Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin Is a Distorting Mirror of the Russian Revolution

Stephen Kotkin aspires to give us the definitive picture of Stalin — and to bury socialism with his crimes. But Kotkin’s political outlook, neglect of ideas, and addiction to hindsight warp his presentation of Russian and Soviet history, undermining his entire project.

Portrait of Stalin. (Pikrepo)

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, is the first of a projected three-volume biography of the Soviet despot written by Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund Professor of History and International Studies at Princeton University, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Kotkin dedicates his Stalin to John P. Birkelund — “businessman, benefactor, fellow historian.” I had never heard of Mr Birkelund before, so I looked him up.

A Princeton ’52 graduate, Mr Birkelund was Chairman of the Wall Street investment firm Dillon, Read & Co. between 1986 and 1998; sat on more than a dozen Company Boards, including Barings Bank and the New York Stock Exchange; and was a trustee for a similar number of public organizations, notably the Frick Collection and the New York Public Library.

A standard-bearer of free-market politics, Birkelund was active in the Republican Party, contributing financially to the Senate electoral campaign of Pete Coors (the beer tycoon) in 2004 and the presidential runs of Bush/Cheney in 2004 and McCain/Palin in 2008. Mr Birkelund is a class act.

The View From the Top

Weighing in at well over five hundred thousand words, with “SK” embossed on the hardcover, Kotkin’s Stalin seeks to impart the idea that socialism is a misbegotten dystopia, a “castle-in-the-air project.”

The “construction of political order on the basis of class rather than common humanity and individual liberty was (and always will be) ruinous,” he warns. The October Revolution was a malicious freak of history, a “putsch” of Bolshevik squadristi that could have been “prevented by a pair of bullets” — one for that “deranged fanatic,” Lenin, “master of the abusive, pithy phrase,” the other for Trotsky, that “grandiloquent orator.” Today we would speak of a drone strike on individuals who cause offense, drawn from an approved kill list.

Kotkin’s apotheosis of private property and free markets is an old and pervasive theme in academia — and will remain so until bourgeois society breathes its last, either through a movement of the majority to transcend it, in the interests of the vast majority, or through catastrophe, whether viral or environmental.

From a position at the apex of the American “Sovietological” establishment, Kotkin is today writing letters of recommendation for kindred spirits, influencing search committees, and, more generally, working diligently to reward advocates of the “open society.”

Meanwhile, he torpedoes publication-cum-career opportunities for those who will not get their minds right. Nothing new here. Russian and Soviet studies are an ideological minefield, and few Marxists have been known to negotiate it successfully — in the United States especially.

Kotkin’s strident and relentless denunciation of Marx, Marxism, and socialism obstruct his understanding of the intra-Russian Social Democratic conflicts which consumed much of Stalin’s early political life as an underground revolutionary, and of Stalin’s ideas on the challenges facing the Bolsheviks from 1917 onward, at home and abroad.

The phrase “sectarianism among revolutionaries was as common as cuckolding” gives the vulgar measure of Kotkin’s disinterest in scrupulously studying the intellectual dimension of Stalin’s activity — or that of Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, or any other individual he deems politically incorrect.

Even so, Kotkin’s conclusions on selected issues can be tested for internal coherence, on the one hand, and fidelity to the historical record, on the other. If the two mesh then we are at, or pretty close to, the truth.

Propaganda vs. Agitation

Born in Georgia in 1878 to parents who were once serfs, Stalin entered the Gori Theological School in 1888. An excellent student, he graduated in 1894 and moved to Tiflis to enroll in the Tiflis Theological Seminary, obtaining his degree in 1899. While at the seminary he grew aware of social injustice, read banned books, became radicalized, and joined a local Social Democratic organization in 1898, working as a propagandist for small groups of workers organized in study circles. Soon, new challenges presented themselves.

In 1900, Social Democrats in Tiflis, St Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere were arguing over the kind of politics they needed to advance the cause. Some favored continuing with legal, propagandistic work among a few workers, as Stalin had been doing for the past two years. Kvali, a legal Marxist periodical published in Tiflis, pushed this line. Many more called for agitation among the mass of workers, who were now openly confronting management and the state through wildcat strikes and street demonstrations.

