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Stalin, by Stephen Kotkin


NOV. 26, 2014

Two contrasting pictures emerge from the appraisals of Joseph Stalin written by
his revolutionary colleagues and competitors. On the one hand, there was, for
example, a fellow Georgian who knew Stalin in his early years as a Bolshevik
organizer and who describes his unquestionably greater energy, indefatigable
capacity for hard work, unconquerable lust for power and above all his
enormous particularistic organizational talent. On the other, there are the
unflattering judgments of his most virulent opponents in the Bolshevik
hierarchy, from Leon Trotsky, who thought Stalin the outstanding mediocrity
of our party, to Lev Kamenev, who considered the man who came to preside
over the vast expanses of the reconstituted Russian empire a small-town
For Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund professor in history and
international affairs at Princeton University, it is clearly the first assessment
that comes closer to the truth. In Stalin. Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 18781928, a masterly account that is the first of a projected three-volume study,
Kotkin paints a portrait of an autodidact, an astute thinker, a people person
with surpassing organizational abilities; a mammoth appetite for work; a
strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher,
Kotkin traces the major episodes of Stalins life up to 1928: his origins in
the imperial borderland of Georgia as Iosif (Soso) Dzhughashvili, the son of an
artisan shoemaker cursed by downward mobility, and his beautiful wife, who
was always ambitious for her only surviving child; his youth as a decorated
schoolboy, then rebellious seminarian; his days as a revolutionary organizer in
Batum, Chiatura and Baku, interspersed with years spent in internal exile in
northern Russia what Kotkin designates the fragile cycle of prison, exile,
poverty; his heady days as a member of Lenins inner circle in the aftermath of
the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power and during the subsequent
civil war that, as Trotsky later wrote, molded Stalin; his ascension, at Lenins

behest, to the position of general secretary of the party, later marred by the
disparaging and possibly apocryphal text of Lenins so-called testament a
series of dictations in which Lenin, seriously incapacitated by a number of
strokes, reputedly discredited six likely successors to his rule, with Stalin
prominently included; his establishment of a personal dictatorship over the
Bolshevik regime and the excoriation and political or physical exile of his rivals;
the first show trials and the movement toward rapid industrialization, including
the brutal forced collectivization of agriculture, that Kotkin promises will be the
story of Volume II and that he considers to be Stalins great historical
accomplishment, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one-sixth
of the earth.
Though the outlines of Stalins story are well known, Kotkin makes an
enormous effort to debunk some of the myths. Stalins later brutality was, in
Kotkins opinion, a response neither to childhood abuse at the hands of his
father nor to the repressive surveillance and arbitrary governance under which
he lived while a student at the seminary in what was then Tiflis. He was no more
(though possibly no less) of a swashbuckling Lothario or brigand than many of
his revolutionary comrades. He was not especially duplicitous toward his
colleagues, nor was he especially effective in his early organization of the
workers movements in the Caucasus.
And Kotkin offers the sweeping context so often missing from all but the
best biographies. In his introductory chapter, he makes the lofty assertion that a
life of Stalin is akin to a history of the world, and while that claim is rather
immoderate, he delivers not only a history of late imperial Russia and of the
revolution and early Soviet state, but also frequent commentary on the global
geopolitical forces in play. He deftly explores the collapse of Russias vicious,
archaic autocracy under fire in World War I. He is no less artful in explaining
the evolution from what he calls the absurdist and unintentionally Dada-esque
Bolshevik stab at rule in the immediate wake of the October Revolution to the
construction of the Communist state during the course of the civil war. As he
insists: Forcibly denying others a right to rule is not the same as ruling and
controlling resources. But the methods of control the Bolsheviks developed
were steeped in the violent practices that can be traced directly to the old
While Stalin is, of course, always a lurking presence throughout this
volume, in the first 250 pages he appears only as a bit player. This is a study in
personality very much dependent upon other personalities. Even as Stalin gains

increasing prominence in both the Bolshevik hierarchy and Kotkins narrative,

he shares the stage with Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Lenin and, above all,
The Stalin who developed in these years could not have existed without
Trotsky, and Kotkin notes that each came to define himself against the other.
They were a study in similarities and contrasts. Both hailed from the
borderlands, both were ethnic outsiders (Stalin, a Georgian, and Trotsky, a Jew
from southern Ukraine), both were disciples of Lenin. But they bitterly
disagreed over the path forward, the pace of change, the need to maintain a
condition of permanent revolution, the way to breach the gap between urban
socialism and rural private enterprise and the desirability of departing from the
tenets of Leninism. Trotsky provided Stalin with the perfect, and necessary, foil.
As Kotkin says, Trotsky, a latecomer to Bolshevism, appeared factionalist,
egotistic and preening, whereas Stalin could portray himself as the faithful
defender of Lenins legacy, the man who studied Lenins texts and knew his
works intimately, the revolutions hardworking, underappreciated foot soldier.
Crushing Trotsky and eliminating his supporters from the party leadership was
necessary for Stalins consolidation of power. It was not until Trotsky had been
packed off into exile that Stalin could be ready to undertake his truly
revolutionary and earth-shattering work of collectivization.
Stalin is a complex work, demanding a dedicated reader. Kotkin himself
almost despairs of the challenges he faced in narrating the complicated and
fractured tale of revolution, civil war and reconstruction. This volume contains
more than 700 pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes and
bibliography (all listed in triple columns). But it presents a riveting tale, one
written with pace and aplomb. Kotkin has given us a textured, gripping
examination of the foundational years of the man most responsible for the
construction of the Soviet state in all its brutal glory. Ending as it does, before
the years of collectivization, the purges, the struggles of World War II and the
establishment of the Cold War geopolitical landscape, this first volume leaves
the reader longing for the story still to come.
Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
By Stephen Kotkin
Illustrated. 949 pp. Penguin Press. $40.

Correction: December 14, 2014

A review on Nov. 30 about Stalin. Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, by
Stephen Kotkin, misspelled the surname of one of Stalins bitter opponents in the
Bolshevik hierarchy. He was Lev Kamenev, not Kamanev.
Jennifer Siegel, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, is the
author of For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars
and Commissars.
A version of this review appears in print on November 30, 2014, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review
with the headline: A People Person.

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