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Stalin, 1929-1941: Brutal and Brilliant

A new volume documents the man who turned the Soviet Union into a murderous madhouse.

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, volume II, Stephen Kotkin, Penguin Press 1119 pp.

In April 1934, the poet Osip Mandelstam bumped into Boris Pasternak on a Moscow street. He recited verses that he had read a few weeks earlier to a few intimate friends. The verses ridiculed a “Kremlin highlander” with a criminal past and part Ossetian descent. Retribution from on high came quickly. In May, Mandelstam was arrested at his apartment, where the police confiscated his manuscripts and letters. He was permitted to take a few personal items. Among them he selected Dante’s Inferno.

After Mandelstam was sentenced to exile in the northern Urals, Pasternak received a phone call from Joseph Stalin. He thought it was a joke and hung up. The phone rang again and the caller dictated a number to call. Pasternak dialed it and heard, “Stalin speaking.” Stalin asked Pasternak if he was a friend of Mandelstam’s. There was no easy answer. Respond positively and he might be implicated as well. So Pasternak equivocated: “Poets rarely make friends. They envy each other.” Stalin chided him, saying he would go to the mat for one of his friends. “For Pasternak,” Stephen Kotkin writes in his massive second volume chronicling Stalin’s life, “the call had happened extremely quickly, but it would reverberate in his head for a lifetime.”

Today Stalin continues to have a way of getting in the heads of Russians. According to a recent Levada Center poll, Stalin tops the charts for Russians when it comes to the country’s “most outstanding leader.” Stalin clocked in at 38 percent; Vladimir Putin at 34 percent. Certainly Stalin’s image has been on the upswing in Putin’s Russia. Putin himself told the filmmaker Oliver Stone that Stalin is a “complex figure.” The purge trials, collectivization, and mass famine in Ukraine are out; Stalin the proud victor of the Great Patriotic War is in. What to make of it all?

Kotkin, a Princeton history professor, has performed prodigies of research, wading through masses of previously inaccessible Soviet-era documents to produce what is surely the definitive portrait. Previous biographers such as Boris Souvarine, Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, and Anton-Antonov Ovseyenko have offered indelible accounts. But Kotkin has gone them one better, using the immense new archival material to depict Stalin on a much broader historical canvas. Stalin’s photo albums and correspondence are now available as well as his working personal archive. Kotkin’s voluminous footnotes alone are worth the price of entry. He writes with gusto—words such as “preposterous” stud his pages—and he does not shrink from offering not only astute judgments but also lengthy analyses of Stalin’s actions and behavior. He sets Stalin firmly in the context of his time, paying close attention to his relations with his associates and rivals.

Looming over Kotkin’s account is the coming clash with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which Stalin initially tried to ignore, then recklessly attempted to appease. Until the very end, the old boy, who sniffed conspiracies in every nook and cranny of his country, tried to occlude from his own mind the impending Nazi attack, which finally took place in the form of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.

One of the main questions looming over Stalin is how he managed to pull off his victory over Hitler. His great antagonist, Leon Trotsky, tried to depict him as an intellectual nullity who manipulated party hacks to rise to power. Trotsky called him “the most outstanding mediocrity in our party.” Kotkin shows there was more to it than that. Stalin was no dummy. “The fools,” Kotkin writes, “were the ones who took him for a fool.”

He amassed a library of some 20,000 volumes and read Plato and Clausewitz in addition to Marx and Lenin. He was also a shrewd self-promoter. When Kliment Voroshilov, the defense minister, submitted a draft history of the Civil War for inspection, it stated that Stalin had committed fewer mistakes than other military commanders during the Civil War. Stalin responded, “Klim! There were no mistakes—cut that paragraph.” Stalin also had plenty of admirers in the West, ranging from Henri Barbusse, author of a flattering biography called Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man, to the New York Times’s Walter Duranty, an early avatar of fake news. In 1930, for example, Duranty declared that “Stalin is the most interesting personality in the world” and went on to dismiss the idea that a man-made famine was taking place in the Ukraine. Similarly, in 1933, former French prime minister Édouard Herriot, who signed a Franco-Soviet nonaggression pact, declared in Pravda, “When one believes that the Ukraine is devastated by famine, allow me to shrug my shoulders.” Instead, the  Ukraine was “like a garden in full bloom.” The French left-wing writer Romain Rolland told Stalin that he epitomized a “new humanism.” So much for the critical detachment prized by western intellectuals.

If Stalin was a gifted actor, he was also an intriguer par excellence. Little escaped his watchful gaze. He attended all three of the Great Purge trials in 1936, 1937, and 1938 that took place in the former House of Nobles, now renamed the House of the Unions, smoking his pipe as he watched his former comrades confess to heinous crimes, including plotting with Japan, Great Britain, and Nazi Germany to overthrow the proletarian revolution. Kotkin shows how he carefully manipulated the battle in the late 1920s over collectivization to destroy his real and perceived foes. He saw internal subversives and “wreckers,” as they were known, everywhere. The result was a domestic calamity.