Stalin and like-minded Social Democrats chose to disregard Kvali’s opposition to making the move from legal “educational work” to illegal “direct action.” So began Stalin’s life as an underground revolutionary. These facts are not in dispute, but a politically tendentious teleology mars Kotkin’s placement of them in the broader historical context. The documentary evidence that the historian cites himself undercuts this teleology. Kotkin display the same analytical weakness every time he tries to explain turning-points in Stalin’s life, and in world history.

In 1900, Stalin chose mass agitation, rejecting quiet pedagogy among autodidact workers by small circles of Social Democratic propagandists. In line with the new politics, he and his comrades prepared to commemorate May Day 1901 by “agitating among the city’s largest concentration of workers, the Tiflis main railway shops.” Two thousand marched. Cossacks attacked. Mass arrests followed.

A few months later, the Tiflis Committee sent Stalin to Batum, where he “immersed himself in the workers’ milieu.” He got a job at the Rothschild Oil company. In February 1902, Stalin helped organize a mass walkout, distributing leaflets. Cossacks attacked once again. Stalin and many others were arrested.

Clearly, Stalin was in the thick of the workers’ movement, risking life and limb. Through analytical legerdemain, however, Kotkin interprets Stalin’s choice for militant action among the many over quiet propaganda among the few as favoring, somehow, a conspiratorial, “intelligentsia-centered party” — Bolshevism — over an open, democratic, “worker-centric” party — Menshevism.

Premature Bolshevism

Already, Kotkin is determined to establish Stalin’s sympathy for the Bolshevik “dictatorship” of the intellectuals in contrast to the Menshevik “democracy” of the workers, a standard theme in the field. In truth, the factions known as “Bolsheviks” and “Mensheviks,” along with the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), of which they were a part, would not appear on the scene until three years later. Kotkin backdates the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split to 1900, mixing up the issues that divided the RSDLP at that point with those that agitated Social Democrats sic et simpliciter in 1900. Kotkin’s teleology leads to incoherence.

By 1903, whether or not to agitate in the mass workers’ movement was no longer an issue for Social Democrats like Stalin, as it had been for them in 1900. Even Kvali, long hostile to such agitation, finally came around to the new, interventionist politics. The issue now was the kind of mass-agitation politics they needed to develop, and the type of organization required to develop it.

Georgi Plekhanov, Lenin, and Julius Martov launched Iskra in 1900 and campaigned for three years to unite their fellow socialists in a duly constituted, Empire-spanning party with an elected leadership and an explicitly revolutionary program. When Stalin learned of the Menshevik-Bolshevik split in late 1903, he sided with Lenin. But Kotkin mischaracterizes Stalin’s political choice at that point, just as he does with the earlier one.

As part of Iskra’s literary campaign for political unity, Lenin wrote What Is to Be Done? (1902). He attacked the political strategy of reformism and economism advocated by the anti-Iskrist paper, Rabochee Delo. No one among the Iskrists then saw in Lenin’s widely-disseminated pamphlet a sinister, conspiratorial call for a Blanquist party of intellectuals to make the revolution behind the backs of workers.

Martov did not see this conspiracy. Neither did Plekhanov. Stalin did not see it either as he was pressing Iskra into workers’ hands. But Kotkin does see it. The Mensheviks also saw it — but only after the split.

The Mensheviks decided that Lenin’s approach was disastrously un-Marxist only after they refused to recognize the leadership the London Congress had elected — Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov — rather than those members the Congress had not elected — Vera Zazulich, Alexander Potresov, and Pavel Axelrod. Martov boycotted leadership conferences. Plekhanov, relenting, brought the unelected back.

Lenin demonstratively resigned, protesting that undisciplined, franc-tireur intellectuals should not impose an unelected leadership on the party’s rank and file — a rank and file that, according to Lenin, valued discipline highly, and understood leadership had to be held to account in any democratically-run organization, regardless of its political line. Lenin’s line of argument persuaded Stalin; the Menshevik one did not.

