It’s hard to write about the great evildoers of history. “Absolute evil” is not a useful concept, at least from the standpoint of a biographer. You can only make the portrait work, as John Milton did in Paradise Lost, by showing the cracks and contradictions that make the monster (his Satan) human. The demonic versions of Stalin and Hitler that most of us have internalised are not helpful in working out what made them tick. The assumption that the man who kills (or causes to be killed) a million people is a million times more evil than the man who kills one is another stumbling block. We can’t imagine a person a million times worse than a cold-blooded axe murderer, so the whole thing becomes unreal. Moral philosophers may be needed to straighten this out, but my own feeling is that the premise is wrong: evil, as a quality of a person, is not quantifiable, and we can’t obtain an index through multiplication. Perhaps the only reasonable way to handle the problem analytically is to postulate what has been called a Power Amplification Factor – if you’re Joe Blow, your actions, however murderous, tend to be relatively local and quantitatively limited in their impact, but if you’re Stalin or Hitler, you get the global impact and multiples in the millions.
Added complications arise when the evil in question is related to a state leader’s responsibility for mass deaths. A general tacit assumption is that wars fall into a special category, in which mass deaths can occur without automatically bringing moral odium on the leaders who gave the orders. But revolutionaries, or leaders who still have revolutionary transformation on their mind, think they fall into that category of exemption, too. They see the deaths they cause in the same “necessary” light as those caused in war. It’s a dilemma for historians, who are likely to have an aversion to letting revolutionaries claim the exemption, especially once the revolution is won and they are in power.
Stephen Kotkin, whose first book, Magnetic Mountain (1995), had the bold subtitle “Stalinism as a Civilisation”, is not one to shrink before challenges. His expansive study is just the first of a projected three volumes. The title gives nothing away: you can’t get much blander than “Paradoxes of Power” as a subtitle, and the brief preface is almost anodyne. He tells us, however, that “accident in history is rife”, dropping a clue that this is not going to be a story of historical inevitability or psychological determinism. “The story emanates from Stalin’s office,” he writes, rather puzzlingly, “but not from his point of view.” Who, if not Stalin, is looking out from his office? Is it Kotkin, an invisible watcher, who has quietly drawn up a chair next to Stalin at his desk? At any rate, the message seems to be that in the intimate relationship between biographer and subject, this biographer is keeping the upper hand.
Stalin makes only cameo appearances in the first 300 pages, which range over the Russian empire, Russian absolutism, the European state system, modernity and geopolitics before getting to the revolution. It’s an expansive interpretation of context, and one of the effects is to make the young Stalin, born in obscurity on the periphery of the Russian empire, look pretty small. Whenever Stalin does make an appearance, however, his aspirations and determination to make something of himself are evident, and quite sympathetically described. Kotkin’s Stalin is a striver and an autodidact of talent and determination. There were setbacks and difficulties as he was growing up, but Kotkin dismisses the idea of childhood trauma: lots of people, including many fellow revolutionaries, had it worse. As happened with many bright young men in late imperial Russia, Stalin’s aspirations for betterment got deflected into the revolutionary movement.
His revolutionary activity doesn’t amount to much. The figure that catches the eye in these early chapters is Pyotr Durnovo, Nicholas II’s interior minister, who saved the empire after the 1905 revolution by savage repression. Kotkin drops another clue here, remarking that this was a moment “in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed”. As for Stalin, he was out in Siberian exile “battling mosquitos and boredom” for much of the last imperial decade, and thus missed the first world war. The life of a once-promising young man seemed on the road to nowhere. Then came the miracle: the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917. Revolutionaries like Stalin could claim little credit, but they were beneficiaries. Still a relatively obscure figure from the underground, “wearing Siberian valenki” – felt boots – “and carrying little more than a typewriter”, he arrived on 12 March 1917 in the capital, St Petersburg, to join the revolution.
From his civil war leadership at the battle of Tsaritsyn in 1918 and the notorious clashes with Trotsky, Stalin starts to claim more of the author’s attention, and what kind of biography Kotkin is writing becomes clearer. Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight. In contrast to many who have written on Soviet politics of the 1920s, he is not a partisan of Stalin’s opponents, either collectively or in the person of Trotsky or Bukharin; nor does he proceed from the common assumptions that Stalin must be measured against Lenin, and that to a greater or lesser degree he will fall short.
The theme of Stalin’s departure from or betrayal of Leninism has had a long innings, particularly on the non-communist left. But from Kotkin’s standpoint, Lenin is scarcely an exemplary figure. A man with an idée fixe, Lenin is as often wildly wrong as he is right: “deranged fanatic” is one characterisation that the author seems to endorse. Kotkin is not interested in the old argument about continuity or discontinuity between Lenin and Stalin: like Richard Pipes, whose work is often cited in the early Soviet chapters, he thinks continuity is self-evident and wants us to see that much of what is thought of as the worst of Stalin’s rule is present or latent in Lenin. Indeed, when it comes to comparison between Lenin and Stalin, Lenin generally comes off worse in this study. With regard to empire, for example, which is always important to Kotkin, Lenin, who had “never set foot in Georgia, or even Ukraine, for that matter”, compares poorly to Stalin, with his “first-hand experience of the varied realm” and understanding that there was more to inter-ethnic relations within the empire than just Russian oppression.