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Robert Trivers, Stalin, and the Dark Side of Idealism
Review of Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 and Stalin: Waiting for Hitler: 1929–1941, by Stephen Kotkin
Note: I originally published this article on Medium on September 4, 2020, when I was a nobody academic and weeks before I started this Substack. Since I had no audience at the time, very few people have ever seen it. I always thought that I should one day post it here, and have finally gotten around to it. Stalin lived one of the most incredible lives ever recorded, a rags to riches story that seemingly has more in common with tales of ancient quasi-history than what we would think was possible in the era stretching from late Victorian England to the Eisenhower administration. Kotkin does the story justice through (so far) two gripping volumes that inspired me to grapple with deep questions regarding power, history, politics, and human nature. The original post has undergone a light stylistic edit before being posted here. For more on Stalin, see my interview with Sean McMeekin, author of Stalin’s War, and my thread on Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Over a lifetime, one can at best hope to achieve a very selective understanding of history. No matter how smart and well-read you are, even if you devote your life to the field, there will always remain huge gaps in your knowledge. There will be entire regions of the world, civilizations, and historical eras that you know close to nothing about. Given that one must be selective, if one is interested in history and how it can inform the social sciences, how do you go about deciding which works are worth reading?
Allow me to make the case for understanding the life of Joseph Stalin. It is difficult to think of many people who lived lives more interesting than that of the Soviet dictator. The son of a cobbler and seamstress living from the outskirts of the Russian empire, he would grow up to be at the center of three once-in-a-lifetime type geopolitical events: the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. Stalin was also the preeminent force behind the drive to build the first communist great power in world history. This included the 1936–1938 purge of the country’s leadership that was perhaps unlike anything documented history had seen before or since. Twenty years after the Russian Revolution, Stalin would wipe out the vast majority of its more prominent figures still alive, in addition to much of the country’s military and intelligence leadership.
How was one man able to pull this off? Often, we get insight into a phenomenon by studying its extreme cases. If you want to understand power, then there is probably some benefit to be gained by understanding the man who accumulated more of it than practically anyone else. At the peak of his control, there does not seem to have been a single person within the state who could check Stalin’s whims. In addition to destroying some of the highest-ranking members of his regime, the dictator would also imprison family members of the government officials that survived his purges. At a single stroke of a pen or with one phone call, he could order entire populations moved from one end of Eurasia to the other, as he sometimes did.
Deciding to understand Stalin raises the question of where to begin. One cannot go wrong by starting with Stephen Kotkin’s biographies. The first, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, covers the dictator’s early life up to his ascension to power and the launching of the first Five Year Plan. The sequel, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler: 1929–1941, picks up the story to the day of the launch of Operation Barbarossa. The third book, yet to be released, will tell the story from the German invasion until Stalin’s death.
Kotkin’s Virtues as a Historian
Given the choices available, what makes Kotkin, a professor of political science at Princeton University, more worth reading than other historians? First of all, he’s not crazy, which is more than can be said of too many biographers, who sometimes interpret events through a Marxist or Freudian lens. Kotkin acknowledges basic truths, such as that the end goals of Marxism, including the abolition of markets, required a constant war on human freedom. This should not be an earth-shaking revelation, but it sometimes goes unacknowledged by the types of people who write history books. The point here is not that we should reward someone for having the right politics with higher book sales; rather, if you don’t understand, for example, why communism cannot produce economic wealth, it will cloud your interpretation of events. Stalin himself, ironically, often played the role of the intellectual blinded by ideology. Due to his long-standing belief that Great Britain was the center of “global capitalism,” for example, he overestimated the threat from that island nation while underestimating that of Hitler. While all historians have biases, communist and communist-adjacent writers are more prone to misunderstand the history of movements they sympathize with when those movements present a false understanding of the world. This is why it was Robert Conquest, an anti-communist, who was able to understand Stalin’s rule better than most, before many of the relevant archives were opened and he was vindicated. Kotkin has the benefit of writing his books decades later and can conclusively settle what used to be open historical debates.
