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Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 Hardcover – Nov 6 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 976 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (Nov. 6 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203792
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203794
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 4.8 x 24.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 Kg
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #96,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The New York Times Book Review
“Masterly…. Kotkin offers the sweeping context so often missing from all but the best biographies.  In his introductory chapter he makes the lofty assertion that a history if Stalin Is akin to “a history of the world”… and he delivers not only a history of the late imperial Russia and of the revolution and early Soviet state, but also frequent commentary on the global geopolitics at play. [Stalin] presents a riveting tale, written with pace and aplomb.  Kotkin has given us a textured, gripping examination of the foundational years of the man most responsible for the construction of the Soviet state in all its brutal glory.  The first volume leaves the reader longing for the story still to come.” 

The Wall Street Journal
“Superb… Mr. Kotkin’s volume joins an impressive shelf of books on Stalin. Only Mr. Kotkin’s book approaches the highest standard of scholarly rigor and general-interest readability.” 

Richard Pipes, The New York Review of Books:
“This is a very serious biography that… is likely to well stand the test of time.” 

New Statesman (UK)
“[Kotkin’s] viewpoint is godlike: all the world falls within his purview. He makes comparisons across decades and continents.... An exhilarating ride.”

Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic:

“An exceptionally ambitious biography… Kotkin builds the case for quite a different interpretation of Stalin—and for quite a few other things, too. The book’s signature achievement… is its vast scope: Kotkin has set out to write not only the definitive life of Stalin but also the definitive history of the collapse of the Russian empire and the creation of the new Soviet empire in its place.”

The American Scholar:
“Magnificent and magisterial, Kotkin’s study sheds unexpected light on all sorts of thorny problems…. [T]he narrative is not only profound but thrilling.” 

Robert Gellately, Times Higher Education (London)
“A brilliant portrait of a man of contradictions... In the vast literature on the Soviet Union, there is no study to rival Stephen Kotkin’s massive first instalment of a planned three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. When it is complete, it will surely become the standard work, and I heartily recommend it.”

John Thornhill, Financial Times: 
"It is a measure of Kotkin’s powers of research and explanation that Stalin’s decisions can almost always be understood within the framework of his ideology and the context of his times.... With a ferocious determination worthy of his subject, the author debunks many of the myths to have encrusted themselves around Stalin.... [A] magnificent biography. This reviewer, at least, is already impatient to read the next two volumes for their author’s mastery of detail and the swagger of his judgments.”

David Johnson, Johnson’s Russia List
“Required reading for serious Russia-watchers... As the product of years of work and careful thought, it is for me a reminder of what it takes to get close to the truth about important and controversial subjects. And the distance and time required to do so.”

Geoffrey Roberts, Irish Examiner
“Monumental... For Kotkin it was not Stalin’s personality that drove his politics but his politics that shaped his personality. His research, narrative and arguments are as convincing as they are exhaustive. The book is long but very readable and highly accessible to the general reader.... Magisterial.”

Donald Rayfield, Literary Review: 
"Masterful... No other work on Stalin incorporates so well the preliminary information needed by the general reader, yet challenges so thoroughly the specialist's preconceptions. Kotkin has chosen illustrations, many of them little known, which reveal the crippled psyches of his dramatis personae.”

Booklist (starred):
“An ambitious, massive, highly detailed work that offers fresh perspectives on the collapse of the czarist regime, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the seemingly unlikely rise of Stalin to total power over much of the Eurasian land mass....This is an outstanding beginning to what promises to be a definitive work on the Stalin era.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“Authoritative and rigorous…. Staggeringly wide in scope, this work meticulously examines the structural forces that brought down one autocratic regime and put in place another.” 

Publishers Weekly:
“This is an epic, thoroughly researched account that presents a broad vision of Stalin, from his birth to his rise to absolute power.”

Library Journal:
“Kotkin has been researching his magisterial biography of Stalin for a decade. Inescapably important reading.”

John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University; author of George F. Kennan: A Life, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography:
“In its size, sweep, sensitivity, and surprises, Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is a monumental achievement: the early life of a man we thought we knew, set against the world—no less—that he inhabited. It’s biography on an epic scale. Only Tolstoy might have matched it.”

William Taubman, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Amherst College; author of Khrushchev: The Man and his Era, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
“Stalin has had more than his fair share of biographies. But Stephen Kotkin’s wonderfully broad-gauged work surpasses them all in both breadth and depth, showing brilliantly how the man, the time, the place, its history, and especially Russian/Soviet political culture, combined to produce one of history’s greatest evil geniuses.”