Rolodex Empiricism

Kotkin does not lay out fully before his readers Lenin’s explanations for his stance — the explanations Stalin himself read — only the “Lenin-is-a-Blanquist” line of his Menshevik opponents, which Stalin also read. Kotkin subscribes fully to that line. That appreciation, however, was not shared by Stalin, or by the majority of his comrades. Kotkin says so himself: it “would take time for the Georgian — and most everyone else on the left — to appreciate Lenin’s history-bending force of will.”

Until that time what did Stalin appreciate in Lenin? One possibility is that Lenin won Stalin over through rational argument. But Kotkin rejects this explanation. In his reading, Stalin is motivated largely by a lust for domination, conspiracy, dictatorial rule, and other unhelpful approaches to social problem-solving. But Kotkin’s a-rational, Triumph-of-the-Will Lenin did not motivate Stalin either.

As Stalin was waiting to meet Lenin for the first time at the December 1905 Tammersfor Conference held in Finland — mistakenly identified by Kotkin as the Third Congress of the RSDLP, held in London seven months earlier — Stalin imagined the Bolshevik leader as a “giant, as a stately representative figure of a man.” Stalin later recalled his disappointment “when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”

According to Kotkin’s diagnosis of Stalin’s mentality, Stalin should have taken his leave at once and set out to look for his idealized Ubermensch among other, more imposing and less ordinary candidates. He did not. Such are the limitations of psycho-history. Kotkin, though, is undeterred, and personalities, great and small, crowd his book throughout.

Kotkin writes capsule biographies and family genealogies of countless revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, courtesans and desperadoes, high and not-so-high state officials who lived in Stalin’s lifetime. He often accompanies his innumerable vignettes with detailed descriptions of where many of these people lived (flora, fauna, topography, climate); the structures they lived in (architectural details, amenities, plumbing, disposition of rooms); what they ate and drank; what they ate on and what they drank from (chinaware, silverware); their psychological makeup; their sexual practices; and so on.

Kotkin’s lack of a theoretically informed structural analysis combine with his disinterest in explication de textes — Stalin’s above all — and a determination to write on an encyclopedic scale to generate a recurring pattern of Rolodex empiricism.

Blank Spaces

Stalin missed the 1905 Revolution, spending the next twelve years mostly in exile, in prison, or on the run. The 1917 February Revolution freed him. To make up for the apparent dearth of material on Stalin in this period, Kotkin pads his biography with a hundred and forty–page long, upper-division level lecture on the “momentous history” of Russia and the world between 1905 and 1917, a pastiche covering many random, causally unconnected issues, with an emphasis on the actions and writings of high tsarist officials, notably P. A. Stolypin. Again, the little Kotkin writes about Stalin in this period tells us more about what Kotkin thinks of Stalin than about what Stalin thinks.

The Fourth Congress of the RSDLP met in Stockholm in April 1906. The Menshevik faction possessed a majority. Stalin said a few words about the agrarian question. He rejected land nationalization and land municipalization, as proposed by the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, respectively, in favor of land to the peasant — the stance of their Socialist Revolutionary rivals in the Russian socialist movement.

Kotkin does not explain the political significance of these categories. Nor does he dwell on the fact that Stalin did not genuflect before Lenin but could think for himself. It may well have been one of those “paradoxes” of Stalin’s to which he refers — in other words, a fact that is inconsistent with Kotkin’s widely shared conception of “Leninism” as a “monolithic” force, and of Lenin’s partisans as robotic disciples.

Back in the Caucasus, Stalin wrote a pamphlet about the Fourth Congress resolutions the Mensheviks had passed in favor of participation in the upcoming Duma elections. From the few lines Kotkin devotes to it, it is impossible to tell whether Stalin stood for or against participation, still less what reasons he might have invoked to support one line or the other.

Kotkin cannot be bothered to present the argument of any Russian Social Democrat fairly and fully, because he considers them all to have been exponents of an irrational, millenarian ideology. In times of revolution Bolshevism “incarnates bedlam” — its zealots are “obsessed.”

