Friday, September 26, 2014

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

In 'Stalin', historian Stephen Kotkin tries his best to balance a biography of Stalin with the environment Stalin found himself living in.  Kotkin details the politics of the Russian Empire and her neighbor, the newly created Germany under Bismarck, as well as the industrialization (including the rise and popularity of socialist and Marxist thought) and Russificiation that Georgia and the Russian Empire in general underwent.  All would play important roles in how a young Stalin was raised and educated and how he formed his worldview.  In general, Kotkin uses Stalin as a tool to showcase a world and environment that existed at the time and helped craft the man Stalin would become in the future.  Simultaneously he describes and analyzes the people and events that affected Stalin's youth and adolescence and slowly positioned him for a future no one could have predicted was on the horizon.  Due to the above, much of this volume does not solely focus on Stalin but on the personalities he interacted with (Lenin, Trotsky, Miliukov, Martov, etc.) or those important enough to alter the direction of European politics (Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Witte, Nicholas II, etc.).

I think the title 'Stalin' is a misnomer here since a significant portion of this work focuses on many other topics/subjects and often enough Stalin is nowhere to be found.  In many ways the large swath of territory covered is useful and even needed in understanding how Stalin's life unfolded and how it fit into the greater pattern of European history.  But, unfortunately, that also makes this first volume a bit less interesting for me personally as we only see Stalin's evolution through 1928.  My understanding is that the following volumes will have a lot more concentration on Stalin.  Yet understanding the historical events Stalin lived through and witnessed will undoubtedly help explain his later actions and reasoning as head of the Soviet Union.  Through Stalin's eyes I hope future volumes will showcase the actions of a man who lived through much and made those experiences part of his core.

Although Kotkin has worked in numerous archives, both in the US and Russia, he himself states that he sometimes went through primary source material based on secondary readings.  Thus it's a bit difficult to separate original research from what's already available (although not necessarily in English as Kotkin utilizes sources in German, Russian, etc.).  While this might not be the most original biographical look at Stalin, it certainly is, at the very least, an impressive synthesis of available literature incorporated into an interesting narrative of the world Stalin found himself inhabiting.  In many ways the events described and analyzed by Kotkin deserve, and in some instances, already have, multi-volume works written about them (WWI, the Russian Revolution (February and October), etc.  But Kotkin's work has a readability many others will lack and while at times depth of analysis might be missing (or in some cases depth in general considering the amount of information covered), this first volume is still in many ways essential reading for those interested in Stalin, the late Russian Empire, the Russian Revolution and the creation/formation of what became the Soviet Union.

Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of Stalin's role in the October Revolution and the way in which the Bolsheviks were able to seize power.  The utter chaos following the February Revolution and the inability of Kerensky and the Provisional Government to get anything worthwhile accomplished inevitably led to the eventual storming of the Winter Palace in a bloodless coup.  The ensuing attempts by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, at times working in tandem with the other parties (Mensheviks, Right and Left SRs, etc.) to end the war and bring about some type of peace with Germany and stability on the homefront, are described in detail as is the half-hearted attempt by the Left SRs in their assassination of the German ambassador to force Germany to renew hostilities with Russia - post-Brest-Litovsk - and discredit the Bolsheviks.  Kotkin covers numerous events and personalities that are usually left out of popular histories and are reserved for academic monographs.  Yet, as previously mentioned, while some coverage lacks the depth certain events deserve, that is also in part due to the impact they had or will have on the future role Stalin assumes.  Thus the First World War, which Stalin never participated in, is wholly overshadowed by the February and October Revolutions, where Stalin began to play a greater role in the Bolshevik hierarchy.  In effect, the events Kotkin has chosen to highlight and concentrate on were picked for their future impact on Stalin and the Soviet Union.  Without a doubt this is a highly recommended volume for all the reasons mentioned above.