Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin, as his biographer puts it, “intensified the insanity inherent in Leninism” — but his actions were mostly sanctified by that ideology. Image Credit: File

Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, by Stephen Kotkin, Allen Lane, 976 pages, £30

Can we ever understand the mind of a mass murderer and dictator?

The question was raised by Martin Amis at a recent Financial Times event when talking about his latest novel on the Holocaust, “The Zone of Interest”. In the case of Hitler, Amis argued, it was near-impossible to grasp what lay behind the Nazi leader’s crimes. The killing of millions of innocents for no reason other than blind hatred hovers at the outer edges of — if not beyond — human comprehension.

Amis referred to the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, who was told by one camp guard: “Hier ist kein warum” (There is no why here). “[T]here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man ...” Levi wrote.

That problem, however, becomes a lot more complex when dealing with the other mass-murdering tyrant of Europe’s 20th century: Stalin. Amis suggested that it was possible to understand Stalin’s actions, no matter how monstrous his regime may have been. His hatred was inside man.

Stephen Kotkin’s monumental biography of Stalin could be presented as Exhibit A for the Amis thesis.

Arguably, Kotkin knows as much about Stalin as any historian: he has already written an important work on Stalinism viewed from the ground up and has taught Russian history at Princeton University for many years. 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 — at least during the early days of power covered by this first book in a projected three-volume biography. There was more often than not a Why in Stalin’s Russia.

That is not to say that Stalin’s story is anything but fantastical: how a Georgian cobbler’s son born in an outpost of the Tsarist empire could help shatter the shackles of a 300-year dynasty, emerge as the supreme leader of one-sixth of the world’s landmass, and reshape the destiny of millions.

Nor is it to deny the irrationality of the entire Leninist project: that violence, murder and mass repression are permissible today to build a more peaceful and just tomorrow. As Kotkin puts it, Stalin “intensified the insanity inherent in Leninism” — but his actions were mostly sanctified by that ideology.

Soviet historians used to present their past as the onward march of vast, impersonal forces (albeit with some erroneous detours). But Kotkin, building on the recent western historiography of Russia, emphasises the role of accident in Stalin’s times and the primacy of human actors.

In this account, had Lenin and Trotsky been killed early in 1917 — in the same way that Germany’s Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were assassinated in 1919 — there would have been no October revolution. “The Bolshevik putsch could have been prevented by a pair of bullets”, Kotkin writes.

Had Stalin died of tuberculosis in the early 1920s then the Soviet Union would not have been brutally frogmarched through the collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation.

So much has been written about Stalin that one might doubt there is much new to say about the man. Library shelves groan with heavy tomes on the Russian revolutionary. But history, like science, advances one obituary at a time.

Kotkin has burrowed deep into the archives that opened following the collapse of the Soviet Union and has absorbed much of the recent Russian research on Stalin. His book stretches to almost 1,000 pages; his compendious notes and index make up close to 20 per cent of the length. Describing his work as a marriage of biography and history, Kotkin subjects our previous understanding of Stalin to searing scrutiny and finds much of it wanting.

With a ferocious determination worthy of his subject, the author debunks many of the myths to have encrusted themselves around Stalin. First, Kotkin rubbishes the notion that Stalin was some kind of revolutionary superman, as later portrayed by Soviet propagandists. We learn all about Stalin’s human impulses and medical complaints, and his mass of personal contradictions. Stalin was “an uncanny fusion of zealous Marxist convictions and great-power sensibilities, of sociopathic tendencies and exceptional diligence and resolve”.

Kotkin is equally dismissive of efforts to explain Stalin’s lust for power through cod psychology. Some historians have made much of the beatings that Stalin endured during his childhood, his early banditry and his sexual conquests. But Kotkin argues that Stalin’s childhood was no more traumatic than those of others of his time. When Stalin was born, the average lifespan for a Russian was just 30 years. His worldview was shaped more by the revolutionary mentality encapsulated by Sergei Nechaev: “Everything that allows the triumph of the revolution is moral.”

Finally, and most substantively, Kotkin dismisses the Trotskyite theory that Stalin betrayed the revolution. In Kotkin’s view, Stalin was Lenin’s faithful pupil. One of the few constants in Stalin’s life was his faith in — and adherence to — Marxist-Leninist theory. A fellow prisoner in a Baku jail in 1908 described Stalin: “Looking at that low and small head, you had the feeling that if you pricked it, the whole of Karl Marx’s Capital would come hissing out of it like gas from a container.”

The disciple was true to his teacher. In Kotkin’s view, “Pitiless class warfare formed the core of Lenin’s thought.” Or, as Maxim Gorky wrote, “His [Lenin’s] love looked far ahead, through the mists of hatred.”

A similar impulse was evident in Stalin’s decision in 1928 to attack Russia’s richer peasants — or kulaks — and collectivise agriculture. This action, which could only be explained within the “straitjacket of Communist ideology”, according to Kotkin, led to the deaths of between 5 million and 7 million in a horrific famine. Had Stalin’s only concern been to amass personal power — as some have it — he would not have launched such a ruinous campaign.

“Right through mass rebellion, mass starvation, cannibalism, the destruction of the country’s livestock, and unprecedented political destabilisation, Stalin did not flinch,” Kotkin writes. That tragic episode in Soviet history is the focus of Volume Two.

So keen is Kotkin to explain the historical context in which Stalin rose to power that the main protagonist is — at times — strangely absent from the narrative in Volume One. But by the end of the book, Stalin has emerged as the dictator of the Kremlin and will doubtless dominate proceedings throughout the rest of this 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.

–Financial Times