The author also deserves praise for not accepting crackpot theories of human development and speculating wildly on the deep origins of his subject’s personality. Many biographers cannot stop themselves from playing the role of armchair psychologist, finding the roots of a despot’s actions in childhood. They tend to ignore the role of genetics and adult experience, following a tendency aptly documented by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption. Kotkin does not find the ultimate sources of Stalin’s behavior in his early life. Some point to his childhood poverty and the alleged beatings he took from his father, which the author doubts ever happened, to explain Stalin the dictator. As Kotkin writes, these would have been experiences that he would have shared with a large portion of humanity, casting doubt on such explanations as to why Stalin became who he was. Rather, it was not childhood that ultimately shaped what Stalin became, but his struggle for power before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. While there was little that was unique about his childhood, as an adult Stalin was at the center of a nation convulsed in revolution and the founding of one of the largest and most all-encompassing dictatorships the world had ever seen.
Kotkin shows how there is little contemporary evidence of people working closely with Stalin thinking that he was a psychopath before he had achieved power. Rather, his paranoia grew over time as he became more confident in his role in world history. He also seethed over the letters supposedly dictated by Lenin calling for his removal, and the rivalry with Trotsky similarly fed his paranoia. Stalin came to see opposition to him and his ideas as a betrayal of communism. Kotkin marks the time around 1928, where the first volume ends, as when Stalin emerges as the fully formed character that would lead his country through forced collectivization, the purges, and the Second World War.
The author is extremely careful in his use of sources. Stalin was born into humble circumstances in what was mostly a pre-literate society. With little evidence that he would ever make his mark on world history, there are few documented facts about his life before the communist seizure of power. Most historians make up for this dearth of information by relying on later recollections. This way, they can argue that the Stalin we see in the 1930s reflects a character that was present in him as a child and young man. Kotkin does not do this, and as a result has much less to say about Stalin’s early days than many biographers.
This means that Volume 1, despite being close to 1,000 pages in paperback, does not have as much Stalin as one might expect. Those who want to know as much as possible about the subject as a youth are probably better off looking elsewhere, perhaps to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, while understanding that much of what they read is necessarily from sources written decades after the fact and therefore highly prone to distortions of memory.
Instead of focusing on Stalin over the course of the whole book, Volume 1 devotes chapters to subjects such as great power competition before the Second World War, the Russo-Japanese War, and attempts by the Czar and his officials to modernize their country. In Volume 2, Stalin is closer to center stage, yet we still get detailed histories of topics like the rise of fascism and the civil wars in China and Spain. The second volume also has some holes in it for those interested in Stalin the man. The Soviet dictator was a bachelor from 1932, when his second wife killed herself, until his death. Yet we are told little about his romantic involvements beyond the fact that Stalin “appears to have had few mistresses, and definitely no harem.” Not much is devoted to his family life either for works of this size, although this may reasonably reflect the author’s view that Stalin’s non-work life was simply not that important.
Because Freudians and other schools of psychology believe that adult behavior is caused by and manifests itself in familial relations, with little solid evidence, there is a tendency of some biographers to put perhaps too much emphasis on Stalin’s closest personal relationships. Kotkin devotes much more space to the intellectual world of the subject, his ideology and artistic interests, than he does to how he treated his family, and this likely reflects a belief by the author that the former does more to explain why the despot sought power and what he did with it. Stalin was by all accounts a workaholic, and by seeking explanations in his work more than his nearly non-existent personal life we may be closer to understanding the man on his own terms.
Kotkin calls his books a “marriage of biography and history.” The advantage here is that one gets greater insights into what made Stalin and his regime unique. For example, understanding the failures of Czarist Russia in its efforts to monitor and surveil its enemies, and the dysfunctional nature of its intelligence services, explains how a regime that in theory had absolute power could fall, and how Stalin as a young revolutionary could be arrested and released or escape from prison around half a dozen times. Getting basic insights into how Hitler interacted with top officials in his regime similarly provides a striking contrast to how Stalin behaved. High-ranking generals dismissed by Hitler were sent home quietly with pensions, and Nazi political leaders were never touched unless they openly committed treason. Soviet officials that displeased Stalin, in contrast, saw their families targeted and were often tortured and executed after being forced into confessing that they were secretly “Trotskyists” or capitalist spies. This was even true for many who showed no signs of disloyalty. An understanding of the distinction between what a dictatorship normally looks like, and what Stalinist tyranny meant, would not be possible without this broader perspective.
