a number of persuasive arguments, von Laue fails to address some key aspects, thus, decreasing the value of his narrative. First of all, while stating that the country had a unique culture and history that might hold different basic life principles and beliefs from “the West,” von Laue presents some of these alternative ideas showing Russia and its people in a rather negative light without presenting solid evidence to support it. For example, he describes Russian history with the focus on military conflicts, which may be suitable for this particular discussion. However, his interpretation of conflicts, and more importantly the people who survived these circumstances, reveals a rather subjective point of view. According to von Laue, Russians, although being “capable of exceptional kindness, meek, long-suffering, and of profound spiritual depth”, are neglecting these qualities in favor of more violent and aggressive emotions (384). His description of Russian people paints a one-sided picture that undermines the positive aspects of their personalities and enhances the “chaotic Russian setting” (von Laue 385).
Such a description of the nation may be interpreted as the author’s attempt to guide the narrative in one direction, ignoring other aspects that might have helped disprove his own allegations. The lack of support for such an opinionated view undermines the validity of arguments as it presents Russians in such a negative light that it could influence the reader’s opinion of the need for a totalitarian government. Perhaps, with this approach, von Laue’s depiction of a strong leader, a “Leviathan”, appears to be more coherent and less aggressive than it could have been.
During the description of the West, as according to Russian beliefs, von Laue mentions the term “cognitive imperialism” and states that Russia has always allowed its judgment to be guided by this concept (381). However, the author also uses this term in his essay and falls into the same discussion of America’s superiority in comparison to Russia. For instance, he notes that Woodrow Wilson was, formally, the most powerful person at the end of World War I (von Laue 379). While it may have been possible, the comparison between Wilson and Stalin poses a number of concerns relating to the author’s use of evidence. It can be seen that von Laue uses cognitive imperialism in his discussion of the process of westernization and its effect on the rest of the world. He speaks of it as the “world revolution,” placing the focus on Western countries as opposed to the examination of Russian history. These points also serve the narrative in strengthening the presence of the West in the changes of Russia.
This interpretation of events is, therefore, impacted by the author’s cognitive imperialism as other countries are not mentioned in the discussion at all. Japan and France, for instance, are noted by Stalin in his arguments as other possible historical opponents. According to the author, France, America, and Great Britain were equally against “the Party” and were, therefore, to be seen as serious competitors to the process of the country’s industrialization (Stalin). However, von Laue states that among the other European nations, France occupied a more neutral position, possibly negating its place on the world political stage (377). Other points are left unexplored as well, such as the impact that Lenin had on the country, and Stalin, during his work as a head of the government. Also, the history of the Bolsheviks obtaining control over the country is hugely underrepresented and, as a result, so too is the large group of people that opposed their rule.
In this case, the discussion about possible alternative outcomes is ignored, presenting only the path that was taken but not those that could have been possible otherwise. While it is could be argued that such a narrow focus was necessary for the author to stay on point, a brief discussion of the alternatives may have made his arguments more valuable, proving that other paths could not be taken because of Stalin as a leader. As such, with these points not offered, one could speculate that they were omitted as they could have weakened the narrative presented by the author. The author’s failure to address Stalin’s significant impact on the country’s people, torture, incarceration, and killings may also serve as a weak point. This is discussed in more detail in the following part of the essay.
It is necessary to point out that von Laue does not fully ignore the cruelty and injustices of the system that was headed by Stalin during his rule. However, in the discussion about the implementation of industrialism in the country, where it was introduced with cruel politics and treatment of workers as people “enslaved by their machine,” the author discards the search for alternative humane solutions as “wishful thinking” (von Laue 380-386). He notes that such topics are meaningless, which negates a variety of themes that can be explored while discussing Stalin’s rule. The damages caused by the Bolsheviks and Stalin are also not mentioned in the essay. The focus is kept strictly on the chaotic nature of the country’s people, the personality of Stalin, and the competitiveness of Russia and the West. It is possible to assume that such an outlook is negating injustices that describe the period of Stalin’s dictatorship. Although mentioning that Stalin is similar to Hitler and Mussolini in personality, von Laue fails to explore this topic further (383).
