Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Suggested by Kung Fu Zu • Takes the reader from Stalin’s birth up to his fiftieth year. Kotkin interweaves Stalin’s story with that of Tsarist Russia of the same period. An excellent read.
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17 Responses to Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have read several biographies of Stalin and this is certainly the best. Perhaps this is because the author spends almost as many pages educating the reader on the history of Russia from the mid-nineteenth century to 1928, as he does on the young Stalin.

    As a result, the reader has a context from which to understand and judge Stalin’s life and actions. Context does not seem to be popular these days, but I find it very helpful in trying to understand people and the times they live in.

    The author lays out Stalin’s modest origins and somewhat unstable childhood which is followed by his acceptance to a well thought of religious seminary. At that seminary, Stalin’s performance was quite good, but by the end of his time there, he had lost his faith in God and found another in Marx.

    From the time he was twenty in 1899 until the October revolution in 1917, Stalin was active in anti-Tsarist activities and was an avowed revolutionary. He was constantly on the move, except for times when exiled to Siberia or other fun spots in the Russian empire. He joined the Bolshevik sect of the Russian Social Democratic Party and became a devoted Leninist. In exile during WWI, he was only able to make it to St. Petersburg in early 1917, i.e. just in time for the collapse of the Tsarist government. From that time onward, he worked tirelessly to bring about Bolshevik rule and promote Leninist policies.

    Kotkin makes clear that, contrary to what many foreign historians and scholars have claimed, Stalin was instrumental in helping bring about the October Revolution and working to keep the revolution on track for the next few years. Lenin must have found him capable and important as Lenin created the office of Party General Secretary explicitly for Stalin. Such a position did not exist in Marxist theory or literature until that time.

    One supposes that when, in 1922, he created this new office for Stalin, Lenin did not expect to be shot, have numerous strokes and finally die within a couple of years. Lenin died in January of 1924 and without his control, Stalin was able to establish a dictatorship within a dictatorship, that is, Stalin gained control over the Communist Party which controlled the country. This took a few years, but by 1928 there was little doubt that Stalin was the master of the U.S.S.R. In becoming master, Stalin pushed out every original member of the first politburo. He and Lenin were the only two who died natural deaths.

    By the end of the volume, there is no doubt that Stalin is a ruthless bastard, but it is not yet clear that he is a homicidal maniac willing to murder millions to bring about his vision of a Marxist/Leninist society. His cruelty to friends, enemies and complete strangers has not yet completely manifested itself, but the signs are certainly their if one wishes to look closely. But in 1928, he starts to unmask himself and his plans and this will lead to the insane idea to create a collective state farming system, along the lines of the nationalization of industry. Millions will die as a result and millions of others will suffer horrible deprivations.

    I have just checked out volume II of Kotkin’s biography. Like volume I, it is a long book (vol. 1 about 750 pages + indexes and footnotes vol. 2 about 900 pages + indexes and footnotes) so it may be some time before I can comment on that.

    For those who enjoy obscure history, I found it interesting that both Hitler and Stalin were artistic types. Hitler lover painting and architecture and Stalin lover poetry and music. In fact Stalin apparently wrote beautiful poetry in his youth.

    Hitler stayed the artist in temperament while Stalin became a bureaucrat.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The author lays out Stalin’s modest origins and somewhat unstable childhood which is followed by his acceptance to a well thought of religious seminary. At that seminary, Stalin’s performance was quite good, but by the end of his time there, he had lost his faith in God and found another in Marx.

      One wonders if he was diddled as a young boy there or otherwise was abused.

      Regarding Stalin’s evolution into an even worse monster, you have to wonder if the ideology itself (Marxism/atheism) doesn’t sow the seeds for that. It’s my opinion that in our own time we can clearly see how Leftism/Cultural-Marxism turns people into cold, hard, unthinking ideological beasts.

      Most will not murder people in the millions. But there is always a percentage of sociopaths in any given population for whom these nasty ideologies are like throwing gasoline on a fire.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Early in vol. 2 Kotkin makes some interesting observation regarding Stalin’s development. Kotkin’s theme is that too many over emphasize the difficulties of Stalin’s childhood and his physical appearance which is claimed resulted in a monster.

        While a person’s childhood certainly influences his future actions, the things which happen during his adulthood are probably more important as one matures. Circumstance can have a tremendous influence on a person’s life and this is no doubt true in Stalin’s case.

        I found a quote Kotkin took from von Moltke the Elder to be very enlightening in this regard.

        Von Moltke “had conceived of strategy as improvisation, a “system of expedients,” and ability to turn unexpected developments created by others or by happenstance to one’s advantage, and Hitler turned out to be just such a master improviser………Stalin, too, was a strategist in von Moltke’s sense, a man of radical ideas able to perceived and seize opportunities that he did not always create but turned to his advantage.

