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How Stalin Built and Buried Communism

Mitchell Abidor
November 17, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, by Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, 2017, 1154 pages.

AT THE OPENING of Stephen Koptkin’s magisterial Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, the second volume of his biography of the Soviet leader and gravedigger of the revolution, Lenin has been dead for five years and Stalin, through brilliant bureaucratic maneuvering but also through an astute reading of the world situation, is firmly ensconced in power. The years covered here, from 1929 to 1941, were crucial and brutal ones for the USSR, with forced collectivization and its resultant famine, the Great Terror. It began on a small scale in 1934 after the assassination of Leningrad party leader and close Stalin ally, Sirgei Kirov, and was followed by the show trials and the massacre of a generation of revolutionaries and military leaders —leading finally to the signing of the pact with Hitler and the preparations for World War II.

It is unlikely we will soon have a biography the equal of Kotkin’s. The footnotes for this volume alone cover 160 three-column pages of notes printed in 2- or 3-point type. If there is a source untouched or unconsulted, it’s hard to imagine what it might be. There have been excellent biographies and studies of Stalin before, of course, some of the best of them extremely polemical, like that of Boris Souvarine, but Kotkin weds a certain dispassionate tone to his revulsion that prevents the book from becoming an extended pamphlet.

The horrors are not in any way downplayed or diminished, but Stalin is presented as more than a monster. Kotkin gives small details of his life — of how in his datcha he would tuck his pants into his socks when he walked around in slippers, of his dissolving of the tobacco from his favorite cigarettes into his pipe, of his fanatical love for the Russian Civil War film Chapayev — he saw it at least thirty-eight times, and ordered Pravda to print an especially positive review — and of how he went to see a play by Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer not in good odor in the USSR, fifteen times.

Of course, we turn to a biography of this heft for the larger history, and for detailed analyses of that history, and Kotkin doesn’t disappoint.

THAT THERE WAS horrific famine from 1931-1933, brought on by Stalin’s forced collectivization and his drive to destroy the kulaks as a class, is not something that can be questioned. Kotkin tells the story in all its horrific and shameful detail: the utter willfulness and senselessness of the drive, the mass arrests it occasioned, the peasants’ refusal to surrender their harvests, the collapse of civil life it occasioned, the cannibalism that occurred. Stalin’s insistence on the continuation of the collectivization drive did not prevent him from occasionally softening the harshest measures, but in the end there was no retreat. In a tactic he would adopt with similarly deadly results in the war that would soon come, retreat was forbidden, and despite the hecatomb the USSR had become, the Communist Party could hold a congress at the end of the famine called the Congress of Victors. Astoundingly, after the horrors of the first years, agricultural production would recover, collectivization would hold, and Stalin, at the cost of between five and seven million lives, could say his path was the right one.

The claim has long been made that the famine was a form of genocide of the Ukrainian people, who have given it the name “Holmodor” — killing by starvation. Kotkin will have none of it. He painstakingly demonstrates that the famine occurred throughout the rural sections of the USSR, that it resulted in horrific death tolls in every region. The Ukrainians’ claim that the campaign aimed at exterminating them, he shows, is groundless. This was an all-union event, one that effected Soviet Asia as much as the Ukraine.

Similarly, Kotkin feels that the facts around the assassination of Kirov and the terror it unleashed do not require or allow for wild speculation. Kirov was shot in the Smolny Palace by an assassin who had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to do so. Stalin would posit a vast plot and use it as a pretext for mass murder, and anti-Communist historians would pin the killing on Stalin, but Kotkin convincingly makes the case for a simple act of murder by one man.

Generally Kotkin rejects all the wild speculation that has dogged writing about Stalin. The stark facts are damning enough; embellishment is unnecessary. The death of Maxim Gorky has been labeled a Stalin murder, but Kotkin will have none of it. Gorky was a sick man, with “tuberculosis and a damaged left lung [yet] the writer had smoked nearly three packs of cigarettes a day and needed an oxygen tank.” He clearly needed no assist from Stalin, who greatly admired Gorky as a man and writer. Similarly, on the issue of Spain, Kotkin demolishes the notion of Stalin stealing the gold of the Spanish Republic which was deposited with him. The Soviets provided arms to the republic — at a high markup — and legitimately drew down funds from the gold. Kotkin outlines their crimes carried out by Soviet advisors during the Spanish civil war, but the theft of the government’s gold was not one of them.

THE MAGNITUDE of the Great Terror is simply astounding. The smaller terror that followed the Kirov assassination resulted in the execution of 4.402 people, including, of course, the lone individual actually responsible. The Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, driven by Stalin’s mad hatred of Trotsky and foreigners, resulted in 1,575,259 arrests and an official count of 681,692 executions (which Kotkin rounds up to 830,000 to add in people who died under interrogation or transit). In 1937 and 1938, the terror was averaging 2,200 arrests and 1,000 executions a day.

If much of the early part of the Terror left the common people indifferent (a joke Kotkin reports says it well: “ [w]hen uniformed men arrived and said ‘NKVD,’ people answered, ‘You’ve got the wrong apartment — the Communists live upstairs’”), by 1937 entire populations of the USSR who had a larger community outside the forcers of the USSR became suspect and were deported en masse, when not executed in huge numbers, including Koreans, Poles, and Germans.

Kotkin briefly reviews the various theories put forth for this killing wave, which took with it the old leadership of the Communist Party and bulk of the Red Army’s general staff. “Everything Stalin did during the years 1936-38 he had been talking about for years,” he writes. All of this served to aggrandize the power of the leader, all of it in the name of building a stronger USSR, and Kotkin is willing to allow that perhaps Stalin truly believed that the stated basis for the accusations against those called “spies” and “traitors” and “wreckers,” that the Soviet Union and Stalin in particular were constantly being plotted against, was true. Kotkin points out that fear of foreign enemies plotting with an internal fifth column already featured in Stalinist practice when he was in charge of the city of Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad, later still Volgograd) during the post-Revolution civil war.

Stalin was a man driven by many devils, right up to the bitter end. Eaten up with suspicion, hatred, and jealousy, he used his unhindered power him to slaughter over a million Communists, a record that any fascist could only envy. In fact, Kotkin informs us, of the sixty-eight German Communists who were in exile in the USSR, forty-one were executed at Stalin’s orders, and more members of the German Communist party’s pre-Hitler politburo were killed by Stalin (seven) than Hitler (five).

But for Kotkin there were other perversely rational causes for the terror. One of them, inspired by the opposition to forced collectivization, was the drive to do away with anyone ever infected in any way by old ways of thinking. Trotsky had written along these lines at the time, saying that Stalin’s purges prevented the establishment of an entrenched bureaucratic class. If Stalin truly had this in mind, he succeeded admirably: At the 18th Congress of the CPSU, half the delegates were under 35 and eighty percent 40 or less! The party was certainly not a party of the intelligentsia, as 46 percent had not graduated from high school. As Kotkin says:” Stalin decided to force a radical reinvention of the soviet elite, in the mold of the young striver he had once been, executing or incarcerating those he deemed to be of a bygone epoch while promoting and nurturing hundreds of thousands of new people.”

Kotkin shows the ways in which Stalinist terror grew were “an inherent possibility within the Bolshevik revolutionary project… the Bolshevik project of a political monopoly hell-bent on a noncapitalist modernity…The best indication that the terror inhered in Bolshevism was the relative ease with which Stalin could foist the bloodbath upon the political police, army, party-state, cultural elites, and indeed the entire country.” But it needed a Stalin to bring out what was potential: “There could have been no such terror without the Communist party and its ideology, but there would have been no such terror without Stalin.” In defining the problem as the interaction of these two elements, neither strong enough on its own to bring about the terror, but made inevitable by their fatal combination, Kotkin gets to the heart of the matter.

THE FINAL KEY event of the period covered was the ultimately near-fatal alliance with Nazi Germany, which Stalin pursued in one way or another for almost a decade. While perfectly willing to sign a pact with France and England, Stalin was doing business with, and also had his eye turned towards, Germany, since for him, writes Kotkin, “the British stood behind the entire imperialist order [and] Hitler was an intelligent leader.” Like so many others, both within Germany and without, Stalin underestimated, or incorrectly estimated, the German leader, and if signing the non-aggression pact in 1939 could be defended at a certain realpolitick level, Stalin’s refusal to accept the imminent threat, even when spies and all the facts pointed to an invasion, cannot be excused. Reports, most of them planted by the Nazi government, also spoke of an attack on Britain, and since Stalin believed this the more likely scenario, both because Germany was engaged in huge amounts of trade with the Soviets, but more because Stalin could not imagine Germany choosing to engage in a two-front war, he opted to lend more credence to the latter than the former hypothesis.

Stalin’s voluminous archives contain thousands upon thousands of memos with his handwritten notes on them. Kotkin reproduces one from June 17, 1941. Across an NKVD report warning of imminent invasion the Little Father of the People had scribbled: “To com. Merkulov: You can end your ‘source’ from German aviation HQ to his fucking mother. This is not a ‘source’ but a disinformationist.” Five days later the Wehrmacht rolled into the USSR, and within four years, 20,000,000 Soviet citizens would be dead.

And yet, “Stalin forced into being a socialist modernity, presiding over the creation of a mass-production economy, a Soviet mass culture, an integrated society, and a mass politics without private property.” And he had done so, not despite the masses, but with them. Mass rallies and events were a daily occurrence, and decisions about executions were read out in factories and loudly applauded. And Stalin — as Putin today — did not ignore the importance of Russia’s desire to be a great nation among great nations: “By the mid-30’s the revolution and Stalin’s leadership were seen as having enabled a great country to take its rightful place among the powers.” They did so, moreover, “with a supposedly morally and economically superior system.” In short, it was not (or not yet) Russian chauvinism that inspired the Soviet mases: that, to be sure, was present. It was Soviet communism, which was a pole standing in opposition to capitalism everywhere, that inspired the Soviet people, and Communists around the world. As Kotkin so well puts it: Stalin had fulfilled “the modern authoritarian dream: incorporating the masses without empowering them.” And in both Russia and the world, “socialism was no longer just libraries full of pamphlets, songs, marches, meetings, and schisms, but a country.”

During the war, communism would take a back seat to patriotism. That, however, will be the subject of Kotkin’s next volume, which one imagines will be as thrilling and engrossing as this one.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.