In 1908, Stalin wrote a series of articles titled “Anarchism or Socialism” for the Baku Proletarian. “Marxism was a theory of everything,” Kotkin jibes. Along the way Stalin didactically explained why, owing to competition, an independent “petty-bourgeois” cobbler — his father’s profession — was bound to become a proletarian and develop a corresponding, proletarian, consciousness. “Thus, in order to explain Marx’s concept of materialism (social existence determines consciousness), the future Stalin had rendered his father a victim of historical forces,” Kotkin sententiously announces. Kotkin is unafraid to plumb the depths of young Stalin’s depravity.

In 1912, Stalin wrote a major work, “Marxism and the National Question,” a polemic against Austro-Marxism much praised by Lenin. It takes up eighty pages in Stalin’s Collected Works. Kotkin can only spare a few lines for it here. The work is “significant for confronting” the national question, “a crucial aspect of the revolution,” as well as going after Menshevik representatives of Austro-Marxism in Georgia. The other “significant issue” for Kotkin was the signature appended to it, “Stalin” (“Man of Steel”): “That strong sonorous pseudonym was not only superior to Oddball Osip, Pockmarked Oska, or the very Caucasus specific Koba, but also Russifying.”

Kotkin has nothing to say about the 1908–9 Mach vs. Marx debate in Russian Social Democracy around the relationship between politics and philosophy, in the course of which Stalin generated an extensive correspondence. These and other blank spaces undermine the historian’s claims about the unprecedented coverage of his Stalin study. Stalin’s cloak-and-dagger escapades, in contrast, command Kotkin’s undivided attention.

Mensheviks and Bolsheviks engaged in “expropriations” — bank-holdups — to finance the party in 1905–7. Stalin helped plan but did not participate in a June 1907 operation in Tiflis that netted the Bolsheviks a huge sum. Imitating the Okhranka, Kotkin follows Stalin’s shadowy comings and goings and daring-dos minutely. Here, Kotkin is in his element.

Of Heroes and Anti-Heroes

If Stalin is Kotkin’s antihero, Kotkin’s wishful counter-world-history has P. A. Stolypin as hero, the man who could have saved Russia and the planet from Stalin and Stalinism. How Kotkin accounts for the different fortunes of the two statesmen sheds some light on the analytical weakness of the “Great Man” approach to great social transformations. Stolypin combined the offices of prime minister and minister of interior from 1906 to 1911, when a Socialist Revolutionary bullet put an end to his career. Kotkin sees in Stolypin the would-be Bismarck of Russia.

A “figure of immense charm and sensitive to form,” he admiringly writes, Stolypin “proved to be imperial Russia’s most energetic provincial governor, as well as an executive of courage and vision…” Had Stolypin been successful doing for Russia what Bismarck had done for Prussia — unifying Germany and leading it toward the Rechtstaat powered by a dynamic capitalism — Stalin would have remained but a footnote in the history books, if even that.

Stolypin is well known for successfully savaging the anti-tsarist opposition in the aftermath of 1905 Revolution, notably in the countryside. Though “willing to explain to assembled crowds his rationale for upholding the law,” Kotkin writes, Stolypin “personally” led troops in repression when these pedagogical methods did not persuade.

His government “deported tens of thousands to forced labor or internal exile. It introduced special field courts that used summary justice to send more than 3,000 accused political opponents to the gallows.” Stolypin strung them up “in demonstrative public executions” so that “people would get the point.”

Stolypin, however, was not satisfied with realizing short-term goals. As Kotkin emphasizes, he was a visionary, and saw past the gallows. A “single individual’s decisions can radically transform an entire country’s political and socio-economic structures, with global repercussions,” the author declaims.

Russia’s “modernization” was a geo-political imperative if it was to compete successfully in a world of modern and modernizing states. Stolypin’s policy of promoting free enterprise in agriculture in the post-1905 period could have been the lynchpin, Kotkin argues, of a successful transition to a free-market economy and, ultimately, to a liberal political order, bypassing the revolutions of 1917. Why did Stolypin fail?

