Is there any point to another Stalin biography? Before the opening of the old Soviet archives, three decades ago, the best historians mastered the limited available sources and proceeded to fill in the gaps through inspired guesswork. In addition to genuine insight, this guesswork sometimes involved cross-Atlantic psychoanalysis, including speculations on how Stalin was swaddled as an infant, and could reach the point of imagining his thoughts and putting them in quotation marks.
But the archives—while curbing these excesses, settling old arguments over the precise number of people shot by Stalin’s secret police during the Terror (an astonishing six hundred and eighty-one thousand six hundred and ninety-two), and showing definitively that it was Stalin who signed the execution orders—have not radically altered anyone’s over-all conception of what sort of person Stalin was, or what sort of regime he presided over. The Bolsheviks, we’ve learned, sounded behind closed doors exactly the way they sounded in public. They were what we thought they were.
In the post-Soviet era, the most interesting work on the Stalinist period has been social history, far beyond the Kremlin walls—the study of what one of its leading practitioners, Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her book “Everyday Stalinism,” called “ordinary life in extraordinary times.” With a slight lowering of the ideological temperature, there has been far more willingness to see in the Soviet experiment not just horror and death but good intentions, contradictions, and commonalities with Western modernity. The appearance or reappearance on the map of the post-Soviet republics—in part, as scholars have pointed out, because of the “indigenization” policy instituted by Lenin and Stalin—has also prompted a lot of productive work on the experiences of the Soviet periphery.
One of the most influential of the post-Soviet books was the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin’s “Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization” (1995), a study of the steel city of Magnitogorsk, the U.S.S.R.’s answer to Pittsburgh, as it was constructed in the shadow of the Ural Mountains in the early nineteen-thirties. The book was a sharp-elbowed intervention in the decades-old debate between “totalitarian” historians, who saw in the Soviet Union an omnipotent state imposing its will on a defenseless populace, and “revisionist” historians, who saw a more dynamic and fluid society, with some portion of the population actually supporting the regime. Kotkin’s synthesis was influenced by the philosopher Michel Foucault, who spent several semesters at Berkeley, where Kotkin was a graduate student. Foucault had argued that power did not reside exclusively or even primarily with the state but was disseminated like a web over a society’s institutions. This insight, applied to the Stalinist era, was transformative. Yes, the regime tried to impose its will and its ideas on the population, as the totalitarians had claimed; but also, as the revisionists had counter-claimed, the population was an active participant in and interpreter of this project. With its attention to everyday life, “Magnetic Mountain” was revisionist in form; with its emphasis on ideology (Kotkin’s other influence was Martin Malia, the intellectual historian and ardent cold warrior), it was totalitarian in content. The key theoretical concept was “speaking Bolshevik,” by which Kotkin meant not only the rote language people used to navigate the bureaucracy but also the more evocative language—of “shock work,” “capitalist encirclement,” and, above all, “building socialism”—that people increasingly used to understand themselves and their lives.
Two decades later, Kotkin has seemingly reversed field and produced . . . a Stalin biography. Entering a crowded marketplace, the book makes its mark through its theoretical sophistication, relentless argumentation, and sheer Stakhanovite immensity: two volumes and two thousand closely printed pages in, we’re only up to 1941. (A projected third volume should take us through the war and to Stalin’s death, in 1953.) Kotkin also attempts to answer the chief philosophical question about Stalin: whether the monstrous regime he created was a function of his personality or of something inherent in Bolshevism.
Stalin was born Joseph Dzhugashvili in 1878 in Gori, Georgia, on the periphery of the Russian Empire. His father was a hard-drinking cobbler whose relationship with Joseph’s mother, Keke Geladze, came to an end when the boy was around six years old. This was a financial blow to the family, but Keke learned how to make dresses and managed to keep Joseph, her only child, in the classroom. He studied first at the local theological school, then at the illustrious theological seminary in Tiflis (now Tbilisi).
