Kotkin’s slide into disappointment

That should probably be ‘my slide into deeper disappointment’ – with Stephen Kotkin’s ‘biography’ of Stalin. Yes, scare quotes, since the effort is more like Kotkin’s rambling notes on the history of Russia – and much of the rest of the world – in the 20th century. My gut feeling about this book was confirmed with Kotkin’s take on the argument that the Bolsheviks actually managed to pull off the impossible: rescue, reestablish and refound a state in a country that was well on the way to becoming a collapsed state. For Kotkin, this state was nothing more than a criminal network:

This was a very peculiar state: an armed political police that resembled criminal bandits; a sprawling food procurement commissariat, which bested numerous rivals in a battle for bureaucratic aggrandizement; a distribution apparatus to allocate the spoils and to feed off them itself; an immense desertion-beset Red Army; an inefficient but – thanks to the aura of emergency – increasingly hierarchical party hydra, which absorbed and deployed personnel; and a propaganda machinery … wielding newspaper, posters, skits, films and agitation trains (pp. 289-90)

Apart from the rabid anti-communism of such a caricature – a bloated hydra feeding off spoils – I should add that for Kotkin there really was no ‘counter-revolution’, since it was the creation of the propaganda machine. Oh yes, the Red Army did not win the civil war; it simply stood by while the White Armies collapsed around them.


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