Stalin papers reveal ’how not to manage’

Stalin’s leadership style undermined the USSR by setting unrealistic targets and placing penalties on subordinates telling the truth, according to Leeds University historian James Harris, who has been looking at newly-opened archives of the Soviet leader’s correspondence.

In his leadership of five-year plans Stalin ignored data which cast doubt on the possibility of achieving targets and put disincentives in the way of telling the truth – removal or execution – that massively distorted information flows.

Local officials spun a complex web of deceit, playing down their capacities, exaggerating their needs and undermining any directive that might put them in a position of failure.

He said: “Stalin would be a great example for a ‘how not to manage’ guide. Lessons for today are that where saying something realistic about a target is career limiting, you get an unproductive outcome. We see the result all the time in business and government – where targets are unachievable, it distorts the intended outcome.”

Conventional wisdom is that Stalin used Soviet ideology simply to further his power but Dr Harris believes comparisons of his private views and public propaganda show he believed what he was doing was right.

“Historians had assumed, quite sensibly, that published materials such as speeches, articles and legislation were drafted with a propagandistic purpose,” he said. “The archive was expected to show us the reality behind the public words. It has surprised us all to see that for Stalin discussed issues with his inner circle in the very same terms.”

Most Soviet archives were closed until the USSR collapsed in 1991, but since then, millions of papers have been released. However, only in 2000, were the papers of the ‘Stalin Archive’ opened to the public.

Media Contact

Vanessa Bridge University of Leeds

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