Stalin’s Short Course


David Brandenberger is a Professor of History and International Studies at the University of Richmond specializing in Stalin-era propaganda, ideology and nationalism. He’s the author National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956 and Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination and Terror under Stalin, 1928-1941. His most recent book co-authored with Mikhail Zelenov is Stalin’s Master Narrative: A Critical Edition of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), Short Course published by Yale University Press.


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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

You’ve just completed editing Stalin’s Master Narrative, a Critical Edition of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course that includes all of Stalin’s edits and contributions. What is the Short Course?

I ought to initially begin by crediting my co-editor in this project, Mikhail Zelenov, who works at RGASPI, the central party archive in Moscow. The Short Course was a textbook on party history that was designed for mass consumption and indoctrination in the USSR. It’s focused on Party history rather USSR history, but it did both.

Because it was edited by an official Central Committee commission, the Short Course immediately became the centerpiece of the Party canon when it emerged from the printing presses in September 1938. And it stayed at the center of the Party canon straight through until 1956 when Khrushchev denounced it as part of the Stalin cult. Before it was withdrawn from circulation in 1956, the USSR had published upwards of 40 million copies in a variety of languages making it one of the most frequently published titles in the 20th century, short of Harry Potter, and maybe Mao’s Little Red Book.

It bears mentioning, though, that the Short Course‘s influence doesn’t end in 1956. It’s got an afterlife of sorts. Insofar as, even after the text was withdrawn, the way it structured Party history and Soviet history, to a certain extent, remained central to the Soviet canon into the Gorbachev period. So, the breadth and depth of the impact of this text is pretty big.

Why was did this the Short Course need to be written?

The origins of the whole project go back probably 10 years before 1938, back to the late 1920s when the Party leadership under Stalin began to express increasing frustration over the lack of a concrete official, single, linear line on Party history. There were lots of official, or semi-official texts, written by leading Bolsheviks, but they contradicted each other. Stalin asked for clarification and then he spurred this forward in a search for a usable past in 1931 when he denounced all the contemporary existing Party history. He called it all overly scholastic and said what was necessary was a more approachable catechism, specifically for the purposes of mass indoctrination and mobilization.

So, he made this call in 1931. It took even the most official Party historians better part of six years to do it. They delivered a prototype to him, a finished prototype, only in April 1938. Ironically, though, even after all the attention that Stalin had paid to the process, when these court historians delivered the text to him in April of 1938, he finds it unsatisfactory. He refuses to authorize its publication and sits down during the summer of 1938, during the height of the purges, to rewrite it for several weeks. And he utterly transforms the text. I think you can think about this as that search for a useful past and an incredibly long process when it works itself out. It’s surprisingly difficult for this top down Party to deliver even a basic catechism for public consumption.

As you said, after the Short Course is denounced in 1956, it also continues to have a scholarly afterlife in the sense of how historians and others understood and analyzed it. How has the Short Course been understood by historians and other critics?

I think you’re right to put it in the set of different periods. Under Stalin, the Short Course was the master narrative of Party and Soviet history. I argue that it scripted not only Party indoctrination and propaganda, but it also scripted depictions of the Party in Soviet history and mass culture, film, theater, opera, even in the display cases of museums. Everything had to reorganized after 1938 when the text came out. This continues into the postwar period when the Short Course was used as sort of a blueprint for building socialism in the new People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. Even more interesting, I think, is the fact that the Short Course played the same role in the Chinese Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China where it stays in circulation after 1956 and continues into the 1970s as a textbook on how to build communism, especially how to build the state apparatus and create a new set of relationships between state and society.

So that’s within the Communist bloc. Outside the Communist bloc, the Short Course was regarded as the definition of dogmatic Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism. It wasn’t taken very seriously as a text. Historians like Leszek Kołakowski viewed is as the epitome of totalitarian thought. Sovietologists like Robert Tucker viewed it as the centerpiece of Stalin’s personality cult. Tucker even said that it was a cryptobiography of sorts. It’s had the gamut of interpretation from a canonical text in the USSR and the Soviet bloc to a blueprint for the PRC and to in the West, outside of the Communist bloc at least, a hallmark of the Stalin period and the personality cult.

Why did you feel it was necessary to publish a critical edition of the Short Course?

I frequently asked myself that question. Zelenov and I have worked on this for, I don’t know, over 10 years. He and I do a lot of things together, and we have a really good collaborative relationship. But we’ve frequently come to blows over how to do this thing because it was so difficult and so time consuming. The Russian edition is going to be two volumes. The English volume is a massive 705 pages long.

Why’d we do it? I got interested in this project in the 1990s when I first began encountering the bits and pieces of Stalin’s editing of this text when I was working on my dissertation. But, at that point, I’d realized that the materials were pretty incomplete and yet the overall number, the edifice of this historical record was massive. I also found Stalin’s handwriting to be very difficult to work with because he wrote memos and things on top of text. His handwriting was bad, and he frequently used chemical crayons when he was writing so it was hard to read. So, I put the idea of the project aside.

