Stephen Kotkin: Who’s Bigger Than Stalin?

Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has taken on the most important biography he can imagine: the life, rise and thirty-year reign of Josef Stalin. The first book of a trilogy (out now) goes from Stalin’s birth in 1878 to 1928.

And he’ll defend the statement. Stalin was nobody from Georgian who became the longest-serving leader of the century. He’s the man who won (or survived) a world war and forged the nuclear, industrial power called the Soviet Union. And he combined, with terrific force, the features of the totalitarian leader: an impossible dream — of a personal, Communist “paradise on Earth” — and real, unmatched brutality. So, forget Putin — forget everyone. Stalin stands alone in the century. Stalin

The new Russian patriotism is playing its own memory: it does away with Stalin’s Communism in favor of the iron man who whipped the Nazis and changed the map of Europe. Vladimir Putin’s game of equivalences extends to distant history, too: yes, Stalin was bad, he conceded, but no worse than Oliver Cromwell.

So, Kotkin says, as Putin’s Russian Federation revises its textbooks, menaces memory organizations, and stirs up hate and anger, it’s an old playbook they’re using — at a less dire moment and to more muddled effect.

As the conversation ended, Kotkin noted how his subject’s shadow lingers over Putin’s current war. Stalin notoriously starved Ukraine, but he also kindled the idea that they were their own people, with their own nation — another inconvenience inherited from the father of the Russian century.

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  • Emily Corwith

    Excellent conversation with Stephen Kotkin … sadly the reasons he gives for Ukrainians voting in fewer and fewer numbers is echoed in comments I have heard from non-voting Americans (present company excluded!) …

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS discussion on Stalin and Putin was very interesting. The points about “Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” and Russian “nativism of the soul” mixed in with nationalist separatism and
    exclusivism, might be added to via Isaiah Berlin’s classic on Russia:

    Isaiah Berlin’s “Russian Thinkers” is a classic in the field of Russian intellectual history and
    captures the sense of providentialism, exceptionalism and nativism that are
    something of a leitmotif in the Russian encounter with the West from Peter the
    Great to and including Putin (perhaps even reinforced by his need for Exxon-Mobil and Schlumberger technology as mentioned in the program by Professor Kotkin.)

    In discussing Vissarion Belinksy the famous nineteenth century “Russia-watcher-and-interpreter,” Berlin writes:

    “Indeed the great controversy between Slavophils and‘Westerners,’ between the view of Russia as a still uncorrupted spiritual and xocial organism, bound by impalpable links of common
    love, natural piety, and reverence for authority, to which the application of
    artificial, ‘soulless’ Western forms and institutions had done, and would do,
    fearful damage; …this crucial debate, which split educated Russians in the
    nineteenth century, was carried on principally in the semi-disguise of literary
    and philosophical argument.”
    (“Russian Thinkers,” Penguin Books paperback, 1994, page 174)

    “To some degree this amalgam of love and hate is still intrinsic to Russian feelings about Europe; on the one hand, intellectual respect, envy, admiration, desire to emulate and excel;
    on the other, emotional hostility, suspicion, and contempt, a sense of being
    clumsy, ‘de trop,’ of being outsiders…a sense of the West as being cramped, cold, mean, calculating, and fenced in, without capacity for large views or generous emotion…”

    (“Russian Thinkers,” book, page 180-181)

    Parenthetically: Jeffrey Sachs has argued that American-inspired mean-spiritedness to Russia after 1989 and the Soviet Collapse, rendered his reform program nugatory and confirmed Russian suspicions that the West hates the Russian people.

    Lastly: Interestingly, the Iranian word “gharbzadegi” often rendered as ‘West-itis’, or ‘Westoxification’ ie unhealthy thralldom to the West, is also an Iranian theme today.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Professor Kotkin’s dialog concerning Stalin and Russia were very illuminating but I respectfully disagree with the underlying assumption or “axiomatic structure” concerning the world-historical primacy of Stalin.

    The ROS set-up essay for this Stalin discussion puts it this way:

    “So, forget Putin — forget everyone. Stalin stands alone in the century.”