Kotkin devotes a great deal of effort to explaining the mechanisms behind exactly how Stalin accumulated so much power. Lenin had been the unquestioned leader of the Russian Revolution. In March 1922, having been impressed with Stalin’s service in the pre-revolutionary underground and the Russian Civil War, Lenin created the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party specifically for his protégé. Kotkin differs with those who argue that Lenin never meant to give him so much power. Lenin had known Stalin for years and had already allowed him to take control over party affairs, before formalizing his role as party leader. Stalin in his position could appoint whom he pleased throughout the party and state apparatus, thus ensuring that loyalists would always be there to follow his orders.
His personal magnetism is attested to by numerous first-hand accounts, and his commitment to Marxism naturally attracted true believers. It was this combination of charisma and control over personnel operating in the context of a system that put heavy emphasis on ideology that explains how Stalin could exert so much power over Soviet society.
Upon Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin was the undisputed leader of the party, and the party controlled the state. Stalin did not even have an official government position until May 1941, when he replaced Vyacheslav Molotov as premier of the Soviet Union. From the time of Lenin’s death until the mid-1930s, hints of opposition to Stalin could be seen from within the Soviet leadership. Stalin favored continuing Lenin’s relatively pro-market New Economic Policy (NEP) for the first several years of his rule, before taking a hard line on collectivization by the end of the 1920s. In both of these decisions, he faced open opposition at party gatherings, even if he always got his way in the end. As late as 1934, three party members voted against returning Stalin to the central committee, and this may have been after apparatchiks tossed out around twenty other anti-Stalin votes.
The dictator did not simply accumulate power for its own sake, but used it towards ideological ends. In 1929, he embarked on the collectivization of agriculture. About 5 to 7 million would die of starvation across the Soviet Union in 1931–1933, with Kazakhstan and the Ukraine being hit the hardest, as productivity declined and the government nonetheless continued grain confiscation. The state needed what the peasants produced for exports and to feed the cities in order to industrialize. The number of horses and pigs across the Soviet Union fell by more than half. In 1936–1938, the terror turned personal. Stalin set about destroying everyone who had opposed him during his feud with Trotsky or the debate over collectivization. He also destroyed many others for no easily discernible reason. In 1934, there were 139 members or candidate members selected to the Communist Party Central Committee. By the time of the party plenum of June 1937, 13 of them had been arrested and 3 had been driven to suicide by Stalin. During the plenum, Stalin sanctioned the destruction of at least another 31. By the time of the next party Congress, taking into account a handful who died of natural causes, only 39 of the 139 members or candidates from the 1934 Central Committee would still be alive.
In a March 1938 show trial, Stalin had some of the most prominent old Bolsheviks, including Nikolai Bukharin, executed after they confessed to, among other crimes, having plotted to murder Stalin and Lenin since 1918, and conspiring with Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. As the New York Times put it at the time, “It is as if twenty years after Yorktown somebody in power at Washington found it necessary for the safety of the State to send to the scaffold Thomas Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, Hamilton, Jay and most of their associates,” on the “charge that they conspired to hand over the United States to George III.” In 1934, there were 182,000 “Old Bolsheviks,” people who had been members of the party since before the revolution. By 1939, that number had dropped to 125,000, an “annihilation ratio” that matched that of all officials.
The war against the Soviet military and intelligence services was no less extreme. As Kotkin shows, almost the entire military leadership was wiped out.
