Review by Curtis Cole
When reading biographies of so-called ‘Great Men,’ it is vital to remember that they are an industry; such a vast amount of material has been produced from both speculation and archival releases that every new rumination or new tid-bit demands, in turn, another huge book—something to commemorate the release of new artifacts giving credence to an ever abounding literary substance. And so it is with Stalin: leader of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death.
Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, a biography of the most spectacle fair, is one such book in an ever expanding industry of the famed ‘dictator.’ One of the thickest, meticulously researched, and highly anticipated biographies in recent years, Kotkin’s effort is an impressive one, as any reader will note; between the fact that this book, though only the first volume, comprises nearly a thousand pages and is researched to the extent that nearly every other sentence bears a citation mark, we hold in our hands a tome of a text—something which can both elucidate, as well as squash conspicuously oversized bugs (if the need be).
‘Bravo,’ you might be saying as you read these facts; surely such a biographical epic is not only worth reading, thanks to its tenaciously researched qualifications, but also provides the much needed ambiguity of the Stalin-period. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Kotkin’s tediously overblown affair fails on all fronts and becomes a case-study in how not to write a biography.
Let us eschew the anti-communist subtext for a moment and focus on more pressing demands: the biography length.
As a reader, I have no qualm with consuming page after page of a book well worth consuming; if a biography contains a decadent number of pages and all of those pages help build an image of the subject matter which has never before been seen, then fantastic! Let’s read that biography with gusto. But this is not what Kotkin’s waste of paper accomplishes: instead of presenting a biography, Kotkin present a Russian history which features Stalin more than the average Russian history would (an odd observation to make considering Stalin’s place of paramount importance in the Russian historia).
I will be curt: massive amount of this book need not exist. One could easily wipe out three-quarters of this biographical travesty and still be able to understand the life-events of Stalin, the Russian Revolution, and the backstory behind Stalin’s policies. Indeed, this fact exists because Kotkin spends entire chapters where Stalin is either mentioned only in passing or not at all; he does this in order to extrapolate on Tsarist policy and important Tsarist figures and their plots. Why this diversionary extrapolation exists becomes evident later where Kotkin abandons all pretense to academic neutrality and unrelentingly hammers Stalin’s policies and practice of Revolutionary Anti-capitalism. The filler chapters on Tsarism served little more than to provide narrative fat: we see this later, when Kotkin reveals himself as an intellectual charlatan and servant of counterrevolution. How? Precisely through the age old practice of smoke and mirrors: he writes as Bolshevism as inheriting the Tsarist legacy, of betraying the principals of their own ideology, of having a conspiratorial worldview, and acting with hypocritical intent—in short, nothing but a mirror image of Tsarism, albeit with greatly different ideological differences. Had Kotkin not devolved into his great sophistry on Tsarism (which, together with his later upholding of Mussolini’s economic policies, reeks of fascist apologia), then his later anti-communist onanism of heralding the Bolsheviks, but Stalin more generally, of a diabolical anti-social stance, would have made no sense and shattered the attempt to equate Bolshevism and fascism as separated yet fraternal twins.
What’s worse, perhaps, is Kotkin’s mystifying commentary on the Stalin’s life, but also of the wider happenings of the Soviet state. In truth, much of the cited reports which make up the narrative that Kotkin spins are solid—they tell an informative, albeit rather dry, procession of political intrigue; combing sources from many walks of life, Kotkin manages to bring together an impressive array of citations into a well-worked fantasy. What differentiates Kotkin’s rehashed anti-communism is not so much the sources he cites—though that is too the case with copious references to hardline anti-communists and Trotskyist sympathizers—as much as it is the eye-rolling level of condescension present in his writing.