        Life comes and one adjusts. Some are more successful at adjusting than others.

        I love Kotkin’s description of Marxism.

        Communism was an idea, a dream palace whose attraction derived from the seeming fusion of science and utopia.

        Marx was so important for leftism because he was the first who could give the insane belief a patina of science, having spent his whole life in the British Museum putting together a crazy theory with footnotes. The footnotes were very important for intellectuals.

        Kotkin makes another shrewd observation about why others followed Communism.

        Mass violence recruited legions ready to battle implacable enemies who stood on the wrong side of history. The purported science of Marxism-Leninism and the real-world construction of socialism, on the way toward Communism, offered ostensible answers to the biggest question: why the world had so many problems (class) and how it could be made better (class warfare), with a role for all. People’s otherwise insignificant lives became linked to building an entirely new world.”

        Things have not changed so much.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Mass violence recruited legions ready to battle implacable enemies who stood on the wrong side of history. The purported science of Marxism-Leninism and the real-world construction of socialism, on the way toward Communism, offered ostensible answers to the biggest question: why the world had so many problems (class) and how it could be made better (class warfare), with a role for all. People’s otherwise insignificant lives became linked to building an entirely new world.”

          That really is a in-a-nutshell quote. Atheism not only produces a different way of looking at the world, it requires it. It couldn’t be that Germans are better beer makers because that’s something (for whatever reason) that they take the pains to be very good at. No, it must be that they are advantaged in some way (and thus that someone else is disadvantaged, and the disparity the result of injustice).

          It’s, of course, common knowledge (at least outside of academia) that the worst beasts of atheism have often embraced Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest” in terms of a social or political policy. This is ironic because built into Darwinism is the idea of variation which has no other cause than randomness. There is no implicit need to denote differences to injustice.

          So it’s interesting to me that these two ideas have been successfully welded together and the contradictions skillfully walled off by dishonest intellectuals.

          And, indeed, things have not changed so much.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Very good observations by both of you, naturally.

          Motlke was a very good planner, and indeed the Great General Staff became famous for its contingency plans, though later they began to lapse. When World War I began, the Schlieffen Plan was the only mobilization/war plan they had, having dropped in 1913 a mobilization plan focusing on Russia.

          But it was also Moltke who said that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. You plan, and then you hope that those plans make it feasible to make the right adjustments when the fighting starts. Moltke did. (Incidentally, I read his own account of the Franco-Prussian War, though that’s just one of the books left behind in our house.)

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    So this is Stalin before he was a total monster, which can be said to have begun with the liquidation of the kulaks in 1929. Stalin was also a high-ranking commissar in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Supposedly he was the commissar of the army that defeated Denikin at Tsaritsyn by attacking an extended flank — but then, this report may come from Soviet sources of doubtful accuracy.

    Other accounts say he was the commissar of Budyenny’s cavalry army in the war against Poland, which went inactive at a key moment and allowed Pilsudski to concentrate against, and defeat, Tukhachevsky’s advance on Warsaw. This has led to a suspicion that the Army purge in the later stages of the Yezhovshchina was based heavily on grudges developed there. Tukhachevsky was executed; Budyenny remained in command.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Kotkin touches upon both Stalin’s role at Tsaritsyn and in the ill-conceived attack on Poland. As I recall, Kotkin is of the opinion that Stalin’s role in both instances was positive. I believe he says Stalin advd against the foolish Polish campaign and did good work for the Reds in Tsaritsyn.

      One of the things I find interesting about Kotkin is that he clearly thinks Stalin is a monster, but does not let that cloud his judgment as to Stalin’s role in the October Revolution, defeat of the Whites in the civil war and establishment of the U.S.S.R. He points out that much of the “history” which belittles Stalin in the West was put out by Trotsky and his acolytes who had no reason to love Stalin. But Kotkin makes clear that Trotsky was not very effective after the civil war. With my apologies to Davy Crockett, an analogy is that Trotsky was Davy Crockett to Stalin’s Sam Houston. Crockett is very famous and loved, but his contribution to Texas was minimal when compared to Houston.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I checked on wikipedia, and what they report more or less matches what you report Kotkin saying. Whether or not this has anything to do with the military purges remains to be seen. Of course, motives can be difficult to ascertain.

        Hitler was a considerable admirer of Stalin, who at least at first returned that admiration, even though both opposed each other politically. Stalin had the advantage over Hitler of learning, to some extent, from his mistakes.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I am looking forward to the second volume as I have no real idea of why Stalin instigated the military purges. Given the quality of vol. 1, I figure vol. 2 will give me reasonably good answers to that question.