Preemption of a replacement government could have been part of Stalin’s motivation in liquidating these men, but he went far, far beyond that aim: out of approximately 144,000 officers, some 33,000 were removed in 1937–38, and Stalin ordered or incited the irreversible arrest of around 9,500 and the execution of perhaps 7,000 of them. Of the 767 most high-ranking commanders, at least 503 — and by some accounts more than 600 — were executed or imprisoned. And among the highest rungs of 186 commanders of divisions, the carnage took 154, as well as 8 of the 9 admirals, 13 of the army’s 15 full generals, and 3 of its 5 marshals. What great power has ever executed 90 percent of its top military officers? What regime, in doing so, could expect to survive?
Military intelligence was also wiped out, during a period in which Germany under Hitler was rearming and threatening most of the European continent. In Moscow alone, 300 military intelligence officers would be arrested. When one spy came back from Switzerland in fall 1937, she could not find anyone to report to. Out of 450 secret police officials stationed abroad, no fewer than 275 were arrested. By January 1939, Stalin would learn that the Soviet Union did not have any spy coordinators or proven agents abroad. He destroyed the head of his intelligence service from 1934–1936, Genrikh Yagoda, and then also had his replacement, Nikolai Yezhov removed and eventually killed two years later. It was Yezhov who had run the NKVD during the purge years of 1936–1938, and Stalin destroyed him and his associates in the exact same way Yezhov had gone after the rest of the Soviet military and political leadership just months before.
Foreign allies were in just as much danger if subject to Stalin’s will. At the time of the terror, the Soviet Union was lending support to Chinese forces fighting against Japanese imperialism. Part of this strategy was encouraging the building up of the military of the puppet state of Mongolia, at that time Stalin’s only real ally abroad. Stalin and his circle worried that, if Japan succeeded in China, an invasion of Siberia would be next. What did the Soviet regime do? It had around 400 Uighur students training to be Soviet agents in China taken out and executed in a single night, and also killed 6 of its own consulates from Western China. Stalin then schemed with the Mongolian interior minister to bring Soviet troops into that country, and put 14 top officials on trial, executing all but one.
A few personal stories stand out. Some leaders eventually killed, like Bukharin, must have understood for years that their days were numbered and pathetically tried to ingratiate themselves with Stalin by cheering on his purges of “spies” and “saboteurs.” After the 1938 Moscow show trial, Bukharin, along with previous NKVD chief Yagoda, were executed last, supposedly so they could watch the others die. In May 1937, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, one of only five marshals in the country, was arrested and accused of plotting against the regime. Within a few days, he was broken by NKVD “interrogators,” his blood-stained confession having survived to this day. Tukhachevsky was executed by military tribunal a few weeks later, along with eight generals also accused of treason. Of the eight officers serving as judges and presiding over that trial, five of them would also be killed.
Social scientists, journalists, and philosophers will often attribute atrocities committed by governments to deep historical or cultural forces. Kotkin convincingly argues for the fundamental importance of Stalin’s unique leadership, writing that if he had died before the First Five Year Plan, the odds of wholesale collectivization would have been extremely low. Those within the regime brought him reports of mass starvation, and local officials complained that they could not meet grain quotas. Nonetheless, Stalin persisted, convinced that socialism would not be able to survive if the NEP continued to create a class of successful capitalists. He discounted the role of incentives in producing grain, and blamed all shortcomings on saboteurs or the laziness of peasants.
Documents similarly show Stalin exerting total control of the terror from 1936–1938. From his “Little Corner,” Stalin’s office in the Kremlin, he would dictate orders to the NKVD about what kinds of confessions he desired from specific individuals and set quotas of entire categories of people to be arrested. In November 1938, Stalin issued decrees disbanding the institution that had been set up to carry out the “assembly-line death sentences” he had demanded and blaming the NKVD for “distortions” in carrying out its duties. Immediately, with a few pieces of paper from the Little Corner, the terror ended. The greatest atrocities of the Soviet regime could largely be placed on the shoulders of one man.
