The first section focuses on the Communist Party’s drive to abolish private landholding in the Soviet countryside from 1929 into the early 1930s. Aiming to feed a growing urban work force and increase exports, Stalin’s henchmen forced peasants onto collective farms and eliminated relatively well-off peasants known as kulaks. The human consequences were, in Kotkin’s word, nothing short of an “apocalypse.” Famine resulting from social upheaval and drought killed between five million and seven million people, while five million kulaks were arrested, deported or murdered.
Why did Stalin embark on such a scheme and then double down when catastrophe loomed and critics within the party called for a change of course? In part, Kotkin argues, he acted on “deep Marxist premises” about the need to extirpate capitalist class relations. But Kotkin also attributes the drive for collectivization to a broader determination to wrench the Soviet Union, no matter the cost, into a state of social and economic, albeit anticapitalist, modernity.
The dictator believed, Kotkin contends, that the world’s most powerful countries “achieved and maintained their great-power status by mastery of a set of modern attributes: mass production, mass consumption, mass culture, mass politics.” If the Soviet Union failed to keep up with modern nations like Britain and Germany, it risked perpetual “backwardness” and subordination.
Evaluated by Stalin’s own brutal standard, collectivization was a success. The transformed Soviet economy was booming by 1934, while Western economies remained mired in the Great Depression. This achievement makes Stalin’s terrorization of his own party and government during the mid-1930s — the subject of Kotkin’s middle section — a challenge to explain.
Across the 1930s but especially 1937 and 1938, Stalin ordered the arrests of some 1.6 million party officials, military officers, intelligence agents and others on trumped-up charges of betraying the nation, a stunning display of ruthlessness that gutted Soviet leadership circles at a time of mounting threats from abroad. Some victims were convicted in dramatic show trials. Far more were murdered quietly, often after being tortured into confessing their supposed crimes.
Stalin was motivated in part, Kotkin asserts, by his determination to break the will of critics and rivals. In this sense, the terror “constituted a form of rule, a matter of statecraft” that sprang readily from a mind steeped in paranoia but capable of impeccable self-control. Kotkin also suggests another, more intriguing explanation: Stalin used the purges to open opportunities for younger, well-educated functionaries he judged better able to advance the nation’s industrial development.
Kotkin’s most striking contribution, though, is to probe reasons Stalin encountered little opposition as he wrought mayhem on his nation. Careerism and bureaucratic incentives in the Soviet Union’s formidable apparatus of repression had something to do with it, Kotkin writes, but so too did the party’s monopoly on information and the public’s receptiveness to wild claims about the danger of subversion from within. Stalinism was, in this way, as much enabled from below as imposed from above.
In the third section of the book, Kotkin turns to geopolitics, which increasingly preoccupied Stalin as Nazi Germany and militarist Japan upended the global status quo in the late 1930s. Well aware of Soviet military weakness yet eager to expand his nation’s borders and enhance his power, Stalin faced difficult decisions: Should he cut deals with the aggressors, despite their rabid anti-Communism, or throw in his lot with Britain? The answers he reached from 1939 to 1941 reveal Stalin as both consummate opportunist and narrow-minded ideologue.
The opportunist shone through in 1939, when Stalin signed his notorious nonaggression pact with Germany in return for territorial gains in eastern Poland and the Baltic nations. But Stalin’s ideological commitments resurfaced. Certain that arch-capitalist Britain was his country’s foremost enemy, he clung to his strange-bedfellows partnership with Germany long after Hitler had abandoned the arrangement. The Soviet Union was ill prepared when Nazi armies invaded in June 1941.
Kotkin’s account of this complex diplomatic dance disappoints only because it seems to turn him away from the more intimate, often chilling detail that he sprinkles into earlier sections of the book. Kotkin’s eye for revealing minutiae — Stalin’s failure to attend his mother’s funeral and penchant for doodling pictures of wolves during meetings, for example — does much to bring the dictator alive in the years before 1938. One is left to wonder about Stalin’s inner world as war grew close.
A larger problem for many readers will be Kotkin’s tendency to assume a good deal of foreknowledge about Soviet history. Who exactly were Stakhanovites, Chekists and Orenburg Cossacks? Kotkin provides little help. Also daunting to nonspecialists may be Kotkin’s tendency to drop the names of numerous Soviet officials who surrounded Stalin without drawing out their personalities or backgrounds.
These are, though, mere quibbles. The book deserves the broad audience it may struggle to find and will surely stand for years to come as a seminal account of some of the most devastating events of the 20th century. It will also whet appetites for Volume 3, which will no doubt consider events — World War II and the early Cold War — more familiar to many Western readers.