The dictator was not ‘demonic’, as biographer Stephen Kotin would have it, but pathological, psychopathic, paranoid, criminal and perverse. That is one of a few small quibbles with an author whose magisterial, three-volume work will deservedly be recognised as the gold standard
Putting Simon Sebag Montefiore’s popular work on Stalin into the shade, Stephen Kotkin’s projected three-volume biography will run to well over 3000 pages, all rooted in primary Russian archival sources and a vast array of Russian-language research publications. Birkelund Professor in History at Princeton University, Kotkin is also the author of the highly influential Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. You read that correctly. The just-published second volume of his Stalin biography is 1154 pages long and covers the period from 1929 to 1941 (collectivisation of agriculture, the Terror, the Nazi–Soviet Pact). The dominant point of view, given largely but not solely via documents flowing in and out of Stalin’s office (the “Little Corner” in the Kremlin), is from his desk: his appointment books, the notes and transcripts of meetings and conversations in there, his speeches, writings, annotations, just about everything that was his or was close to him. This is an interiorised biography, with the ideological motivations and personal complexities seen from inside-out. If being inside Stalin, day in, day out, puts you off, avoid this work.
With so many pages at his disposal, Kotkin can cover the entirety of Stalin’s private and public world, including his powerful influence on art, literature, music and cinema—some of the most interesting sections in this volume are on these subjects. Rather than attempt a comprehensive distillation of the book, which for most of its length is familiarly and compellingly dark, it’s more interesting to focus on surprising and out-of-the-way revelations, and to consider some questions Kotkin leaves up in the air, particularly in relation the Great Terror of 1937-38.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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This mammoth work in many ways complicates our view of Stalin, which is good, because human nature is complex, and he was not demonic. Nothing diminishes the murderous nature of his regime, with which we’re adequately familiar. Stalin admired everything about Ivan the Terrible (in many ways his preferred historical model), vastly outdoing him in terror and death-dealing. Whether a Trotsky, a post-dated Lenin, a Bukharin or a Voroshilov could have held the country together through the Great Patriotic War, overseeing the creation of armies and marshals to crush the myriad divisions of Grossdeutschland and its capital into dust … Conceivably not.
In 1932 Stalin adopted “socialist realism” as the plastic-arts and literary aesthetic of the USSR, an ideological widening, and Kotkin reveals the process. As a prelude, Stalin disbanded the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. This was around the time Maxim Gorky returned permanently from his preferred residence in Fascist Italy. The self-styled “proletarians” were mutually hostile zealots fixated on “the correct line”, excoriating one another for the slightest imagined deviation, and mostly under-achievers (Demyan Bedny was typical). In contrast, many non-party writers, like Mikhail Bulgakov, were publishing brilliant work. So Stalin set up a new Union of Soviet Writers, open to non-party as well as party members, and the other arts were supposed to be organised similarly. Stalin wanted Gorky, denounced by the “proletarians” as “a man without class consciousness”, to head the new union.
This was received as cultural Thermidor. It was certainly the final blow to a Soviet avant-garde. Alexander Fadayev, a chairman of the dissolved body, wrote indignantly to Kaganovich: how could this be? Next day Stalin spent over five hours with Fadayev and other members of the defunct body, plus a couple of cultural apparatchiks and Kaganovich, and two and a half weeks later another half-hour. No, they couldn’t revive the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. Forget that. Focus on the future. What theory to adopt, what method? One attendee, Ivan Gronsky, explained that pre-revolutionary realism had been “progressive” in its own “bourgeois-democratic” period, producing many great works, but now they needed a literature to advance the era of socialist construction, and suggested “proletarian socialist realism” or “communist realism”. Stalin said they needed to unite all cultural figures, not just Communists, and suggested “socialist realism” as a handle: brief, intelligible, inclusive. It was also about modernity. “Stalin forced into being a socialist modernity,” Kotkin writes, “presiding over the creation of a mass-production economy, a Soviet mass culture, an integrated society, and a mass politics without private property”—personal private property aside, of course: your library, furniture, jewellery, camera, hunting gun, motor cycle, motor car or whatever, were your own.