Ideologue, then Sadist
What of Stalin the man? What was going on in his mind as all this was happening? Kotkin notes that we need to take ideology seriously. There was nothing in the geopolitical or historical circumstances faced by the Soviet Union that forced it to collectivize agriculture. Others can and did modernize through the use of market forces. Even after the Bolshevik Revolution, there were many leaders within the regime who opposed such extreme measures. The Great Terror, likewise, was a conscious policy, and form of “pedagogy.” In October 1938, Stalin told a politburo session that, during the Great Terror there were at most tens of thousands that had been loyal to Bukharin or Trotsky, despite what Kotkin estimates were 1.6 million arrests. Stalin referred to those that had been arrested as “cadres who could not swallow the big changeover to the collective farm system…because they were not politically well grounded; they did not know the laws of development of society, the laws of economic development, the laws of political development.” In other words, the despot had to destroy the previous generation of communists in order to make room for a class of functionaries that would be loyal to Stalin and his ideas.
Yet reading his books, one wonders what kind of evidence Kotkin would need to conclude that Stalin was acting out of sadism and a desire for power. The author memorably refers to his subject as a “massacring pedagogue,” summing up his justification of the Great Terror in this way:
[T]hose opposed to him were broadcasting disunity and weakness, thereby inviting foreign powers to attack–in other words, objectively supporting the USSR’s enemies–while he, a selfless servant of the cause, under siege from uncomprehending critics, had been placed on this earth to defend the socialist revolution and the Soviet state…to pity class enemies would be to indulge sentiment over the law of objective historical development.
This may well have been what Stalin told himself. Yet does this sound like a man driven by ideology, or his own quest for power, with ideology as window dressing? Should we not be suspicious of an “ideology” pursued by an individual who claims that giving him absolute power is necessary for political and economic development? In the realm of ideology, Marxism tended to discount the role of the individual; now, Stalin had made himself absolutely essential. Lenin may have written about a committed vanguard party of elites moving history forward, but said nothing about one leader exercising life-or-death power over everyone else who had made the revolution possible. Yes, Stalin was a committed Marxist. But he interpreted Marxism in a way that was suspiciously close to what you would expect from someone driven by his own lust for power.
Chased abroad by Stalin in 1929, Trotsky continued to cheer on Soviet successes such as the territorial gains made at the expense of Finland in 1940. Stalin, in contrast, sought to destroy any Trotskyite or potential rival he could find. In the Spanish Civil War, he prioritized eliminating real or imagined Trotskyites over stopping Franco, and in the case of Germany he used his control over the international communist movement to prevent a broad front on the left to stop Hitler, arguing that social democrats were the more dangerous kind of fascists. This makes sense from the perspective of self-preservation; if Stalin was overthrown from within, it would have been by others on the left, rather than any right-wing movement. Destroying the only potential alternatives to his leadership of the international communist movement protected his own power, more than it advanced the cause itself. Of course, when pressed Stalin could easily come up with an ideological justification for any particular action. Still, from the mid-1930s it is difficult to find many instances where the despot’s supposed ideology and his self-interest diverged.
According to Lazar Kaganovich, “I saw no fewer than five-six different Stalins.” Kotkin deserves credit for realizing that an individual can change in significant ways over a lifetime. Yet he also sees continuity, with ideology motivating behavior up through the end of the second volume. From the evidence in his books, however, it seems that the balance between ideology and ambition shifted a few times. The young Stalin was drawn to a revolutionary political movement at a time when practically all opposition to the Russian state was suppressed. When he became an agitator for the working class around the turn of the century, there was little reason to suspect that a dynasty that had been around for hundreds of years would fall within the next few decades, much less that he would one day control the fate of millions. In the first decade of his rule, Stalin was still the committed ideologue, but his passion for collectivization served to concentrate power into his hands and gave him an excuse to go after potential challengers within the regime. By the time the Great Terror began in 1936, it is difficult not to conclude that he had become a sadist, and this was driving much of his behavior.
