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East European Perspectives: June 13, 2001

13 June 2001, Volume 3, Number 11
Stalinism With A Human Face?

By Michael Shafir

A Jewish "shtetl" girl fond of biblical studies, whose rabbinical grandfather defies tradition and puts her into schools otherwise reserved only for boys? One who, furthermore, falls out of love with what tradition can offer to young Jews living in an anti-Semitic and socially unjust environment at the turn of the last century, but falls in love with successive Jewish revolutionaries who traded their forefathers' messianism for that of a movement promising a prompt delivery of the "Love thy neighbor as thyself" commandment? The story sounds familiar enough to recall a combination of "Yentl" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Yet Robert Levy's recently published biography of Romanian Communist leader Ana Pauker is anything but a Broadway melodrama likely to be jumped on by Hollywood scriptwriters (Levy, 2001. All references are to this volume unless otherwise specified).

Born as Ana (Hannah) Rabinsohn in 1893 in the village of Codaesti, Vaslui County, in Romania's backward province of Moldavia, Pauker in 1947 became the world's first female foreign minister and for a while was the "de facto" head of the Communist Party (PCR), which was about to embark upon Romania's violent Stalinization. Purged in 1952 with Stalin's blessing and encouragement from her archrival for the party's leadership, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Pauker, as Levy amply demonstrates, was the chief candidate for a "Slansky-like" show trial of "cosmopolitan, anti-party enemies." Had it taken place, the trial would have followed the judicial masquerade imposed by the Soviets on their colonial "Peoples' Democracies" within the anti-Semitic drive launched by Stalin shortly before his death in 1953. Under arrest and interrogation, Pauker broke into tears when one of her chief fellow-party inquisitors, Alexandru Moghioros, informed her of the "Vozhd's" death. Whereupon Moghioros candidly remarked: "Don't cry. If Stalin were alive, you'd be dead" (p. 219).

Pauker was to die (of cancer) only in June 1960, having been first released from detention and from interrogation in a party house near Bucharest in late March 1953. Initially placed under house arrest and allowed to reside with her daughter, Tatiana, and her son-in-law, Dr. Gheorghe Bratescu, she was later allowed to take up employment translating from French and German for the party's Political Publishing House. One of her supervisors there was Valter Roman, father of Romania's post-Communist premier Petre; the publishing house's director was Leonte Tismaneanu, father of Vladimir, now a reputed U.S. political scientist. While in power, Pauker had shielded both from the purges directed against veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Investigations, however, were resumed in 1956, not long after Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech." While this may seem a paradox, it was hardly so. Gheorghiu-Dej had cunningly posed himself in the posture of the "de-Stalinizer in Stalin's times," placing the entire blame for the crimes earlier committed by the new regime on Pauker and her supporters. While the main indictment against Pauker in 1952 was "right-wing deviation," now emphasis was shifted on a "left-wing deviation" for allegedly instigating party purges and the enforced collectivization of the countryside.

Levy's volume is the fruit of long years of research, for the purpose of which the young (1957-born) American scholar exhausted practically all sources available at this time. That it took a foreign researcher to undertake the venture should be no surprise. No matter what side of the political spectrum it identifies with, Romanian historiography demonizes Pauker, thus (ironically enough) embracing the Gheorghiu-Dej version of the 1944-1952 events. For the partisans of what I call "radical continuity" postures, Pauker's departure from the political scene and the subsequent "Romanianization" of the Romanian Workers' Party (as the PCR was called between 1948 and 1965) mark the victory of "patriots" over "foreigners," with little other sins, of either personal of systemic nature, to be still accounted for by the PCR and its leaders. For the partisans of "radical return," Pauker's Jewishness is in itself a sufficient explanation. Even among historians whose scientific endeavors come closest to being rigorous, the figure of the long-hated Jewish Stalinist is a closed chapter unworthy of more than a sarcastic side remark.