The pre-revolutionary arts of Russia and the West were highly celebrated and safe from Soviet aesthetic theory (except in their critical interpretation)—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Goncharov, the established canon of classical music, ballet, opera, painting (though some works were sold off, including to the National Gallery of Victoria), architecture. For the masses there was the Soviet version of pop culture. Kotkin discovered:
Surveys of radio listeners’ letters showed they wanted fewer symphonies and more humor, information about the outside world, advice on childrearing, medical issues, and other daily life concerns, and entertainment, such as folk music, Gypsy romances, jazz, operettas (not operas), and songs from the latest films.
Germany had Marlene Dietrich, America had Greta Garbo, the USSR had the Garbo-like Lyubov Orlova, her image in hosts of magazines, books, postcards. Non-ideological musical comedies heavily influenced by Hollywood, for instance Grigori Alexsandrov’s smash-hit Jolly Fellows (1934), were encouraged by Stalin and enjoyed box-office success. Most citizens with cable (wired) radios could receive just the two official stations, their content strictly controlled. With money and influence you could get a wireless receiver with a tuner that enabled you to listen to the bourgeois West (keeping the volume down). Even Soviet poster-art had its bourgeois streak: a pretty young woman driving her open roadster through the streets of Moscow, another speeding through the mountains of Soviet Armenia, both tourist-related, mid-1930s.
Some readers may be surprised to discover that most republics of the Soviet Union under Stalin initially “lacked a requirement to study Russian”, and that in the early 1930s “most non-Russian schoolchildren were illiterate in the language”. Before reading Kotkin I had not known that “When the enlightenment commissar of the Russian republic suggested a far-reaching Russification of schooling, Stalin objected, insisting that Russian become only a subject, not the general medium of instruction to the detriment of vernacular languages.” He subsequently accepted and insisted that Russian be a compulsory subject, but it was never, under his regime, the language of instruction in non-Russian republics, or at least not in the areas of those republics where non-Russians predominated. The reason why Russian should be a compulsory subject throughout the USSR was, in Stalin’s words, because “it would be good if all citizens drafted into the army could express themselves in Russian just a little, so that if some division or other was transferred, say an Uzbek one to Samara, it could converse with the populace”.
Stalin, we know, initially resisted the personality cult, including biographies of himself. When the latest History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) referred to him as “the wise leader of all the toilers” he wrote, “An apotheosis of individuals? What happened to Marxism?” The Society of Old Bolsheviks wished to mount an exhibit on his life; he rejected this as “strengthening a ‘cult of the personality’, which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party”. Subsequently he acquiesced in the cult. Like Conrad’s assassin Razumov in Under Western Eyes, he accepted that Russia needed “a will strong and one”, ideally an Ivan the Terrible more than a Peter the Great (in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible Ivan is Stalin), in order to still or at least direct the vast and swirling snowstorm of chaos that is Mother Russia. But why did it need the Terror?
Like most works on Stalin, this magnum opus never adequately explains the Great Terror of 1937-38 (the NKVD’s own figure for executions over those two years was 681,692, and they weren’t concerned to minimise; with collaterals, Kotkin thinks the number might approach 830,000). No explanation is required for the millions starved to death during de-kulakisation and collectivisation, the hundreds of thousands who perished in executions and forced transfers of various ethnic groups—the despot’s goals and ruthlessness explain those. But what explains the Great Terror? Most favoured is the leader’s paranoia: “there must be more enemies”, the assumption that because there were some, there must be millions. Alternatively (or as well), it was a ruse to clean out the Old (-thinking) Bolsheviks and rejuvenate the party and army with young blood. To Stalin, Old Bolsheviks were just “old farts” (his words, though he was one). That people in the leading organs of the party and administration had been Bolsheviks before the October revolution was a serious problem—it meant they were natural-born conspirators. Stalin wished to build the USSR during his period of “socialist construction” with “New Bolsheviks”, young men and women with no pre-revolutionary memory, no first-hand knowledge of Menshevism, Trotskyism, or the historical roots of Left-oppositionism and Right-deviationism—brand-new Soviet men and women.
