Dec. 2, 2014 by Darius
Yesterday, I attended a talk by Russia expert and Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin about the first volume of his exhaustive biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin spoke both about Stalin and his era and about contemporary Russia. Today, I’ll share his comments on Stalin; tomorrow will be dedicated to Kotkin’s remarks on contemporary Russia.
To understand Stalin, according to Kotkin, one must understand the world he was born into. From 1815 on, the world was dominated by Britain. Around 1870, though, two events shook up British domination. The first was the unification of Germany, which produced a dynamic new power in the heart of Europe. The second was the Meiji Restoration in Japan, which produced a similarly dynamic emerging power in East Asia. These two new powers flanked Russia. Even before the emergence of Germany and Japan, Russian imperial leaders felt they needed to secure Russia by a policy of defensive expansionism: because Russia has no natural borders, it was vital for Russian security to establish an enormous buffer zone. Russia expanded by an average of 50 square miles a day for 350 years.
In the context of his times, Stalin’s early life was quite ordinary. He had an ordinary childhood. He engaged in relatively ordinary revolutionary activities. He was clever, hardworking, and adept at organization and administration, but his rise to power was made possible by several important elements of luck. First of all, without the destruction of the old order made possible by World War I, Stalin, the son of two working-class Georgians, could never have gotten anywhere near the levers of power. More specifically, Stalin attached himself to Lenin early on in Lenin’s rise to power. Lenin later appointed Stalin as his deputy then had a debilitating stroke just a month later, leaving Stalin in charge. Stalin wasn’t totally thrilled to be in charge: he tried to resign at least six times and was rebuffed by other officials in the USSR every time. A month after his final resignation attempt, Stalin initiated his policy of agricultural collectivization—a policy Kotkin considered to be his greatest crime.
Stalin also wasn’t always the murderous psychopath history remembers him as, at least not to his colleagues. As Kotkin said, Stalin lived in a rough neighborhood during a rough time and ran with a rough crowd, so while Stalin was no good guy, nobody else in the picture was either. In 1923, though, when Stalin was ascendant but by no means secure in power, an order was issued, purportedly from Lenin (though possibly forged by Lenin’s wife as Lenin been disabled by a series of strokes) ordering that Stalin be dismissed. Stalin’s colleagues in the leadership of the Communist Party, who could have acted, chose not to move to remove Stalin. Clearly, in 1923, Stalin was not seen by his peers, some of whom had known him for 20 years, as a monster.
Stalin was a very hands-on leader, and he handled many day-to-day operations of the USSR. Running the dictatorship ultimately shaped his personality, though, rather than vice versa.
Stalin, due to his unique perspective as a Georgian, was one of the very few high Soviet officials who understood the multinational aspect of the Soviet Union. Stalin intentionally increased nationalist identities so they could be unified under the aegis of “international” Communism.
One of the greatest revelations that followed the opening of secret Soviet archives was that Stalin and those closest to him were true believers in Lenin-style Communism. It was quite a surprise to historians that Stalin couched things in the same ideological terms behind closed doors as in public. As a true believer in Marxism-Leninism, Stalin’s ideology made him blind in some ways, though. He didn’t understand things very well unless they were presented in a class-based Communist analysis, which was one of the major reasons he failed to react appropriately to the rise of fascism.