Though Stolypin possessed all the personal attributes minimally necessary to effect fundamental social transformation — determined, energetic, courageous, a visionary — Kotkin laments that no significant section of the tsarist establishment, in particular from the landed gentry, supported Stolypin in that endeavor. Even Nicholas II, blind to his own true interests, failed to back his appointee.

“History is made by those who never quit,” declares Kotkin emptily. Certainly, Oblomovism characterized neither man. But why did the son of ex-serfs “succeed” while the big Saratov landowner came up short? Didn’t Stalin have personal attributes similar to Stolypin’s? Stolypin did not “quit,” and neither did Stalin — but world history is connected to Stalin’s name alone.

1917: Stalin Vanishes

The great chronicler of the Russian Revolution N. A. Sukhanov characterized Stalin’s role in the period of dual power — February to October 1917 — as insignificant, “a grey blur, emitting a dim light now and then and not leaving any trace.” Kotkin rejects this view: on the contrary, Stalin was “deeply engaged in all deliberations and actions in the innermost circle of the Bolshevik leadership.”

Kotkin is right on this point. But it does not invalidate Sukhanov’s observation. Stalin just didn’t stand out — unlike Lenin and Trotsky — in the upper echelons of the Bolshevik organization, or in public. Ironically, Kotkin’s gargantuan Stalin biography — which should clock in around three thousand pages once completed — has far less to say about his subject than Isaac Deutscher’s six-hundred-page Stalin booklet does. What was Deutscher doing in his book that Kotkin is not?

Deutscher gave a detailed account, spanning scores of pages, of just what Stalin had to say and how he said it in the more than forty lead articles he wrote for Bolshevik papers like Pravda, Proletariat, and Workers’ Path. In late April, Kotkin notes, Stalin “emerged as a powerful voice of Bolshevik propaganda” stressing “the need to seize power in the name of the soviets, which to Lenin meant in the hands of the Bolsheviks.” (Never mind that “All Power to the Soviets” meant to everyone at this time not the idea of the Bolsheviks seizing power but the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries doing so, as long as they commanded majorities in every soviet — as they did until late August/early September 1917, when the tide began to turn in the Bolsheviks’ favor).

Kotkin allots but a handful of desultory paragraphs to political argument. His parsimony is understandable: Stalin was doing his bit to persuade and win people over to the Bolsheviks. But this was really illusory, in Kotkin’s view. The Russian people were not paying close attention — not reflecting, not arguing day and night as “former Harvard cheerleader” John Reed showed in his classic Ten Days That Shook the World. Instead they were looking wondrously up above for their salvation, a “savior,” now a Kerensky, now a Kornilov, now a Lenin.

Incredibly, Kotkin simply ignores the determining role Stalin (and Kamenev) did play among the Bolsheviks in the first weeks of the revolution, before Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership abroad had set foot in Russia. It is a historiographically significant role because it puts to rest, inter alia, the shopworn, assiduously peddled myth that Bolshevism was a perennially “power-hungry” political movement, its leaders ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice once the balance of forces was favorable. Unable or unwilling to account for this anomaly within his no-holds-barred anti-communist paradigm, Kotkin keeps silent.

In March 1917, the opportunity to seize or attempt to seize power came — and went — without Stalin doing anything power-hungry. This was not because Stalin and the top leadership lost their sangfroid, but rather because they gagged on Marxist “dogma” — ideas that Bolsheviks and Mensheviks held in common, specifically, the idea of the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after the overthrow of the tsar, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks momentarily drew nearer to one another politically, mutually ignoring the supposed “worker-centric” democratic affinities of one, and the intelligentsia-centric dictatorial affinities of the other — portentous affinities that have preoccupied generations of liberal American historians, exemplified in the work of Leopold Haimson. This pivotal episode in Stalin’s life topples one pillar of the conventional wisdom that the two tendencies were constantly at each other’s throats on matters great and small.