In his research attempts, Levy encountered many difficulties. First, there has been an obvious and prolonged reluctance on the part of the post-Communist authorities to open up archives, a reluctance that has not been entirely overcome to this day. Yet the author managed to gain access to the transcripts -- or at least part of them -- of the Politburo and Secretariat of the PCR's Central Committee (CC), of CC plenaries and Council of Ministers sessions, as well as to various other archives, including those that document Pauker's investigation by the party as well as by the Securitate -- the Communist secret police. But Levy is fully aware of the limitation of archival documentation. "The motives and goals of those creating documents, the limits of our own knowledge, the incorporation of gossip or flattery into a report for someone senior, the distortions of ideology or prejudice have all to be taken into account," wrote historian Tony Judd, cited by Levy. Furthermore, as the author notes, one must never forget "the reported tendency of communist leaders, perhaps simply out of habit, initially to preserve conspiratorial methods of the underground period when conducting business during the postwar period" (p. 11). He conducted some 80 interviews with witnesses of the inner PCR life and with members of Pauker's family, which allowed him to check the veracity of "certain documents -- especially penal interrogations and declarations which, for obvious reasons, are inherently dubious." Being also aware of the limitations of oral sources, he had those interviews repeatedly cross-checked with both other oral sources and with archival documents, relying at the end on that information which could be confirmed by multiple sources (pp. 12-13).

The book is by no means a rehabilitation of Pauker. That task could have only been undertaken by the PCR, and, as is well known, this never happened and is now too late. Not being a communist -- not even, from what I can judge, a sympathizer of that ideology -- Levy nonetheless concludes that much of the "conventional wisdom" on Pauker's life and career is "largely [a] myth." What he discovers is "a person characterized more by contradictions than by dogmatism: a Communist leader fanatically loyal to Stalin and the Soviet Union but actively opposing the Stalinist line and deliberately defying Soviet directives on a number of important fronts -- uniquely, during the perilous periods of Stalin's final years" (p. 3).

This is so far from conventional wisdom as to warrant a note of caution. Levy may be in places taking risks, for example when he writes that "No other leader save Tito has been shown to have resisted the Soviet-imposed line as she did" (p. 233), were it for the simple reason that he had not, and does not claim to have, researched the archives of other East European communist parties. After all, were it not for a young American scholar named Robert Levy, no one would have even guessed that in Romania Pauker was daring enough to stand up to Stalinist policies at a time when the area was undergoing "Gleichschaltung." And (who knows?) archives elsewhere may well await their "Levys."

It also seems to me that the author should have emphasized more than he does that Pauker was, in fact, embracing positions of "domesticism," to use Zbigniew Brzezinski's terminology (Brzezinski, 1960, pp. 45-58). In other words, the "other face of Pauker" was also Soviet-inspired, though Levy may rightly argue that after 1948 this meant to be standing up against the Kremlin. Though Levy brings evidence that many Romanian Communist leaders at the time took the initial Moscow-launched interpretation of what the "Peoples' Democracies" were all about at their word, he is, I believe, insufficiently dwelling on that aspect when explaining the core of Pauker's "right-wing deviationism." To put it differently: just as Gheorghiu-Dej would eventually emerge by 1958 as more of a Stalinist than the old Stalinists of the Khrushchev type who tried to impose on Romania a slow-down in its industrialization plans, so Pauker was more of a Stalinist than Stalin himself when she defended the initial "go slow" on nationalization, the struggle against "kulaks," or collaboration with bourgeois political parties.

Levy is, however, very convincing when describing the events that led to Pauker's accusations of "right-wing deviationism" and when concluding that these were "hardly the arbitrary charge that scholars have long believed masked what was solely a power struggle between Pauker and Gheorghiu-Dej" (p. 234). It may be rather uncommon, but this reviewer is ready to publicly atone. In a book published in 1985, I wrote that "at the time of her purge, in 1952, Pauker was accused of 'right-wing deviationism,'" but that one should not conclude from here that "in the winter of its days, the Pauker group was more 'liberal' than the Dej faction" (Shafir, 1985, pp. 45-46). In support, I then cited Stephen Fischer-Galati's conclusion that "No matter what official reasons for Pauker's, [Vasile] Luca's, and [Teohari] Georgescu's removal from power in 1952, the real ones are solely connected with the struggle for control of the party" (Fischer-Galati, 1967, p. 39). What Professor Fischer-Galati thinks after reading the evidence brought by Levy I do not know. But I know I was simply wrong. I am, however, gratified to find in Levy's book much evidence confirming my analysis that the struggle between the so-called "Muscovites" headed by Pauker and the "home Communists" headed by Dej is one of the many myths dominating postwar Romanian and Western historiography. Key figures switched sides time and again, with both camps acting in deference to Moscow and trying to interpret contradictory signals coming from the capital of the emerging red empire; and, of course, with both camps including "defectors" to the rival side and with all the main political actors desperately attempting to save their own skin.