Already in 1931 he saw to it that more than 3,000 former tsarist officers in Kharkov, Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad were charged with conspiracy and espionage. His main objective, after exiling Trotsky from the Soviet Union, was to dispose of the Old Bolsheviks who had clustered around Lenin. He did this by destroying the so-called right deviationists led by his former friend Nikolai Bukharin, who had voiced doubts about the frantic pace of collectivization demanded by Stalin. Stalin had ordered local officials to wipe out so-called Kulaks—or farmers who owned one or two cows—as class enemies.

Kotkin estimates that between 1931-33, some five million to seven million people died of famine and related epidemics. Stalin’s aim was to exert control over grain supplies, writes Kotkin, “to finance imports of machinery to survive in the international system, but Stalin ideologically excluded the ‘capitalist path.’ His vision was one of anti-capitalist modernity.” The result was an enormous prison camp of workers and slave laborers toiling for an elite.

His opponents in the Politburo were unwilling to challenge him in any serious fashion, let alone contemplate a coup. There should be no illusions about the sordid character of Stalin’s antagonists. Their hands were imbrued in blood. The Old Bolsheviks never shrank from extreme violence during the Civil War. They had disbanded the 1917 Constituent Assembly and helped establish the Cheka and the prison labor camps in Siberia. They had played a leading role in constructing the totalitarian state that Stalin now headed. Now they were hopelessly trapped in their own illusions about communism, obeying party discipline even as Stalin relentlessly tightened the noose around them. They had subscribed to a religion based on the scientific principles of Marxism-Leninism, and they were not about to defy the currents of world history. Besides, there was the fascist menace to consider.

A military official who later defected said that “loyalty to Stalin was based principally on the conviction that there was no one to take his place, that any change in the leadership would be extremely dangerous, and that the country must continue in its present course, since to stop now or attempt a retreat would mean the loss of everything.” The closest thing to real opposition came in the form of an August 1932 meeting in a private Moscow apartment belonging to Martemyan Ryutin. The peasant-born Siberian had risen to candidate membership in the Central Committee before being expelled in 1929. Now Ryutin drew up a nearly 200-page document called “Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship.” It went nowhere. Ryutin was arrested.

This was all a dress rehearsal for the human meat grinder known as the Great Purges. They took place between 1936 and 1938, when Stalin gave full vent to his sanguinary paranoia and desire to become an engineer of human souls. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment, inadvertently captured the mindset of the era when he remarked in 1933 that “truth is in actual fact an untruth.” The trigger for Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet Union into a murderous madhouse was the assassination of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov in 1934 by a disgruntled Marxist named Leonid Nikolayev. Kotkin dismisses the notion that Stalin arranged Kirov’s murder. But Stalin seized upon it to claim that a “Leningrad Center” and a “Moscow Center” were engaging in terrorist activities to subvert the Soviet Union.

No one was exempt: even Kremlin janitors and cleaning ladies came under interrogation. Stalin read the interrogation protocols with delight. On one, where it observed that a Kremlin librarian had previously been a cleaning lady, he remarked, “ha-ha, cleaner-librarian?” When a plan was floated to deport 5,000 “socially alien” families near the Finnish borders, Stalin asked, “Why not more?”

By 1937 and 1938, the Soviet apparatus oversaw about 2,200 arrests and over 1,000 executions each day. Arrests of NKVD personnel numbered over 20,000 between 1936 and 1938, as Stalin went to war against his own secret service. Over one million were sent to the Gulag on trains in 1938 alone. Even the Comintern, Stalin said, was a “nest of spies.” While the German Wehrmacht chortled, Stalin wiped out the officer corps of the Red Army, including leading theoretician Marshal Tukhachevsky. All were said to be spies working hand in glove with Britain or Germany. “Through chauffeurs, bodyguards, cooks, maids, adjutants, secretarial staff, mistresses, and the NKVD special departments,” Kotkin writes, “the top military men were under a level of surveillance exceeding even that conducted on the foreign military attaches of Britain, Germany, Poland, Romania, or Japan.”

Stalin’s aim could not have been more sweeping. He wanted to create a homo Sovieticus molded in his image. According to Kotkin, “Stalin decided to force a radical reinvention of the Soviet elite, in the mold of the young striver he had once been, executing or incarcerating those he deemed to be of a bygone epoch while promoting and nurturing hundreds of thousands of new people.” For the young cadres that he promoted the purges meant jobs and advancement. For Stalin the cadres were key. A new and younger class of Soviet officials, loyal to him, replaced the Old Bolsheviks. He told his janissaries to “go through with a whip” when it came to rooting out class enemies in the various Soviet republics. But Kotkin says it went beyond patronage. At heart Stalin was a pedagogue. In the author’s view, “the terror enabled him to play the role of teacher to a populous new generation of functionaries, a fundamental trait of his persona and of his conception of rule. He directed showcase trials, the content of confessions extracted even in the absence of trials, and newspaper reportage to tell stories and teach lessons.”

