Red terror: Stalin combined "sociopathic tendencies and exceptional diligence and resolve". Getty Images
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Ordinary boy to arch-dictator: Stalin and the power of absolute conviction

Stalin emerges from Stephen Kotkin’s book as that most frightening of figures – a man of absolute conviction.

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power (1878-1928) 
Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane, 976pp, £30

Stephen Kotkin half accepts the Great Man view of history. The revolution of February 1917, which swept away the centuries-old Russian imperial autocracy, was, he concedes, the product of “immense structural forces”. So far, so Marxist. But the October revolution that followed it, the seizure of power by the Bolshevik faction, could have been stopped, Kotkin declares, with two bullets – one for Lenin, one for Trotsky.

Individuals matter: some world-changing events are brought about by them. It is, accordingly, approximately half correct to call this hugely ambitious and compelling steamroller of a book a biography. It is a history of the Russian Revolution in which its ostensible subject – Ioseb “Soso” Jughashvili, who later renamed himself Stalin (“man of steel”) – goes unmentioned for whole chapters. But it is also, even when the man himself is not present, an account of his life, because that life, as Kotkin sees it, was bound up in the tremendous events of which it was part. To use the antithetical idiom that Kotkin favours, history made Stalin, but Stalin also made history, “rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one-sixth of the earth”.

Kotkin’s subject is immense, and his book is commensurate with it. At more than 900 pages, this is only the first of a projected three volumes. Kotkin uses the word “diligence” several times of Stalin’s unremitting commitment to work and it is a quality that he, too, has in spades. He tells us how many horses there were in the Soviet Union in 1928. He explains the complex absurdities of imperial Russia, where “leading nobles could own minor nobles as well as priests, while priests could own minor nobles”. He tells us who said what to whom at plenum after plenum, conference after conference. He also explains exhaustively what these speeches signified, seldom the same thing as their apparent meaning. But these minutiae, wearisome though they sometimes become, are never padding. They are there to give substance and cogency to Kotkin’s arguments. This is a big book not only because the author’s exhaustive researches (the notes and bibliography of this volume alone run to 180 pages) have allowed him to produce a meticulous record of mightily complicated events, but also because he is always ready with explanations and comparisons.

He doesn’t think much of biography as a genre. Freudianism, he writes brusquely, has led to biographers paying far too much attention to traumatic childhoods. Stalin’s was full of misfortune. His father tried to strangle his mother, while denouncing her as a “whore” (“a common enough epithet”, says Kotkin briskly). Little Soso contracted smallpox. He was twice run down by a horse-drawn phaeton, accidents that left him with a limp and a withered left arm. He was set to work as a child: “The future leader of the world proletariat had an early brush with factory life, which was nasty.” His father beat him. Kotkin can scarcely be bothered with all this. “Do we really need to locate the wellsprings of Stalin’s politics or even his troubled soul in beatings he allegedly received as a child?” Here is Kotkin on Jughashvili’s early womanising, a subject on which smaller-minded authors have loved to dwell: “The young Stalin had a penis, and used it.” So that’s that, then. On, please, to more important matters.

From 1901 to 1917 Stalin was essentially out of action. A revolutionary agitator serving one penal sentence after another, he was a lawbreaker, but Kotkin is dismissive of the image – at once glamourising and reductive – of Stalin as “some kind of Mafia don of the Caucasus”. Before 1917 he was not yet anybody special and his tribulations in Siberia or under cover are unremarkable: “He spent most of his time, like other prisoners and exiles, bored out of his mind.”

It is a historical commonplace that the First World War precipitated the demise of three empires – the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. It is one of Kotkin’s theses that whatever may have happened to the first two, the imperium of Russia survived, and reopened under new management. He calls one chapter “Tsarism’s Most Dangerous Enemy”; the answer to the implied riddle is tsarism itself.

Kotkin examines Russia’s autocracy in depth. To understand a revolution, he believes, you must understand that which it turns upside down. In tsarist Russia “politics was essentially illegal”. The only way of expressing dissent was by “tossing a ‘pomegranate’ [a bomb] at an official’s carriage and watching the body parts fly”. Violent protest provoked violent repression. Fear generated fear. In January 1917 the French ambassador to St Petersburg wrote: “I am obliged to report that at the present moment the Russian empire is run by lunatics.” It was the tsarist “lunatics” who handed Russia first to Kerensky’s provisional government and then to the Bolsheviks. As Kotkin notes: “Revolution results not from determined crowds in the street . . . but from the elite abandonment of the existing order.”

On 24 February 1917 Tsar Nicholas II settled down to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars, writing to his wife how relieved he was to have “no ministers and no fidgety questions to think over”. Two weeks later he abdicated. The Romanovs were swept into the “dustbin of history” but autocracy lived on. When the Bolsheviks began to eliminate their rivals they did so with a ruthlessness they had learned from the preceding regime. When Lenin died seven years later the hysterical crowds queuing in the freezing cold to lament over his embalmed body were expressing emotions conditioned by centuries in which Russians worshipped their “tsar-father”.