Historians have long wondered whether the eventual mass murderer could be discerned in the Tiflis seminarian. The answer appears to be no. Joseph’s childhood was pretty ordinary for that time and place. His father beat him, but that was standard; he was poor, but relatives and neighbors helped out; he was an outstanding student, and a leader at his school, but he did not stage show trials of any of his classmates. (On swaddling, the jury is still out.)
Young Joseph grew restless at the seminary and was expelled after a series of minor infractions, including the discovery in his possession of a large cache of anti-monarchical literature. He had decided to become a revolutionary, not a priest, but he remained, for the rest of his life, a voracious and attentive reader. He rose through the ranks of the Georgian revolutionary movement, impressing Lenin, then in European exile, with his strident articles and his intrigues against rival socialist factions. As a rebellious youth at the seminary, he had adopted a nickname, Koba, after an outlaw character from a popular nineteenth-century Georgian novel, and he was an effective sometime organizer of the “expropriations”—often of bank wagons transporting cash—with which the revolutionary movement tried to finance itself. The British journalist and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his vivid “Young Stalin,” depicted him as a “gangster godfather” and “prolific lover.”
Kotkin has no patience for this sort of thing. “Stalin had a penis, and he used it” is about the extent of his commentary on Stalin’s romantic exploits, and neither does he have any interest in Stalin as a gangster godfather. Stalin’s primary contribution to the movement, Kotkin maintains, was through his organizing work and his pen—it was to sign an article he wrote on socialism and nationalism that he came up with “Stalin,” after the Russian word for “steel.” Young Stalin developed a clear, catechistic style, and was adept at boiling down complex ideas into simple binaries and folksy fables. That he was a little rougher around the edges than some of the bespectacled Jewish intellectuals who filled the ranks of the early Russian socialist movement was more a testament to the fact that they were bespectacled Jewish intellectuals than that Stalin was particularly thuggish. Perhaps the most telling detail found in the archives about the young Stalin comes from a tsarist secret-police characterization that has him behaving “in a highly cautious manner, always looking over his shoulder as he walks.” He was careful, well organized, and totally committed. His various activities landed him in prison several times and finally earned him, in 1913, a sentence to Siberian exile, where he remained until the fall of the tsarist autocracy, in February, 1917.
The sudden collapse of the monarchy that had ruled Russia for three hundred years led to chaos. Russia immediately became, as one participant put it, “the freest country in the world.” The political prisoners were free; the Pale of Settlement was obliterated; and the independence-minded peoples on the Russian periphery—including the Poles, the Balts, the Georgians, and the Ukrainians—were no longer captive. As the great literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, then serving in the Russian Army in Persia, put it, “The show ‘Russia’ was over; everyone was hurrying to get his hat and coat.” Unfortunately, nobody had called off the First World War, and Russia was still fighting the Central Powers. The post-February governments—shifting coalitions of liberal gentry and socialist reformers—decided, fatefully, to stay the course.
Confusion reigned among the many revolutionaries returning to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), including Stalin. With the help of a mild-mannered Bolshevik named Lev Kamenev, Stalin quickly wrested control of the Party mouthpiece, Pravda, from the younger, less experienced Vyacheslav Molotov, and proceeded to advance a moderate agenda: to remain in the war and even to seek rapprochement with the other socialist parties. Lenin, then in Switzerland, began bombarding Stalin with instructions to take a tougher line: no war and no socialist coalition. Stalin, thinking Lenin out of touch, ignored him. It wasn’t until April that Lenin, having negotiated with the Germans to provide him safe passage back to Russia (the Germans realized that he might have a destabilizing effect on their enemy), arrived at the Finland Station, in St. Petersburg, and announced his radical opposition to the current government and to the war. Six months later, in October, Bolshevik workers, soldiers, and sailors seized the central telegraph and the bridges, arrested the government, and declared Soviet power. For the next four years, they waged a civil war against all their enemies, including the newly independent states to the south and west.
