My Weekly Reader 30 October 2020.

            The Twentieth Century might well be called “The Century of Monsters.”  Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong wielded absolute power over great states.[1]  They used that power to murderous ends from a combination of ideological fervor and personal pathology.  Hitler and now Stalin have been the subjects of an abundant biographies, each one seeking to understand what they did and why they did it. 

            Ronald Suny, an experienced and admired historian of the Soviet Union has added a first installment on his own biography of Stalin.[2]  It covers the years from Stalin’s 1878 birth in a remote backwater of the Tsarist Empire to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.  The isolated, inhuman, psychopathic dictator is hard to recognize in his greener days.  Yes, he had a drunken, violent father.  He also had a loving mother.  Yes, he grew up in poverty and a society where the central government disdained his peripheral culture.  So did many Europeans. 

            In another time and place, perhaps he would have been something different.[3]  But he was born into a Russian Empire facing grave difficulties under bad leadership.  The Tsar-Liberator Alexander II had ended serfdom on terms disadvantageous to the freed people; he had sought to reform the law courts; he had begun the process of teaching Russians how to govern themselves at the lowest levels.  For all of these reforms he had been much hated and finally murdered.  His successors had embarked on a rapid industrialization that filled cities with unhappy toilers and a growing middle class.  However, the rulers had clamped down on reforms while mercilessly hunting dissenters and fostering anti-Semitism.  Defeat by Japan in 1905 wrenched political concessions from Tsar Nicholas II.  He soon repented this weakness.  

            Stalin came of age politically in this seething cauldron of unrest.  He encountered Marxism during a brief passage through a seminary run on much the same lines as the Russian state.  He encountered Lenin in books well before he met the man who led the extreme faction of Russia’s fragmented Marxist movement.  For Lenin, Stalin organized strikes (which often turned violent), robbed banks, and did time in Siberian prison camps.  For himself, Stalin schemed against other Bolsheviks closer to the center of power.[4]  It became a life-long trait. 

            The First World War created a final crisis for the Tsarist regime.  Calling up millions of peasants for military service (along with their draft animals) created a terrible food crisis in 1915 and 1916.  Incompetent management of both the war and the economic mobilization to support it cost the government the last shreds of credibility with the mass of Russians. 

            Stalin played only a mid-rank role in the Revolution that followed.  Food riots broke out in the capital city, Saint Petersburg, in February 1917.  These triggered a revolt against the whole regime that flashed across the empire.  The first victors were the established political parties: conventional bourgeois liberal parties and the moderate wing of the Social Democratic party.  The Bolsheviks found their real base of power for the subsequent October Revolution in the industrial workers.  Only then would Lenin—and Stalin—be on the road to dictatorship. 


[1] Vladimir Lenin and Benito Mussolini sought absolute power, but resistance from powerful forces in their own countries clapped a stopper on their tricks before they could reach the heights of their successors. 

[2] Ronald G. Suny, Stalin: Passage to Revolution (2020).  Reviewed by Joshua Rubinstein, WSJ, 29 October 2020. 

[3] Although it is hard to say what else he might have been.  A book reviewer?  “Eugen Onegin.  BAM!  BAM!”

[4] There has long been a suspicion that he worked as a police agent to thin out the competition. 

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.