David Halloway, Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, Stanford University; author of Stalin and the Bomb:
“Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is ambitious in conception and masterly in execution. It provides a brilliant account of Stalin’s formation as a political actor up to his fateful decision to collectivize agriculture by force. Kotkin combines biography with historical analysis in a way that brings out clearly Stalin's great political talents as well as the ruthlessness with which he applied them and the impact his policies had on Russia and the world. This is a magisterial work on the grandest scale.”

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution:
“More than any of Stalin’s previous biographers, Stephen Kotkin humanizes one of the great monsters of history, thereby making the monstrosity more comprehensible than it has been before. He does so by sticking to the facts—many of them fresh, all of them marshalled into a gripping, fine-grained story.”

The Sunday Times (London):
“Staggeringly researched, exhaustively thorough... Kotkin has no patience for the idea that Stalin... was a madman or a monster. His personality and crimes, Kotkin thinks, are only explicable in the wider contexts of Russian imperial history and Marxist theory. So this is less a conventional biography than a colossal life and times.... Hugely impressive.”

Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Guardian:
“Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight.... [Kotkin] is an engaging interlocutor with a sharp, irreverent wit... making the book a good read as well as an original and largely convincing interpretation of Stalin that should provoke lively arguments in the field.”

About the Author

Stephen Kotkin is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He directs Princeton’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, among other publications, and is the author of several books, including Uncivil Society, Armageddon Averted, and Magnetic Mountain.

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Format: Hardcover
This first volume in a biography of Stalin is also a broader account of the Russian Revolution - which leads to us observing Stalin from a distance for much of the book and not getting close and personal. For that, you might need to read Montefiore's Young Stalin, although that book is dismissed by Kotkin as reading "like a novel." Kotkin here is doing something quite different - he gives us a broad historical overview in which to understand Stalin's emergence. In this reading, Stalin's later personality is not read back into his early history but rather seems to be a more emergent phenomenon. Not as readable as a popular history, this book is still quite readable and understandable, comparing favourably with say, Ian Kershaw in a successful marriage of accessibility and academic rigour.
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Format: Hardcover
The historian Kotkin maintains that prominent leaders who make their mark in history do so because of their incredible ability to shape the outcome of circumstances by asserting their will. In the first installment of this well-researched study, Kotkin, an important modern Russian scholar, examines how Stalin came to be as a key figure in the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Soviet state in the 20th century. Growing up in the far-flung, southwestern corner of the Russian empire, Stalin, a Georgian by birth, went through some critical developments in his early years: initially raised by cruel and, at times, indifferent parents, adopted by his uncle, regularly exposed to grinding poverty and gang violence and, ultimately encouraged, based on his academic abilities and interest in church matters, to train to be a priest in the Eastern Orthodox religion. In all this, Stalin is portrayed as a young man looking for something bigger and better in his otherwise parochial existence. He had a strong sense of the need for social justice which brought him together with other seminarians to lead protests against tsarist rule in the region. This rising political consciousness in Stalin brought with it a sense of singularity and purpose that allowed him to act much in the same way as his father did: a law unto himself with a strong, uncanny sense of self-preservation. Stalin could be best seen as a man looking for a group or organization that he could ultimately control without putting himself in too much danger. That would only come when he moved to the big city of Moscow and, eventually, Petrograd in search of organized dissent. His ego was so great that most of his fellow members in the Bolshevik and Social Revolutionary movements found it hard to work with him.Read more ›
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A very comprehensive book, and to call it a biography of Stalin is an understatement. Indeed it covers much more and leaves out a lot about Stalin himself. Most all of his personal life is disregarded in the book, and many of his political actions are either left out or not given much coverage. Conversely considerable attention is given to contemporary issues in Russia, like the political atmosphere in the last years of the Empire, the war effort itself, and everything relating to the establishment of the USSR. Kotkin provides ample citations for everything, which are worth reading over, and a comprehensive bibliography as well, which includes both titles anyone somewhat familiar with the topic will recognise, and plenty of original archival material and lesser-known works.
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This is a brilliant portrait of a person who apparently had good intentions and even looked forward to become a man at the service of the lord, but whose inquisitive nature, thirst for knowledge, attraction to lofty ideas, commitment to a cause and dedication to his goals ultimately made him a high achiever and a monster at the same time. With wavering at all in a bid to please one side or the other who would like Stalin portrayed in a way that would be to their benefit, Stephen Kotkin brought Stalin to live in the minds of impartial readers like no other book has ever done before., and in so doing, he provided a fabulous insight into Russia, the Soviet Union, communism, Marxism, Eastern Europe and the world. It is a breath seen in some other works on Russia like "The Union Moujik", "The Life and Death of Lenin".
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars 143 reviews
126 of 132 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dictator's Life; A Scholar's Life's Work Aug. 29 2014
By Laurence R. Bachmann - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Any review of Stephen Kotkin's Stalin is like a reproduction of great artwork: it in no way will reflect the depth, color or texture of the original, which is nothing short brilliant. Like all classics in the genre, Kotkin's biography is a many layered and nuanced portrait of both a man and an era; a person and a people; a hero and a villain. If Stalin deteriorated into murderous sociopathy, he was not always so. Sometimes he was incredibly brave, clinging to his convictions with resolve and courage. Usually detached, and always willing to use men for his purpose and women for his needs, Kotkin captures the boundless dichotomy in this smart, always ambitious man. One who begins with good, even noble intent and along the way trades principle for power; compassion for control. In the end, perhaps the author's greatest accomplishment is to show how the most seemingly ordinary men are capable of extraordinary evil; how sheer force of will can change history.