Dual Power

Something without precedent arose in the first days of the February Revolution: the formation of the Petrograd Soviet, sitting in one wing of the Tauride Palace, and that of the Provisional Government, sitting in the other. The Soviet was rooted in the working class of the city. Democratically elected, its proceedings public, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries led it. The famous Order No. 1 put the Russian armed forces under its ultimate authority.

In sharp contrast, the Provisional Government came out of the unrepresentative Duma. A handful of self-appointed Kadet Party parliamentary leaders hatched it behind closed doors. Kadet Duma liberal luminaries dominated it. No one had anticipated this situation of “dual power.”

The Bolsheviks on the scene pressed for the immediate formation of a Provisional Government that was truly revolutionary. They did not have in mind the Soviet (as Lars Lih has held) but a Provisional Government led by revolutionaries, not counter-revolutionary Kadets. It could be established, they believed, by displacing the current one, or by purging the current one of its liberals, or simply by rendering those liberals politically insignificant. Either way, the result would be the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” that the Bolsheviks had been calling for since 1905.

Released from exile, Stalin, soon followed by Kamenev, shrank from drawing these revolutionary, anti-Kadet government conclusions. Overruling the local Bolsheviks upon his arrival in the capital, Stalin decided the 1905 slogan was now best expressed by “critical support” for the existing, Kadet-led Provisional Government “insofar as” it carried the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution to the very end. This would mean holding elections to a constituent assembly, which, once convened, would write up a constitution for a democratic republic, the ideal political form of the capitalist state for the workers’ movement.

No alternate plan of action was in place “insofar as” the Provisional Government did not do what it was supposed to do in the interim — end the war, give land to the peasant, and bread to the worker. In short, the top Bolshevik leadership in Russia renounced any attempt to organize a campaign to seize power in the name of the Soviet — let alone in its own name — not because a claque of politically impotent liberals stood in the way, but because of the idea that no proletarian-led socialist revolution was on the agenda. The documentary record belies Kotkin’s facile reduction (echoed by countless others) of all Bolshevik politics in 1917 to the seizure of power — or even the attempt to seize it.

Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in early April. Having examined from afar the balance of class forces and concluded that it favored a Soviet-led socialist revolution, he campaigned for “All Power to the Soviets,” jettisoning the idea of critical support to the Provisional Government — let alone joining it, as the Mensheviks were eventually to do, in the process formally implementing the 1905 Bolshevik slogan, but now devoid of a revolutionary politics pushing beyond bourgeois democracy.

Painting of Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd, 1917.

The balance of forces in the Bolshevik rank-and-file favored Lenin. The solid, unrelieved, Kadet-eating polemics the cadres had read in the Bolshevik press over the last decade or so had not gone down the memory hole, and many among them had presaged, if in institutionally ambiguous terms, Lenin’s unconditional rejection of the Kadet-dominated Provisional Government.

With their support, Lenin argued for, and executed, a strategic reorientation. His “April Theses” called for “All Power to the Soviets” and would guide the Bolsheviks for the next seven months. Stalin followed suit, quietly moving from “Old” Bolshevik positions to “New” Bolshevik ones. Kotkin grossly underestimates the intelligence of the Bolsheviks, and that of the masses.

Coup, Civil War, and the Retreat From War Communism

Kotkin may well declare the October Revolution to have been the handiwork of a cabal of conspirators. Still, he grudgingly recognizes that “Lenin’s dictatorship shared with much of the mass a popular maximalism, an end to the war come what may, a willingness to use force to ‘defend the revolution’… Lenin drew strength from the popular radicalism.” In other words, there was a democratic basis to the October Revolution.

Without the support of the working class, the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War over an array of counter-revolutionary White armies, led by antisemitic cutthroats and supported by English, American, French, and Japanese imperialist freebooters, would have been inconceivable. Peace finally came in 1921.

Russia by then was devastated; its industry at a standstill; its workers displaying unprecedented “creativity” and “independence” by deserting to the countryside offering hand-made knick-knacks to peasants, put together with raw materials pilfered from the factory, in exchange for food — when peasants were not rebelling in mad despair against the depredations of War Communism.