As for the mass of honest non-Communists, no great problem there (apart from “former people” with haut-bourgeois or noble roots, like the poet Anna Akhmatova: they were prima-facie “class enemies”, many of them closely surveilled). The political types, those within the party, were the real concern. Jokes on the subject abounded. It’s 2.00 a.m. in Moscow, “streets dark with something more than night”, the NKVD at the door, you open up and explain, “Sorry, wrong apartment. The Communists live upstairs—next floor, same number.” Apologising, the officers head on up.
There’s another explanation for the Terror, mentioned in passing by Kotkin and still upheld by some: that much of the contents of the confessions was true, that there was a fifth column, there were networks connecting Bukharinites, Trotskyites, unreconstructed Left-oppositionists and Right-deviationists, the military. Litvinov believed this at the time, Molotov always believed the generality of it, Stalin certainly believed it, Khrushchev later claimed he did not. Gorky was feeding Stalin with assassination fears, his information about plots and plotters coming from the West, including via the apparently well-informed Menshevik émigré paper Socialist Herald.
In Washington in 1943 Ambassador Litvinov was privately asked by Sir Owen Dixon why most of the Russian general staff had been executed in 1937-38. Litvinov replied that it was the liquidation of the fifth column before the predictable war. The problem with accepting that there was a substantial fifth column in the Soviet armed forces in the 1930s is not its inherent unlikeliness—on the contrary, it’s inherently likely, given Stalin’s despotic rule—but the (deliberate? strategic?) absence from the prosecutorial materials of objective evidence. Kotkin commits an obvious error in claiming that the drop in arrests by the NKVD in 1939 “gives the lie to avowals that the terror constituted a campaign to root out a potential fifth column”. It can equally signify that Stalin believed that the fifth column had been substantially rooted out through 1937-38.
Kotkin doesn’t satisfactorily consider, in relation to the Terror, the “socialism in one country” issue. What proportion (roughly) of the CPSU in the 1930s were likely still to have been internationalist in political spirit, vaguely Trotskyist rather than national-Bolshevik? We do know that in the party clean-out of late 1935 only 3 per cent, or 5500 party members, were expelled as “Trotskyites and Zinovievites” (compared with 20 per cent as White Guards or kulaks, 8.5 per cent as “swindlers and scoundrels”, and 1 per cent as “foreign spies”). Whoever and however many they were, one wonders what they thought of their peripatetic and hard-done-by mentor telling them that the future was the United States rather than the Soviet Union. Trotsky said it quite early on, to Fox Movietone News in Copenhagen on December 10, 1932:
The present crisis will mean a new era in history … Europe in general has ceased to be the centre of the world … The present terrific crisis, in spite of its devastating effects on the United States, will change the relation of forces still further, not in favour of Europe, but in favour of the United States and the colonial countries. To see far, it is best to stand on the roof of a skyscraper. The most suitable point for observing the world’s panorama in every respect I consider to be [and here he paused for emphasis], New York.
The original, globalist, neo-con Trot.
Kotkin never properly raises let alone answers the question: Why, through the early-to-mid-1930s, was Trotsky such an abject failure at maintaining or developing his previously extensive networks of sympathisers within the CPSU, the OGPU/NKVD and the Soviet armed forces?—for Kotkin assumes Trotsky directed next-to-no active networks inside the USSR after his exile (with possible minor exceptions, like the informal network around Martemyan Ryutin, editor of the Army paper Red Star). Alternatively, if that assumption is conceivably wrong: What were Trotsky’s networks within those institutions in the early-to-mid-1930s (the confessional Trials “evidence” aside)? Nothing reliable or specific in surviving German sources—Reichswehr, Wehrmacht, SD sources in the Bundesarchiv or at College Park, Maryland? Nothing to be found in any private or public Trotskyite archives? The Menshevik Socialist Herald archives? A dozen other archives? Did he have no networks inside? Creator of the Red Army, reduced to a nothing.
