Red terror: Stalin combined "sociopathic tendencies and exceptional diligence and resolve". Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
Show Hide image

1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue