Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: An Ideological Rant of the First Order

I awaited Kotkin’s biography on Stalin – the first of three volumes – with much anticipation, since the blurb promises a balanced and humanised Stalin, which goes against standard accounts. It claims the book is nothing less than the definitive work of Stalin, even redefining the art of history itself.

To say I was profoundly disappointed is an understatement. Kotkin’s endless pages are nothing less than an ideological rant of the first order. He fails to understand Marxism at all and champions a clear liberal agenda that condemns Stalin as a dictator hungry for power and control. If only Stalin had seen the benefits of capitalism, much evil would have been avoided! The book is yet another work in the dreary list of efforts to demonise Stalin, rather than analysing the dynamic of veneration and demonisation itself. It may well be the first ideological salvo in a new Cold War.

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8 thoughts on “Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: An Ideological Rant of the First Order

  1. Thanks for this! (You must be a speed reader.) I’ve been wondering about this book, reading the bourgeois reviews but still being unable to tell if it was any good. Any chance you’ll have a longer review?

  2. Terribly disappointed to hear it; the hype was indeed promising. Is it completely barren, or is there anything it does well? Decent narrative of his young life at least?

    I ask because I’m almost certain to receive it as my Christmas present, and I’d hate to have such a damning indictment hanging over the whole affair. So, c’mon, gimme something (anything at all!) to look forward to.

    (Though I’d also be interested to hear further elaboration on the stuff you didn’t like, since criticism is fun even when it sours things up. This will be my first book-length bio of the man, so it’d be good to know what info is suspect.)

    1. Kotkin makes much of debunking the pop-psychological accounts of troubled-childhood-leads-to-bloodthirsty-tyrant, and he follows Roberts in arguing that Stalin had political (not personal) paranoia, although he uses that to condemn Marxism. At the same time, from what I have read (I have yet to study the whole thing), the underlying agenda is deeply anti-Marxist and pro-capitalist. Thus, there is little if any understanding of what makes Marxism tick. This may simply be due to a historian’s lack of theoretical ability (and a good dose of disciplinary chauvinism). In the context of the structural anti-Marxism of Russian and Slavic studies – they were actively fostered during the Cold War in order to understand the enemy – Kotkin’s study looks ‘balanced’ and perhaps ‘risky’. Thus, Stalin has some minimal redeeming features. But the work is still very much part of of that tradition. So Stalin ends up being simply a power-hungry dictator out to control people and the USSR as much as possible, and using whatever he could to do so. Kotkin also trots out the standard stuff, such as the reductio ad Hitlerum.

  3. I saw the glowing reviews of this book and contemplated buying it. Then I googled ‘kotkin AND putin’ and saw the guy had an obvious agenda. It has never failed me to do this and certainly has saved me a lot of money on books of dubious value.

    Of course, as Marx noted an adversary can write a really great book that has value in it of itself, but I find this not to be the case for contemporary academia since it cannot aspire to 19th century standards.

  4. With ‘obvious agenda’ I mean not that the work on Stalin is aimed against Putin, but rather that he is another Westerner who feels the need to ponder about Russia, its history and destiny, from his personal feelings about it.

  5. From what I have read thus far, Kotkin’s basic position is decidedly unoriginal: the Bolsheviks developed a mirror-image of tsarist Russia. Stalin achieved this, since he learned how the old system worked from the inside before implementing it when he was leading the government. It’s basically the ‘Russia needs a tsar’ position. As for Marxism, that merely provides the ingredient of political paranoia. The reason I said that it may well be the first ideological salvo i a new Cold War is as you suggest: Kotkin has one eye on Putin and contemporary Russia – he has a fondness for comparing Stalin to other ‘dictators’.

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