By Sarah McPhee
“In all his stature he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the future. This is the most famous and at the same time the most unknown person in the world.” Henri Barbusse, Stalin, 1935
The lecture hall was filled to capacity for the event “Power, Geopolitics, Ideas,” featuring noted historian and Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin. Co-sponsored by the Ellison Center and the UW History Department, students, faculty, and community members from a variety of backgrounds gathered to hear Kotkin discuss his research on the most enigmatic, powerful, and dangerous man to ever walk the planet. “It’s 862 pages, but my good friend assures me that it reads more like 620,” he deadpanned to a chuckling crowd. Kotkin admitted that it is very difficult to discuss a book of such depth and breadth in just a couple of hours, but he was eager to provide insight into the scope of his research and to offer a more nuanced view of Stalin as a man and leader.
Kotkin’s appraisal of the “Stalin phenomenon” is primarily from the regime level, from the inside, based upon the documentation of the people who worked for him. He signed the contract for the three-volume work in 2003, but he admitted that he was unsure that he could truly pull it off at the time. Nevertheless, with the help of the right contacts and a circuitous approach to gathering the primary sources, he was able to access sufficient materials from police and military records, as well as a large number of declassified materials that had already been published for Russian universities. He describes these resources as “disparate materials, in no particular order, microfilms and photographed copies of documents.” Over a decade after inking the contract, Kotkin was able to offer the world a radically different view of Stalin, the Soviet Union, and the nature of dictatorship in Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928.
Kotkin insisted that the geopolitical landscape into which Stalin was born, a world in flux, significantly impacted his perception of reality. In 1815, the British had won a long struggle with France for global supremacy. For the victor, the spoils included the opportunity to formthe world economy, which including shipping, trade, and laying undersea cables. In Central Europe, Bismarck had succeeded in the unification of Germany, and on the edge of the Pacific the Restoration of Japan heralded the rise of an industrializing power, even as China was in decline. By the 1870s, when Stalin was born, these ambitious powers flanked the Russian Empire. By the 1880s, the United States had become the biggest economy in the world, although distant and not yet a global power. Kotkin reminded the audience that all of this was built on the backs of the world’s peasantry. This would not be lost upon the Bolsheviks, nor Lenin in particular, and especially not his Georgian pupil Stalin.
Kotkin was pleased to answer questions, many of which were addressed with greater detail in the book. Laymen and historians alike often look to Stalin’s childhood for glimpses of the sociopath that he would eventually become, but Kotkin dismisses this approach as overly simplistic. His research indicated that his upbringing was much like his poverty-stricken peers, that he was loved dearly by his mother, and that he was a “teacher’s pet” who maintained high marks. “Stalin’s dictatorship was a transcendent work of art — the gold standard for all dictatorships — you cannot have a cheap psychoanalysis of his masterpiece” he insisted. Instead, he points to the very nature of the power he had amassed, a product of both skill and inheritance, and his paranoia over the Testament, which was allegedly dictated by Lenin as a final assessment of the people in his inner-circle. Kotkin points out that there is no documented evidence that this work was dictated by Lenin, and at the time it was drafted, Lenin was reportedly unable to speak. Kotkin believed that throughout Stalin’s reign, the Testament “eats at him,” citing six episodes where Stalin resigns his post between 1923 and 1927, at which time he is begged to stay on in his role.
When asked about the intellectual “inferiority complex” from which Stalin is believed to have suffered when compared to men like Trotsky, Kotkin completely rejected this as myth. Stalin was actually more educated than most Bolsheviks, he insisted, and while Stalin had dropped out of the seminary, Trotsky had also left higher education and had no degree. Instead, Kotkin contended that Stalin was a voracious reader who was “trying to figure out a tyranny, and going right to the sources,” often assigning reading to his staff. “Power has a big effect on people,” Kotkin explained, “and here was a man deporting entire nations! Duh! It’s gaining to have a tremendous effect on his personality! That’s where the demons are.”
Kotkin reported that Volume II is in draft form, but Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928 is currently available in both hardcover and ebook.