The Soviet dictatorship was now exercised by the Bolshevik Party alone, the bulk of the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik leaderships having denied the legitimacy of the October Revolution. Within that political monopoly, Stalin assumed an evermore prominent role.

Stalin was elected general secretary in 1922. In his dictated testament, Lenin counseled removing Stalin for his rude, high-handed, and exceptionally authoritarian ways. Kotkin disputes the document’s authorship. Stalin never questioned it. Kotkin himself deflates the importance of authorship: “Lenin’s dictation — however it was produced — comported with a widespread view of his [Stalin’s] own character. In other words, even if it was partly or wholly concocted, the dictation ran true.” Everyone on the Politburo read the testament. Yet Stalin kept his position.

Stalin’s Road to Power and the NEP

As head of the Party’s personnel department, Stalin used his power of appointment to promote, demote, transfer, fire, and hire. In a series of faction fights — “cockfights” — he advanced his supporters, held back detractors, suppressed opponents, and recruited new faces. Kotkin logs a blow-by-blow account of Stalin maneuvering daily to build his dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship. Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev began by defeating the Left Opposition of 1923. Then, Stalin turned against his erstwhile allies — or was it the other way around?

In any event, Stalin, with Bukharin’s support, routed the Zinoviev-Kamenev Opposition of 1925–26, followed by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotsky or United Opposition of 1926–27. Stalin extended his power at the conclusion of every faction fight by appointing little Stalins to occupy freshly vacated positions in the nomenklatura, and by creating new ones.

Insofar as political principle was involved — and not mere jockeying for bureaucratic advantage — none of the factions questioned the necessity of the New Economic Policy (NEP) adopted in 1921, or of single-party rule. Kotkin contends that Trotsky “forcefully moved” against the NEP. Not so. What divided the Bolsheviks was how to quickly build socialism within the context of NEP.

In domestic affairs, every “left” tendency advocated accelerated economic development, not forced collectivization and industrialization, and was thus in constant opposition to the really existing alternative: the go-slow program of economic recovery and unhurried economic advance favored by the minimalist policies of the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev leadership of 1923–24, and by the Stalin-Bukharin duumvirate of 1925–27. That division began to break down in late 1927. For the first time, a “right” opposition emerged, led by Nikolai Bukharin.

The NEP was a success, not a “policy debacle” traceable to “communist ideology.” Kotkin’s anti-communist fervor turns matters upside down. Economic recovery was rapid. Workers returned to their factories. Peasants were free. In November 1927, however, Stalin and many others observed a new, unexpected and, above all, alarming development: a dramatic decline in grain-marketing by the peasantry threatening the cities with food insecurity, and calling into question the feasibility of economic development much beyond recovery.

The Grain Crisis of 1927: Policy Errors?

Kotkin can point to no new policy specifically targeting peasants that caused them to withhold grain. Neither can any other historian. He repeats the standard view that high prices for manufactured goods and low prices for grain deterred the peasantry — the kulaks in particular — from marketing this vital foodstuff. But the shortage itself caused unofficial grain prices to rise, returning to pre-crisis equilibria in September 1928, with grain prices continuing to rise well into 1929.

Yet the crisis rolled on unabated. No one recognized then — and most today still don’t — a crisis of agricultural underproduction built into the peasant way of life, not in the heads of Kremlin policymakers.

To be sure, bad weather two years in a row and Stalin’s decision to periodically expropriate needed grain at gunpoint — the “Urals-Siberian” method — exacerbated the crisis. Still, the Soviet Union’s “greatest challenge,” as Kotkin would have it, was not the “behavior of officials engaged in shakedowns and massive embezzlement” — a matter of criminal law — but twenty-five million peasant households, most beyond the reach of greedy officials, acting in their self-interest — a matter of political economy with which no criminal code could possibly cope.

Bukharin, the party’s theoretician; Alexei Rykov, who was in charge of the economy; and the trade-union chief Mikhail Tomsky protested that Stalin would alienate the peasantry if he pursued his expropriations — a second edition of War Communism — for very long, inciting them to rise collectively against the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and ultimately overthrow it. It would take Stalin and his supporters eighteen months to grind down the Right Opposition, finally putting it to flight in the spring of 1929.

