By Stephen Kotkin
Penguin Press. 949 pp. $40
There is a kind of justice when a great despot like Joseph Stalin, who made millions suffer during his lifetime, suffers at the hands of his biographers. From the early accounts by his rival and victim Leon Trotsky to the vivid treatment of Stalin and his court by Simon Sebag-Montefiore, biographers have drawn a dark and sanguinary portrait of a worthy successor to Ivan the Terrible. In the first volume of a planned trilogy, Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin gives a less tendentious and more balanced interpretation of the dictator and his times, but one that misses some essentials of his evolution.
Already known for his “biography” of the Soviet steel-producing city Magnitogorsk in the turbulent 1930s, Kotkin traces the rise of the poor son of an alcoholic cobbler to prominence in an outlawed revolutionary party on his way to becoming the all-powerful ruler of the world’s largest country. Stalin’s bitter rivalry with Trotsky is revealed as an uneven struggle between Stalin, the deeply embedded Bolshevik with the political chops of a ward boss, and Trotsky, the flamboyant militant who was often his own worst enemy. The author’s wide-angle lens sometimes loses sight of his protagonist, a secretive political operator who left no diary and few personal letters to flesh out his personal and more intimate moments. Instead Kotkin focuses on the broader context, showing how Stalin took advantage of the chances he was given and surmounted years as an underground revolutionary, repeated Siberian exiles, and the violent clashes of the Russian revolution and civil war. In Kotkin’s telling, Stalin demonstrates considerable talent as a politician, organizer and infighter, as opposed to earlier portrayals of him as a “mediocrity” or a “gray blur,” a nonentity who made no impression on others.
Historians appreciate the importance of context and the role of chance in the victories of seemingly marginal men and parties and in the failure of empires. But those successes and defeats occur in time and space, and are complexly determined by prior events and human choices, the consequences of which cannot be predicted. Consider the improbability of Stalin’s ascent from his days as Ioseb Jughashvili, a small, wiry child who enjoyed singing, wrestling, poetry, and Georgian Orthodoxy and nationalism — and who overcame typhus, bore Siberian frost and for years eluded the czarist police. Through adversities and reversals he was lifted to the pinnacle of political power in a faltering revolutionary state. Kotkin reminds his readers repeatedly of how slight shifts of fortune could have thwarted the fates of Vladimir Lenin and Stalin. But he fails at times to link Lenin’s and Stalin’s emotional makeups and intellectual passions to the choices they made in the swirl of great historical forces.
Kotkin’s breezy run through Stalin’s first 30 years provides only a light sketch of his pre-revolutionary days. Abjuring Freudian analysis (fair enough) and declining to relate the mature Stalin to his upbringing, the author leaves the reader with a richness of context but a thinness of explanation of how Jughashvili grew into Stalin. He deprives the reader of insight into how Stalin’s early experience as a writer and an outlaw influenced his later life. Only after he is elevated to People’s Commissar of Nationality Affairs in 1917 and General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922 does the central character emerge from the whirling background. The authoritarianism of Stalin’s mentor and superior, Lenin, paved the way for a dictatorship by a person few saw as a likely successor. Lenin recognized the strengths of Stalin’s character — his toughness, even ruthlessness, and such talents as organization and the ability to knock heads and get things done — and had him appointed to the key position heading the party bureaucracy.
Reversing Trotsky’s famous conclusion that “Stalin did not create the apparatus. The apparatus created him,” Kotkin shows convincingly that “Stalin created the apparatus, and it was a colossal feat.” His “power flowed from attention to detail but also to people — and not just any people, but often to the new people.” In contrast to Trotsky but like most successful politicians, Stalin was skilled in attracting loyalists, whose ascendancy was accelerated by their closeness and fidelity to their potent patron. With the mammoth amount of new archival material now available, this hefty volume of more than 700 pages of text details better than any previous account the viciousness that brought down Stalin’s opponents, one after the other, with these personal conflicts obscuring the original aims of the revolution.
“The fundamental fact about him,” Kotkin writes, “was that he viewed the world through Marxism.” He was “marinated in Communist ideology.” Yet the book offers little discussion of Jughashvili’s gravitation from romantic Georgian nationalist to “Russian” Marxist, passionately absorbed in the intricacies of party organization and the nuances of Marx’s historical analysis of social change. Marxism is a collection of diverse and often contradictory interpretations of history and the present, a critique of capitalism with little prescription for what should follow its downfall. Marxist movements are fraught with disputes and conflicts that have at times led to the brutal elimination of opponents. Here, however, the debates within the party are reduced to personality disputes, and the author treats Stalin’s philosophical universe with hostile condescension.
As in other biographies, Stalin is seen as an ambitious and talented intriguer, a man who combined pathological suspiciousness with overweening self-confidence (perhaps stemming from underlying insecurity). More intelligent than he is usually given credit for, he posed as a proletarian and was proud of his rudeness. Above all, he was a survivor. In what undoubtedly will be the most controversial assertion in the book, Kotkin argues that the sensational “Political Testament” of the dying Lenin, a dictation bitterly critical of Stalin that called for his removal as general secretary, was not written by Lenin but by a cabal of his secretaries and his wife, possibly assisted by Trotsky. Few other scholars doubt the authorship of the document, which accurately reflected Lenin’s views, nor was it questioned at the time it was written and debated in high party circles. Kotkin’s interpretation, fascinating as it is, relies on conjecture rather than evidence.
Legitimate or not, the letter seriously threatened Stalin, who obsessively feared that it might undermine his authority. Ultimately his comrades did not heed Lenin’s warning and remove Stalin, thereby missing the best (and last) real chance to demote him and change history, a mistake that proved fatal to most of them.
This is a big and ambitious book, replete with witty aphorisms, vividly told anecdotes, and sweeping conclusions about power and politics. Contingencies that favored Stalin’s rise, such as Lenin’s untimely death in January 1924, are set against the larger global forces that constrained the fledgling Soviet state. The Stalin that Kotkin presents was a strategic thinker, both realistic to the point of cynicism and ideological to a fault. The communists’ “paranoid class politics,” reflected in their mistrust of others and their unrelieved push for international revolution, created an environment in which enemies were everywhere — within the party, among the peasants and the intellectuals, and in the capitalist states that sought to contain or destroy the U.S.S.R.
Kotkin radically simplifies “socialism” to mean anti-capitalism as practiced in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In Kotkin’s view, Marxist-Leninist ideology was the straitjacket chosen by the communists to destroy a society and build a new order. Even Mussolini’s fascism, he argues, was preferable; at least Il Duce did not eliminate the most productive economic players.
Once Stalin became dictator while Lenin was still alive, collectivization and the bloodletting of the 1930s were foreordained, Kotkin says. He concludes that only another lucky accident, perhaps Stalin’s death, could have saved the world from those catastrophes. Russia has often been seen as a country doomed to violence and authoritarianism. But the contingencies and contradictions of human experience allow one to come away with a sense that while people cannot choose the circumstances in which they live, the choices they make matter enormously. Other paths than Russia’s fatal fall into despotism might have been taken.
Ronald Grigor Suny is a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States.” He is completing a biography of the young Stalin.
Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
By Stephen Kotkin
Penguin Press. 949 pp. $40