In the vast literature on the Soviet Union, there is no study to rival Stephen Kotkin’s massive first instalment of a planned three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. When it is complete, it will surely become the standard work, and I heartily recommend it.
A professor of history at Princeton University, and known for his social-historical account of the city and industrial complex built in Magnitogorsk as part of the first Five-Year Plan, Kotkin has turned his energies to tackling the life and times of the inscrutable Soviet boss. He backs every line with a deep knowledge of the primary and secondary sources, and his approach combines biography with a social-structural analysis of Russia and of the global international system. We learn much about the tsarist regime, the European background to and impact of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the tumultuous years that followed. Kotkin digs deeply enough into the thin documentation on Stalin’s Georgian roots to dismiss earlier biographers’ oft-exaggerated emphasis on the man’s childhood tribulations and youthful adventures. On the other hand, and as we might expect in a work of this complexity, occasionally the author elides details, such as what Stalin learned after he “became familiar” with Lenin’s writing in 1901. Then again, readers must search to find the grounds for Stalin’s conversion to die-hard Leninist, particularly because the author hints at significant differences between the two revolutionaries in the pre-First World War years.
Lenin, Kotkin leaves no doubt, led the way in both the revolution and in creating the cruel and despotic regime. By spring 1922, the role as the new leader all but fell into Stalin’s lap, and he soon possessed “boundless power”. Yet his rule still faced “a kind of built-in, structural paranoia, triumphant yet enveloped by ill-wishers and enemies”, a situation that inevitably reinforced his and most other Bolsheviks’ enduring suspiciousness. We learn that Stalin was for years “marinated in Communist ideology”, so that it is surprising to read shortly after that once in power, he found “himself in a lifelong quest for personal glory”, searching for the “secrets to ruling over men and things to further Russian power in the world”. Surely, one can plausibly conclude from the text that “the Master” was a missionary in the cause of world communism, who in spite of certain over-indulgences, lived somewhat like a religious ascetic. Indeed, when he moved to the Kremlin in 1926, he took the rooms that once housed the tsar’s ladies-in-waiting.
Kotkin reveals the full range of Stalin’s unique gifts and deep convictions. Some chapters require close study, such as those on the Civil War of 1917-22, the evolution of the Soviet nationality programme, or the enduring brouhaha surrounding Lenin’s (oft-misdated, perhaps forged) “testament”. The very existence of such a document and whispers about it plagued Stalin for years, as did the political brawling of interminable meetings and conferences. Moreover, after he became more absolute than the mightiest of the tsars, utterly indispensable, and remained of necessity accessible even on holiday, he faced unremitting consultations. Therefore, along with the joy of fulfilled ambition and giddy pleasure at being the centre of attention came the torment and the burden of being responsible for everything, the inescapable paradoxes of his power. Characterising Stalin in one-dimensional terms is impossible, for he was, observes Kotkin, “closed and gregarious, vindictive and solicitous”, and if inclined to be a despot, he could be utterly charming. As ruler, he remained “an ideologue who was flexibly pragmatic”, “both astute and blinkered, diligent and self-defeating, cynical and true-believing, people oriented and vicious”. While undoubtedly brilliant, he nonetheless could not “escape a litany of nonsensical beliefs”.
This book’s extraordinary final chapter, “If Stalin had died”, cannot fail to whet readers’ appetites for the next volumes in the biography, when the leader and the Soviet peoples would face greater challenges, costly victories and monumental tragedies.
Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane, 976pp, £30.00
Published 30 October 2014