I returned to it when I needed a second book in the early 2000s. And at that point, I got in touch with Zelenov. I’d read his publications from afar long before. He’s Russia’s reigning expert on Stalin as a historical ideological agent. Zelenov does a lot of document publications and interpretations, and so I looked him up. He lived in Nizhny Novgorod at the time, and then he moved to Moscow. He and I set up this really decent friendship and collaborative relationship. And in league with him, I began to really put together some new ideas about what this thing was and what Stalin’s interference was. I decided, at that point, that his editing wasn’t merely aesthetic. Instead his interpolations and excisions really changed the official line of Soviet history and Party history on key issues.

For 1917, the Civil War, industrialization, collectivization, the Comintern, and the purges, he really flips the official narrative, or at least alters it pretty significantly from start to finish. I was so struck by this that I put it at the center of my second book and I mentioned all these things in a conversation in 2008 with Jonathan Brent at Yale University Press. He, first of all, said that he’d contract my second book and then he insisted that Zelenov and I do a critical edition of the Short Course as a primary document for the Annals of Communism Series. So, it was contracted way back in 2008. It was supposed to be due in 2013, but it took us a lot longer than we anticipated. The Russian edition is only half done. The first volume is out, the second volume is probably still two years away.

Talk about how the Short Course came into being in the 1930s.

Like I said before, the general call goes out after 1931, after Stalin’s letter to Proletarskaya Revoliutsiia. There’s a general call that goes out for a new project to write the new Party history. A lot of leaders, party leaders, and old Bolsheviks stepped forward to try and do it. Some of the leading candidates end up being E. M. Yaroslavsky and P. N. Pospelov. They spend a lot of time in the mid-1930s trying to work this narrative out, being supervised all the time by both Stalin directly, by Alexei Stetskii, who headed Agitprop and Zhdanov monitored their progress as well. They worked at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow and had huge amounts of resources at their disposal. Another person, one of the head leaders of the Comintern, Vilhelms Knorin, was also occupied with a parallel project at the Communist Academy during this time.

In any case, they generated a bunch of manuscripts. These manuscripts were relayed back and forth to the Party hierarchy. In early 1937, right after Stalin’s dramatic speeches at the February/March plenum, Yaroslavsky steps forward with a new manuscript he proposes will solve all the problems. His manuscript is integrated together into a combined project with Knorin and Pospelov to write the Party history. Knorin is purged right away, probably leaving the other two rather concerned about their careers. But then they spend a calendar year between 1937 and 1938 on this project. They write several drafts, which are read by the Central Committee, by Stalin obviously, and rejected, and finally hand in something which he’s had a lot of oversight over in April of 1938. The most spectacular moment is when Stalin rejects even that and then launches into several weeks of sustained editing during the summer of 1938.

Why after this entire process of several years where he’s involved does Stalin reject the final product?

He never writes a memo saying why. There had been a joke that Zelenov had made in regard to this collectively written textbook that an entire kolkhoz had been assigned to the task of writing this text under Yaroslavsky and Pospelov, with lots and lots of minor figures writing chapters as well. So apparently Stalin says to somebody off-the-cuff at the time, which is quoted in a letter by Yaroslavsky that no kolkhoz can handle this job. He’s going to have to sit down and reedit it. And he affects to a whole array of things in the text. He has major revisions almost chapter by chapter. I think the key issue is that he disagreed with the red thread that’s stretched throughout the entire Short Course text. He had told Yaroslavsky and Pospelov in 1937 that the red thread should be the struggle with the opposition, and that it’s the struggle with the opposition which should define all of Party history.

But in 1938, I think he’s no longer as interested in the struggle with the opposition and is much more interested in a more positive mobilizational theme organized around the building of socialism in one country and the creation of a unified society. I think that may also relate to his declining interest in the Terror. The struggle, of course, is to how to interpret edits to a historical text insofar as he did not explicitly tell people why he did it. He told the members of the Politburo that he had rewritten the Short Course in order to enhance its mastery of party theory, but most of the edits don’t relate to theory. Most of them are about narrative elements of the text.

How do you understand those edits? What kind of things did he tend to delete? Because a lot of the edits are aesthetic, he’s deleting whole paragraphs and passages and then reducing them to sometimes like three sentences. And then he’s also adding a lot on the narrative.

This is a huge issue to try and unravel. So, after a lot of work, I think there were probably a couple of categories of editing. Stalin’s a compulsive editor. He can’t leave a document alone when it’s in front of him on the desk. He reads with a red pencil, he reads reports, drafts legislation. He even reads published books with a pencil in hand and scribbles all over them. He was absolutely pedantic about terminology. He really preferred formal, sober sorts of writing and disliked flowery language as well as any sort of literary devices like foreshadowing. So, there’s some basic editing in a specific sort of style and aesthetic in here. I think that’s certainly true.