Chapter four of the volume concentrates on analyzing the evidence -- belatedly brought up against her -- on Pauker's alleged "left-wing deviation" and finds it to be wholly fabricated. Displaying thorough familiarity with the Russian precedent, Levy surprisingly comes up with a "Bukharinist" Pauker arguing against "the standard Stalinist practice of accumulating capital at the peasantry's expense" (pp. 91-92) and -- master of the ideological idiom as she was -- explaining that "We want to become an industrial country, but not by destroying the peasants, like the Trotkyists, but by lifting them up and making them one of the principal factors in production and consumption" (pp. 92-93). In an outlandish competition of citations from the "classics," in 1947, when Pauker was PCR secretary in charge of agriculture, fellow Politburo leader Miron Constantinescu was explaining to the forum that "Comrade Stalin demonstrated how agriculture based on individual property generates capitalism," with Pauker resorting to Vladimir Ilich's authority to refute the Stalinist position: "Lenin did not say the peasantry is a generator of capitalism, but that the peasantry is divided into [social] categories" and that "only the wealthy peasants, not the poor and the middle-sized" could be considered as "chiaburi" or -- to use the Russian equivalent, "kulaks." Had that line prevailed, collectivization would have had to be postponed for a much later date and await success in persuading the peasantry of its alleged advantages and superiority.

But it is not only Gheorghiu-Dej or Constantinescu that Ana Pauker dared argue with on collectivization. She expressed her reservations to Stalin as well. At a meeting in Moscow in 1948, when Stalin inquired whether the Romanians were collectivizing, she replied: "Comrade Stalin, it's a little too soon. We have implemented land reform. We have given land to the peasants. We have to let them enjoy the land. And we do not have mechanization. We don't have industry yet. We don't have anything to give them." As Levy remarks, "Pauker persistently depicted mechanization (and thus industrialization) as a prerequisite to collectivization, even though the Stalinist line suggested just the opposite, that collectivization was the means for acquiring as large an agricultural surplus as possible to finance industrialization" (p. 99).

She stood up to efforts to enforce collectivization even after the campaign was formally launched -- under Soviet orders valid for the bloc as a whole -- in March 1949. It was only after Moghioros temporarily replaced her as secretary in charge of agriculture (Pauker had to be rushed to Moscow to undergo a breast cancer operation in 1950), that forced collectivization began in earnest (pp. 104-105). Moghioros immediately alluded to where the fault rested for the procrastination -- namely Pauker's insistence that the "free consent" of peasantry in joining the collectives be strictly respected: "Something curious has happened in this country. Some comrades have thought that we were somehow proceeding with collectivization before we had the necessary conditions for it...It's true that some conditions need to be there, but the conditions have to be created; they don't fall from the sky," he commented. Their "creation" was the task of party activists, who were to follow the Five-Year Plan that set ahead the number of collective farms that have to be established within its parameters -- something Pauker had strongly opposed (p. 105). "Thus," Levy notes, "while coercion was reported only once in 1949 and remained rare in the first half of 1950, it now reached massive proportions for the first time," with "the militia and the Securitate having 'received instructions to assist' in organizing the collective farms" and "actively participating in registering new members, often at night" (p. 106).

Resuming her duties as secretary in charge of agriculture by the end 1950, Pauker tried to turn the wheel back. Addressing the CC's agricultural section in April 1951, she was as unambiguous as possible in condemning the change of policy:

"Beginning with last summer we proceeded with actions that are absolutely opposed to the line of our party and absolutely opposed to any serious communist thought. Only someone irresponsible, only an adventurer, only a person cut off from the masses and from our party , only a person that imagines himself as here today and gone tomorrow can think that it is possible to establish collective farms with people who are forced, and that such collective farms can possibly be viable. What was done last year, of holding contests between regions to see who has more collective farms and reverting to any means to realize the plan, which was not a plan but a bureaucratic mess, is absolutely inimical to our party line and cannot produce anything but negative results. Now we'll have to work hard to salvage our alliance with the working peasantry...which could have been avoided had we been guided by this principle of our party, that it is not allowed to put people in collective farms who don't want to go there" (p. 109).