For all Stalin’s preoccupation with this pesky nemesis, not all party rank-and-file saw much difference between Stalin and Trotsky, particularly once forced collectivisation was under way in the countryside. Izvestiya received the following in the spring of 1932, from delegate Fedorintseva of a rural soviet in the Black Earth region:
Although you, comrade Stalin, are a pupil of Lenin, your behaviour is not Leninist. Lenin taught: factories to the workers, land to the peasants, and what do you do? You confiscate not only land but livestock, huts and possessions from the middle and poor peasants. You threw out Trotsky and call him a counterrevolutionary, but you, comrade Stalin, are the real and first Trotskyite, and a pupil not of Lenin but of Trotsky. Why? They taught us in political circle that Trotsky proposed to build socialism with force at the expense of the muzhik.
This was signed and sent off to Izvestiya as late as 1932! Let him put that in his pipe and smoke it. There was plenty of criticism along that line, and Stalin backed off from socialising all livestock (for a while), forced a reversal of the collectivisation of nomads in Mongolia, and increased the size of private plots on collective farms. Many urbanites had their private plots too, where they could grow their own food. The important point is, Mme Fedorintseva would also be correct well into the future: Trotsky agreed with many of Stalin’s harshest policies: collectivisation, the invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939, the war against Finland in 1939-40, the occupation of the Baltic States in 1940.
Plenty of brave people, particularly Communists, were unafraid to criticise Stalin to his close associates and favourites, right through the Terror. The writer and Supreme Soviet delegate Alexei Tolstoy’s archive holds hundreds of critical in-bound letters he kept rather than cowardly destroy—for instance this, from an architect whose brother had been arrested: “Can it really be that you, deputies, are created only in order to shout hurrah for Stalin and to applaud Yezhov?” The author, who signed his letter, asked for it to be passed on to Stalin, adding, “I am not mad. I have a family, a son, work that I love … But right now the feeling of truth is stronger than the fear of ten years in the camps.” A female correspondent, attacking Tolstoy’s story “Grain” for its lies and glorification of Stalin, wrote:
The best people, who are devoted to Lenin’s ideas, honest and unbought, are sitting behind bars, arrested by the thousands, being executed. They cannot bear the grandiose Baseness triumphing throughout the land … And you, an engineer of the human soul, are cowardly turned inside out, and we saw the unseemly inside of a purchasing hack … Fear: that’s the dominant feeling that has seized citizens of the USSR. And you do not see that? … Where is the majestic pathos that in October  moved millions to fight to the death? Overcome by the fetid breath of Stalin and yes-men like you.
It was because of the bravery of thousands of loyal members of the CPSU, and non-Communist citizens, who wrote letters like these and signed numerous petitions, that Stalin was finally forced to rein-in Yezhov and have this dwarfish excuse for a human being shot, blaming him for what were in large part Stalin’s own murderous “errors”, “excesses” and persecution of the loyal. Stalin had hundreds of meetings with Yezhov in the Little Corner, and knew him better than anyone, so he was qualified to judge. “Yezhov was scum,” Stalin told deputy aviation commissar Yakovlev:
A degenerated person. You call him at the commissariat, they say he’s left for the Central Committee. You call the Central Committee, they say he left for a job. You send someone to his residence, it turns out he’s lying in bed, dead drunk. He destroyed many innocents. We shot him for that.
Kotkin, with so much space at his disposal, never gives us the theory of revolutionary terror, probably because he doesn’t know it. Few do. Stalin knew it, though. It has a distinguished history going back to the Elder Brutus, who had his sons executed for state treason in 509 BC—his highest act of revolutionary virtue, and both a sign and seal of the revolution, something to terrify others into republican virtue. His bust presided over the National Assembly and Convention in revolutionary Paris, but it was Maximilien Robespierre who, speaking with immense eloquence before the Convention on February 5, 1794, provided revolutionary terror with its theoretical justification.