Stalin is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle. Kotkin fills in the borders and the edges first, framing his subject in the context of 19th century Imperial Russia; a Georgian with few advantages having to assert, excel and assimilate to get ahead. He hews closely to known facts, avoiding conjecture. As a result, in the first 150 pages there is surprising little Stalin in Stalin. Rather than pop psych musings that link a drunken father's abuse to mass murder, Kotkin puts his subject in the context of the time. He examines how suffocatingly autocratic Imperial Russian Society happened to be with the Orthodox Church Stalin's only potential escape route. A bright and eager adolescent idealizes his church entering the seminary only to find himself in a de facto boot camp that brooked no opposition, stifled all curiosity. The portrait of this suffocatingly conservative culture is wonderfully drawn. Here's a real life Oliver Twist asking not for more gruel but more knowledge, ideas, stimulation and being battered for his impudence.

The question becomes not why would you, but why wouldn't you want to overthrow this dessicated, putrescent crowd of toadies, leeches and mediocrities that hold you back and literally will bleed you dry. I was pleased Kotkin didn't truck with Romanov sentimentalists who distort history by linking it to an imaginary, glorious past. The author makes clear Nicky & Clan choreographed their own demise. Tsarist handmaidens such as the Orthodox Church, the nobility and elite were their own worst enemy. Like our slave owning aristocracy 50 years earlier, Russian autocrats stubbornly clung to cruel and vicious privilege. If they were ruthlessly expunged, it was a lesson learned at their knee. Disproving the claim imitation is the highest form of flattery. Occasionally it can be lethal.

There are marvelous portraits of the multitude of players that made up the Russian Revolution. A preening Kerensky--faux democrat, faux savior, faux genius. Vladimir Illych. The ruthless master of disguise who could mask his intent even more cleverly than his appearance. And who once in power, held on to it like a bulldog with a bone. The portrait of Trotsky was among my favorite. Brilliant at so many things, overconfidence and his inability to asses his opponents proved fatal. It is among these luminaries that Stalin hones his skills. The Bolshevik putsch and Lenin's brazen and full-out assault on democracy are object lessons that would never be forgotten--only improved upon.

Many critics of the regime refuse to see any good in their character or programs. Kotkin is not so dismissive of Sverdlov, Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin, pointing out that among them they spent decades in prison and being hounded when out of it simply for hating the Imperial regime. When the Romanov's fell only the Bolsheviks had the courage and will to oppose Russia continuation in the ruinous Great War that was devastating millions. Though one can certainly fault Trotsky for mucking up a reasonable peace settlement with Germany, Stalin and Lenin early and often spoke of the need to relieve Russia's misery. To paraphrase another great biography: "Let Us Now Praise (briefly) Famous Monsters." Kotkin is unafraid to say they were courageous and at times
prescient in their observations and planning. It is brave of him to do so--there will be a coterie of critics who like the truth varnished to suit politics

