Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Stalin: The Paradoxes of Power
STALIN Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 By Stephen Kotkin Illustrated. 949 pp. Penguin Press. $40
By Matthew Price. The National, November 6, 2014

Stephen Kotkin does not shy away from bold declarations. “More than for any other historical figure, even Gandhi or Churchill,” the author writes in this daunting and ambitious book, “a biography of Stalin, as we shall see, eventually comes to approximate a history of the world.”

This, the first instalment of a three-volume account, takes Stalin’s story up to 1928, as he stands poised to unleash the forced collectivisation of Russia’s peasantry in an attempt to destroy capitalism once and for all and remake the Soviet Union into a full-scale socialist society.

There will be blood: Stalin’s rule (1924-1953), by some accounts, cost the lives of some 50 million people. “His power of life and death over every single person across 11 time zones - more than 200 million people at its pre-war peak - far exceeded anything wielded by tsarist Russia’s greatest autocrats.” Stalin has been called a monster and a madman; he also had his defenders, especially among the western intelligentsia. But Kotkin goes far beyond apologetics or condemnation in his attempt to grapple with Stalin’s character and regime.

One of the strengths of this complex, breathtakingly researched work is that it asks that we not look at Stalin as an irrational demon who merely lusted for power. Stalin was a canny, shrewd, cunning leader whose career advanced through war, revolution and the fanatical Bolshevism that was his creed. Stalin’s ideological convictions have been questioned and dismissed as a perversion of Leninism. Not so, argues Kotkin, a distinguished scholar of the Soviet era and professor of history at Princeton University. Though he was malevolent and self-­pitying, Stalin, writes Kotkin, was also a rational, exceptionally intelligent, erudite protégé of Lenin who endeavoured to fulfil his master’s legacy.

Still, Kotkin’s approach to biography can hardly be called ordinary. Indeed, his subject only makes fleeting appearances in the first third of this immensely long account. The reader has to navigate a dizzying tour of the “immense structural forces” that Kotkin says made Stalin’s rise possible in the first place: Russia’s autocratic political system; the Russian empire’s conquest of the Caucasus; the deadly cat-and-mouse games between the tsarist secret police and a myriad of outlaw political groups; the rise of European socialism (and the ferocious faction fights on the left); the First World War and the attendant destruction it brought to the continent; and so on.

Kotkin’s work is not so much a biography as a vast panorama of the death throes of tsarism and the birth of a new political order. If history, in part, is about scrutinising the fine print, there is much of it on these pages. The effect of these thematic threads at once reduces the young Stalin to little more than a speck, one figure among many on the radical left, but also shows how the Georgian-born Iosif Jughashvili, son of an uneducated cobbler and his charwoman wife, could rise to the heights of power.

It was as a young seminary student in Tiflis that Stalin - “man of steel”, a name he adopted around 1910 - discovered Marxism, renounced God and set out on his path. Marxism was at once an orientation and a career (of sorts): between 1901 and 1917, Jughashvili held no real job, save that of left-wing activist, agitator and pundit. (As the Great War raged, Stalin was exiled in Siberia, battling “little more than mosquitos and boredom”.) It was an intellectual and political odyssey that took him from the borderlands of the Russian empire - there were several stints in jail in-between - to revolutionary St Petersburg, where he arrived in 1917 with little more than a typewriter.

Lenin’s risk-taking manoeuvres, which looked like madness at the time, brought the Bolsheviks to power in an October 1917 coup. The stage was set for Stalin’s precipitous rise to the top. Various biographers have argued that Stalin’s pathologies were the result of childhood beatings. Not so, says Kotkin. What drove Stalin was a zealous dedication to fulfil the mission of Marxism-Leninism. Kotkin takes issue as well with those who contend that Stalinism was, somehow, a perversion of Lenin’s beliefs, that Stalin pulled off an illegitimate power grab. The allegation does not follow logically, Kotkin argues - after all, “the Communist regime had come into being as a result of a coup, and, while claiming to rule in the name of the proletariat, executed proletarians who dared to question the party’s self-­assigned monopoly. It was the party who had usurped power.”

The author is refreshingly blunt on such matters, which help bring Stalin’s ascendancy after Lenin’s death in 1924 sharply into focus. His devotion to the cause drove him as he consolidated power, installed cronies in top-tier positions, and saw off rivals like Leon Trotsky. Kotkin is unsentimental about the alleged greatness of this central figure of the Russian Revolution, who was for many, especially among his western acolytes, the forsaken messiah of Bolshevism. His defenders argue he could have been an alternative to the murderous reign of his rival Stalin, a myth Kotkin chips away at.

The know-it-all Trotsky, who was certainly more cosmopolitan and better-travelled than his Georgian rival, dubbed Stalin “the outstanding mediocrity of our party”. As their rivalry intensified, Trotsky sneered that Stalin had come into being by “the tired radicals, by the bureaucrats, the kulaks [well-to-do peasants], the upstarts, the sneaks, by all the worms that are crawling out of the upturned soil of the manured revolution”.

Yet Stalin was far shrewder than Trotsky gave him credit for. If Trotsky had set himself up as Lenin’s equal, Stalin “opted for the more strategic stance, the appearance of humility, the mere pupil, and excelled at its realisation”. Stalin, the provincial boy made good, appealed to the middling cadres of the party faithful, and his tactics worked all too well: “Compared with the preening Trotsky, Stalin could appear as the revolution’s hardworking, under-­appreciated foot soldier.”

Stalin consistently - and violently - appealed to the rhetoric of class demonisation as way to galvanise his supporters. During the civil war, Stalin’s actions in Tsaritsyn, a strategically important city on the Volga River, proved a telling indication of his future rule. Stalin came here in June 1918 to secure grain supplies for Moscow and St Petersburg. He acted with impunity, unleashing a wave of terror, arresting anyone who got in his way, denouncing any opposition to his plans as the plot of “class aliens”. “Here,” Kotkin writes, “in the tiniest embryo, was the scenario of countless fabricated trials of the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the monstrous terror of 1937-38.”

It’s a chilling observation, one that highlights a crucial question - did the revolution take a “wrong” turn under Stalin’s reign? There can be no definitive answer, of course, but Kotkin gives us a framework to work with. There was no kinder or gentler version of Bolshevism. It was an ideology that rose through violence, thrived on anathema and dehumanising its enemies. Stalin’s paranoia, Kotkin argues, was a reflection of the paranoia inbuilt in Bolshevism from the start. And the dictatorship that evolved under Stalin grew directly from the template established by Lenin. It was inherently dictatorial. “No one did more than Lenin to establish a living example of one-man rule at the top. (When other ‘collective leaders’ disagreed with Lenin, he threatened to expel them or, failing that, to quit the party and form a new one.)”

But Kotkin does not let Stalin’s personality off the hook, either. “Stalin intensified the insanity inherent in Leninism from conviction and personal characteristics, ensuring that the permanent state of war with the whole world led to a state of war with the country’s majority population, and carrying the Leninist program to its full end goal of ­anti-capitalism.”

In a fascinating coda that ends the book - “If Stalin Had Died” - Kotkin outlines alternative scenarios, suggesting that another Soviet leader could have tamped down such tendencies. “But Stalin was not that leader,” the author concludes, and it was his initiative and iron-willed determination that drove his programme onward, against all obstacles. Stalin himself was the decisive factor. As Kotkin speculates: “If Stalin had died, the likelihood of forced wholesale collectivisation - the only kind - would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high.”

But such counterfactual conjecture is useful only up to a point. Stalin did not die, and the terrifying culmination of his rule, how and why it played out, is the subject of Kotkin’s next volumes.

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