Portrait of a Bureaucrat
When Milovan Djilas met Georgi Dimitrov in 1944, the former head of the
Comintern looked "prematurely old, almost crushed." At the age of
62, Dimitrov was "a sick man. His breathing was asthmatic, the color of
his skin an unhealthy red and pale, and spots around his ears were dried up as
if from eczema. His hair was so sparse that it left exposed his withered
yellow scalp." Ten years earlier, Dimitrov had arrived in Moscow as
the celebrated hero of the Leipzig trial, where he had cleverly outflanked
Hermann Goering's clumsy efforts to convict him of burning the Reichstag.
Eager to capitalize on the respect and goodwill Dimitrov's daring performance
had won in communist circles and beyond, Stalin had immediately tapped him to
head the Comintern.
Now, in the waning years of the war, the Comintern (the Third, or
Communist, International) had been dissolved, and Dimitrov had been relegated
to a minor role in the Soviet apparatus. Dividing his time between the
hospital and his luxurious dacha, Dimitrov watched from the sidelines as the
Red Army wrought the transformation the Comintern had so resoundingly failed
to achieve: the spread of communist governments. Dimitrov himself, as head of
the Bulgarian Communist Party, would lead one of these new governments until
his death in 1949. It seems to have been a hollow victory: the triumph of
communism in Eastern Europe left him a sad and broken man.
Stalin, as Lars Lih has recently argued, may have remained committed to the
goal of world revolution in the 1920s, but he had considerable disdain for
the Comintern as the instrument of this transformation. As his preoccupation
with Soviet security mounted in the second half of the 1930s, he increasingly
disregarded the organization. He nevertheless maintained a close relationship
with Dimitrov, whom he held in high regard and found easy to work with. Djilas
observed that Dimitrov, for his part, admired and respected Stalin, but spoke
of him "without any conspicuous flattery or reverence." To Djilas it
seemed that Dimitrov's relationship to Stalin "was palpably that of a
revolutionary who gave disciplined submission to the leader, but a
revolutionary who did his own thinking."
Conspicuous flattery is indeed lacking in the fifty or so letters from
Dimitrov to Stalin that appear in the latest installment of the Annals of
Communism series, but the letters are also short on what Djilas saw as
Dimitrov's capacity for independent thinking. The letters confirm what no one
can any longer doubt: that the Comintern was thoroughly subservient to Soviet
leadership, and that Dimitrov turned to Stalin and his inner circle for
instructions on matters large and small. (On two remarkable occasions in 1939
and 1940, when Stalin was distracted by more pressing matters, he told
Dimitrov to "decide by yourselves" [pp. 39, 122].) The letters,
though they are a small selection of what was a voluminous correspondence,
indicate a striking lack of initiative on Dimitrov's part. He rarely emerges
as a strong advocate for one position or another, preferring, as the editors
note, to pose as a neutral bureaucrat (a trait that may well have been one of
the keys to his longevity).
For this reason the letters convey little, at least overtly, about
Dimitrov's character and beliefs. They reveal even less about Stalin's. The
preface somewhat misleadingly makes the claim that the volume reproduces
letters from Dimitrov to Stalin "along with Stalin's responses" (p.
xvii). Only in one case did Stalin respond with a handwritten note (here
reproduced in facsimile, and perhaps most interesting for Stalin's rather
extended apology for replying tardily). In three cases, Stalin returned
documents with brief marginal notations. For all the other documents
reproduced here, written responses are lacking (either they were never made or
are still secreted in the Presidential Archives), and the editors have had to
deduce whether Stalin approved or disapproved of a document from other
The letters, most of them previously unpublished, are culled from the files
of the Comintern and the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the
former party archives (now RGASPI). They have been capably edited by
Fridrikh I. Firsov, former head of the Comintern research group at RGASPI and
probably the world's leading expert on the Comintern, and Alexander Dallin,
who provide background information on events and succinctly place each
document in context. The documents begin with Dimitrov's arrival in Moscow in
February 1934 after his acquittal in the Leipzig trial, when he became de
facto head of the Comintern (he was not formally appointed until the Seventh
Congress in 1935), and extend until the organization's dissolution in May
1943. Without attempting to cover any policy or country comprehensively, the
editors have selected sources that touch on a very wide range of Comintern
Three chapters trace shifts in Comintern policies: the adoption of the
popular front strategy in 1934-35, the abrupt reversal occasioned by the
Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, and the lurch back to anti-fascism in 1941. The
first document, Dimitrov's July 1934 proposal on the shift to a popular front,
has long been available, but only now includes Stalin's annotations, which
illuminate the extent to which he equivocated about the new policy. Other
documents convey the dilemmas that arose in the course of implementing the
policy, with an emphasis on Comintern directives to the French Communist
Party. For ambiguities and contradictions, however, nothing would match the
balancing act required by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In a long chapter, again with
considerable information on France, the editors have marshaled a set of
documents that lay out in impressive detail just how difficult a period this
was for policymaking at the Comintern. Combining these with the documents in
the first volume of Komintern i vtoraia mirovaia voina [The Comintern and the
Second World War] (1994), we now have a very rich picture of high-level
decision-making in the Comintern for the years 1939-1941.
