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31 October 2014updated 12 Nov 2014 11:20am

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.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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.

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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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