While it is possible to believe that such an approach to discussing Stalinism is a representation of consequentialism (“the end justifies the means” philosophy), von Laue’s argumentation does not show that Stalin’s rule was uniquely positive or negative to the country’s development. The author is more focused on the reasons behind Stalin coming into power and his decisions as a ruler than on his exploits and the consequences of his actions. It can be noted, for example, that von Laue does not speak about the industrial developments; rather, he only considers the reasons behind this process and the manner of its development. Therefore, the scholar’s perspective is not fully adhering to the philosophy of consequentialism as it is not centered on the outcomes, as much as the reasons behind every action.
The author’s perspective, therefore, can be seen as one of the interpretations of the causes of Soviet Communism. As von Laue addresses the initiation of the process more than its conclusion, this position seems logical to assume. The author mentions the reasons behind the majority of decisions (although negating the cruel parts of history) and presents a narrative that bases Stalin’s leadership on a broader structural foundation that includes the Soviet history and the world during and after World War I. For example, von Laue mentions the competitive nature of the country after the events of the war, coupled with the rising mistrust for capitalism, structuring the argumentation around the events that led to socialism becoming more prominent in Soviet lives. Thus, his essay can be viewed as an attempt to explain the sum of events that resulted in Stalinism and its consequences.
Drive for Global Conquest
While examining Stalin’s motives for rapid industrialism and a totalitarian regime, von Laue states that the world’s most prominent democracies represented by the West, especially Great Britain, affected his decisions and possibly caused Stalinism as a whole. This point can be viewed as an attempt to evaluate the global political scene of the era and explain the underlying reasons for Stalin’s communism. First of all, the threat of external involvement was genuine for the country at that time. For example, Hitler’s description of Russia in Mein Kampf revealed his intentions for the nation and its territory. In his discussion, Hitler stated that Russia was a giant state whose resources could be useful for the German Reich. Moreover, the Bolshevist government of the country was viewed by Hitler as an end to its “existence as a state.” Here, the drive for global conquest is aggressive and violent.
The leading democracies of the West, while not appearing as xenophobic, also attempted to influence Russia’s political situation. Great Britain, for instance, assisted the Menshevik party (Churchill). This aid was not guided by one country but an alliance of forces from European countries who wanted to stop the influence of the Bolsheviks from growing. International relations and treaties were viewed as traitorous acts. For example, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, Churchill noted, was a “shameful peace [that] betrayed [the] country” (Churchill; “Foreign Relations of the United States”).
Thus, upon the establishment of the Bolsheviks as the ruling party, Stalin could not trust these countries as they had openly opposed his rule. The effect of these democracies spanned across countries as it affected such treaties as the Treaty of Portsmouth and the Curzon Line, where British politicians significantly impacted on the creation and the signing of the documents (“Curzon Line”; “Treaty of Portsmouth”). Stalin’s communist beliefs further influenced his mistrust for Western democracy as it was so distant from his own personal philosophy.
The essay by von Laue creates a narrative that puts Stalinism and Soviet communism into perspective of the effect that global westernization and capitalist democracies had on the world, and Russia in particular. It can be considered an attempt to show the underlying reasons behind Stalin’s decisions. The essay shows that Stalin was driven by the fear of external threats from democracies different from his own deeply held communist beliefs. The author presents a number of valid arguments and focuses on the details that show a more reasonable outlook. However, von Laue’s interpretation of events largely ignores the damage that Stalin inflicted on the region and displays some signs of cognitive imperialism that weaken his argumentation. Although it may seem as though von Laue attempts to justify Stalin’s way of governing, the essay is more focused on the causes behind the man’s decisions rather than their consequences and outcomes. His claims about the Western democracies are rooted in history and can be viewed as an attempt to understand the impact of global imperialism.
Churchill, Winston. S. On the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War. 1919, Web.
“Curzon Line.” Britannica, 2013, Web.
“Foreign Relations of the United States: 1918 The Conclusion of the Peace of Brest Litovsk The Consul General at Moscow (Summers) to the Secretary of State.” The Avalon Project, 2008, Web.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf: Eastern Orientation or Eastern Policy. Web.
Stalin, Joseph V. The Tasks of Economic Executives. 1931, Web.
“Treaty of Portsmouth.” World War I Document Archive, Web.
von Laue, Theodore H. “Stalin in Focus.” Slavic Review, vol. 42, no. 3, 1983, pp. 373-389.