          I read Bullock’s “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives” years back and seem to recall the point of Hitler’s admiration of Stalin from that and other writings.

          I think Stalin’s biggest advantages over Hitler were 1) He didn’t have a two or three front war, 2) He had the U.S.A. and U.K. as allies. The U.S.A. being especially important from the material point of view.

          I think Hitler listened to his advisors even less than Stalin, which did not turn out well for him and Germany.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Stalin also had lend-lease, which provided him with a lot of good equipment — especially motor transport.

            I also read the Bullock book. I remember being disappointed that some chart of prison camps for both countries was supposed to be included but wasn’t. But overall it was good.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    When I picked of vol. 2 of Kotkin’s Stalin biography, I also check-out Martin Cruz Smith’s “Stalin’s Ghost.” This is something like the 6th or 7th of the Arkady Renko series that started with “Gorky Park,” which I read when it first came out. Since then I have read several others of the series. Each book was worth the time I spent on it.

    Each Renko books deals with a number of different crimes, including sometimes gruesome murders. There appear to be more and less noble motivations for said crimes and the reader is led through a a confusing maze until he feels his way to the exit where, in every case, greed is the seed from which all evil grows.

    I am not sure I would rank Smith as a great writer, but he does come up with some wonderful phrases in the style of Hammett and Chandler. There is no question that his stories flow and are entertaining and easy reads. I would recommend them to any book fan.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I know we had a copy of Gorky Park, which I grouped with other books from TV/movies. Like so many of my books, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it (a natural problem when you buy books faster than you can read them) when we left. That may have been all we had by him, but of course Elizabeth and I both were devoted biblioholics. When we started merging our collections, we had 2 copies of some books, and in a few cases even 3.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I am at the early part of vol. 2 of Kotkin’s Stalin and the following quote jumped out at me.

    “We reject the concept of rule-of-law state. If a person seeking to claim the title of Marxist speaks seriously about a rule-of-law state and moreover uses the term “rule-of-law state” in connection with the Soviet state, this means he is lead by bourgeois jurists. This means he departs from Marxist-Leninist teaching on the state.”

    Lazar Kaganovich

    Sounds like a modern Dim who wants to stack the Supreme Court in order to kill the rule-of-law instead of promoting it.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Sounds like the woman Paul Douglas encountered who rejected bourgeois justice with its concept of due process of law. Later she was executed as a Trotskyist in the Yezhovshchina. Karma can be as much of a bitch as she was.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The hatred these people harbor for themselves and others is such that it blinds them to the many negative possibilities which can sprout from their fanaticism. I sometimes wonder are they so stupid that they can’t envision their own standards (or lack thereof) and methods being used against themselves.

        In any case, these are people who simply cannot be reasoned with and must simply be defeated. You can get a glimpse of one at the Fox News website. A young dumb commie bitch screaming “Nazi, Nazi, assaulted some conservative students at Florida State. Watch the video and see what type of harpy our education is turning out. Thank God she has been booked by the police.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I often wish someone could ask her what she actually knows about the Nazis. Damn little, I suspect. It’s the transitive law of leftism: They hate Hitler and they hate Trump, so the two must be about the same.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I am well into the second vol. of Kotkin’s Stalin biography, and must tell you that it is very difficult to read. Not because the subject matter so detailed, which it is, but because it is hard to continue going through the filth that was Stalin. It is very depressing to read about this man without getting depressed. He was a thoroughly monstrous person. Not even Hitler compares to this man, who killed friends, colleagues and complete unknowns with complete abandon. And what is worse, he planned many of the murders himself and knew that his actions would put into motion many other murders which had nothing what-so-ever to do with his “declared” aims of socialism/communism.

    Hitler and Stalin make for interesting comparisons. Hitler was basically an “artist” type who did not get into details, but was able to form a movement around him because of his charisma. Stalin was a bureaucrat, who had been a community organizer and sometime prisoner before the 1917 revolution. He had held exactly one paid job for a few months before that time.

    While active in the Bolshevik party and civil war in 1920-21, he was generally unknown to people across the Russian Empire. It was Lenin, who admired his ruthlessness, who put Stalin in a position of power, controlling the party. After Lenin’s death, it was Stalin’s bureaucratic acumen, cunning and ruthlessness which gained for him total power. Admittedly, this took some years and he was helped mightily by the arrogance and stupidity of his opponents, but he got there.

    Contrary to what some believe, Stalin was truly well versed in Marxism-Leninism. He may not have been the florid theorist that Trotsky was, but he knew the details of communist orthodoxy thoroughly and was able to use them (twisting and turning them as religious texts) as well as any medieval scholastic. This enabled him to give a gloss of Marxist correctness to most of his crimes. Leftism truly is a religion.

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