If Stalin was consumed with creating a personal dictatorship, he also faced a looming threat in Nazi Germany. Kotkin emphasizes that Stalin inadvertently helped smooth Hitler’s rise to power by urging German communists to battle the socialists rather than the Nazis. The Soviet credo was that “social fascism” represented the real threat. Nazism would prove to be an epiphenomenon of finance capital. From the outset, Stalin thought that he could win over Nazi Germany. He was impressed by the June 1934 Night of the Long Knives that saw Hitler consolidate his dictatorship. “What a guy,” Stalin told his inner circle. What Stalin woefully failed to comprehend is that Hitler was not simply a tactician, but was bent on an ideological war of destruction for Lebensraum, or living space, that he deemed imperative to secure the German future. In Kotkin’s view, “the image of a wily Stalin brilliantly keeping his options open, to extract maximum advantage, is belied by the fact that neither Hitler nor Chamberlain proved at all forthcoming.”

Stalin was convinced that the western powers were scheming to give Hitler carte blanche to attack the Soviet Union. His aim was to prevent the establishment of an anti-Soviet coalition and to acquire advanced technology from Germany. Stalin was convinced that the British were out to forge just such a coalition. The last thing he wanted to hear was that the divide between Nazism and communism could not be bridged. But the road to an agreement with Nazi Germany encountered numerous obstacles, ranging from the Spanish Civil War to the signing of a German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936.

Stalin’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov and the Soviet ambassador to London Ivan Maisky, by contrast, tried to reach out to the West in an attempt to halt Nazi expansionism. Their dream was to create a collective security agreement. It never happened. The enmities and suspicions between the British and the Soviets were too deep to overcome. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s guarantee for Poland, which he offered on April 1, 1939—the same day that Madrid capitulated to Francisco Franco’s forces—was no joking matter in Stalin’s eyes. It freed him up to seek a formal treaty with the Third Reich. Ultimately, Litvinov was booted out of the foreign ministry and the hardline Molotov, known as the Hammer, replaced him.

Stalin calculated that if he could strike a deal with Germany, then he could sit out, and eventually profit from, the coming war between the capitalist powers. Molotov was something of a Germanophile who drew distinctions between the “Ideologues of National Socialism” and the “German nation, as one of the great nations of our times.” Marx and Engels, after all, were both Germans. Together with the former champagne salesman Joachim von Ribbentrop, Molotov concocted a pact between Moscow and Berlin that would carve up Poland and the Baltic States. The deal was consummated in August 1939. It allowed Stalin to reclaim imperial Russian lands and to efface the humiliating Soviet defeat in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War. Lavrenti Beria, whom Stalin called “my Himmler,” forbade the taunting of Gulag prisoners as “fascists.” Molotov, at a USSR Supreme Soviet meeting on August 31, decried the “shortsighted people in our country” who were “carried away by simplistic anti-fascist propaganda.” Perhaps a British foreign office official put it best: “All the isms are now wasms.”

Stalin’s fateful weakness was his incapacity to perceive not only Hitler’s rapacity but also the West’s willingness to fight. In April 1940 he and his inner circle were convinced that Britain and France might treat with the Nazis. “Beyond his greed and distraction,” Kotkin writes, “Stalin’s inability to pick up on the political changes in London was driven by an abiding antipathy toward the Western powers.” Stalin miscalculated when he made Soviet security hostage to France’s fighting prowess, which proved to be a mirage. His response to France’s defeat was to annex the Baltic states and implant clone regimes, much to the surprise of Berlin. The pact had only talked about spheres of influence, not outright occupation of the Baltic states. To celebrate his new conquests, Stalin held a banquet in the Grand Kremlin Palace that featured his puppets from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Moldavia.

Within months Hitler overran Stalin’s prized possessions. Napoleon had made it all the way to Moscow. Hitler made it to the outskirts of the city. W. Averell Harriman, Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Moscow, later recalled that even as the sounds of warfare reverberated through the Kremlin, Stalin hung tough about postwar negotiations over borders. For all Stalin’s grievous errors in the run-up to the war, Kotkin notes that when it comes to assessing British and Soviet diplomacy towards the Third Reich, “the question of who most miscalculated is not a simple one.”

It was Stalin who emerged with more swag from the war than he could ever have dreamed of in the 1930s, a new empire that eclipsed the old Russian one in territory and power. Stalin died before he could launch a new great purge, though he had already prepared the groundwork with the “Doctor’s Plot.” But the sinister despot had also scornfully told his inner circle after the war that they would likely squander the fruits of his victory. He was right about that too. Today, as Putin seeks to restore his country’s might and standing, Russia remains only a palimpsest of the house that Stalin built.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.



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