While giving praise where it is do he also notes what an unlikely gang of thugs and lugheads they happened to be. To gain control of the country's finances they basically robbed banks and shook down the rich. With absolutely no financial experience but a pressing need to manage the debt incurred by the Great War and Tsar, they simply cancelled the debt, welching on Russia's IOUs. In solving one problem it created a multitude of others that would haunt the Soviet people for generations. Amidst it all was Stalin: doggedly, determinedly carving a place for himself. Sverdlev's genius organization; Lenin's brazen, obdurate insistence on his way; Trotsky the master of presentation, if not negotiation ((Brest-Litovsk). But it is Stalin, who understood the importance of getting close and staying close to the center of power. It is Stalin who is left standing to take advantage of the truism: Power abhors a vacuum. Revolutions provide a multitude of vacuums that need filling.

It is something of a small miracle Kotkin can track the score of times in 1918 alone Bolshevism and Lenin were nearly undone. It is during these seeming unending crises that whatever decency and humanity once propelled Bolsheviks unravels and the movement loses its soul. Ironically, he survives because an opponent like Maria Spiridonova, who had him in the palm of her hand, proves too decent to summarily execute an adversary. It is not a mistake Lenin or his most apt pupil would make. After surviving a number of near escapes Lenin makes an even more appalling deal with Imperial Germany and the die is cast. From the end of 1918 on, policy is whatever perpetuates the dictatorship. The medicine had become worse than the disease it was supposed to cure. The 'survival at any cost' strategy of Lenin explains so much about his successor, waiting in the wings.

While Stalin deserves all the lavish praise that most certainly will be heaped upon it, it is not without its challenges. The dictator and the period may be Kotkin's life's passion, but it isn't mine. Occasionally it reminds one of the expression, "too much of a good thing." Yes at times my eyes glazed over at the detail and the thought of yet another Party Congress. And while Stalin's role in bringing or keeping Transcaucasia in the Soviet fold is interesting, consolidating power is never as dramatic as seizing it. But that is a small quibble and happily these moments that lag are brief. One important contribution Kotkin makes is to show conclusively it was Lenin's support and approval that put Stalin in the catbird seat. Stalin's elevation as General Secretary (among other promotions) coincided with Lenin's realization he would soon be dead. Vladimir Illych's choice of successor if not formerly designated, was perfectly clear.

The support however was not without checks: Lenin attempts to use Trotsky as a balance. Trotsky's refusal to be one of VI's chess pieces proved another colossal blunder by a man who proved again and again there is a big difference between intelligent and smart. Kotkin doubts Lenin's Testament was actually dictated by him though he acknowledges he may well have had second thoughts about his decision. He posits Lenin's wife "found" misgivings in an effort to check Stalin's increasingly unfettered power. Stalin survives the challenge brushing Trotsky aside in the process but it is here that Kotkin marks the beginnings of the legendary paranoia and mistrust that would characterize the dictator for decades. By then end of the first volume we seem to have gone 180 degrees. The idealistic autodidact has spent a lifetime "marinated in ideology", seeing threats to the Revolution (which is synonymous with himself) everywhere. The need to protect it hatches the catastrophically deadly idea of forced collectivization which results in perhaps as many as 5 million starving to death.

The author has an energetic and colorful style of writing that is also the hallmark of great biography. His prose are as engaging but not as purple as Robert Caro's and like that master of narrative Kotkin beautifully manages the trick of keeping one eye on "the great men" and the other on those who are served or screwed over by their deeds. Many reviews will describe Stalin as scholarly, and with a bibliography and notes 350 pages long that is irrefutable. It is however, the very best sort. Gripping, entertaining, and informative throughout, Stalin is a marvelous achievement. A monumental man and monumental events are brought vividly to life proving once again the Faulkner adage: "the past is never dead. It's not even past." Thanks to Stephen Kotkin it isn't.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life and Time Plus; 4.5 Stars Dec 3 2014
By R. Albin - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is something more than a biography of Stalin. As Kotkin states in his preface, its a marriage of history and biography. Kotkin is writing an thorough history of first 40 years of the Soviet state from the perspective of the Soviet leadership using Stalin's life as the focal point. Consequently, this book contains extensive descriptions and analysis of the Tsarist state, its collapse during WWI, the revolutions that followed, the ensuing civil war, and the initial formation of the Soviet Union. Prominent themes are the efforts of both the Tsarist and Soviet regimes to build a modern state, the importance of international competition, the chaos of the revolutions, the large role of contingency in Bolshevik success, and Lenin's crucial role as the founder of the Soviet state. Indeed,this volume can be said to as much about Lenin as about Stalin. For the background of the Soviet Union and its emergence, this book is very rewarding.

