Book review: new biography of Stalin

A Georgian Caliban
Stalin, Vol 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
By Stephen Kotkin

Reviewed by Donald Rayfield

All but a few crumbs of the available archive materials have been studied, every political and psychological theory has been applied, filters of every colour - whitewash, deepest red, pitch black - have been inserted into historians' lenses: after the revelations of the last twenty years, little fundamentally new can be said about Joseph Stalin. Psychopaths of Stalin's order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer. There is now a general consensus about the death toll and the ghastly heritage of Stalinism. All that is left to dispute is the mechanism by which Stalin grabbed and held on to power and, of course, the various 'what ifs' that arise from considering a scenario in which he failed to do so. Largely on this basis, Stephen Kotkin presents us with nearly a thousand pages which promise to comprise but a third of a definitive work on Stalin and his rule.

Kotkin's book is so long because he sets Stalin against an extensive historical and social background: not just the history of tsarist Russia, but also the histories of its European imperial neighbours and even the USA and China form a panorama against which the young Stalin sometimes vanishes for many pages at a time. A fifth of the book consists of very detailed notes and an invaluable bibliography. The implicit reason for providing such a wide-ranging background is to show Stalin as a product of his times and country, though the next two volumes will almost certainly show, as Kotkin's work on Stalin's industrialisation strategies already has, the times and the country as the product of Stalin.

There are a few new facts and a little demolition of false assumptions. Kotkin's major surprise is his claim, previously put forward by a Russian scholar, that Lenin's famous testament, a sort of headmaster's report critically assessing the six candidates who might inherit the leadership, was probably not dictated by Lenin. It may instead have been fabricated by Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, who had reason to consider Stalin 'too rude', to have gathered too much power and to be a 'cook who will prepare hot dishes'. But this forgery, if that was what it was, matters little. Krupskaya may merely have written what she had guessed the semi-paralysed Lenin was thinking; moreover, many party members wanted a rude and power-crazed leader who would stir things up. Such criticism did Stalin's chances of power no harm.

Kotkin's merit is that he grinds no axes and is polite to his predecessors. His history is, to an extent, old-fashioned, even Carlylean. He believes that great men shape events: had Stalin not existed, then history would have been very different; had Stalin died in the early 1920s (as he might have done when operated on for appendicitis, given that Russian chloroform killed many a distinguished patient), then the USSR might have prolonged and developed the relatively liberal New Economic Policy and avoided 'socialism in one country'. The evidence of Stalin's proactive micromanagement supports Kotkin's theory.

One might disagree, however, with Kotkin's assumption that Stalin's paranoid, vindictive nature was a product of, not a motive for, the pursuit of power and that it was slow to develop. Stalin's youthful sexual liaisons may have been normal ('Stalin had a penis, and he used it,' Kotkin remarks), but his impregnation of the thirteen- or fourteen-year-old Siberian orphan Lidia Pereprygina was, even by the standards of the most unbourgeois Bolshevik, the kind of behaviour to be condoned only in a male stoat. Kotkin omits many of the acts of the young Stalin that mark him as a creature of exceptional turpitude among the thugs, bandits, fanatics and misguided adolescents of the Transcaucasian Social Democratic Party. For example, when General Griaznov was assassinated in Tbilisi in 1906 and a bystander, Joiashvili, was arrested, Stalin composed an incriminating pamphlet to ensure that Joiashvili and not the real assassin was hanged (Stalin admitted this with pride in the 1920s). Likewise, he tried to have fellow party members executed on false accusations of treachery. 

The best evidence for any semblance of humanity in the young Stalin is not in Kotkin's narrative but in the pictures. The photograph of a dishevelled Stalin standing with his mother and his in-laws by the open coffin in which his first wife lies is the sole picture of Stalin showing anything like remorse, sorrow and embarrassment. Kotkin might also have cited some of the postcards Stalin sent back to Georgia from London, in which he appears as just a laddish adventurer out to have a good time, hoping not to shock his new bride.

Stalin's childhood injuries and illnesses are well catalogued by Kotkin, but he does not pursue them as a possible source of Stalin's sadism (as some have done, on the Dostoevskian principle that the primary desire of a man suffering from toothache is that everyone should share his agony). Medical historians conclude that Stalin was in more or less acute muscular, neurological and dental pain all his adult life. His pain threshold was high - as is testified by his endurance of extensive root canal treatment from the bravest man in his circle, the dentist Yakov Shapiro. But Stalin's brutality towards the medical profession, hitherto sacred to all Russian authorities, hints at the frustrations of a man in unremitting pain. (Kotkin does not mention the first murder of a doctor attributed to Stalin: the death in 1927 of Dr Bekhterev, two days after he remarked that he had just examined 'a paranoiac with a withered arm'.)

Inescapably, the young Stalin's intellectual acumen is as impressive as his ambition. Perhaps the crucial remark (not cited by Kotkin) is to be found in a letter to a girlfriend, telling her that The Tempest was the greatest Shakespearean play. Stalin was a Caliban who, helped by drunken sailors, would overthrow Prospero and seize his kingdom. What emerges well from Kotkin's account is Stalin's activity as a publicist and editor. Books that Stalin annotated reveal that we are dealing with the ultimate proofreader, a man who never missed an author's or an editor's mistake. No wonder Soviet literature's greatest achievement was eliminating misprints, which were considered 'raids by the class enemy' (an attitude one wishes Penguin Press might adopt).

Kotkin's study becomes masterful when he follows Stalin's activities in October 1917. Less than a decision-maker but more than a gofer, Stalin, in his capacity as general secretary of the Bolshevik Central Committee, effectively became the party's chief whip before transforming this role into that of absolute dictator. Kotkin emphasises the stupidity of such articulate intellectuals as Trotsky and Kamenev, who considered themselves Stalin's cultural superiors... read more:

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