The chapter covering the years after the Nazi invasion is thin, reflecting
the Comintern's increasing irrelevance in Stalin's calculations. A subsequent
chapter on the dissolution of the Comintern notes that Stalin began to talk
about disbanding the organization as early as 1940, when the Soviet Union
annexed the Baltic states, but deferred action to avoid the impression that it
was being taken under pressure from Germany. Stalin raised the issue again in
April 1941, suggesting that the Comintern had become an obstacle to the
critical task of building strong national communist parties. The Nazi invasion
two months later again derailed any moves in this direction, and it was not
until May 1943 that Molotov informed Dimitrov that the final decision to
dissolve the Comintern had been made. Dimitrov did not display obvious qualms
as he drew up the resolution that would end the organization to which he had
devoted twenty years of his life.
Stalin, according to Dimitrov's diary, offered the following rationale for
the dissolution of the Comintern: "When we created the CI [Comintern] and
thought we could direct the movement in all countries, we were overestimating
our forces. That was our error. The further existence of the CI would
discredit the idea of the international .... There is also another motive for
the dissolution ... and that is the fact that the [communist parties] that
belong in the CI are falsely accused of being the agents of a foreign state,
and this hinders their work among the masses. By dissolving the CI we are
knocking this ace out of the enemies' hand" (p. 238).
Additional chapters examine specific episodes in detail. A chapter on the
Spanish Civil War (the bulk of which reproduces documents written by Comintern
agents other than Dimitrov, but which are fitted under the rubric of
Dimitrov-Stalin correspondence on the basis of a cover note from Dimitrov)
provides details on Moscow's maneuvering with regard to the composition of the
Republican government and on the provision of aid. (Yale University Press is
also producing a separate volume, edited by Ron Radosh and Mary Habeck, of
documents on the Spanish Civil War, and an additional volume, edited by
William Chase, will cover the repression in the Comintern. Both are in
production and will appear in Fall 2001.) A chapter deals with relations
between the Comintern's Executive Committee and the Chinese Communist Party
from 1936-1941, outlining their disagreements over the proper attitude toward
Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists. An additional chapter covers
Soviet aid (or the lack of it, despite Dimitrov's efforts) to Tito's partisans
in Yugoslavia during the war. Specialists on Spain, China, and Yugoslavia will
find material of interest in these chapters, not just in the documents but
also in the text, which summarizes many documents that were not reproduced due
to space limitations. The collection is all the more valuable because the
scaling back of access at Russian archives since the early 1990s has hit the
Comintern collection especially hard, and ordinary researchers can no longer
gain access to the opisi that these documents are drawn from (those of
Dimitrov's secretariat and the Executive Committee's ciphered telegrams).
It is less clear that the volume will be of interest to a broader audience.
Inevitably in a volume that covers ten years in the life of an organization
with global reach, a vast amount of Comintern history is left out. The
documents provide in-depth glimpses into some key moments and policy areas,
but the significance of many documents will not be obvious to a reader who
does not already have a comprehensive knowledge of Comintern activities.
Unlike some of the earlier volumes in the Annals series that are now essential
reading in the field of Soviet history, this volume tends more toward the
illumination of narrow issues and less toward providing insights on
fundamental issues of Soviet governance.
As with any collection of Soviet documents, this volume has critical
limitations. Exclusive reliance on the holdings in RGASPI, as the editors
acknowledge, provides only a partial picture of policymaking. Some of the
sources we do have clearly indicate the existence of other important documents
that have not yet been found, and which may be held in the Presidential
Archives or in other still-restricted repositories. Including only Dimitrov's
letters to Stalin also provides an incomplete view of top-level
decision-making, because Dimitrov used a variety of channels to convey
information and to receive instructions, both communicating through his
deputy, Dmitrii Manuilskii, who had his own contacts in the party hierarchy
and the NKVD, and frequently writing to Molotov, Zhdanov, or other Soviet
leaders on important matters. (Restricting the collection to letters addressed
to Stalin therefore seems a bit odd--unless one considers the marketing cachet
of having "Stalin" in the book's title.)
