In a Levada Center poll in 2017, Russians who responded named Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history. Now, you can argue about the meaning of “outstanding”, but it’s pretty remarkable that citizens of a country whose chief of government (albeit several regimes ago) presided over an entirely avoidable famine which killed millions of citizens of his country, ordered purges which executed more than 700,000 people, including senior military leadership, leaving his nation unprepared for the German attack in 1941, which would, until the final victory, claim the lives of around 27 million Soviet citizens, military and civilian, would be considered an “outstanding person” as opposed to a super-villain.
The story of Stalin’s career is even less plausible, and should give pause to those who believe history can be predicted without the contingency of things that “just happen”. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (the author uses Roman alphabet transliterations of all individuals’ names in their native languages, which can occasionally be confusing when they later Russified their names) was born in 1878 in the town of Gori in the Caucasus. Gori, part of the territory of Georgia which had long been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, had been seized by Imperial Russia in a series of bloody conflicts ending in the 1860s with complete incorporation of the territory into the Czar’s empire. Ioseb, who was called by the Georgian dimunitive “Sosa” throughout his youth, was the third son born to his parents, but, as both of his older brothers had died not long after birth, was raised as an only child.
Sosa’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (often written in the Russian form, Vissarion) was a shoemaker with his own shop in Gori but, as time passed his business fell on hard times and he closed the shop and sought other work, ending his life as a vagrant. Sosa’s mother, Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, was ambitious and wanted the best for her son, and left her husband and took a variety of jobs to support the family. She arranged for eight year old Sosa to attend Russian language lessons given to the children of a priest in whose house she was boarding. Knowledge of Russian was the key to advancement in Czarist Georgia, and he had a head start when Keke arranged for him to be enrolled in the parish school’s preparatory and four year programs. He was the first member of either side of his family to attend school and he rose to the top of his class under the patronage of a family friend, “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili. After graduation, his options were limited. The Russian administration, wary of the emergence of a Georgian intellectual class that might champion independence, refused to establish a university in the Caucasus. Sosa’s best option was the highly selective Theological Seminary in Tiflis where he would prepare, in a six year course, for life as a parish priest or teacher in Georgia but, for those who graduated near the top, could lead to a scholarship at a university in another part of the empire.
He took the examinations and easily passed, gaining admission, petitioning and winning a partial scholarship that paid most of his fees. “Uncle Yakov” paid the rest, and he plunged into his studies. Georgia was in the midst of an intense campaign of Russification, and Sosa further perfected his skills in the Russian language. Although completely fluent in spoken and written Russian along with his native Georgian (the languages are completely unrelated, having no more in common than Finnish and Italian), he would speak Russian with a Georgian accent all his life and did not publish in the Russian language until he was twenty-nine years old.
Long a voracious reader, at the seminary Sosa joined a “forbidden literature” society which smuggled in and read works, not banned by the Russian authorities, but deemed unsuitable for priests in training. He read classics of Russian, French, English, and German literature and science, including Capital by Karl Marx. The latter would transform his view of the world and path in life. He made the acquaintance of a former seminarian and committed Marxist, Lado Ketskhoveli, who would guide his studies. In August 1898, he joined the newly formed “Third Group of Georgian Marxists”—many years later Stalin would date his “party card” to then.
Prior to 1905, imperial Russia was an absolute autocracy. The Czar ruled with no limitations on his power. What he decreed and ordered his functionaries to do was law. There was no parliament, political parties, elected officials of any kind, or permanent administrative state that did not serve at the pleasure of the monarch. Political activity and agitation were illegal, as were publishing and distributing any kind of political literature deemed to oppose imperial rule. As Sosa became increasingly radicalised, it was only a short step from devout seminarian to underground agitator. He began to neglect his studies, became increasingly disrespectful to authority figures, and, in April 1899, left the seminary before taking his final examinations.
Saddled with a large debt to the seminary for leaving without becoming a priest or teacher, he drifted into writing articles for small, underground publications associated with the Social Democrat movement, at the time the home of most Marxists. He took to public speaking and, while eschewing fancy flights of oratory, spoke directly to the meetings of workers he addressed in their own dialect and terms. Inevitably, he was arrested for “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority” in April 1902 and jailed. After fifteen months in prison at Batum, he was sentenced to three years of internal exile in Siberia. In January 1904 he escaped and made it back to Tiflis, in Georgia, where he resumed his underground career. By this time the Social Democratic movement had fractured into Lenin’s Bolshevik faction and the larger Menshevik group. Sosa, who during his imprisonment had adopted the revolutionary nickname “Koba”, after the hero in a Georgian novel of revenge, continued to write and speak and, in 1905, after the Czar was compelled to cede some of his power to a parliament, organised Battle Squads which stole printing equipment, attacked government forces, and raised money through protection rackets targeting businesses.