He also was really concerned about the clarity of writing, especially when the writing was designed for mass audiences. He insisted that the Short Course be stripped of a lot of its detail, its digressions, entire subsections that didn’t feed into the central line of the text. This red thread needed to be dropped in order to try and keep this text structured around a handful of key themes. He really wanted this to be a mobilizational text so, in some senses, his instincts were probably correct to try and streamline it. But then he goes even further and begins changing themes and interpretations of history.

The original prototype that’s on his desk in April 1938, which he had himself okayed in earlier drafts, is very stark. It suggests that the Bolsheviks were the only true Marxist party, the only true party in connection with the worker and the peasant masses. Party history itself was the history of the Bolshevik struggle with the opposition, as we’ve mentioned before. It’s an opposition both inside and outside the Party. Lenin and Stalin had prevailed in the struggle with the opposition because of their connection with the masses. So, it’s a pretty typical paranoid line.

When Stalin rewrites the Short Course, he really changes this around quite a bit, moving both away from the paranoia and moving away from, what we might call, elements of rather conventional Marxism. He heightened the vanguard nature of the Bolshevik party and reduced it through alliance in the worker/peasant masses. That means he, maybe, reduces the Marxism and enhances the Leninism to make it more of a vanguardist story.

Stalin also, it turns out, was less committed to the idea of the struggle of the opposition in 1938, maybe he’s losing interest in the Terror. At least he’s less interested than he had been before in the struggle with the opposition. Instead he’s more interested in building socialism in one country and refining Soviet society.

I guess the last thing I would say, going back to vanguardism being enhanced in this text. He is so concerned about the issue of vanguardism as a leading element and theme of this text, that he reduces his own role in the narrative and reassigns some of the agency that Yaroslavsky and Pospelov had given him, either back to Lenin or very frequently to the party leadership as a whole. He creates an institutional history out of the Short Course, which is interesting. It doesn’t make it very mobilizational, but it does make it much less cultic than it had been in its original incarnation.

The Short Course has long been seen as indicative of the personality cult around Stalin. It was interesting to me that the first version of the Short Course has a lot of bombastic language about Stalin’s individual role, and he strips a lot of that out. How do you understand the Short Course in relationship to his cult of personality?

I think, again, I would probably periodize it. This issue is first really drawn to our attention by Khrushchev in 1956, when at the 20th Party Congress Khrushchev says that Stalin had exaggerated his role in the party and created a cult around himself. And Khrushchev specifically uses the example of the Short Course and says that Stalin has built the Party history around himself and perverted the course of Party history in the process. Khrushchev’s interpretation becomes extremely popular, both within the Soviet Union, the People’s Democracies and abroad. After all, it confirms all the egotistical excesses of the cult. It also becomes a very popular explanatory paradigm in the field of Soviet history.

That said, already in the 1990s, we begin to see some pretty good new work, excellent new research on the cult by people like Sarah Davies and Jan Plamper. Their work suggested that Stalin wasn’t always comfortable with the cult and at times was quite frustrated with its successes. I’ve argued elsewhere that Stalin viewed the cult and its celebration of himself and its celebration of Lenin as somewhat of an awkward concession. This is what we were talking about earlier, a concession to less educated stretches of the Soviet population who couldn’t deal with unadulterated Marxism-Leninism on their own, and so, therefore, they needed a heroic personification at the center of the Party to epitomize that vanguardist role of the Party itself in society.

So, the cult is sort of a stand in for a more rigorous, and maybe more orthodox version of historical materialism. And it’s really using Stalin as a vehicle to advance national priorities, or Party ideological priorities rather than something that’s really all about hallelujahs to Stalin. That, I think, explains why Stalin gets frustrated with the prototype which lands on his desk in April of 1938, because Yaroslavsky and Pospelov have lost track of that idea, and instead attribute to him huge amounts of historical agency. The prototype credits everything under the sun to Stalin to the degree to that’s it’s just simply embarrassing.

When Stalin goes back through the textbook trying to streamline it, he also routinely removes attribution of agency to himself, and frequently reassigns it to the central Party apparatus and to Lenin.

Ultimately, I think in aggregate, your characterization is really quite correct, that he’s removing not just entire lines or paragraphs, he strikes entire pages and subsections of this textbook which deal with himself. So much so that the original authors of the prototype text, Yaroslavsky and Pospelov, write to him concerned in August 1938 before the thing is published and say, “Comrade Stalin, do you realize how much you’ve removed about yourself?” One of their few criticisms of his revisions of the text is that he stripped himself out, especially out the first chapters of Party history.

I wouldn’t want to take this too far and say that the Short Course doesn’t contain a huge place for Stalin. It certainly does. Stalin is certainly the most important person, most important protagonist, has the most agency even in regard to Lenin. But I think that it can be argued successfully that Stalin attempted in his editing of this text to reduce his overall profile in the narrative in order to create a more vanguardist story which would favor the central Party hierarchy and Lenin, even if it was at his own expense.