By 1953 Stalin had a personal, working library of some 25,000 volumes, many of them extensively annotated by him. They covered numerous fields, especially history. Kotkin has been through that library, through those annotated books. Stalin admired Augustus and the Augustan revolution against the senatorial oligarchy. He systematically studied works on autocratic rule, such as Vatslav Vorovsky’s On the Nature of Absolutism and Mikhail Olminsky’s The State, Bureaucracy, and Absolutism in the History of Russia. The French Revolution for him was not just something past but also present.
Stalin undoubtedly knew Robespierre’s speech to the National Assembly introducing the Terror by name. France was encompassed by enemies in early 1794. The Terror was introduced and the foreign enemies were defeated. No real or potential fifth-columnist with a head still on his shoulders dared put it up to subvert the home-front while the armies were doing their work at the frontiers. Robespierre’s speech provides the pre-facto theorising for what Stalin, encompassed as he saw himself by foreign and domestic enemies, carried out in 1937-38. I seriously doubt Kotkin has read it. Robespierre says the policy must be guided “by an exact theory and by precise rules of conduct”.
This “exact theory” effectively became Stalin’s. Robespierre’s stated goal was the preservation of the republic, its liberties and their basis in public virtue; the purpose was:
that every new faction will discover death in the mere thought of crime … We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now, in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror. If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs … Let the despot govern his brutalized subjects by terror; he is right to do this, as a despot. Subdue liberty’s enemies by terror, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.
So goes the theory—Stalin’s adopted theory, it’s safe to say. Soviet “liberty” was that enshrined in the 1936 Constitution, the most democratic in the world to that time (if taken literally).
Unlike Hitler, who was lazy, Stalin worked himself incessantly, only partly slowing down when vacationing in Sochi or wherever. “This ferocious willpower,” Kotkin writes, “emanated from a transcendent sense of personal destiny and of historical necessity … he had authority, not just power.” Stalin received 100 or even 200 documents a day, Kotkin’s research shows:
some of substantial length, and he read many of them, often to the end, scribbling comments or instructions on them. He initiated or approved untold personnel appointments, goaded minions in relentless campaigns, attended myriad congresses and ceremonies bearing the burden of instruction, assiduously followed the public and private statements of cultural figures, edited novels and plays, and pre-screened films. He pored over a voluminous flow of intelligence reports and lengthy interrogation protocols of accused spies, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, traitors. He wrote and rewrote the texts of decrees, newspaper editorials, and his own speeches, confident in his abilities. Very occasionally he made grammatical mistakes in Russian, his second language, but he wrote accessibly, using rhetorical questions, catchphrases, enumeration. The fools were the ones who took him for a fool.
Kotkin has wonderful examples of the psychopathic darkness Stalin could manifest. The best (well-known, and eclipsing anything in Shakespeare’s Richard III) is a scene in the Little Corner, reported by the victim (later executed) to his brother. The victim was Mikhail Koltsov, a journalist just returned from the front in Spain. Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovich and Yezhov were all there. As Koltsov’s brother explains:
He sincerely, profoundly, fanatically believed in the wisdom of Stalin. How many times, after meeting the Master, my brother would regale me in minute detail about his way of conversing, about his specific observations, phrases, jokes. He liked everything about Stalin.
But after this final meeting, Stalin had mocked him. Standing near Koltsov, Stalin had put his hand on his heart and bowed: “What should one call you in Spanish?—Mig-u-el?” “Mig-el, Comrade Stalin,” Koltsov replied. “Right then, Don Mig-el,” Stalin told him, “we, noble Spaniards, heartily thank you for your interesting report. Goodbye for now, Don Mig-el.” As Koltsov reached the door Stalin called after him: “Have you a pistol, Comrade Koltsov?” “Yes, Comrade Stalin.” “But you aren’t planning to shoot yourself with it?” “Of course not.” “Well, excellent! Excellent! Thank you again, Comrade Koltsov. Goodbye, Don Mig-el.” Stalin had something on him—God knows what.
