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.
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.