Man of Steel.

In the first volume of his new biography of Joseph Stalin[1], Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin makes clear the disastrous effects of Bolshevik victory in the Russian Revolution. “The Russian Revolution—against the tyranny, corruption, and, not least, incompetence of tsarism—sparked soaring hopes for a new world of abundance, social justice and peace.” Garry Trudeau mockingly entitled a collection of his “Doonesbury” cartoons from the Vietnam War-era But This War Had Such Promise. The same might be said of the Russian Revolution. Twenty years on the country was a vast police state; millions were dead from famine or execution, while millions more were imprisoned in the Gulag archipelago; Russian agriculture had fallen below its prewar levels to off-set the increase in industrial production; and a murderous psychopath ruled the country without any check on his actions. Fifty years on from that sad state, Communism finally collapsed under the weight of its own failings.[2]

Historians have argued that circumstances forced Stalin to into certain courses of action, rather than him having chosen them. Thus, surrounded by a hostile world, Russia had to modernize its economy and be always on watch against subversion. The forced collectivization of agriculture offered the only means to rapidly modernize Russian peasant-based farming. Modernization of farming under State control held the only means to obtain the resources for rapid industrialization. The opposition from the peasants, then the wavering among Bolsheviks over the high human costs of collectivization forced the adoption of harsh measures.

Kotkin rejects such views. He argues that Stalin fulfilled, rather than diverged from, Lenin’s intentions. “If only Lenin had lived,” the same things would have happened to Russia and the world. From the first, the Bolsheviks “unwittingly, yet relentlessly reproduced the pathologies and predations of the old regime state in new forms.” Between 1918 and 1928, tyranny, corruption, and incompetence became the hall-marks of the Soviet state. Stalin rose to power in this environment thanks to his own ruthlessness, adroit skill at maneuver, and the spectacular incompetence of his rivals like Trotsky, Bukharin, and Kamenev.[3] (Indeed, the incompetence of these men at conspiratorial politics offers a clue to how Lenin himself rose to leadership of the Bolshevik party before the Revolution.) However, the Russian Revolution had never been carried through to completion. The resistance from the peasantry and many other people had forced the strategic retreat called the “New Economic Policy” (N.E.P.). While Lenin claimed to hold the “commanding heights” of the economy (foreign trade, finance, heavy industry), agriculture and commerce remained in private hands. The path to traditional capitalist economic development remained open. With that, Bolshevism would become irrelevant.

By 1928, when the first volume of Kotkin’s gigantic work ends, Stalin had gained control of the main levers of power in the Soviet Union. He set out to complete the Revolution. Heads would roll.

[1] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (New York: Penguin, 2014). See the review by Serge Schmemann, NYT, 9 January 2015, C29.

[2] Rather than from any actions of the Reagan Administration. American triumphalism in the wake of the collapse of Communism showed the first signs of that generational change in self-concept that was to prove so disastrous under the Bush II administration.

[3] See: Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (New York: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 3-122.


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