The following is almost as good, and reminds one of Saddam Hussein. On June 2, 1937, Stalin addressed the USSR’s Main Military Council. The eighty-five members were top army and fleet commanders and heads of military academies, but a third of them had recently been arrested or discharged, leaving fifty-three members listening—and, together with them, 116 non-members, plus Yezhov and other senior NKVD. They had all spent the first day reading interrogation protocols about an imminent home-grown fascist military plot against the government, recently uncovered. Some of these protocols implicated people in the hall. Stalin attended all four days. According to some who were there, he looked over the audience with interest, seeking familiar faces, fixing his gaze on certain individuals. “Comrades,” he told them:
I hope no one doubts now that a military-political plot against Soviet power existed. Such an abundance of testimony by the criminals themselves that, indubitably, here we have a military-political plot against Soviet power, stimulated and financed by German fascists.
No, he told them, Marshal Tukhachevsky had not been arrested because of his noble lineage—didn’t they know that Engels was the son of a factory owner? Or that Lenin was from the nobility? Nor, he said, was anyone being arrested for having long ago voted with Trotsky. Had they not read Tukhachevsky’s testimony?
He passed on our operational plans—our operational plans, the holy of holies—to the German army! He had dealings with representatives of the German Reichswehr. A spy? A spy!
Then he got into interesting detail:
There’s an experienced agent in Germany, in Berlin … Josephine Heinze. Maybe one of you knows her? She’s a beautiful woman. An experienced agent. She recruited [Lev] Karakhan [foreign affairs]. She recruited him with the ways of a woman. She recruited [Avel] Yenukidze. She helped recruit Tukhachevsky. She also had [Janis] Rudzutaks in her hands. This Josephine Heinze is a very experienced agent. She is probably Danish and works for the German Reichswehr. A beautiful woman, who likes to cater to all men’s desires.
I ransacked the internet for a photograph but found nothing. I believe in her, that she did some of that stuff, and I will pay a thousand dollars to anyone who can turn her up—but there has to be a good photograph, and she has to be Josephine Heinze, Reichswehr secret agent, and not just any Josephine Heinze.
Stalin could be extraordinarily kind to the most unlikely of people—even to a priest, if he felt the inclination; after all, he had some affinity with priests. Alexander Vasilevsky was a career officer, promoted marshal in 1943, then Chief of the General Staff and, in 1949, Minister of Defence. Much of the credit for defeating Nazi Germany goes to him. In 1939-40 he was deputy chief of the general staff’s operations directorate. He came from an impoverished family, his father was a priest, his mother was the daughter of a priest, and he himself had studied at a seminary. In 1940 he was a guest at a small supper party in Stalin’s Kremlin apartment. Proposing a toast to him, Stalin asked him why it was that, after graduating from the seminary, Vasilevsky had not become a priest. The dictator had obviously read the file on him. Vasilevsky answered that he had never intended to become a priest. Stalin smiled. “I see, I see, you had no such intention. Understandable. But Mikoyan and I did want to become priests, but for some reason they would not take us. Why, I do not understand to this day.”
Stalin then asked Vasilevsky why he was not helping his father financially:
As far as I know, one of your brothers is a physician, another is an agronomist, a third is a military commander-aviator and a well-off person. I think all of you could be helping your parents, and then the old man could long ago have broken with his church. He would not need the church in order to survive.
Vasilevsky had carefully avoided contacts with his father (who was still a priest), and when, recently, he had received a letter from home, he had immediately gone to the party organisation at the general staff to confess. Now, as Vasilevsky recalled it, “Stalin said that I should immediately re-establish contact with my parents and give them systematic assistance and inform the general staff party organisation about the authorisation to do so.”