Kotkin is careful to avoid discussing Stalin and his life from the perspective of his eventual role as the ruthless despot of the Soviet Union. He is also careful to rebut claims, many emanating from Trotsky and his followers of Stalin's crudity. Kotkin shows Stalin to be quite intelligent, a committed and well read autodidact, and remarkably diligent. While certainly not original, he was well versed in Marxist theory and completely in the thrall of Lenin's version of Marxism. Kotkin demonstrates that Stalin really was Lenin's heir, carrying Lenin's ideas and tendencies to their logical conclusion. Far from being a minor figure in the revolution and subsequent events, Stalin was arguably the most important figure in the development of the most important institution of the Soviet state, the Communist Party. He also had a decisive influence, though deferring in important respects to Lenin, on nationality policy, resulting in the federated nature of the Soviet Union, a fact whose significance can be found in the specific structure of the successor states of the Soviet Union.

Kotkin does particularly well in depicting the complex politics of the Russian-Soviet left both before and after the revolutions. His narrative of how Stalin achieved primacy is thorough and readable. He makes interesting efforts to put events within the Soviet Union in international perspective and is particularly good on how the Bolshevik's ideological commitments interacted in substantial ways with the realities of international events. Stalin's well known paranoia, for example, was partly an institutional feature of the nature of politics within the Soviet state and driven to a good extent by basic ideological features of the Leninist regime. Kotkin also argues well that without Stalin, the Soviet state would either have not implemented or been able to sustain collectivization and the hothouse industrialization of the 5 year plans.

