Kotkin’s Stalin: a wealth of caricatures (updated)

An update on my study of Kotkin’s much-hyped first volume of his Stalin trilogy. Although it is not quite the cartoon script of Montefiore’s two books, it really is a stunning collection of caricatures and derived positions. Before I mention those, a couple of failed promises:

1. Kotkin makes much of trying not to identify the tyrant to come, lambasting (rightly) Tucker’s pop-psychological effort. And yet he constantly uses the epithet ‘future dictator’ when speaking of all manner of activities, from grief at the death of Stalin’s first wife to cutting holes in the ice to fish while in northern Siberian.

2. He also vows not to engage in gap-filling, which he describes as the bane of historical biographers. Yet, whenever he needs to fill in some lacunae, he resorts to comparisons – with Hitler (of course), Napoleon, Mussolini and so on.

Now for the caricatures:

1. Lenin was a hysterical zealot, who ran around ‘screaming’ for the Bolsheviks to seize power. He was also an elitist who shunned workers in favour of intellectual revolutionaries. The standard text, What is to Be Done?, is trotted out in support of this wayward suggestion. Lars Lih’s monumental Lenin Rediscovered has debunked that one.

2. Stalin was a derivative thinker, writer of stolid prose and a man of Asiatic temperament (he gets this from Trotsky). Apart from the tired orientalism that runs through the book, it seems as though Kotkin has not actually studied Stalin’s texts. Then again, he says clearly that nothing is to be gained by reading Stalin – in a supposed biography on Stalin.

3. The far Left and far Right are largely the same. They use the same tactics and want largely the same things. Not only does this enable Kotkin to deploy the usual reductio ad Hitlerum, but is also enables ‘pat’ (a favourite word) dismissals of socialism.

4. The Russian Revolution was a ‘putsch’ or a ‘coup’, carried out by a hapless, disorganised and unskilled bunch that stumbled into power. If two bullets had disposed of Lenin and Trotsky, the ‘putsch’ would not have happened. At the same time, Kotkin contradicts himself, since he cannot avoid the data that shows the Bolsheviks had mass support, especially in the armed forces.

5. Stalin was really another tsar. As a product of the contradictions in Russia, which enabled the Bolsheviks to fluke a coup, Stalin simply mirrored the repressive tsarist apparatus.

So where do Kotkin’s sympathies lie? A telltale sign is his comment on Pyotr Stolypin, the conservative reformer: ‘Tall, with blue eyes and a black beard, a figure of immense charm and sensitive to form … Stolypin was a discovery’ (p. 91). Sadly, for Kotkin, Stolypin failed to overcome Russia’s contradictions and turn it into a parliamentary system with capitalist economic forms.


3 thoughts on “Kotkin’s Stalin: a wealth of caricatures (updated)

  1. Regarding Stolypin, I guess the demonisation of Stalin created a reverse effect for him. Without the Bolsheviks he would just have been another cruel Tsarist henchman, rather than a counterfactual saviour with charm and blue eyes.

    1. Curiously, in his praise and lament for Stolypin, Kotkin unwittingly lines himself up with the liberal narrative in Russia these days: Stolypin’s reforms were arrested by the revolution, so only now can they be fulfilled.
      And you are correct to note the counterfactual ‘if only’ tone of Kotkin’s work. He constantly speculates on what might have been if it were not for Russia’s chaotic and backward political situation.

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