Man of Steel II.

As with Adolf Hitler (and everyone else), the question is whether Joseph Stalin’s mature self already existed in his younger self, waiting to emerge when the time was right, or did some conjuncture of experiences turn him down a particular path?[1]  His most recent biographer, Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, seems to find for the former.[2]

Between the death of Lenin in 1924 and 1929, Stalin had mastered the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  More than Lenin or any other Bolshevik, Stalin revolutionized Russia.  The fundamental problem facing Bolshevism lay in the vast peasant population.  In a country theoretically committed to the “dictatorship of the proletariat, there existed virtually no proletariat.  For their part, the peasants were deeply committed to their own private property and traditional, inefficient methods.  They were uninterested in industrial labor or city life.  Yet they controlled the food supply (and thus the survival of city people).  Moreover, agriculture had long provided Russia’s main export and source of foreign exchange.  The solution to Bolshevism’s problem lay in “collectivizing” millions of small farms into gigantic state farms (kolkhoz), tractoring the land to free up millions of peasants to become industrial workers, cream-off a surplus of agricultural goods for sale abroad, purchase Western machinery, and build a huge industrial base.  All this had to be done at high speed in a series of bureaucratic Five Year Plans.

The human costs of this transformation stagger the mind.  Peasants resisted both collectivization and the huge food “surplus” defined by Moscow planners by burning their crops and slaughtering their animals.  Stalin’s minions—often young idealists—both fomented strife within villages and slaughtered opponents.  Millions died in famines[3] that many believe to have been deliberately engineered and others believe to have been unintended in origin, but then responded to with cruel indifference.

While this agonizing social and economic revolution drove ahead, Stalin launched a purge of the people on the “commanding heights” of the Soviet Union.  He first slaughtered his fellow “Old Bolsheviks,” who now filled government and party offices, and the men with guns (the armed forces and the security services) who might actually evict him from power.  Then this limited purge spread outward into every aspect of Soviet society.  Ethnic minorities were hammered, but so were all sorts of ethnic Russians. Perhaps 800,000 died and millions were imprisoned in the Gulag.

Deeply suspicious of opponents within the Soviet Union, Stalin also distrusted the capitalist states.  He saw the Anglo-French policy of appeasement as turning German aggression eastward against the Soviet Union.  In August 1939, the Soviets and the Nazis struck a deal to partition Poland and the Baltic countries.  This alliance might well be regarded as adroit “realpolitik.”  Remarkably though, Stalin came to believe that he could trust Hitler.  Birds of a feather?  As a result, he ignored both the effects of German victories in Western Europe in 1940 and abundant evidence that the Germans intended to attack his country in Summer 1941.  He was, apparently, psychologically shattered by the revelation of his own self-deception.

[1] “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous, And kill him in the shell.”—Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 1.

[2] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (New York: Penguin, 2018).

[3] Most famously, 3.5 million in Ukraine, but also another 1.5 million in the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan.

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