In 1905, Koba Jughashvili was elected one of three Bolshevik delegates from Georgia to attend the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tampere, Finland, then part of the Russian empire. It was there he first met Lenin, who had been living in exile in Switzerland. Koba had read Lenin’s prolific writings and admired his leadership of the Bolshevik cause, but was unimpressed in this first in-person encounter. He vocally took issue with Lenin’s position that Bolsheviks should seek seats in the newly-formed State Duma (parliament). When Lenin backed down in the face of opposition, he said, “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately representative figure of a man. What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”
Returning to Georgia, he resumed his career as an underground revolutionary including, famously, organising a robbery of the Russian State Bank in Tiflis in which three dozen people were killed and two dozen more injured, “expropriating” 250,000 rubles for the Bolshevik cause. Koba did not participate directly, but he was the mastermind of the heist. This and other banditry, criminal enterprises, and unauthorised publications resulted in multiple arrests, imprisonments, exiles to Siberia, escapes, re-captures, and life underground in the years that followed. In 1912, while living underground in Saint Petersburg after yet another escape, he was named the first editor of the Bolshevik party’s new daily newspaper, Pravda, although his name was kept secret. In 1913, with the encouragement of Lenin, he wrote an article titled “Marxism and the National Question” in which he addressed how a Bolshevik regime should approach the diverse ethnicities and national identities of the Russian Empire. As a Georgian Bolshevik, Jughashvili was seen as uniquely qualified and credible to address this thorny question. He published the article under the nom de plume “K. [for Koba] Stalin”, which literally translated, meant “Man of Steel” and paralleled Lenin’s pseudonym. He would use this name for the rest of his life, reverting to the Russified form of his given name, “Joseph” instead of the nickname Koba (by which his close associates would continue to address him informally). I shall, like the author, refer to him subsequently as “Stalin”.
When Russia entered the Great War in 1914, events were set into motion which would lead to the end of Czarist rule, but Stalin was on the sidelines: in exile in Siberia, where he spent much of his time fishing. In late 1916, as manpower shortages became acute, exiled Bolsheviks including Stalin received notices of conscription into the army, but when he appeared at the induction centre he was rejected due to a crippled left arm, the result of a childhood injury. It was only after the abdication of the Czar in the February Revolution of 1917 that he returned to Saint Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd, and resumed his work for the Bolshevik cause. In April 1917, in elections to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Stalin came in third after Lenin (who had returned from exile in Switzerland) and Zinoviev. Despite having been out of circulation for several years, Stalin’s reputation from his writings and editorship of Pravda, which he resumed, elevated him to among the top rank of the party.
As Kerensky’s Provisional Government attempted to consolidate its power and continue the costly and unpopular war, Stalin and Trotsky joined Lenin’s call for a Bolshevik coup to seize power, and Stalin was involved in all aspects of the eventual October Revolution, although often behind the scenes, while Lenin was the public face of the Bolshevik insurgency.
After seizing power, the Bolsheviks faced challenges from all directions. They had to disentangle Russia from the Great War without leaving the country open to attack and territorial conquest by Germany or Poland. Despite their ambitious name, they were a minority party and had to subdue domestic opposition. They took over a country which the debts incurred by the Czar to fund the war had effectively bankrupted. They had to exert their control over a sprawling, polyglot empire in which, outside of the big cities, their party had little or no presence. They needed to establish their authority over a military in which the officer corps largely regarded the Czar as their legitimate leader. They must restore agricultural production, severely disrupted by levies of manpower for the war, before famine brought instability and the risk of a counter-coup. And for facing these formidable problems, all at the same time, they were utterly unprepared.
The Bolsheviks were, to a man (and they were all men), professional revolutionaries. Their experience was in writing and publishing radical tracts and works of Marxist theory, agitating and organising workers in the cities, carrying out acts of terror against the regime, and funding their activities through banditry and other forms of criminality. There was not a military man, agricultural expert, banker, diplomat, logistician, transportation specialist, or administrator among them, and suddenly they needed all of these skills and more, plus the ability to recruit and staff an administration for a continent-wide empire. Further, although Lenin’s leadership was firmly established and undisputed, his subordinates were all highly ambitious men seeking to establish and increase their power in the chaotic and fluid situation.
It was in this environment that Stalin made his mark as the reliable “fixer”. Whether it was securing levies of grain from the provinces, putting down resistance from counter-revolutionary White forces, stamping out opposition from other parties, developing policies for dealing with the diverse nations incorporated into the Russian Empire (indeed, in a real sense, it was Stalin who invented the Soviet Union as a nominal federation of autonomous republics which, in fact, were subject to Party control from Moscow), or implementing Lenin’s orders, even when he disagreed with them, Stalin was on the job. Lenin recognised Stalin’s importance as his right hand man by creating the post of General Secretary of the party and appointing him to it.
This placed Stalin at the centre of the party apparatus. He controlled who was hired, fired, and promoted. He controlled access to Lenin (only Trotsky could see Lenin without going through Stalin). This was a finely-tuned machine which allowed Lenin to exercise absolute power through a party machine which Stalin had largely built and operated.