    This seems implausible:

    Consider these words from Sebastian Haffner’s classic, “The Meaning of Hitler” (Harvard University, paperback, 1979):

    “Today’s world, whether we like it or not, is the work of Hitler. Without Hitler there would have been no partition of Germany and Europe; without Hitler there would be no Americans and no Russians in Berlin; without Hitler there would be no Israel; without Hitler there would be no de-colonization, at least not such a rapid one; there would be no Asian, Arab or African emancipation, and no diminution of European pre-eminence. There would be none of all this without Hitler’s mistakes. He certainly did not want any of it.”

    “One has to go back a long way in history—perhaps to Alexander the Great— to find a man who, in a below-average short span of life, transformed the world so fundamentally and
    lastingly as Hitler.”
    (Haffner book, Harvard, page 100)

    Haffner might well have added this “overture” to his overall point:

    WWII was the most titanic and destructive conflict in human history. It was Hitler’s war. Anti-Hitler Germans carried signs that read “Hitler heisst Kreig” (“Hitler means war”) and they were tragically proved to be right.

    Thus, the overall evaluation of Stalin in the Prof. Kotkin manner, is not plausible. One could modify the ROS Kotkin point by saying something like the Hitler-Stalin interaction leading
    to “Barbarossa,” the greatest land invasion in human history, is a world-historical story of unprecedented ferocity and the shock waves continue and certainly shape Putin and Putinism. (see ROS interview with Timothy Snyder of Yale on the “killing fields’ between Stalin and Hitler’s domains). This was history’s “Godzilla versus King Kong” ultra-nightmare.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    I like Kotkin’s style of explaining Stalin and Russian history. The style reminds me of Mark Blyth’s friendly explanations of economics ( not for dummies but seemingly so). Kotkin ends with advice on how to deal with Putin: use”containment” ( George Kennan’s ). Kotkin sees a man who lives in and sells the fantasy of recreating the Russia of the last century ( or two).

    The side of the argument about NATO expansion that makes more sense to me for quite awhile, which Kotkin affirms, is that it was not the expansion per se that was the supposed threat, but the need to respond to it as a denial of the loss of Russian (USSR) power. And so Putin uses it as this affront to Russia’s greatness, to help bolster a rebirth of Russian nationalism apparently already wanting to happen. This all seems mixed up with Putin’s own ego. The real greatness or potential greatness of the Russian people in the 21 century is what is contained and stifled in the meantime… or so it seems.

    Wikipedia has a wonderful set of historical maps of the Ukraine:

  • Cambridge Forecast


    In 1913, Stalin came to Vienna to work on the
    “nationalities question” with Trotsky. Hitler, Tito, Freud were all in Vienna at that time without necessarily being aware of it.
    The historian Frederick Morton, in his classic work, “Thunder at Twilight: Vienna in 1913/1914” writes:
    “Stalin had been entrusted with a task in Vienna that was vital to the Party. To Stalin himself it was a breakthrough opportunity….his challenge in Vienna involved much subtler aspects of the cause. Socialism was international and supra-national by its very motto: “Workers of All Countries, Unite!” Yet in 1913 Europe’s workers were subject to divisive nationalisms. Even the proletariat longed for national identity. How could that need be fulfilled by setting the oppressed of one land against the oppressed of another? This was the question worrying
    Lenin. Stalin was to answer it by way of an essay in “Prosveshchenye,” the
    Party’s sociological journal.” (“Vienna in 1913” book, paperback, Collier Books, page 20).

    Stalin discussed this complex of issues in Vienna with Trotsky.
    Morton writes:
    “The two men had clashed in print before; within ten years they would be begin the world-famous duel destined to split Communism on all continents.
    But on that January afternoon of 1913, when they first came face to face in Vienna, each did not know who the other one was.”
    (“Vienna in 1913” book, page 21).

    These Vienna 1913 discussions between Stalin and Trotsky give us a glimpse of the “nationalities problem” with Communism itself internationalist. How do nation-states “comport” with Communism?

    One might say that today’s Russia, under Putin, is still struggling with these issues in its dealings with the “near abroad”, as well as internally, including Chechnya, Ukraine, Baltic states, Central Asian Muslim “stans”, Eastern Europe.

    The 1913 Stalin-Trotsky discussions in Vienna (Bukharin was not present
    in Vienna but important to their analyses) are not unrelated to Putin’s own “nationalities
    problem”. There are echoes between then and now.

    Richard Melson