She ordered those wishing to leave the collective farms to be allowed to do so and take with them parcels detached from the farms, which "promptly led to a mass exodus" from many collectives. She also halted trials of collective farmers charged with not having brought their land into the collectives and annulled previous sentences passed on such peasants; and she proposed that party penalties be instituted and criminal proceedings be considered against those attempting to force peasants into the collectives. Displaying what one is tempted to dub "Stalinism with a human face," Pauker erupted: "Those who acted in this fashion aren't humans...And we don't build Communism with such people" (p. 110).

Gheorghiu-Dej, who would place all the blame for the enforced collectivization on Pauker's and her supporters' shoulders, resumed massive enforced collectivization after Pauker's 1952 purge and took it to new heights. No fewer than 8,000 trials of alleged "chiaburi" were staged in the first six months following Pauker's ouster (p. 132). Dej's 1961 "leftist deviation" reiteration of accusations against Pauker notwithstanding, the campaign was at that time in full swing and was completed by 1962 -- three years ahead of schedule. To enforce it, Dej relayed on his trustworthy (or so it seemed at the time) protege Nicolae Ceausescu, who unleashed on the countryside the reign of terror for which he would eventually achieve world fame. Dej thus seems to have never abandoned what Stalin told him upon giving him the blessing for the purge of Pauker: "Krestiasnsakia politika -- nemarxistkaia politika" (Pro-peasantry policies are non-Marxist policies) (p. 199).

Pauker's opposition to the "transfer of the class struggle to the countryside" -- the campaign against the "chiaburi" and against the inhumane collection of agricultural product quotas from a peasantry left on the brink of starvation (and often beyond it) -- are also thoroughly documented in the volume. Yet Levy never loses sight of Pauker's "other side." The policies she advocated (had they been implemented) were also unlikely to win the mass of peasants over, and the brief period she managed to impose her line produced results that were also catastrophic. Peasants were still hiding their produce, refusing to hand over quotas, and Levy quite accurately depicts Pauker's predicament: "Having opposed coercing the peasantry, be it with collections or collectivization, and risking a great deal in the process, she must have felt betrayed by its response. But her ultimate betrayal were her own illusions that the peasants would 'gladly' hand over crops to collections whose very purpose was to create reserves that the state could throw on the market to drive down prices or that they would 'gladly' cooperate with the regime whose very program was to end their existence as private farmers." Hence, "With her liberal line on collections now seen as bankrupt, and with Stalin making implied threats to the Romanian leadership, Pauker had little room for maneuvering. In the end, she was forced to tread the path of party politics and implement the very actions she so adamantly opposed" (p. 129). With her acquiescence now, by February 1952 terror was launched on the countryside and alleged "chiaburi" were arrested, for which Pauker would eventually acknowledge she suffered "a guilty conscience." But even at that stage she was remarking to Ceausescu (then a candidate CC member), who had just reported to her on the arrest of some 300 "chiaburi": "Three hundred kulaks arrested. But will they be seed-planting in the spring?" (p. 130).

Having examined the evidence on Pauker's alleged "leftist deviation," Levy concludes that not only did PCR historians "slander a certain disgraced leader" under orders, but that, "Ana Pauker --forever since vilified as the bane of the Romanian peasant -- had, in fact [as her ally Vasile Luca wrote in prison in an obvious attempt to exculpate himself] 'become the patron of the peasantry' within the party leadership" (p. 133).