Then, in May of 1922, the unthinkable happened: Lenin was felled by a stroke which left him partially paralysed. He retreated to his dacha at Gorki to recuperate, and his communication with the other senior leadership was almost entirely through Stalin. There had been no thought of or plan for a succession after Lenin (he was only fifty-two at the time of his first stroke, although he had been unwell for much of the previous year). As Lenin’s health declined, ending in his death in January 1924, Stalin increasingly came to run the party and, through it, the government. He had appointed loyalists in key positions, who saw their own careers as linked to that of Stalin. By the end of 1924, Stalin began to move against the “Old Bolsheviks” who he saw as rivals and potential threats to his consolidation of power. When confronted with opposition, on three occasions he threatened to resign, each exercise in brinksmanship strengthening his grip on power, as the party feared the chaos that would ensue from a power struggle at the top. His status was reflected in 1925 when the city of Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad.
This ascent to supreme power was not universally applauded. Felix Dzierzynski (Polish born, he is often better known by the Russian spelling of his name, Dzerzhinsky) who, as the founder of the Soviet secret police (Cheka/GPU/OGPU) knew a few things about dictatorship, warned in 1926, the year of his death, that “If we do not find the correct line and pace of development our opposition will grow and the country will get its dictator, the grave digger of the revolution irrespective of the beautiful feathers on his costume.”
With or without feathers, the dictatorship was beginning to emerge. In 1926 Stalin published “On Questions of Leninism” in which he introduced the concept of “Socialism in One Country” which, presented as orthodox Leninist doctrine (which it wasn’t), argued that world revolution was unnecessary to establish communism in a single country. This set the stage for the collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation which was to come. In 1928, what was to be the prototype of the show trials of the 1930s opened in Moscow, the Shakhty trial, complete with accusations of industrial sabotage (“wrecking”), denunciations of class enemies, and Andrei Vyshinsky presiding as chief judge. Of the fifty-three engineers accused, five were executed and forty-four imprisoned. A country desperately short on the professionals its industry needed to develop had begin to devour them.
It is a mistake to regard Stalin purely as a dictator obsessed with accumulating and exercising power and destroying rivals, real or imagined. The one consistent theme throughout Stalin’s career was that he was a true believer. He was a devout believer in the Orthodox faith while at the seminary, and he seamlessly transferred his allegiance to Marxism once he had been introduced to its doctrines. He had mastered the difficult works of Marx and could cite them from memory (as he often did spontaneously to buttress his arguments in policy disputes), and went on to similarly internalise the work of Lenin. These principles guided his actions, and motivated him to apply them rigidly, whatever the cost may be.
Starting in 1921, Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy, which lightened state control over the economy and, in particular, introduced market reforms in the agricultural sector, resulting in a mixed economy in which socialism reigned in big city industries, but in the countryside the peasants operated under a kind of market economy. This policy had restored agricultural production to pre-revolutionary levels and largely ended food shortages in the cities and countryside. But to a doctrinaire Marxist, it seemed to risk destruction of the regime. Marx believed that the political system was determined by the means of production. Thus, accepting what was essentially a capitalist economy in the agricultural sector was to infect the socialist government with its worst enemy.
Once Stalin had completed his consolidation of power, he then proceeded as Marxist doctrine demanded: abolish the New Economic Policy and undertake the forced collectivisation of agriculture. This began in 1928.
And it is with this momentous decision that the present volume comes to an end. This massive work (976 pages in the print edition) is just the first in a planned three volume biography of Stalin. The second volume, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, was published in 2017 and the concluding volume is not yet completed.
Reading this book, and the entire series, is a major investment of time in a single historical figure. But, as the author observes, if you’re interested in the phenomenon of twentieth century totalitarian dictatorship, Stalin is the gold standard. He amassed more power, exercised by a single person with essentially no checks or limits, over more people and a larger portion of the Earth’s surface than any individual in human history. He ruled for almost thirty years, transformed the economy of his country, presided over deliberate famines, ruthless purges, and pervasive terror that killed tens of millions, led his country to victory at enormous cost in the largest land conflict in history and ended up exercising power over half of the European continent, and built a military which rivaled that of the West in a bipolar struggle for global hegemony.
It is impossible to relate the history of Stalin without describing the context in which it occurred, and this is as much a history of the final days of imperial Russia, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment and consolidation of Soviet power as of Stalin himself. Indeed, in this first volume, there are lengthy parts of the narrative in which Stalin is largely offstage: in prison, internal exile, or occupied with matters peripheral to the main historical events. The level of detail is breathtaking: the Bolsheviks seem to have been as compulsive record-keepers as Germans are reputed to be, and not only are the votes of seemingly every committee meeting recorded, but who voted which way and why. There are more than two hundred pages of end notes, source citations, bibliography, and index.
If you are interested in Stalin, the Soviet Union, the phenomenon of Bolshevism, totalitarian dictatorship, or how destructive madness can grip a civilised society for decades, this is an essential work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled.
Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-14-312786-4.
Here is a two part Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the book and Stalin’s rise to power.