The most critical limitation in any documentary collection, however, is
that much that went on in the highest echelons of Soviet power was never
committed to paper. Many important decisions were made in conversations,
either over the telephone or face-to-face, for which there is no written
record. In this case, though, Dallin and Firsov are blessed with having
Dimitrov's diary, which records many of these conversations, and they have
made extensive use of this source to flesh out the story presented in the
documents. Indeed, for the general reader, the handful of quotations from the
diary may well be of greater interest than the documents themselves.
Some of these quotations have begun appearing sporadically in other
publications and promise to become familiar staples in works of Soviet
history. Stalin's remarks on the outbreak of World War II are a prime example.
According to Dimitrov's diary, on 7 September 1939, Stalin commented that the
war was a struggle between two groups of capitalist countries for the
repartition of the world and that the Soviet Union had "no objection to
their having a good fight, weakening each other. It wouldn't be bad if by the
hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially
England) [was] shattered. Without himself understanding it or wishing it,
Hitler upsets, undermines the capitalist system." The goal of the Soviet
Union, Stalin explained, was to "maneuver, nudging one side against the
other so that they come to bigger blows. To some degree the nonaggression pact
helps Germany. The next step is to nudge the other side forward" (pp.
As Andrea Graziosi recently lamented, "we have almost no direct or
indirect records of private discussions between party leaders."
Dimitrov's diary is one very important exception. With due caveats about the
limitations inherent in any such source, scholars who have studied the diary
rate it as extremely valuable. Dallin and Firsov write that the diary, which
spans the years 1933-1949, demonstrates Dimitrov's "superb memory and
capacity to reproduce conversations and documents accurately" (p. xviii).
Kevin McDermott has called it a "treasure trove." It seems to be
more uneven than, for example, the diary that Joseph Goebbels kept during the
same years. The entries are often laconic, and large gaps appear in various
spots during the years 1935-38.
Yet it can still be an extraordinary fruitful source: think of the reams of
information Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was able to glean from her penetrating
study of Martha Ballard's terse diary. Dimitrov's dnevnik, long held in a
secret personal fond in the Bulgarian central party archives, was published in
a Bulgarian edition in 1997. It's an indication, however, of the delays
that have plagued the Annals of Communism series that the citations to the
diary in the Dallin and Firsov volume -- which was originally scheduled to
appear in 1996 --refer to the archival copy in Sofia and not to the published
version. Given the diary's importance, the text ought to have clearly
noted its publication. Yale has commissioned Ivo Banac to produce an abridged
English edition of the diary, which is currently estimated to be out in Fall
2001 or later. In the meantime, interested scholars ought to get hold of a
. Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, trans. Michael B. Petrovich
(San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), 31.
. Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, eds., Stalin's
Letters to Molotov, 1925-1936 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 34-6.
. Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, 38. Djilas writes that
"Dimitrov was a person who enjoyed Stalin's rare regard" (p. 33) and
that Stalin commented that "it is easy to work with Dimitrov" (p.
. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'no-politicheskoi istorii
(Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History).
. Dimitrov's proposal, with Stalin's annotations, also appears in
Komintern protiv fashizma (Moscow: Nauka, 1999), 326-9.
. N. S. Lebedeva and M. M. Narinskii, eds., Komintern i vtoraia mirovaia
voina. Chast' 1: do 22 iiuniia 1941 g. (Moscow: "Pamiatniki istoricheskoi
mysli," 1994). Anticipating the publication of the volume under review,
Lebedeva and Narinskii specifically excluded Dimitrov's letters to Stalin.
It's also worth noting the new, 1120-page survey of Comintern history by
Pierre Broue, Histoire de l'Internationale Communiste, 1919-1943 (Paris:
Fayard, 1997), which is rather polemical but has extremely useful appendices,
including an extensive bibliography, a chronology of events, a key to
pseudonyms, and a 150-page biographical index.
. Andrea Graziosi, "The New Soviet Archival Sources: Hypotheses for
a Critical Assessment," Cahiers du Monde russe 40, nos. 1-2 (1999), 28.
. Kevin McDermott, "The History of the Comintern in Light of New
Documents," in International Communism and the Communist International,
1919-43, eds. Tim Rees and Andrew Thorpe (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1998), 35.
. Georgi Dimitrov, Dnevnik (9 mart 1933 - 6 fevruari 1949) (Sofia:
Universitetsko izdatelstvo "Sv. Kliment Okhridski," 1997). Russian
speakers will find that the Bulgarian can be deciphered fairly readily.
. There is one exception: footnote 18 on page 224 refers to the
published version. A reader who missed this footnote would have no way of
guessing that the diary has been published.