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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).