Stalin’s staying power

Joseph Stalin was violent and ruthless from an early age, and his criminality, his talents as an organiser and a manipulator, and his over-weening ambition, facilitated his later rise to power, says Geoffrey Roberts. 

Stalin’s staying power

Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Stephen Kotkin

Allen Lane, £30

HOW DID Iosif Dzhugashvili, an idealistic Georgian revolutionary from the fringes of the Russian empire, become Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator of a totalitarian state that executed hundreds of thousands of its citizens and incarcerated, deported or starved to death millions more?

Conventionally, the answer is sought in Stalin’s biography. He had a tough childhood. Beaten by his drunken father, Stalin was violent and ruthless from an early age. Sent to study in a seminary, he rebelled and joined Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. A dedicated activist, he relished the conspiracy and paranoia of the revolutionary underground of Tsarist Russia. As a Bolshevik organiser, Stalin robbed and extorted to raise funds for the party.

Stalin’s criminality, his talents as an organiser and a manipulator, and his over-weening ambition, facilitated his later rise to power. Or so the standard story goes.

Stephen Kotkin’s monumental book on Stalin’s early years — the first of three volumes on his life — challenges these orthodoxies. Stalin was not particularly brutalised or deprived as a child. For a poor peasant, he had a relatively privileged childhood and many opportunities for educational advancement. Stalin planned bank raids, but his political activism consisted of addressing sparsely attended meetings and contributing articles to scarcely read revolutionary publications. He was suspicious and mistrustful, but that was hardly surprising, given the Tsarist police’s penetration of the revolutionary movement. Stalin was dogged by rumours that he was a police agent, and his paranoia was not a psychological flaw, but was grounded in politics and ideology, and stemmed from his Bolshevik belief in the ubiquity of the class struggle.

As a young revolutionary, Stalin displayed abundant leadership qualities, but was distinguished by his dedication to the socialist cause and to self-improvement. Exiled to Siberia, he ardently pursued peasant girls, but was even more passionate about reading. A recurrent motif in Kotkin’s account is Stalin the bookworm.

Stalin was an aspirant intellectual, dedicated as much to ideas as to action, a trait he shared with his mentor, Lenin. Stalin’s friendship with Lenin was crucial to his intellectual formation and to his political advancement. Stalin’s critics later claimed he missed the Russian Revolution, but Stalin was one of Lenin’s key lieutenants in 1917.

Stalin supervised pro-Bolshevik military formations during the devastating civil war — millions died — that followed the Bolshevik’s seizure of power. It was during this conflict that Stalin proved his ruthlessness.

The Bolsheviks forged a regime reliant on coercion and so-called “administrative methods”; a state infused with an ideology of ruthless class warfare in defence of the revolution. Arguably, it was his experience of the civil war that forged Stalin’s adult personality, as he hardened his heart to mass human suffering. But he was not more ruthless than his Bolshevik contemporaries.

In 1922, Lenin appointed Stalin as general-secretary of the communist party and this provided the springboard for his later rise to power. As Kotkin says, Stalin did not so much use the party apparatus to amass power as create the apparatus as a system that revolved around him. The state was Stalin and Stalin was the state; the survival of communist power became inextricably bound up with his growing personal dictatorship.

Power was not an end, but a means to the end, which was communism. Kotkin’s Stalin is a true believer in communist ideology; “the fundamental thing about him was that he viewed the world through Marxism.” Through this ideology, Stalin mobilised his supporters within the party, offering privileges of power and an attractive political project: the building of the world’s first socialist society.

Stalin had little contact with the masses, but he cultivated the regime’s functionaries, to respond to their concerns and to help them fulfil their work responsibilities. In re

gime’s functionaries, to respond to their concerns and to help them fulfil their work responsibilities. In return he expected unwavering loyalty — to the party and to communism, and to himself as the personification of the Soviet system. Stalin the charmer as well as the fearsome dictator is an image familiar from Stalin’s later life.

Kotkin shows that Stalin used charm as well as fear to get his way from the earliest years of his General-Secretaryship. Kotkin looks in detail at the episode of ‘Lenin’s Testament’ as being key in the maturation of Stalin’s personality.

Lenin was incapacitated by a series of strokes in 1922-1923 and, from his sickbed, apparently dictated a commentary in which he criticised party leaders: “Comrade Stalin... has concentrated boundless power in his hands and I am not sure whether he will always be able to use that power with sufficient caution.” In an addendum Lenin went further, saying that Stalin was rude and called for his replacement as General-Secretary by someone more tolerant.

Kotkin has his doubts about the provenance of the testament but concludes that it probably did reflect Lenin’s feelings towards Stalin, if not his actual words. Lenin died in 1924 but the testament hung over Stalin’s head like the Sword of Damocles.

In the ensuing struggle for Lenin’s mantle Stalin won handsomely, easily defeating rivals such as Trotsky. But, according to Kotkin, he nursed a strong sense of victimhood and self-pity. As far as Stalin was concerned he was a Lenin loyalist and had done nothing wrong, yet he found himself under attack from the words of his idol.

Kotkin suggests Stalin’s sense of betrayal and his siege mentality reflected the situation of the Soviet state. During the civil war the Bolsheviks had been attacked from all sides by the big capitalist states and they feared the re-emergence of an anti-communist coalition.

These fears were exacerbated by the Bolsheviks’ continuing commitment to world revolution which provoked further conflict with the capitalist world. “The problems of the revolution brought out the paranoia in Stalin,” writes Kotkin, “and Stalin brought out the paranoia inherent in the revolution.”

Kotkin cannot make up his mind whether Stalin felt inferior to Lenin — in my opinion a doubtful proposition — but he identifies the legacy of Lenin’s Testament as a source of deep resentment that intensified Stalin’s vindictiveness towards his vanquished enemies within the party, most notably Trotsky who was expelled from the country in 1929 and subsequently assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940.

Stalin’s ire was all the more dominant because it was both ideological and personal. He defined his foes as class enemies and their suppression as being a necessary component of the intensifying struggle between capitalism and socialism at home as well as abroad.

At the end of the 1920s another piece of the personality jigsaw slotted into place when Stalin finally transcended Lenin’s legacy and launched his own revolution to modernise the Soviet state: accelerated industrialisation to create defences against capitalist attack and the forced collectivisation of agriculture to give the communist party control of the countryside and of food production.

This period created a state based on mass violence and repression. Millions of peasants died and Soviet cities were flooded with migrants fleeing from rural areas. But within a decade a military-industrial complex capable of defeating Hitler had been forged. As Kotkin argues, without Stalin’s tremendous willpower and unbending determination to persist whatever the human cost there would have been no second Bolshevik revolution. The Soviet state would have collapsed or changed its character completely.

For Kotkin it was not Stalin’s personality that drove his politics but his politics that shaped his personality. His research, narrative and arguments are as convincing as they are exhaustive. The book is long but very readable and highly accessible to the general reader.

If the book has a flaw it is the excessive contextual detail, particularly in the early chapters where it substitutes for the lack of reliable evidence about Stalin’s childhood and youth. This contextual filler is interesting enough but does, on occasion, distract from the book’s main biographical thread.

A quarter of a century after the collapse of communism and the consequent opening of the Russian archives to scholars, the world still awaits a definitive, post-Soviet biography of Stalin. Only time will tell if Kotkin’s trilogy fits the bill. For now, we have to be content with a magisterial book equal to both the complexity of its subject and the vast array of sources now available to illuminate Stalin’s life and times.

• Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork. His latest book is Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (2012)

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