One can imagine that the process of collectivization and the five-year plans gave the dictator a sense of God-like power, as his intellectual life and whims came to decide the fate of some 170 million people, including the nature of their work and the ideas that they would absorb. Seemingly moral men have been corrupted by much less. It was this character, whose experience had given him a sense of distance from the rest of humanity, that unleashed the Great Terror on the Communist Party and those closest to him.
How else can one explain Stalin massacring even those he had no reason to suspect of disloyalty, and occasionally imprisoning or executing the wives of even his closest associates? For example, Stalin’s top aide, Alexander Poskryobyshev, saw his wife arrested in 1939. Beria, who sent a fruit basket to the children, had their mother executed in 1941. There does not seem to have been any geopolitical or ideological reason for this kind of behavior, and stories like this, involving gratuitous cruelty towards associates he worked with on a daily basis, are in some ways more chilling than cases of Stalin signing pieces of paper that led to the deaths of strangers thousands of miles away. If there was a strategy here, it was at least to some extent aimed at the aggrandizement of his own power rather achieving any political goal. Stalin also had the brother of his deceased first wife, an Old Bolshevik, arrested and killed, which cannot even be explained in these terms. Perhaps he had been rude to Stalin once at dinner? The ability to arbitrarily decide who got to live or die became a pleasure in and of itself, made all the more enjoyable by grafting an ideological justification onto what were essentially sadistic impulses.
Kotkin convincingly shows that Stalin did not believe the public justifications given for the Great Terror. While arresting millions that were accused of being agents of foreign powers, or of Trotsky, he and the NKVD did not make even the most basic effort to understand what these supposed spies might have revealed. Stalin would demand certain confessions be extracted, and then cite the resulting documents as evidence justifying further repression. Yet Kotkin still does not accuse Stalin of cynicism. While the dictator was not actually looking for spies and saboteurs, in the author’s telling Stalin believed that a wholescale purge was necessary to achieve true socialism and protect the state. But Stalin in effect crippled his foreign intelligence and military forces, ultimately making the Soviet Union a more tempting target for Nazi Germany!
Revealingly, Hitler at one point said that, given Stalin’s purges, never again would the Soviet Union be so weak. Thus, if the two continental powers were destined to clash for reasons of geopolitics and ideology, it needed to happen while Germany had the best chance of success. Kotkin chalks all of this up to Stalin being somewhat of a “bumbler” in foreign affairs. True enough, but the kinds and nature of his mistakes do not suggest that they were ultimately driven by ideology. While collectivization might be justified with citations to Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the Great Terror, which involved annihilating not only much of the military and foreign intelligence services but some of the most steadfast communists responsible for the revolution, could not be, nor could the idea that the entire fate of socialism depended on the continuing rule of one man.
Humans are good at justifying their own self-interest and emotional needs through moral or ideological arguments. Robert Trivers famously showed how this could be evolutionary adaptive, arguing that those who need to deceive others can be most effective if they deceive themselves first. In this formulation, it is difficult to pin down exactly what it means to “truly” believe something. One way to approach the question of what drives a political leader is to ask the degree to which self-interest, in the form of the acquisition of fame, money, or power, converges with ideological justifications.
One should not rule out power-seeking or sadism as an explanation for behavior simply because a historian does not find a document in which a despot says, “I am now going to kill people because I need to stay in power and it makes me feel good.” Human nature almost precludes even the possibility of finding such evidence. In contrast, when purported ideological considerations, along with some resulting behavior traced to them, do not appear to serve one’s own interests, we are probably on stronger ground in saying that an individual is actually motivated by his ideals.
From this perspective, Stalin throughout the 1930s maximized his own power while objectively weakening the Soviet Union and the cause of international communism abroad. This should have been clearly visible given what he did to the Bolshevik party and the Soviet military and intelligence services, unless one was motivated to be blind to this fact. Convincing himself that he was acting in accordance with Marxist principles only served to assuage any guilt Stalin might otherwise have felt and make him a more ruthless and effective mass murderer.