The scholarship of this book is really impressive. There are some possible defects. Kotkin is a competent, as opposed to a really skilled writer. I was surprised that Kotkin's analysis of the decision to pursue collectivization and the 5 year plans didn't discuss the economic rationale for hothouse industrialization. This may be coming in the next volume but there is no citation or discussion, for example, of the interesting analysis in Robert Allen's Farm to Factory. I imagine the next volume will cover the period from 1928 to either the outbreak of WWII or the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Thes books will will ultimately be indispensable for learning about the Soviet Union.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stalin--A Monumental Study of the Road to Absolute Power Jan. 24 2015
By Donny Brooklyn - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
Terms such as "magisterial" and "profound" are distributed these days with such regularity that they are often meaningless. But that is not the case with Stephen Kotkin's biography of the 20th century Russian dictator, which, for the post part, deserves all the praise it has gathered. As the work opens, the author provides us with a summary of the life of the young Josif Djugashvili and his emergence from the semi-medieval Georgian border zone of the Russian empire which he did so much to destroy. "Soso," as he was known to his friends, entered a regimented seminary to prepare for the priesthood, but converted in his teenage years from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to a new belief system then gaining traction in the empire. This new religion was Marxism, which Kotkin shows formed Stalin's frame of reference and the core of his political thinking, and to which he adhered, with varying degrees of fanaticism and pragmatism, for the rest of his life. Far from being a "grey blur," as his earlier enemies characterized him, Stalin, in Kotkin's version, was a highly intelligent, extremely well-read autodidact who was intimately conversant with the postulates and nuances of the new "faith", and could wield them like a rapier in polemics against his opponents. Here, we don't yet see Stalin the monster, but Stalin the shmoozing politician, "morose" at some times, but more often conveying a communist message that resonated with his colleagues and especially with the younger Bolsheviks. We all know the end of the story, but during the timeframe covered by Kotkin (until 1928) many of these people "liked" Stalin (or at least couldn't see their way through a host of problems without him). We even see a vignette of Stalin's "empathy", a trait not usually credited to the eventual murderer of millions, yet a (small) part of his complex character. We observe Stalin, growing in power, outmaneuvering the aloof, condescending ultra-leftist Trotsky, the "hero" of the Russian Civil War, yet not personally "liked" by the majority of the Bolsheviks, partly because he was Jewish (though totally Russified) but mostly because he didn't have the people skills Stalin did. But exactly what those skills were the sources don't tell us, so unfortunately, Kotkin can't either. So how did Stalin become the paranoid monster that he certainly was during his later career? Kotkin gratefully eschews pop psychology answers (e.g., his father Beso beat him as a boy) for a more complex and nuanced explanation. He infers that Stalin the monster was made, not born, and that his later behavior was more a function of the people he had to deal with and the times and system in which he lived--though paradoxically he had much to do with creating those times and that system.
In truth, this book might be more accurately titled "The Life and Times of Stalin," as in much of it, Stalin makes only a brief appearance, especially during the October Revolution that brought the Bolseviks to power. Here again, the sources are slim indeed. Not being a Russian scholar, I cannot comment on the scholarship in this work, but to the lay reader, it seems quite impressive. Some sections are especially vivid; these include the reconquest of the former tsarist empire by the Bolsheviks, a subject which is glossed over in all other biographies of Stalin I've read, and the recounting of the expedition against the bizarre, sadistic Baron Ungarn-Sternberg, the would-be ruler of outer Mongolia, a remote country which eventually became the first Soviet satellite.
So why didn't I give this truly magisterial work five stars? There are several reasons, the foremost of which is that it is by no means easy to read this book. It is so dense with details and dates that sometimes the narrative is difficult to follow Also, if you don't already have a very good general idea of who Zinoviev and Kamenev, or Trotsky and Molotov were, or care what Bolshevik did what to who on August 21 as opposed to August 23, or are aware of what happens to all the historical characters after the book ends, this work can get confusing in a hurry. So if you decide to delve into this tome (my delving took about 3 weeks and I did read every page, though not every one was equally pleasurable), make sure Wikipedia is close at hand. But if you can put up with all of the detail and the scholarship, you'll have a real treasure in your hands, one that presents a fascinating view of one of the most despicable, yet important historical figures of the 20th century and of the forces that propelled him in that direction.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Good as Caro on Johnson Dec 12 2014
By Stuart M. Wilder - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I could not believe how I tore through this book. I drink up Russian history and I can say this is the best narrative of the twists and turns of Social-Democratic Labour Party schisms, the Comintern, Soviet, and all the other congresses— names and dates and details that used to make my eyes glaze over. Kotkin admits he cannot provide a linear narrative of what happened after the October, 1917 revolution, and then turns the hash into a TV dinner that is easy to follow yet shows in luxurious and delicious detail how Stalin evolved into the paranoid manipulator of men and institutions like no one has done before. This book is on a par with Robert Caro's Path To Power, and like Caro's volumes. I cannot wait for the next one.
39 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Mageisterial by a Long Shot March 17 2015
By Gil Hyle - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Regretfully, I cannot share the widespread enthusiasm for this book. The first thing that strikes an historical relic like myself when reading this book, is how basic the understanding is within it of Marxism in general and, in particular, of the various theoretical debates within Russian Social Democracy. This is despite the fact that Kotkin recognises that Stalin was immersed in a ‘Marxist’ way of thinking.
But perhaps that is just how historiography is going, as the culture of Marxism loses all purchase within academia. Perhaps, in the same way, someone directly experienced in medieval theology would, if they could, look equally askance at our simplified view of their theoretical disputations. Perhaps that loss of intimate familiarity with Communism is the price we pay to read history books which view these 20th century events as the completed past rather than as contentious events of our lifetime.

Fundamentally, the author treats Stalin not as the bastard scion of Leninist Marxism, but as the continuer of Witte and Stolypin – struggling to find the route to overcome Russia’s development conundrum, which Kotkin sees as deriving from the weakness of civic society and the parcelling of agricultural land.

[Kotkin seems strongly influenced by James S. Scott’s Seeing Like a State (see Chp 6 on Soviet Russia), which advocates ‘metis’ over ‘techne’. Scott is a political anthropologist with anarchist sympathies who writes as if the transfer of knowledge were the central human activity, a bit like Austrian School economists. For Scott, soviet collectivisation was a disaster because it destroyed evolved local ways of running agriculture and could only happen because of the weakness of Russian civic society. It’s a valid way to look at Stalin. After all, was Russian Marxism not, from 1928 onwards, just a temporary rhetoric of autarchic economic development? ]
have read this soon after reading Montefiore’s fun, popular book on the young Stalin. This is a very different book. Less exciting, more ambitious, less successful than Montefiore.

