Writing in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reviews the first volume of what looks like an interesting new biography of Stalin (it takes the story up until 1928). Critically, its author, Stephen Kotkin, appears to dispense with glib “psychological” alibi (tough childhood and so on) for what Stalin became, replacing it with the more sinister explanation that his actions were, in one sense, perfectly rational:
His violence was not the product of his subconscious but of the Bolshevik engagement with Marxist-Leninist ideology. This ideology offered Stalin a deep sense of certainty in the face of political and economic setbacks. If policies designed to produce prosperity created poverty instead, an explanation could always be found: the theory had been incorrectly interpreted, the forces were not correctly aligned, the officials had blundered. If Soviet policies were unpopular, even among workers, that too could be explained: antagonism was rising because the class struggle was intensifying.
And if you think that that sounds a lot like a true believer trying to square the teachings of his faith with perennially inconvenient reality you would be right. The frontier between avowedly atheistic communism, a “political religion” (as it has often been described) and more conventional religious belief is not as clearly defined as is so often imagined. Trying to understand why Stalin was attracted to such a creed thus raises unsettling questions — over what we want to believe, and why — that go far beyond the motivation of a series of Communist fanatics.
In the contemporary West, we often assume that perpetrators of mass violence must be insane or irrational, but as Kotkin tells the story, Stalin was neither. And in its way, the idea of Stalin as a rational and extremely intelligent man, bolstered by an ideology sufficiently powerful to justify the deaths of many millions of people, is even more terrifying. It means we might want to take more seriously the pronouncements of the Russian politicians who have lately argued for the use of nuclear weapons against the Baltic states, or of the ISIS leaders who call for the deaths of all Christians and Jews. Just because their language sounds strange to us doesn’t mean that they, and those who follow them, don’t find it compelling, or that they won’t pursue their logic to its ultimate conclusion.
There’s more to that argument, I think, in the case of the Islamic State. For all their immense faults, Putin and those that surround him do not strike me as people in the grip of some millennialist rage. The risks they take are, for the most part, carefully calculated. Yes, the tactics that they use can easily turn (very) murderous and, I suppose, under certain circumstances could even include detonating a nuclear weapon in the Baltics, but only if they thought they could get away with it. Despite his regime’s sometimes oddly postmodern veneer, Putin is engaged in a variant of fairly traditional great-power politics. He is neither on a mission to save the world, nor would he knowingly risk ending it. The same cannot be said of the Islamic State, believers in a new order where human considerations are meant to play only a supporting role. Given full rein and the right weapons there are few limits to what they might do.
Meanwhile I’ll look forward to reading Kotkin’s book — and the volumes to come. Stalin may have been rational in 1917 and 1928, but by his terrible twilight that verdict cannot, surely, be quite so clear.