The Rise of Joseph Stalin
Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin sure knows how to tell a story. In his nearly 1000 page (in the print edition) biography, and remember this is just Volume 1, describes and analyzes the rise to power of Joseph Stalin from his humble beginnings in the Georgian backwater town of Gori in 1878 to his full assumption of power over the Soviet Union in 1928 on the eve of the collectivization of Russian agriculture. As any good Marxist would do he analyzes Stalin’s rise in the context of the broad historical forces shaping Europe and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, this is a story where the force of will of two individuals, namely Lenin and Stalin, alter the arc of history. Simply put, without them, no Soviet Union.
Because much of the story is known and is present in other reviews on Amazon, I will highlight what I found special in Kotkin’s biography. First and foremost the autodidact Stalin, who was far from the intellectual lightweight portrayed by his critics, was from the beginning a hard leftist. Nevertheless he learned from Lenin the importance of tactical flexibility. This enabled him to turn right to defeat Trotsky and then turn left to defeat, first Zinoviev and Kamenev, and then Bukharin. If anything Kotkin teaches us the Stalin was the true successor to Lenin.
He further highlights how Stalin built a dictatorship within the dictatorship. By that he means that Stalin seized control of the Communist Party which dictated over all of Russia. Through his role as general secretary Stalin seized control of the party, which was internally democratic, and bent it to his will. Thus he created a dictatorship within a dictatorship.
Here are a few interesting factoids that I learned from the book:
*Lenin’s Testament was probably not written by Lenin. It was written by, most likely, his wife.
*With respect to his wife, unlike other leading Bolsheviks Stalin was a sexist in the sense he did not want her to work outside the home. For a while she was a secretary to Lenin.
*Finance Commissar Grigory Sokolnikov broke the Russian inflation with a very orthodox monetary policy putting the country on a modified gold standard. He minted gold coins with an engraving of the deposed Czar Nicholas II on it. This was done with the backing of Stalin. Sokolnikov is later a victim of the terror.
*Vladimir Putin’s grandfather worked as cook for Lenin.
Stalin was a true party boss. Harry Truman described him “as near like Tom Pendergast (Kansas city Democratic Party boss) as any man I know.” The difference, of course, is that Pendergast did not control the entire security apparatus of the state. This control will be wreaked with a vengeance in Kotkin’s next volume. I can’t wait for it to come out.
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