The narrative is not always reliable. For example, during the narrative of 1917, the author introduces Trotsky and gives a short version of his prior life. However, Kotkin inserts into the text at this point an undated reference to Trotsky’s polemic with Kautsky over ‘terrorism’. To the casual reader, who does not carefully review and externally check the footnote reference, the impression will have been given that while an exile, Trotsky had advocated ‘terrorism’. Far from it. Trotsky was polemicizing in 1920, advocating what he later called ‘compulsion’, not ‘terrorism’ in the modern sense. The author thereby compounds the very misunderstanding of Trotsky’s polemic which Trotsky had warned against in 1935 in the preface to the second English language edition of his polemic with Kautsky. That is not good narrative. Nor is it a one off. Another example: in Note 50 of Chp 8, the author dates Lenin’s State and Revolution to 1903 – particularly odd since he had early referred correctly to Lenin writing it in 1917!

For a large part of the book, Kotkin fails at the core literary skill of political biography, which is weaving the personal and the individual into a smooth reconstruction of the broad sweep of history. Time and again, he collapses into one or the other – narrating the events or describing Stalin’s role. Consequently, a modest historical narrative of early 20th century Russian history could be edited out of the first third of this book, with few signs that it had been extracted from a biography of Stalin. Even then, there is little on the complex socio-economic trends which much recent historiography has uncovered. Consequently, the narrative is initially eclectic and slight.

The approach is also marred by a superficial methodology for judgement, possibly reflective of an undisciplined desire to appear judicious. Thus when he argues that Krupskaya - presumably aided by Fortieva – may have forged Lenin’s last testament, he presents this contentious, speculative (but not entirely unwarranted) conclusion in a one sided and undiscursive way, failing to let the reader feel the weight of the counterarguments. Political biography should not be one-dimensional polemic.

I was particularly disappointed at the failure to pin down Stalin’s own political life between February and October 1917, with any great detail. Kotkin covers well Stalin’s period in Tsaritsyn in 1918. His coverage of Stalin’s role in the invasion of Poland is challenging, but perhaps a little tendentious, in de-emphasising Stalin’s military decisions and emphasising instead his prior scepticism about the invasion. But he has little else to say about what Stalin was actually doing between 1918-21 and fails entirely to excavate what that behaviour tells us about Stalin’s character and character formation.

He is undoubtedly correct in emphasising that Stalin was, in effect, deputy leader of Lenin’s faction within the party leadership. He makes the excellent observation that Stalin was more familiar with Lenin’s writings than anyone else. As with someone like Cesare Borgia – at least in Machiavelli’s portrayal - and also as with the person in history most like Stalin, the Chinese Hongwu Emperor, Stalin tied pervasively manipulative and intensely ruthless behaviour to a simplified vision. However, it is also true that it Is not that manipulativeness but rather the patronage of another person – in this case Lenin – who was the kind of person better able to establish a leadership position for himself, which then allows this kind of character to gain a leadership role. Without that patronage, the inherent caution of human social networks tends to park people like Stalin in specialist, Javert-type roles.

In any case, having made me regret, after its first third, having decided to read this book at all, the book then suddenly, when it comes to 1922, picks up. As Stalin moves centre-stage and as Kotkin’s literary skills are less challenged, his Getty-like attraction to polemical iconoclasm as a simulacrum of historiographical insight, begins to serve the reader well – challenging the accepted narrative is engaging.

Kotkin does not go along with the traditional narrative of a cynical alliance between Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin in which the dull junior partner in the flawed triumvirate simultaneously displaced the other two and defeated the opponent (Trotsky). He prefers the alternative view that Stalin had already garnered most of the necessary power to establish a ‘dictatorship’ by the time of Lenin’s death, but had overplayed his hand and then retreated behind Zinoviev to consolidate. As a result some of the best analysis is of Stalin’s handling of Lenin’s Testament. Despite his ‘Krupskaya forgery’ inclinations, he charts quite effectively the measured subtlety of Stalin’s politics at this time.

