Kotkin on Stalin

Stephen Kotkin appeared at the London School of Economics to discuss the first volume of his trilogy on Stalin. Josh Black reviews the event.

Stephen Kotkin at LSE Ideas. Photo by the author

Stephen Kotkin at LSE Ideas. Photo by the author 

Princeton academic Stephen Kotkin is most famous for his deep dive into the Stalin-era industrial town Magnitorsk. Yet for his latest project, the historian has taken on Uncle Joe himself. The three-volume biography, of which the first volume has just been released a mere 11 years after Kotkin first signed a contract to produce the work, is being called the fullest look at the dictator we’re ever likely to see.

Yet writing history through the lens of biography presents challenges of its own. As a project, Kotkin says, history seems “infinitely larger from the dictator’s office, than from street level.” Not only do the relevant files remain protected by a much higher level of secrecy than those of a Siberian outpost (higher even than ten years ago, in some cases), but Stalin’s true character has been cloaked in more levels of interpretation than perhaps all but a handful of twenty-first century characters.

Kotkin’s approach has been to take the story back to first principles. He rejects deterministic and “mechanistic sociological” arguments that have their roots in memoirs written long after Stalin had ruthlessly consolidated his grip on power. If Josef Dzhugashvili became a sociopath due to childhood experiences – experiences many of his contemporaries shared – why, Kotkin asks, was there so little recognition of this at the time? The crux of his argument lies in the period between Lenin’s stroke and death. Stalin may have held the top job, but his hold on power was precarious with many rivals, as a 1923 effort to remove him by Lenin’s wife (using a supposed letter from the ailing leader of the revolution) showed. Yet when Stalin offered to resign, fellow Bolsheviks were reluctant to call his bluff?

Was it naïveté that stayed the hands of Zinoviev and Kamenev? Absolutely not, says Kotkin. These dedicated revolutionaries knew everything there was to know about power, and engaged in acts of repression during the Civil War that would have made Stalin blush. Zinoviev in particular, “was not so much of a nincompoop,” Kotkin declames. The only explanation that stands up was that Stalin developed his sociopathic tendencies later, as his regime developed.

Indeed, the three arguments that Kotkin makes in his short presentation on the book are heavily weighted towards external explanations for Stalin’s dictatorship. First, the importance of geopolitical factors, way preceding Stalin’s own birth even, on the course of modernisation chosen by Russia’s leaders. Second, the requisites of power – the actions required to actually control the machinery of state. And third, the ideas the Bolsheviks carried into the revolution, and which continued to shape their behaviour in private, as in public.

This is not to say that Stalin is merely an agent for the forces of history to pass through. Stalin had unique talents, and a determination that showed itself at key points, thinks Kotkin; the book reportedly suggests that Stalin was one of relatively few individuals to shape history. “Very few had the capacity to build a dictatorship on such a scale, but Stalin was indispensable for collectivisation,” he says. Indeed, the decision to pursue collectivisation just as the economy was recovering showed a lack of tactical flexibility that shocked Stalin’s contemporaries, and as Sheila Fitzpatrick has written in her review of Kotkin’s first volume, “makes the argument that he was in it just for personal power untenable.”

Many questions remain about Stalin’s role in history, and the next volume, covering the Terror and Molotov-Ribbentrop pact will invite the most critical inspections by Kotkin’s peers. The second volume, currently in the hands of Kotkin’s editors, will likely be full of crucial turning points. But for those wishing to relive the revolution on an almost day-by-day basis with a historian more than willing to argue his corner, this 949-page tome looks to be an obvious stocking-filler.


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