A young Bolshevik revolutionary's unlikely and bloody rise to power
By Gary Saul Morson
December 10, 2014
Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, by Stephen Kotkin, Penguin Press, 949 pp., $40
In 1922, Lenin deported a group of prominent intellectuals on what came to be known as the Philosophers’ Steamers. The GPU—the secret police—made notes on these exiles: “knows a foreign language,” “uses irony.”
Like food and consumer goods, irony in the Soviet Union was to remain in short supply—except the sort of unconscious irony we may detect in Stalin’s warning that his opponents’ tactics would lead to “bloodletting” or in Trotsky’s complaint that Stalin was suppressing debate by using undemocratic methods. Such moments show history as surrealism or, as Stephen Kotkin remarks in this first volume of his new biography of Stalin, theater of the absurd.
Except for Mao, and perhaps Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin stands as the greatest mass murderer in history. His war on the peasantry killed perhaps 14 million people, half of whom were deliberately starved to death. This project of “dekulakization” and “collectivization” overshadows even the Great Purge of 1936–38, which claimed some four million lives. Several small ethnic minorities suspected of disloyalty lost half their population, and tens of millions were swallowed into the massive system of forced labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.
Most victims of this repression had committed absolutely no offense. Stalin initiated the practice of arresting the family and friends of anyone accused of a crime, which could include mere “suspicion.” It was enough to be a “potential” enemy, for instance, to come from a bourgeois family, or to belong to a suspect profession, like engineering, whose practitioners were labeled “class alien bourgeois specialists.” In some regions, the secret police were given quotas of people to arrest.
How was all this carnage possible? How did a revolution made in the name of social justice, and supported by so many progressive spirits around the world, lead to such monstrous results? What made Stalin capable of such cruelty, and how did he manage to accumulate the power to practice it?
These questions have bedeviled every historian of modern Russia. To be sure, Stalin did not invent the mechanism of repression. It was Lenin who established the secret police, pioneered the deliberate use of extreme violence against opponents (especially other socialists), and acted on the conviction that mercy and “human values” (as opposed to class values) were criminal for Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, Stalin’s own decisions expanded and intensified Soviet tyranny.
Marxists have had an especially hard time explaining these unpleasant facts, not only because it is hard to justify killing millions but also because they are committed to denying the role of individuals in history. What matters is “objective” social forces. English historian E. H. Carr, for instance, held that, above all, Stalin’s career showed that “great men” do not make circumstances, but are made by them—an argument that, in light of the evidence, takes one’s breath away. Kotkin calls it “utterly, eternally wrong.”
Generally speaking, even non-Marxist historians favor explanations showing why a course of events was bound, or at least likely, to happen. Otherwise, what have historians contributed? In their view, the better the explanation, the less the role assigned to chance, contingency, and personality. Least of all do historians like to entertain counterfactuals, alternative paths that could have been taken but were not.
By contrast, Kotkin repeatedly stresses that what took place could easily have been different and was often, at the time it occurred, extremely unlikely. The possibility that the young revolutionary we know as Stalin would command unprecedented control over a sixth of the earth would have seemed, as Kotkin puts it, “beyond fantastic.” After all, Stalin could have died long before becoming general secretary of the Communist Party—of disease, of the appendicitis that almost killed him, or of assassination by one of the many revolutionaries whose wives he seduced. And at several moments, his rivals might even have driven him from power. They had at their disposal two explosive documents, “Lenin’s Testament” and a clarifying addendum to it, both of which the dying leader supposedly dictated to his wife when he could no longer write. We have only her word that these unsigned and unlogged typescripts were Lenin’s, but they were widely accepted and, crucially, called for Stalin’s removal as general secretary. Yet Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Politburo leaders, did not use this weapon. Their decision exemplifies a truth about the nature of history, which is made not only by visible, positive choices, but also by the ones we don’t readily see—likely events that failed to happen, opportunities missed. Kotkin focuses on these “turning points [that] did not turn,” arguing persuasively that the probability of some leader other than Stalin waging war on 100 million peasants was near zero.
As Kotkin relates, the self-reinforcing crises of Bolshevism led to more and more “emergency-ism.” The regime would requisition grain and seize the property of the most productive peasants (kulaks) at gunpoint, and then, when productivity fell, allege sabotage, thereby justifying still more extreme methods. The same dynamic took place in industry, as the arrest of “wreckers” led to a decline in productivity, which in turn motivated more arrests. One might have thought that once Bolshevism had decisively defeated its opponents, there would be no need for extreme methods, but Stalin concluded the exact opposite and proclaimed the “sharpening of the class struggle.” Everywhere, writes Kotkin, an “inbuilt structural paranoia” led the regime to multiply real and imagined enemies in a self-reinforcing cycle.
What role did Stalin’s personality play in shaping these events? Kotkin retells the popular anecdote about a group of Bolshevik leaders discussing their idea of the best thing in the world. For Kamenev, it is books; Rykov, cognac; Radek, women. And Stalin? Revenge against one’s enemies. Some scholars have traced his personality to supposed slights and harshness in childhood, but there is no convincing evidence that what he suffered was any worse than, let us say, what many soft-minded Mensheviks endured. Psychoanalytic interpretations go far beyond the evidence. Kotkin suggests a different approach. Not only did Stalin make politics, but the process of revolutionary politics made Stalin: “Stalin’s marked personal traits, which colored his momentous political decisions, emerged as a result of politics.” His sense of victimhood and persecution developed from, and then perfectly fit, the extremist and paranoid world view of Bolshevism. Of course, if this argument is correct, and Stalin embodied Bolshevism itself, then his triumph was not quite as fantastic as Kotkin contends.
Numerous apologists have tried to justify forced collectivization and the project of founding a regime on sheer terror as necessary to achieve economic success, but Kotkin will have none of this. For one thing, these policies led not to success but to catastrophe, and for another, they directly reflect the leaders’ ideological hostility to the accumulation of wealth. Even Mussolini did not make a deliberate attempt to destroy his country’s most productive citizens. “But the construction of political order on the basis of class, rather than common humanity and individual liberty,” Kotkin concludes, “was (and always will be) ruinous.”
Magnificent and magisterial, Kotkin’s study sheds unexpected light on all sorts of thorny problems, both before and after the October Revolution. It is perhaps too detailed for readers who know nothing about Russian history, but for anyone aware of the basics, the narrative is not only profound but thrilling.
Gary Saul Morson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and teaches Russian and world literature at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel and, more recently, Prosaics and Other Provocations: Empathy, Open Time, and the Novel.