On the Eve of a Great Turn?

Foreknowledge of the 1930s seriously distorts Kotkin and the quasi-universal understanding by historians of the first post-October decade. Nobody in late 1927, all through 1928, and through much of 1929, even contemplated — still less practically prepared for — forced collectivization and forced industrialization. There was no inkling of it. It just wasn’t on the cards.

Sunday speeches mentioned only voluntary collectivization and industrialization at some point in the future. NEP had gone through crises before, in 1923 and 1925, and both had been resolved by making policy adjustments. Making similar adjustments would overcome the current crisis, they believed. But this time it didn’t work.

Kotkin’s description of what Stalin actually did in response to shortfalls in marketed grain cannot be reconciled with an ideological project of “modernization” come hell or high-water. Stalin exhibited no “unflinching resolve” to upturn agrarian relations. Rather, he hemmed and hawed for eighteen months, now pushing for the robbery of some peasants, now pulling back from such robbery, hoping to muddle through.

The Soviet leaders spent scare foreign currency importing grain to feed the hungry, in a reversal of what the tsarist government had done in similar circumstances: “we will starve but we shall export,” the portly minister of finance, Ivan Vyshnegradsky, had declared back in 1891.

The leadership also ramped up the production of textiles and other consumer goods to coax the peasants. It raised official grain prices as well. Had Stalin put a permanent halt to using the Urals-Siberian method, as the Right Opposition kept pressing him to do, these auxiliary measures might have allowed the USSR to ride out the crisis, postponing discussion of renewed economic advance to a later date.

It was only in the last days of 1929 — well after Kotkin’s narrative ends in the summer of 1928 — that Stalin issued marching orders to Soviet officialdom to annihilate the NEP and embark on a counter-revolution from above. The Great Turn actually occurred only in the period covered by his second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1928–1941. In Volume I, Kotkin does not show, in practice, that Stalin had definitely forsaken the NEP.

Kotkin divines the outcome of forced industrialization and forced collectivization at the conclusion of this book because he has the benefit of hindsight. But divination is not historical analysis, which is difficult; it is teleology, which is easy.

The Mystery of Stalin’s “Marxism”

For Kotkin, the key to understanding the Great Turn (to be) — the material realization of Stalin’s “vision” — was Stalin’s “immersion in Marxism,” because it was Marxism that sustained the Soviet leader’s “tenacious dedication to the revolutionary cause and the state’s power.” Here we come to the problem of problems, the source of all sorts of contradictions in Kotkin’s book.

There can be no doubt about Stalin’s unflagging “dedication.” However, under the NEP Stalin showed himself to be an unflagging advocate of the “revolutionary cause and the state’s power” through his dedication to preserving the NEP — even after the onset of the grain crisis. What did Stalin understand by “Marxism” if, according to Kotkin, he also invoked the same doctrine to justify destroying the NEP?

Kotkin makes no claim that Stalin destroyed his earlier understanding of “Marxism” in the process. On the contrary, he notes a pattern of tactical flexibility while emphasizing an overarching continuity in Stalin’s “ideological” outlook. But surely the NEP’s destruction was more than mere tactics. It was a change in strategy — one, moreover, that was opposed by other “Marxists.” Of the many questions that can be posed, let me pose this one: who was the authentic Marxist? Stalin? Or his opponents in the Right Opposition?

There were many apparatchiks who were against Stalin not merely because there were angling to take his place, but because they opposed his policies. Such was the case with Bukharin and the Right Opposition. But Kotkin cannot even conceive of this being done by Marxists, or by appeals to Marxist precepts, or in the name of socialism, as Stalin’s critics in the Right Opposition did.

This is because Kotkin always checks with Stalin to decide who is a bona fide Marxist — and who is not; what is socialism — and what is not; what are Marxist precepts — and what are not. In this regard, if not in others, Kotkin is Stalin’s PR man.