Kotkin’s first volume, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” published three years ago, situated the Soviet experiment amid the broad sweep of European history. The revolution was a Russian phenomenon, yes; but it was also a response to the forms of mass politics and total war that shook Europe in the first two decades of the twentieth century. By reducing the Russian Empire to near-starvation, the First World War created the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to seize power. But Kotkin makes clear that the war’s slaughter fields also confirmed the Bolshevik view that the capitalist-imperialist system was plunging the world into suicide—and lowered the price, in everyone’s eyes, of human life.
The other notable aspect of the international situation was what came to be called “capitalist encirclement.” After the Bolsheviks took power and pulled out of the war, Russia’s former allies joined the civil war on the side of the anti-Bolshevik Whites. British forces landed in the north; British and French forces landed in the south; a Czech battalion, trying to return home via the Trans-Siberian Railway, ended up conquering a swath of western Siberia. None of these forces fought very hard, and by 1920 they were mostly gone. But their intervention convinced the Bolsheviks that the capitalist powers would not rest until Communism was dead. After the civil war, Stalin watched with trepidation as European governments were overthrown by small groups of determined plotters. In Italy, in 1922, Mussolini was made Prime Minister after merely threatening to march on Rome. In Poland, a few years later, Józef Piłsudski took Warsaw. Romania, Hungary, the Baltic states—all fell under the sway of right-wing dictatorships, and all were deeply hostile to Soviet power.
A key argument in “Paradoxes of Power” revolved around Stalin’s relationship to Lenin. Stalin played an important but secondary role in the October Revolution; the starring roles were unquestionably Lenin’s and Trotsky’s. Lenin was a brilliant, once-in-a-generation strategist, tacking right when others tacked left, attacking when they retreated, always keeping his end goal in view. Trotsky was a magnificent orator, one of the best propagandistic writers of the twentieth century, and completely fearless. He led the Petrograd Soviet—the representative body for the workers and soldiers of the empire’s capital—in the crucial months before the revolution, and then built from scratch the Red Army that won the civil war. Kotkin argues that a leftist revolution of one kind or another was likely to take place in Russia in 1917, but there did not have to be two of them, and the second did not have to be of the radical Communist variety. “The Bolshevik putsch could have been prevented by a pair of bullets,” Kotkin writes: one each for Lenin and Trotsky. None for Stalin. And this is Stalin’s biographer!
Still, when it came time to build a mass party that could administer a powerful state, Lenin found himself depending more and more on Stalin. It turned out that Stalin had a genius for management—for setting up clear lines of authority and for inspiring and organizing people. Anyone who’s ever spent any time around leftist revolutionaries, or just members of a fractious community garden, will recognize how valuable such skills might be. In 1922, Lenin created a new post expressly for Stalin: General Secretary of the Communist Party.
But doubts about their relationship would haunt Stalin throughout his rule. His critics, led by Trotsky, never tired of reminding him of his secondary role in the Bolshevik Revolution. They also never let him forget a document that Lenin drafted in late 1922 and early 1923, shortly before he became incapacitated by his third stroke, in which he urged that Stalin be removed from his post. “Comrade Stalin,” Lenin wrote, or dictated, “having become General-Secretary, has concentrated boundless power in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” In an addendum to the letter, apparently after an incident in which Stalin chewed out Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin was more categorical: “Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General-Secretary.” Lenin hoped his letter would be read aloud at the next Party Congress. Instead, it was read in small group sessions, where it could be more easily controlled, and not published in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.
Here again the opinionated Kotkin enters the arena. The testament is a key document not only because of its dramatic nature—Lenin, on his deathbed, rejecting Stalin—but because it seems to address one of the central questions about the revolution: Did it lead inexorably to Stalin? If the answer is yes, that tells you all you need to know about this revolution. If the answer is no—if there were other, more humane and democratic paths for the revolution to take—then the whole question requires more thought.
