Review: Stalin by Stephen Kotkin

December 11, 2014
Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (Allen Lane, £30)

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This immense work, by the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin, is an astounding feat of historical research. It takes the reader into the finest details of the life and political manoeuvrings of the young Stalin, in his route from a small town in Georgia to the upper heights of the new Soviet autocracy.

The myth of “Red October”—the Eistenstein-style narrative in which the masses rose up, stormed the Winter Palace, removed the traitors and killed the Czar—is here given a stark corrective. The Russian Revolution is revealed as a mess, which nearly turned to failure, taking place over many months during which factions fought viciously over the most arcane details of revolutionary doctrine and individuals repeatedly changed sides—all of this against the backdrop of the catastrophe of the First World War.

Stalin proved incredibly effective in picking his way through this political morass. His absolute lack of proportion and complete disregard for human life, characteristics that would manifest themselves later during his dictatorship, were present from the start and gave him the appalling directness that allowed him to cut through circumstances with terrible efficiency. As a commissar serving under Lenin, Stalin thought nothing of assuming command of a town, requisitioning grain from the local peasantry and of locking up any dissenters on a barge, where they would simply be left to starve to death. Kotkin’s most alarming insight is that Stalin’s motivation in such acts of barbarism derived not from an ingrained psychosis, but from his Marxism—it was the logic of his political extremism that led him into such inhumanity.

This is an engrossing book, though not a well-written one. Kotkin does not have the deftness of Robert Caro, say, whose books on Lyndon Johnson, comparable in scope and ambition, don’t so much tell as show the events in question—a much more effective approach. But this is still a compelling, deeply disturbing and highly-recommended account of Stalin’s rise.