By the time of her 1956 resumed interrogation by a party commission, Pauker had marched a long way on the road to distancing herself from what Stalin was all about. "You take a person," she told her investigators, "you arrest him, you call him an agent, you [subject him to] methods that, in all my life, with all the prisons and [interwar Romanian secret service] Siguranta stations, I'd never throw mud at him, you jeer him, you throw his kids out of their houses, you take his books, and you don't even say 'I'm sorry,' as any person would if he stepped on someone's foot" (p. 223). But to her last day, she was incapable of marching the road to its end, remaining, as Levy puts it, "a devoted and unrepentant Communist" (p. 224). She refused to write her memoirs, despite her never being allowed after 1956 to be more than "an ostracized pariah." The reason was obvious: "her memories -- like everything else in her life -- belonged to the party, which she was determined never to harm or betray. Though she began to criticize specific mistakes and shortcomings, she never expressed doubt over the totality. As she affirmed to Marie [her other daughter] in 1956 or 1957, 'You'll see. The people may not be the best, but the ideology will triumph'"( p. 226).

Among the other myths that Levy also dismisses is the alleged Pauker denunciation of her husband, Marcel, a founding leader of the PCR shot by the NKVD in 1938. At that time, Ana Pauker was in a Romanian prison serving a 10-year sentence imposed in 1936. When the news about Marcel's being "unmasked" as an enemy of the people and a "Trotskyist" reached her there, according to the testimony of a fellow inmate, "Ana locked herself in a small room and didn't come out of that room for three days. And when she did come out, her face was completely changed" (p. 53). The dilemma that would haunt many other Communist activists as a result of Stalin's purges -- to renounce their credo or to renounce their innermost certainties -- had hit Ana Pauker the hardest. But she did neither, and in so doing she betrayed perhaps both. To the dismay of fellow inmates she refused to denounce Marcel. Still, what better illustration of the "party-is-never-wrong mentality" than her reply to their urge to do so: "I'm not placing any doubt on the party's decision; the party knows better than I. But I did not see anything [to indicate Marcel had been a traitor]; and as much as I search my soul, my recollections, my memory, I don't find anything that could prove such a thing." On another occasion in 1940, she told then PCR General-Secretary Stefan Foris, who visited her in prison: "If the Party considers them enemies, than that's what they are," whereupon Foris promptly reported to Moscow that "It's clear from her response that Ana Pauker has not expressed her opinion on the matter." Yet another prison inmate reminisced that Pauker "told me several times, and repeated it when I left prison, that she doesn't think that he is a traitor or an agent of the Siguranta." On her return to Romania in September 1944 (she had been traded out by the Soviets in 1941), she did not hesitate to re-establish ties with Marcel's parents and other members of the Pauker family. She told then-fellow Communist leader Lucretiu Patrascanu that Marcel had been "unjustly set up" by the Soviets and that she still does not believe "what [was] said about him in the USSR" (pp. 64-66). To the very end she refused to publicly denounce Marcel Pauker -- and this would figure among the accusations directed at her at a May 1952 CC plenary session.

Yet she also refrained from inquiring about his fate. On her return to Romania as a high party leader, she told Marcel's parents that he was still alive, though to Marcel's sister she said he was "probably dead" (p. 225). Still, almost to the end of her days, she had hoped against hope that Marcel would somehow re-emerge from the depths of the Gulag. In 1956, however, her son Vlad and one of his sisters wrote to the Supreme Soviet Presidium in Moscow, requesting information on their father's fate. An official response came three years later, confirming Marcel Pauker's death on 16 August 1938, though adding no details on its circumstances. "A distraught Ana Pauker," then suffering from a second bout of breast-cancer, "immediately took to bed and remained bed-ridden until her death nine months later" (pp. 224-225). Yet Pauker could have easily cast Marcel out. The marriage had suffered the unavoidable strains imposed by their separate revolutionary activities, sometimes thousands of miles apart. Marcel had fathered a child in Magnitogorsk in 1931 and Ana had an affair with her Comintern chief in France, Eugen Fried (not with French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez, as is often believed), as a result of which Marie had been born in France in 1932.

(Part 2 will be published on 27 June)


Brzezinski, Z., (1960), The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict, (Cambridge: Mass.; Harvard University Press), revised edition, 1960.

Fischer-Galati, S., The New Rumania: From People's Democracy to Socialist Republic, (Cambridge: Mass.; MIT), 1967, p. 39.

Levy, R., Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2001.

Shafir, M. (1985), Romania: Politics, Economics and Society. Political Stagnation and Simulated Change, (London: Frances Pinter), 1985.