Although this volume adds little to the historical record of the period between the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, it does provide an immense amount of detail on the relations between these powers during those twenty-two months. It also offers an explanation for the murder of 21,857 captured or arrested Polish officers, civil servants and intellectuals in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere, including near Smolensk, in March 1940. Stalin approved a troika and a “special procedure” for the purpose on March 5, the authorisation co-signed by Voroshilov, Molotov and Mikoyan. Kotkin thinks that:
Through agents in Britain, the Soviets likely picked up on recent French whisperings to employ exiled Polish forces (“volunteers”) to attack Soviet positions in northern Finland, around Petsamo, a scenario that eventually could have had Polish army officers inside the USSR playing the role that the Czechoslovak Legion had played in 1918—namely, sparking a civil war. But whatever the anxieties, the massacres ultimately flowed from a bottomless well of Soviet–Polish enmity … The Katyn Forest slaughter would prove to be not just another epochal Soviet state crime, but a strategic blunder.
Kotkin does not explain how it was “a strategic blunder”. He ignores the fact that the obvious alternative to shooting those officers, namely keeping them for an indefinite period in a camp or series of camps far to the Soviet east, would equally have prevented any danger of “civil war” they represented—which seems far-fetched in any case. A simpler explanation for their liquidation is that almost all of them would have had an intensely anti-Russian and bourgeois consciousness and, as military officers, would have been men of status and influence. To Stalin, that would have constituted adequate justification.
In discussing the inefficiency of collective and state farms, which had stabilised by 1934 as harvests improved, Kotkin notes that, for the people on them, these vast and increasingly mechanised concerns (in 1940 the USSR had twice as many tractors as the whole of the rest of Europe) represented “a demotion from peasant to labourer … which encouraged dependency and sloth”. It might also be pointed out that even now, in 2017, Russian agriculture is held back by these farms, most of them having chosen to remain collectivised (it would be unkind to think “through dependency and sloth”). Incidentally, kibbutzim in Israel are ideologically related (via two men who pioneered them in Palestine, the Stalinists Yitzhak Tabenkin and Meir Ya’ari). Also incidentally, Japan had a much better policy in Manchukuo, which I never knew about till I read Kotkin: “In Manchukuo, [Japan] had gone on to create a vast autonomous province for ethnic Mongols and fostered preservation of traditional lifestyles, the opposite of Soviet social engineering in its Mongolian satellite”—the first positive thing I’ve ever read about pre-war Japanese colonialism.
In places one could do with more detail than Kotkin already provides. For example, in 1931–33 the White Sea Canal was built by 120,000 forced (Kotkin has “slave”) labourers, with perhaps 12,000 dying in the process, a terrible thing (publicly celebrated by Maxim Gorky and other Stalinist writers). It would be useful to be told approximately what percentage of these labourers were regular gulag criminals (95 per cent? 50 per cent? 5 per cent?), how many were political prisoners, and whether chain-gang convicts in Alabama are “slave labourers” or “forced labourers”. Slavery is a distinct institution all its own, and chain-gang convicts in Alabama are not slaves, though they may as well be slaves, and certainly feel like slaves.
Most of my specific criticisms are equally pedantic. For example, the regime did not annually commemorate “Lenin’s passing” (page 740) but Lenin’s death; Stalin’s mind at its worst was not “demonic” (page 378) but pathological, psychopathic, paranoid, criminal, perverse; a Soviet worker did not, ever, have “to labour for sixty-two hours [an entire week] to purchase a loaf of bread” (page 544—absurd, as ten seconds’ thought would have shown the author; even a Stakhanovite would starve); Liepaja (Libau) and Ventspils (Windau) are not in “Lithuania” (page 664) but in Latvia. The list can be extended.
However, in a volume of 1154 pages there are bound to be errors. When the third volume appears in the next year or two, this trilogy will rightly become the standard biographical work on its subject in English.
Philip Ayres is a biographer whose subjects have included Malcolm Fraser, Ninian Stephen, Douglas Mawson and Owen Dixon. He wrote on Richard Nixon in the September issue