In short, Kotkin presents factual evidence—the scandals, plots and counterplots, policy formation, and relationships among the Bolsheviks, as history had it unfolded; facts, after all, do not lie. What does lie, however, is Kotkin’s commentary. Throughout his book, Kotkin continuously destroys his own narrative; the only thing which saves his narrative—that Bolshevism had a conspiratorial mindset, Stalin as a master manipulator and ruthless dictator, the innocence of the Kulaks and lack of White Guard terrorists, the utterly deficient need for collectivization, and so on—is Kotkin’s own commentary, his own opinion; something that he recycles over and over again.
Time and time again Kotkin presents evidence of the Bolsheviks as well as Stalin’s rigorous moral and political fiber. And yet, time and time again, he is quick to throw in a jibe, a sarcastic remark or ironic allusion, something to sow discord in the ideological thread which ran through early Russian Bolshevism. Why is it that every time Stalin offers to resign from his post—relinquishing the supposed ‘absolute control’ of his position of General Secretary—it is merely another feint, something to throw off the opposition? Why were party purges always-already a sign indexing Stalin’s ruthless self-aggrandizement and need for power instead of an upholding of Lenin’s vision (of the need for party purity and unity)? Why does Kotkin cite evidence of counterrevolutionary (fascist, Monarchist, and the like) plots and actual terrorist activity, only to turn to the tables on the Bolsheviks when they ferret out the fifth column in their ranks, calling those reacting against said plots (again, cited by Kotkin himself), as paranoid and conspiratorial oriented? To Kotkin, to the reactionary mind, there is a lacuna of honesty within communist practitioners since its lacks the logic of bourgeois exploitation; without that distillation of man reaping the labor-surplus of his fellow man, without the grand imperial logic of monopoly, without the cruel competition of the market and its manifold bigotries and prejudices, there is simply no room for honesty—not in a system which posits the negation of the old world. Heresy, after all, is always suspect.
Miraculously, however, all of this is not to say that every shred and morsel of Kotkin’s undertaking is trash, merely most of it. There is a kernel of value within this mountain of mental dung, namely, in how Kotkin treats Stalin’s childhood.
Many biographers treat Stalin, along with many other so-called ‘Great Men,’ under a bastardized Freudianism: their faults, quirks, mistakes, fits of violence or misogyny, and so forth, are traced back to childhood abuse or absent parental figures. In other words, they present the base Freud; neutered of intellectual value so as to be offered up on the pop culture altar, such depictions are easily digestible for an audience uneducated on the nuance of political violence. To Kotkin benefit, he fights against this blasé psychoanalysis. He situates Stalin’s childhood in the wider history of Russia’s leaders as well as in the local—regional—context in which Stalin’s peers were raised. His conclusion is that Stalin fared no better or worse than his classmates and that to conclude that it was Stalin’s upbringing that made him into a ‘ruthless, bloodthirsty, monster’ is utterly fallacious. Of course, Kotkin only accomplishes this in order to secularize his alleged barbarism, but taken in the wider historical context of the corpus of texts exploring Stalin’s existence, it is ultimately a net-plus for knowledge (however pathetic such a ‘plus’ may in fact constitute).
So, to conclude this rambling rant—is Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin worth reading? No, it is not worth reading in the slightest. For the myriad of reasons listed above as well as those left unmentioned, Kotkin’s undertaking is simply absurd, from beginning to end. If you want to read a textbook of Russian history, then there is many such books available and one would not need to lug around this brick; if one is a Leftist, then Kotkin’s anti-communism and predisposition to meander, will isolate; if one is an anti-communist then, depending on the severity of reaction, Kotkin is either giving Stalin and the Bolsheviks too much ‘benefit of the doubt,’ or he simply spends too much time yammering on about non-Stalin related activities—ergo, it is not worth reading if your goal was to propagandize. If one wanted a concise and informative biography of Stalin, I would recommend Ian Grey’s Stalin: Man of History, which, though not without his serious faults, is a far better selection than Kotkin’s murky deluge.
Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
976 pages. Published by Penguin Press. $26.66 (Hardcover), $17.00 (Paperback), $19.99 (Kindle), $26.94 (Audible audiobook). 2014.
 Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.