Although he discusses Stalin’s pre-eminence in nationalities policy extensively, I don’t think he is quite successful in showing the causal link between Stalin’s support for autonomous republics and his achievement of a majority in the Central Committee. In my opinion, the discussion of the ‘Socialism in One Country’ debate misses the key point, which was what he calls the’bolshevization’ of other communist parties. Kotkin thinks – uncontroversially –that forced collectivization was madness. He argues that there was only one alternative – which was the permanent installation of market relations in agriculture (as Sokolnikov is supposed to have argued) – and that Stalin’s unwise choice did not destroy the USSR merely because of the coincidence of the Great Depression. The reality is, I think, more complex. When discussing industrial policy – once again – the distinctive character of Trotsky’s proposals (so at variance with Preobrazhensky and other Left Opposition ‘followers’) is never brought out. Kotkin might respond that all of that no longer matters ….and perhaps it doesn’t. Indeed, he clearly finds Trotsky so exasperating as to place his stances beyond reasoned analysis. This impacts directly on the quality of his assessment of Stalin. It’s not that Trotsky was correct and Stalin wrong. Rather it is that by uncovering the reality of what Trotsky was trying to do in the 1920s behind the Trotskyist myth, it becomes possible to see sharply what Stalin was doing, behind the Soviet myth. Kotkin just doesn’t do this.

When it comes to the key events of 1925-26, Kotkin is sometimes interesting, but not sure footed, because he thinks Stalin already had the power. It is not really explained how Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Krupskaya could all prove so ineffective at the 14th Party Congress. Stalin’s key achievement of changing the composition of the Politburo in January 1926 to create a ‘centre-right’ majority without Zinoviev is just mentioned in passing. The Eastman and Lashevich affairs are set out, but with no particular insight as to how brilliantly Stalin used these minor scandals and the Guralski, Kamenev/M. Romanov and Necahev affairs.

[For contrast, see, for example, Chp 4 Graeme Gill, The Origins of the Stalinist Political System (1990) - an interesting attempt to grasp how a subtle change in the cultural perception of ‘leadership’, the key role of the Central Control Commission and a high turnover in key office holders could combine to facilitate Stalin’s success.]

Kotkin sees Stalin as a hardcore Leninist, rather than just a power-hungry pragmatist. But what a hardcore Leninist is, is far from clear. In discussing the struggle for the heritage of ‘Leninism’ he fails to deal with the key issue of the algebraic slogan of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This is replaced by a merely impressionistic account of the Chinese debacle. For Kotkin himself, Leninism is bad just because it is is an idee fixe, an ideology. The need to accept the market is obvious, for Kotkin. It would be necessary to get more substantially into what ‘Leninism’ is than he does, to work through that issue. But all we are told is that whatever ‘Leninism’ is, it is apparently what made Stalin opt for the economic madness of collectivization.

Stalin was intensely clever and determinedly practical. His ‘people skills’ as they are now sometimes called, were exceptional. His leadership was courageous, but rarely imprudent. He lacked completely the affectation and involuted aestheticism of the Russian intelligentsia. He was, as he portrayed himself, a self-educated proletarian. His personal tastes were simple, but he regularly drifted into inpersonal brutality when his guard was down. He had brilliant insight into organisational behaviour but variable judgement in military, economic and international political matters. The key lesson of his rise to power was that in a planned economy, organisational impact becomes the core personal strength.

Stalin was also very complex both emotionally and intellectually and, as Kotkin says, is not easy to categorise. The key problem in assessing Stalin is to differentiate the political from the personal. It is virtually impossible to differentiate between his commitment to Marxism and his mental state, because of his successful promotion of his personal dictatorship. His behaviours fit both perspectives. It is not hard to observe an apparent tendency to paranoia, malevolence to close colleagues and a victim psychology. The counterargument is that, once Stalin’s overall project is accepted, many of his tactics including the great purge became a necessary step to fulfil that project in the face of deep-seated restorationist tendencies engendered by forced collectivisation and the – by then – transparent abandonment of all inner-party democracy. It is not paranoia if he had the insight to see a crumbling of the Soviet State machine and the courage to do what was required to fulfil his goal. In that event, what was wrong with Stalin was not any personal mental state but the simplified neo-Leninist project to which he was unswervingly committed. Kotkin deals with this complex reality with the formula that Stalin’s psychology flowed from the political situation – this is neat, but somewhat gnomic.

The text is inelegant and sometimes apparently infelicitous (e.g ‘anarchic terrorist’, ‘collective works’ Provincial [intending ‘provisional’) Government'. The term ‘pundit’ is unwisely used where the meaning might better be communicated as ‘political journalist’, quite a different thing; it seems the translation is of the Russian term ‘publitsist’ although I am not qualified to check the original. This term has in the past, I believe, been translated in a Russian communist context as ‘propagandist’, which works quite well.

This is never a great book. About, thirty percent in it becomes a better book. Occasionally it challenges. That makes it worth reading for those who want to read widely on the topic.