On Wednesday, January 28, in a talk sponsored by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Princeton professor and Hoover fellow Stephen Kotkin discussed his newly published book Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. Based on extensive research, the book is the first volume of his trilogy on the life and times of the Soviet dictator. Kotkin's biography focuses on Stalin's role in the Russian revolution and his subsequent rise to power within the Bolshevik hierarchy. It also situates Stalin's political career in the wider context of Russian and world history.
In his opening remarks, Kotkin underlined the importance of the resources of the Library & Archives for his research on Stalin. He said that he had gotten "more done here [Hoover] than in Moscow," praising the "rare, unbelievably valuable" materials in Hoover's collections. He described the library as being "equally as spectacular as the archives" and underlined that Hoover, unique among research institutions, has both a library and archives on the same site.
Kotkin then proceeded to outline the tripartite methodology he used in writing his work, one involving the study of geopolitics, institutions, and ideology. He said he had tried to evaluate Stalin's rule in terms of international politics; the specific nature of the institutions that emerged from the Russian revolution; and the crucial role of Marxism in determining Stalin's worldview. All these combined influenced the ways in which Stalin both achieved and wielded power.
He went on to detail the means by which Stalin fashioned his personal dictatorship, one created within the overall dictatorship established by the Bolshevik Party. Kotkin stressed the importance of Stalin's having been named by Lenin as the general secretary of the party, a position in which he exercised enormous power: controlling information and having access to all departments of the Bolshevik government, including the secret police. In this way, Stalin was at the absolute center of the Soviet state.
Kotkin cast doubts on the authenticity of Lenin's so-called testament, in which Lenin had supposedly advised that Stalin be removed from his general secretary post. He suggested that the testament may have been the work of Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as Lenin was ill and incapacitated at the time that the testament was apparently dictated. Whether authentic or not, the testament did not hinder Stalin's ascension to supreme leadership. In Kotkin's view, Stalin was "not a genius" but did possess "certain talents" that enabled him to consolidate power, including a talent for forging personal relationships and creating a loyal following in the party.
The question of whether Stalin was a sociopath was also addressed by Kotkin, who stated that that condition was not evident in the first years of Stalin's rule, when he operated within the frame of the already paranoid politics of Bolshevism. Kotkin did emphasize Stalin's willpower, which led him to decide on his own to collectivize agriculture in the USSR, with devastating consequences for the Soviet peasantry. At the end of the talk, Kotkin, when asked for his personal opinion of Stalin, replied that he was "in awe of the power, disgusted by the person."
Kotkin's book ends in 1928, with Stalin preparing to eliminate Bukharin from the Bolshevik hierarchy, having already sent Trotsky into internal exile. Still to come in the next volume of Kotkin's biography are accounts of the infamous purge trials of former Bolshevik leaders and the institution of a system of mass political terror in the Soviet Union.
Click the button below to listen to Kotkin's presentation.