Stalin had been one of Lenin’s closest aides from the beginning, one of the gang of four (with Trotsky and Sverdlov) who in the autumn of 1917 set themselves to rule a realm spanning 11 time zones. Each of them had a criminal record; none of them had any administrative experience. Their headquarters was in a girls’ school; the headmistress still occupied the room next door. The chancellery was a single typist. The communications network was a cubbyhole for a telephone operator. That from such lowly beginnings they would create the “world’s strongest dictatorship is beyond fantastic”, Kotkin writes. And yet somehow (the war helped) they made it work. Lenin died a tsar-father. Who would be his heir?

“Accident in history is rife; unintended consequences and perverse outcomes are the rule,” the author says. What a world-changer needs is not a five-year plan, nor any plan at all, but “an aptitude for seizing opportunities”. Explicitly disinherited by Lenin’s “testament” (a memo the stricken leader may, or may not, have dictated to his wife), Stalin yet managed “brutally, artfully, indefatigably”, to build “a personal dictatorship”. Kotkin’s account of that building is detailed, terrifying and utterly gripping.

What Stalin had was a blend of “zealous Marxist convictions and great-power sensibilities” as well as “sociopathic tendencies and exceptional diligence and resolve”. The Marxist zeal is the most potent ingredient in that mix, and the most often overlooked. Liberal, secular scholars find faith baffling, and too often dismiss it as a blind for something else. But Stalin was a true believer. He was an obsessive student. A man who shared his exile in 1908 said that if you pricked his head “the whole of Karl Marx’s Capital would come hissing out of it like gas from a container”. Later he made himself a master of Leninism. He emerges from Kotkin’s book as that most frightening of figures – a man of absolute conviction.

This story has been told over and over again, by eyewitnesses and participants, and subsequently by a legion of historians, variously partisan and punctiliously scholarly. Kotkin can be generous – “beautifully rendered”, he says of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s version of Stalin’s 1907 bank robbery (known to Stalinists as an “appropriation”). But he can also be combative. Even the once-revered historian E H Carr, was, in his opinion, “utterly, eternally wrong”.

Kotkin is a writer of huge self-confidence. His style swings from the Augustan to the racy. He loves a balanced sentence: “Instead of principles, there were objectives; instead of morality, means.” He can write like Joseph Addison; but he can also write like a prizefighter (no insult intended). He makes tendentious assertions without pausing to defend them. Recalling perceived slights, he writes, is “common among narcissists (another word for many a professional revolutionary)”. He alludes to Russia’s “ad hoc empire”, adding “there is no other kind”. He makes the point that “one-third of the religiously Eastern Orthodox were schismatics”: no wonder that “sectarianism among revolutionaries was as common as cuckolding”. Leaving the provocative bit about cuckolding aside, this is a revelatory, gosh-yes remark, but Kotkin doesn’t even grant it a full sentence.

His viewpoint is godlike: all the world falls within his purview. He makes comparisons across decades and continents. He sees that Stalin’s “pharaonic” five-year plans were no more colossally hubristic than the construction of the Panama Canal. When Russia is defeated by the Japanese in 1905 Kotkin is ready with a parallel to Italy’s defeat by Ethiopia in 1896, another shocking “victory of a non-white people over a white people”. He writes about Peter the Great and Chiang Kai-shek and Henry Ford; about steel manufacture, about the sociological consequences of China’s 19th-century switch from subsistence farming to cotton production. There are passages when it seems that even in this enormous book he hasn’t quite got space to say all that is racing through his mind. Sweeping generalisations and startling aperçus are tossed off like sparks from speeding wheels. The reader has to hang on tight, and is rewarded with an exhilarating ride.

This volume leaves Stalin at the end of 1928. That year brought the trial of “wreckers” at the Shakhty coal mines in the northern Caucasus. Fifty engineers, including half a dozen Germans, were accused of sabotage. Litvinoff begged Stalin to desist – the Soviet Union desperately needed a German loan. Stalin went ahead. Nearly 100 journalists, and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens, saw the accused, in cages, retract confessions extorted under torture, only to retract their retractions after a 40-minute “break”.

The opposition was silenced. Trotsky was hustled out of his apartment and into exile without time to change his clothes, visibly wearing pyjamas beneath his fur coat. Meanwhile, in the countryside, Stalin’s armed squads were hunting through dirt-poor villages for non-existent “hidden grain”. The collectivisation of Soviet farming, which would lead to the deaths by starvation of millions, was about to begin.

On meeting Lenin for the first time in 1905, Stalin wrote that he had expected to see “the mountain eagle of our party”. Instead, he saw “the most ordinary individual”. Something similar was said of him. A police report of 1904 notes that the 26-year-old Jughashvili “gives the appearance of an ordinary person”. Just over 20 years later, this “ordinary person” had the power of life or death over 200 million people. How he gained that power, and how he used it, is a titanic subject. Kotkin’s book has the energy to grapple with it. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate) won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize and the Costa Biography of the Year Award

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.