A “komitetchik par excellence,” a man of “outstanding mediocrity,” and “the grave digger of the revolution.” Few sore losers could wield sharp words quite like Leon Trotsky, especially when talking about Joseph Stalin. Yet it’s this image of Stalin—as the party madman with little breeding and little intelligence, a cretin who wormed his way into power—that has stuck.
Stephen Kotkin’s first installment in a planned trilogy, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1828, is a hefty attempt to counteract that narrative and recast one of the 20th century’s most sinister dictators as an intelligent autodidact who acted rationally as the Bolsheviks wrested control of Russia and tried to forge a new government.
At the heart of Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin was the notion that the despot was unintelligent. To disabuse readers of that myth, Kotkin starts his book with Stalin’s early years—and in the process, dismantles all those pop-psychology arguments that claim little Joseph became a monster because he had a tough childhood.
From an early age, Stalin was an avid reader. In fact, according to Kotkin, while historians have focused on Stalin’s childhood “street gang” in Gori as an important influence, “what stood out were his bookworm and autodidact tendencies, which propelled him forward.” For example, at age 10, he completed the local two-year mandatory preparatory program in just one year.
Though Stalin’s family was of humble origins, he had an extremely attentive mother and she worked assiduously for his education. She even battled her estranged husband, who had brought the young Joseph to work in a factory with him; she demanded the boy return home and finish his schooling. A childhood friend of his, Ioseb Iremashvili, said Stalin “was devoted to only one person—his mother.” Later in life, Stalin would add one, and only one person, to his list of those he cared about. When his first wife, Kato, died, according to Simon Montefiore’s Young Stalin, the future dictator declared: “This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her my last warm feelings for humanity.”
While in Gori, Stalin was first in his class, and therefore had the option to go to the Gori Teachers Seminary, the Tsar Alexander Teacher Training School, or the Theological Seminary in Tiflis (he chose the latter). As a young man, he also wrote poetry, was a star singer at his school, and tried his hand at pamphleteering. While at the seminary, he did well academically and continued his pursuit of knowledge—in fact, he only dropped his academics after extracurricular political activities became more enticing.
While his father was essentially a deadbeat dad, there was another paternal figure who stepped in to guide the young Stalin—his uncle, Yakov Egnatashvili. More importantly, the violence in Stalin’s childhood—beatings by both parents, town brawls—was far from unique at that time, and thus cannot be the sole excuse for his later atrocities.
So if he was not unintelligent and was not a sociopath solely because of his childhood—why did Stalin engage in such murderous tactics with high body counts?
Kotkin’s book eventually tackles that question. But first, he takes his time exploring the history of the Tsarist Russian Empire—dwelling on the details of the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and the machinations of Tsar Nicholas II and Russia’s first and third Prime Ministers, Sergei Witte and Peter Stolypin. While these digressions are fascinating, their relevance at first seems obscure, given that Stalin was either imprisoned, on the run, or acting as a small-time instigator as these events unfolded.
What slowly becomes clear, however, is that Kotkin is building a solid case for his claim that Stalin was not only a clear-eyed visionary who understood that action backed by violence was necessary to win the fight against the White Army and transform Russia, but that his immediate predecessors in Europe had made bloodshed on a mass scale acceptable.
While some may scoff at the moral relativism inherent in this argument, there is no denying the backdrop against which Stalin’s story is set. World War I saw a total of 37 million casualties, Kotkin notes—9 million killed, more than 20 million wounded, and 8 million missing or captured. And it wasn’t just the number of people killed that was so devastating—it was that they died, at least in the minds of Bolsheviks like Lenin, for nothing.
The Bolsheviks’ rise to power also came in the aftermath of a crackdown led by Interior Minister Pyotr Durnovo, in the final years of the Tsar, which saw mass arrests and executions, the mass hangings under Stolypin, and the chaos of the Provisional government. The main lesson to be drawn from Kotkin’s retelling of the rule of Prime Ministers Witte and Stolypin is that there was an unwillingness or lack of ability on the part of those who wanted to preserve the empire or the autocracy to take advantage of a groundswell of right-wing support for the Tsar in the early 1900s. The idea of taking an issue to the people was anathema. The nature of the autocracy—that it was only answerable to itself—meant it could not draw its power from the people.
There is perhaps no chapter of Stalin’s life that provides more insight into the lessons he learned from his personal history, as well as into the lessons of the failings of the tsarists, as his time in charge of Tsaritsyn. The city, which sits at the confluence of the Volga and Tsaritsa rivers, was seen as tactically vital by the Bolsheviks because it served as a key rail junction for grain. Stalin, now one of the top men in the party, was sent there by Lenin to ensure that grain was getting shipped to Moscow. During his time in charge of the town, he used the secret police, the Cheka, to arrest hundreds of military officers he saw as both tsarist and sympathetic to Trotsky. He agitated the townspeople through a phantom counter-revolution that he whipped up in the press and by beating up and executing alleged leaders of a White Guard plot.
“Here, in tiniest embryo, was the scenario of countless fabricated trials of the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the monstrous terror of 1937-38,” writes Kotkin. Stalin realized that the Bolsheviks, on the verge in 1918 of losing what little power they had grasped, needed to galvanize the people and whip up public support. Stalin also seized millions of rubles and a fleet of vehicles (from his own side) in the name of defending the town from the phantom “counter-revolution.” These months in Tsaritsyn also give a glimpse of the Stalin who would later make poor military and strategic decisions based on his ideology—in Tsaritsyn he arrested or executed the men who would have been able to operate the rail lines he needed to secure.
As one former tsarist, who joined the Reds and then left for the Whites would write about Stalin: “Clever, smart, educated and extremely shifty, [Stalin] is the evil genius of Tsaritsyn and its inhabitants. All manner of requisitioning, apartment evictions, searches accompanied by shameless thievery, arrests, and other violence used against civilians became everyday phenomena in the life of Tsaritsyn.” However, he also admitted, “To be fair, Stalin’s energy could be envied by any of the old administrators, and his ability to get things done in whatever circumstances was something to go to school for.”
In Kotkin’s telling, Stalin was a man who lived and breathed an ideology of classism. From his time at the seminary through the end of this first installment which sees Stalin on the verge of forced collectivization and industrilalization, Stalin found solace and his version of the truth in his loathing of elites and in the anti-market theories in the books he read.
But, perhaps most convincingly in terms of creating an image of Stalin different from that of Trotsky, Kotkin places emphasis on action. Trotsky, for all his ideas and wit, could not match “this young man of humble origins … his cunning, his honing of organizational talents”—or Stalin’s single-minded determination to do whatever it took.
Maybe there is something reassuring in rendering the mass murder orchestrated by Stalin as the actions of an irrational madman. Less reassuring, but presented convincingly by Kotkin, is the notion that Stalin was not only rational and intelligent, but also pragmatic about the ends that stood to be gained by his violent means.