Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

Roots of a Tyrant

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin, 976 pp., $40)

One brief paragraph terrorized Joseph Stalin. It was the postscript to the document known as Lenin’s Testament. That document has never been authenticated, yet it weighed on Stalin because, even if the text was fake, it was plausible that it represented Lenin’s thought: “Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in relations among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin.” Stalin didn’t fear men, but he never stopped dreading those words, because Lenin’s opinion vested him with authority.

Stephen Kotkin, the director of Russian studies at Princeton, sets himself apart from other historians by treating the Testament as a major influence on Stalin. Kotkin devotes only one sentence to the possibility that the Testament could be genuine. He then proposes two likelier interpretations. The first is that Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, created and released the letter because she believed that it represented what Lenin really thought. (The document is supposed to have been dictated between December 1922 and January 1923, at a time when a series of strokes had rendered Lenin mostly incoherent.) The second is that Krupskaya invented the Testament to diminish Stalin’s stature within the party and dilute his power.

Kotkin presents this and a myriad of other stories in exacting detail, and the result is a masterwork.

Those already intimate with this period of Russian history will recognize traces of some of the classics. American socialist John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), Trotsky’s autobiography My Life (1930), and Isaac Deutscher’s magisterial Trotsky trilogy (1954, 1959, 1963) are just a few referenced in Kotkin’s encyclopedic bibliography. The author synthesizes mountains of data in a compelling style but is truly at his best when working with recently opened archives, providing fresh takes on stories we thought we knew.

Kotkin believes that Marxist politics molded Stalin, and so wastes no time psychoanalyzing him, noting frequently when details were less formative than many historians like to think. He also does not follow Simon Sebag Montefiore in romanticizing young “Soso” as some kind of bad-boy gangster-poet leaving fatherless babies all over Russia. He considers Montefiore’s Stalin to be “beautifully rendered,” yet “implausibly swashbuckling.” In an endnote, Kotkin writes: “Montefiore’s book [Young Stalin (2007)] reads like a novel.” He intentionally veers from the path of Montefiore and of historians like him who deliver what he considers a false intimacy that would be better suited for animating fictional characters.

Countless scholars attempt to explain Stalin, but since the Soviet system was secretive by nature, many writers rely on Trotsky’s reports. That is problematic. Kotkin points out that “the two did not socialize”; also, Trotsky was never able to finish his own biography of Stalin, since his subject had him assassinated.

Kotkin reckons it a mistake for biographers to force a consistent narrative between the proven events of a subject’s life; in Stalin’s case, he says, “his life story from 1909 through early 1917 contains few moments of note.” Instead, Kotkin focuses on the world around the man. He goes macro, examining the political atmosphere, with a particular focus on czarist Russia’s interactions with Germany, France, Britain, and the United States.

Also, unlike those who rely on Trotsky, Kotkin restores Stalin’s importance to the October Revolution (November 7, 1917) as a commentator and an indispensable organizer. As Lenin’s apprentice, he only saw his responsibilities and powers grow.

Kotkin also firmly establishes Lenin as conspiratorial and ruthless, far from the doting, kindly soul that Stalin invented and that history long accepted. After the Bolsheviks seized power, the new Soviet state imposed press censorship and hordes of people were shot without trial, most notably the czar and his family. Kotkin points out that “there were at least 6,185 summary executions in the Red Terror of 1918 — in two months,” nearly as many as the “6,321 death sentences by Russian courts” in the previous hundred years under the czars. In 1918, we see the rise of the Cheka (the secret police), with its forced confessions and obscene violence. Kotkin describes the ubiquitous paranoia about internal enemies and counterrevolutionaries as the “embryo” of the show trials of the 1920s and 1930s, which climaxed in the Great Terror (1937–38).

Paradoxes of Power dispels the persistent myth that Stalin seized power in a way that subverted the regime. In 1922, Lenin created the role of general secretary explicitly for Stalin, and in that role he had absolute power. His influence grew as Trotsky’s waned.

Further discrediting the notion that Stalin was a usurper, Kotkin demonstrates that Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders, including Zinoviev and Kamenev, rejected a number of potential opportunities to depose Stalin. And he does not allow the reader to forget that Stalin offered to resign at least six times.

History has seen many governments justify killing under “emergency” conditions, but, as Kotkin notes, few would go as far as Stalin did, forcibly collectivizing his country in the name of ideology. When Russia went “from world grain exporter (1913) to cannibalism (1923),” Lenin conceded that the New Economic Policy and its embrace of the market was the only recourse. Stalin, on the other hand, starved to death up to 7 million of his own people, preferring to deny their existence rather than compromise the ideology. Kotkin explores Marxist ideology in practice: battling the rural kulaks (the slightly better-off peasants) and the urban bourgeois specialists. He writes, “Nothing prevented the Communist dictatorship from embracing private capital — nothing, that is, except idées fixes.”

By mid 1928, when this volume ends, Stalin has reduced Trotsky, his primary rival, to an exiled nuisance. He commences show trials and forced confessions. His cronies don’t yet view him as, in Kotkin’s words, a “criminal tyrant.” Yet, even as he has consolidated his power, he has also unwittingly assembled the ingredients that will lead to Communist Russia’s eventual implosion.

Some distortions in a book of this scope are forgivable. For example, Kotkin presents Stalin as having a more “proletarian” outlook than Trotsky in the Russian Civil War. At the time, Stalin and other critics thought Trotsky should implement “proletarian strategy” rather than use former czarist officers in the Red Army. But for Trotsky, the notion of a “proletarian strategy” was a misapplication of Marxist theory. As he writes in volume three, book two of his Military Writings, “to formulate a new military doctrine with the help of Marxism is like trying to create with the help of Marxism a new theory of architecture or a new veterinary handbook.” In other words, Trotsky was not guilty of ideological heresy; Stalin and other critics feigned outrage for disingenuous political reasons. They pointed to Trotsky’s rejection of the “proletarian strategy” as proof that he was less committed to Marxism.

Kotkin also doesn’t always flesh out the paradoxes he notices. For instance, he considers it a paradox that the party viewed everything in terms of class, except their own leadership. It is true that few of the leaders of the workers’ party were actually workers. But Kotkin could have trained his razor-sharp focus on the special brand of cognitive dissonance that allowed for such a paradox. Likewise, the author sees a paradox in the Bolsheviks’ viewing the defeat of the White Army as “psychologically disadvantageous.” Without further discussion, that seems unremarkable: Any struggle based on enemies loses its impetus when those enemies disappear.

Despite these few problems, Paradoxes of Power distinguishes Kotkin as the authority on Stalin. Without entering into questionably intimate territory, he creates a deeply personal portrait that is exceptionally revealing in its own way.

– Mr. Schneider is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C., area.

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