If you read just one biography of Stalin, make it this one, even though it covers only the first 50 years of the Soviet dictator’s life. I am certainly no expert on Stalin, but I learned an enormous amount not just about the subject of the book but about his famous colleagues including Lenin, Trotsky, Dzerzinski, Kamenev, Zinoviev and others, and about the way the Russian Revolution actually evolved. The book is crammed with facts and footnotes, but is nevertheless relatively easy to read. It draws from sources not only in English and Russian, but in French and German. The amount of work it must have taken is, I would estimate, the equivalent of about three Ph.D. theses.
Josef Stalin, born Josef Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia in 1878, was probably the second most hated and feared man of the 20th century, after Hitler. Unlike Hitler, though, many of Stalin’s achievements have endured to the present day. You can’t travel far in Russia or the former Soviet Union without encountering buildings constructed in elegant Stalinist style, or vast infrastructure projects developed during his regime. The Moscow Metro itself began operating in his time. Often these achievements were at enormous cost in human lives and suffering, but that did not figure in Stalin’s calculus. Nor did the fate of those people he purged, nor the plight of the countless millions he shipped off to the gulag. Siberian exile has a long history in Russia, but Stalin refined it into a system of almost unbelievable terror and cruelty.
As Kotkin notes, “Stalin’s dictatorial regime presents daunting challenges of explanation. His power of life and death…..far exceeded anything wielded by tsarist Russia’s greatest autocrats.” Yet Stalin rose from very humble circumstances, and according to Kotkin did not exhibit in youth the psychopathic character often attributed to him in later life. Kotkin credits Stalin’s rise mainly to structural forces including geopolitical forces and various aspects of the Old Regime in Russia. Lenin’s relatively early death was also a favour to Stalin, as were many other factors such as the incompetence or unappealing personalities of most of his rivals.
Still, one cannot discount the fact that Stalin was, to a large extent, the author of his own rise to power. Despite some physical disability, he outworked and out maneuvred everyone else. He had an iron will, never giving up once he had decided to do something. He studied Lenin’s written work until he became an expert on it. And, contrary to what I thought earlier, Stalin was with Lenin from the initial seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917. At one time Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Sverdlov ran the Revolution almost single-handedly from a few rooms in the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg. Stalin was one of the very few people who had access to Lenin during the 15 months or so prior to that leader’s demise, when he was incapacitated by a series of strokes. On several occasions, apparently, Lenin asked Stalin to provide him with cyanide so he could take his own life.
This book ends in 1928 when Stalin turned 50. By then the plans for forced collectivization of agriculture, one of his worst initiatives, were well underway. It is estimated that some 40 million people “suffered severe hunger or starvation and between five and seven million people would die in the horrific famine, whose existence the regime denied.” Millions more endured forced removal to distant lands, often in winter. In the catalogue of Stalin’s crimes, this policy is near the top.
If you like this book, you will be pleased to know that Professor Kotkin plans two more volumes on the remaining years of Stalin’s life.