He stood five feet seven in his boots — the same height as Napoleon and an inch shorter than Hitler. He had webbed toes, a grey face pitted by smallpox, a stunted arm, soft voice, yellowish eyes and an awkward rolling walk. He swore like a trooper, smoked a pipe, drank the sweet wines of his native Georgia, and was an avid reader of history, novels and Marxist-Leninist theory, marking the pages of the 20,000 books in his library with expletives scrawled with the same coloured crayons with which he signed mass death warrants and international treaties: ‘Rubbish!’, ‘Piss off!’, ‘Fool!’, ‘Scumbag!’, ‘Ha-Ha!’
The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s wrist-breaking triple-decker biography of Joseph Stalin, (or Uncle Joe, or Koba the Dread) covers the 1930s. This was the decade when the Soviet dictator, at the height of his vast power, murdered his rivals, real and imagined; launched the great purges of his own party; decapitated the officer corps of the mighty Red Army; presided over the Holodomar — the man-made famine in which around four million Ukrainian peasants starved — and concluded a friendly treaty with Nazi Germany.
He also, as Kotkin makes clear in his balanced and level-headed narrative, drove the transformation of the USSR into an industrial and military superpower, and it is this ‘achievement’ that is advanced by his apologists — such as the late Eric Hobsbawm — as the excuse for the abominable atrocities that were the hallmark of his rule.
The problem with that claim is that Stalin’s character had been so warped by his early life as a Bolshevik terrorist, and by the revolution, civil war and struggle to succeed Lenin (chronicled in Kotkin’s first volume)that by the time he became Russia’s undisputed leader his paranoid personality led the empire close to disaster.
Stalin was lethally suspicious of everyone and everything. His old Bolshevik comrades either became docile yes-men (Molotov, Kaganovich, Kalinin and Voroshilov) or were branded as spies, saboteurs and deviationists and slaughtered (Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin).
Although Kotkin acquits Stalin of actually organising the assassination of Sergey Kirov, the popular Leningrad party chief, he describes how Stalin used the crime to trigger the great purges. The wave of crazed killings swept up not only loyal communists, but scientists, artists, writers and intellectuals, and finally the NKVD officers who had executed the purges themselves. The revolution had devoured its children and vomited them up.
But his own party comrades and the apparatchiks who ran the Soviet state formed only a small proportion of at least 20 million people who died unnatural deaths during Stalin’s tyranny. Untold millions of nameless ordinary folk perished too, victims of famine, persecution, forced farm collectivisation and mass movement of populations, or were simply worked to death in the remote Arctic Gulag network of labour camps.
Faced with these hecatombs, Kotkin is perhaps too cool and objective in his assessment of his dreadful subject. Though certainly no fan of the man of steel, whom he habitually describes as ‘the despot’, there is little moral indignation in this massive book on behalf of Stalin’s victims. The sheer awfulness of the ‘Kremlin climber’ with his ‘fat worm’ fingers and ‘cockroach moustache’(this description earned its author, the poet Osip Mandelstam, death in the Gulag) is seemingly outside Kotkin’s academic brief.
Perhaps Stalin’s greatest crime — since it led to a further 20 million Soviet deaths in the second world war — was his woeful misreading of his twin tyrant, Hitler, and the menace of fascism generally. Kotkin scores highly in analysing Stalin’s role in international affairs. Directly controlling the world Communist movement, the Comintern, following his mentor Lenin, Stalin decreed the fatal split between communists and moderate social democrats — damned as ‘social fascists’ — which gave real fascism its window of opportunity.
Once in power, Hitler was consistently underestimated by Stalin, who dis-regarded the stream of obvious signs and spies’ reports that the Nazis were about to invade. Kotkin leaves us teetering on the verge of Barbarossa — the German attack which turned into history’s bloodiest war — and tested almost to destruction the vast state Stalin had built.
This is a marvellous and compelling biography. With a detailed mastery of a myriad of sources, Kotkin manages to combine a vivid pockmarks-and-all-portrait of the man with a comprehensive analysis of his impact on the country he ruled and ravished and the wider world beyond. And he does so without losing command of any of the many threads he holds in play. Roll on Volume III.