Kotkin’s answer is twofold. The first is to allege that the testament was a forgery cooked up by Krupskaya. Kotkin believes that Lenin was too incapacitated to have composed the document in any legitimate way. Krupskaya must have interpreted it, as one would a Ouija board. This was the one claim in the first volume that really rankled other historians. Some of them pointed out that the recent Russian originator of the testament-forgery thesis, on whose work Kotkin relied, was an unapologetic Stalinist. For a historian who prizes evidence as much as Kotkin does, it seemed an unnecessarily extravagant claim. The pugnacious Kotkin has not backed down, however; in Volume II, the testament appears again as “Lenin’s supposed testament.”
But Kotkin has a second and more convincing answer to the question of the succession: Stalin was, quite simply, the man most qualified for the job. Trotsky claimed that Stalin was adept at manipulating the bureaucracy, and meant this as an insult. In fact, these were the skills necessary to govern a modern state, and they explain why Stalin had already won so much power while Lenin still lived. Trotsky did not have the talent for the dull work of administration. Even in exile, he was constantly undermining his allies and arguing with his friends. In Kotkin’s unsentimental appraisal, Trotsky was “just not the leader people thought he was, or that Stalin turned out to be.”
So much for Trotsky. But might things still have turned out differently? The second half of Kotkin’s first volume describes the struggle for succession after Lenin’s death, in 1924. It was deeply intimate: the men Stalin would eventually murder had known him for years, going back to the revolutionary underground. Inside the politburo, at the very top of the Communist hierarchy, the old revolutionaries had arguments that were both heated and personal. At one meeting, Trotsky stood up and accused Stalin of being the “grave digger of the revolution.” Stalin grew red in the face and left, slamming the door. At another meeting, it was Trotsky’s turn to storm out and slam the door, though in this case, Kotkin writes, the door was “a massive metal structure not given to demonstrative slamming. He could only manage to bring it to a close slowly, unwittingly demonstrating his impotence.”
A distinguished previous biographer, Robert C. Tucker, once confessed to fantasizing that one of Stalin’s comrades would assassinate the Great Leader: “Sometimes in the quiet of my study I have found myself bursting out to their ghosts: ‘For God’s sake, stab him with a knife, or pick up a heavy object and bash his brains out, the lives you save may include your own!’ ” In the nineteen-twenties, assassination wouldn’t have been necessary; a concerted effort by Stalin’s opponents, especially with Lenin’s testament in their pockets, could easily have unseated him. They were too timid to do it, but also, Kotkin concludes, they just didn’t realize what Stalin would become. They had had some intimations: they knew he could be rude, and they even knew he could be psychologically cruel. During his Siberian exile, he had briefly lived with Yakov (Yashka) Sverdlov, a fellow-Bolshevik and later the titular head of the Soviet government, but the two broke up house because Stalin refused to do the dishes and also because he had acquired a dog and started calling him Yashka. “Of course for Sverdlov that wasn’t pleasant,” Stalin later admitted. “He was Yashka and the dog was Yashka.” More significant was Stalin’s activity during the civil war. When he went to the city of Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad), on the Southern Front, to try to turn the tide for the Bolsheviks, he immediately caused a mess by fighting with the tsarist-era officers who were saving the Red Army from defeat, and then pursuing (and executing) supposed enemies of the people.
And yet Stalin’s fellow-Bolsheviks couldn’t see whom they were dealing with. During the period of collective leadership that followed Lenin’s death, one group allied with Stalin to oust Trotsky; the next allied with Stalin to oust the first group. And so on. There could indeed have been another path for the Bolshevik Revolution: the very naïveté, idealism, and lack of guile demonstrated by so many of the Old Bolsheviks remains a testament to their decency. Kotkin proposes a series of interlocking arguments to explain the Stalinist outcome: the conspiratorial rigidity of Bolshevism; the state’s total domination of life in the absence of private property; the peculiar personality of Stalin; and the pressures of geopolitics. An attempt by very determined people to carry out radical change in a huge country was never going to be without bloodshed. And the worldwide financial crisis and the instability in Europe were going to make for a difficult decade, no matter what. But nothing foreordained the extent of the violence.