The Complexity of Human Motivations
As a social scientist, Kotkin naturally seeks to draw broader lessons from the life of Stalin. The first of these, already alluded to above, is that individuals and small groups can have a massive effect on history. In the attempt to make political science more “scientific,” scholars have moved away from the “Great Man” theory of history and sought to explain important phenomena like war, mass killing, and revolution in terms of broader economic, social, and cultural factors. Peter Turchin’s work reflects the worst of this tendency, despite the pretense of making history into one of the hard sciences. While in his tone Kotkin takes a middle ground between these views, it is hard not to conclude that the story of Stalin’s life proves more evidence for the old way of studying the past.
Of course geopolitical and structural factors matter to some extent; the fact that Japan was closer to the Soviet Union than France meant something, as does the fact that Estonia and Poland were less capable than the great powers of the time. But these observations are trite, and political scientists, particularly those who study international relations, are often much more ambitious in their theories. Kotkin makes clear that practically every major decision made by the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule came back to his unique personality and abilities.
It is likewise difficult to imagine the fall of the Romanov dynasty without the incompetence of Czar Nicholas II, nor the Bolshevik Revolution without Lenin and Trotsky. Kotkin’s broad historical perspective is particularly insightful when discussing this period of time, and one sees how much contingency matters for determining the course of events. This conclusion is consistent with the best political science on this issue, particularly Benjamin Valentino’s work on mass killing, and John Mueller’s research on World War II and ethnic warfare. Kotkin’s books on Stalin imply that history is often made by small, committed groups of individuals, less than it is driven by the kind of great impersonal forces we may be able to identify in physics or even economics.
Another implication of his work, one that Kotkin does not dwell on, is that the foreign policies of countries can be very different from what one would expect from their domestic politics. Stalin’s Soviet Union was extremely brutal towards its population, yet actually quite cautious in foreign affairs. True, it swallowed up eastern Poland and the Baltic states after its pact with Hitler and took territory from Finland after the war of 1939–1940. Yet after the Russian Revolution, Stalin did not seek to expand any further into Central or East Asia, instead looking for agreements with Great Britain and Japan that would respect the sphere of influence of each of those nations. Stalin generally went out of his way to try to accommodate other great powers, including most notably Hitler’s government.
Throughout the first half of 1941, the Soviet leader did whatever he could to placate Germany, and up to the day of the invasion continued to provide raw materials to his rival and remain confused as to why Hitler was not seeking negotiations. Stalin, a radical and ideologue at home, was a cautious realist abroad. He projected his own instincts onto Hitler, who the Soviet leader said would never be crazy enough to lead his country into a two-front war for the second time in the twentieth century. Stalin’s Soviet Union was in a way the inverse of colonial powers that gave their own people extensive rights at home but were brutal to foreign populations.
Despite the madness of collectivization and the Great Terror, Stalin’s foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s was mostly concerned with direct threats on the Soviet border and in that way more cautious and less ideological than those of Britain, Germany, Italy, or Japan. This prudence in foreign affairs was a long-term disposition of Stalin’s — the original split with Trotsky was partly over the latter’s desire to spread the revolution abroad rather than be content in the short-term with building “socialism in one country.”
Not only can one draw historical lessons from Kotkin’s biographies, but his two volumes speak to human psychology and how to ultimately create a better world. Individuals are complex, to say nothing of social and political movements. Stalin became involved in politics as a young man committed to what we would today call “social justice,” a term that Kotkin is not shy about using when talking about the motivations of the Soviet dictator and reveals something about the author’s politics.
While I would argue that in later years Stalin came to be driven more by sadism and the lust for power, the forced collectivization of agriculture, perhaps his greatest crime, can be directly traced to communist ideology and a dream of a better world. Communism impoverished and immiserated the masses in the Soviet Union just as it has everywhere else it has been tried, even under leaders more squeamish than Stalin. What divides political leaders who do good and those who do evil is ultimately not simply a matter of intentions, as Stalin’s worst acts derived from his idealism and concern for his fellow man. While a combination of altruism and correct ideas can move the world forward, dreamers who are wrong on the facts are more dangerous than the worst cynics. We undervalue the importance of truth relative to good intentions at our peril.
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