This is the second volume in the author’s monumental projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. The first volume, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 covers the period from Stalin’s birth through the consolidation of his sole power atop the Soviet state after the death of Lenin. The third volume, which will cover the period from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 through the death of Stalin in 1953 has yet to be published.
As this volume begins in 1928, Stalin is securely in the supreme position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and having over the years staffed the senior ranks of the party and the Soviet state (which the party operated like the puppet it was) with loyalists who owed their positions to him, had no serious rivals who might challenge him. (It is often claimed that Stalin was paranoid and feared a coup, but would a despot fearing for his position regularly take summer holidays, months in length, in Sochi, far from the capital?)
By 1928, the Soviet Union had largely recovered from the damage inflicted by the Great War, Bolshevik revolution, and subsequent civil war. Industrial and agricultural production were back to around their 1914 levels, and most measures of well-being had similarly recovered. To be sure, compared to the developed industrial economies of countries such as Germany, France, or Britain, Russia remained a backward economy largely based upon primitive agriculture, but at least it had undone the damage inflicted by years of turbulence and conflict.
But in the eyes of Stalin and his close associates, who were ardent Marxists, there was a dangerous and potentially deadly internal contradiction in the Soviet system as it then stood. In 1921, in response to the chaos and famine following the 1917 revolution and years-long civil war, Lenin had proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which tempered the pure collectivism of original Bolshevik doctrine by introducing a mixed economy, where large enterprises would continue to be owned and managed by the state, but small-scale businesses could be privately owned and run for profit. More importantly, agriculture, which had previously been managed under a top-down system of coercive requisitioning of grain and other products by the state, was replaced by a market system where farmers could sell their products freely, subject to a tax, payable in product, proportional to their production (and thus creating an incentive to increase production).
The NEP was a great success, and shortages of agricultural products were largely eliminated. There was grousing about the growing prosperity of the so-called NEPmen, but the results of freeing the economy from the shackles of state control were evident to all. But according to Marxist doctrine, it was a dagger pointed at the heart of the socialist state.
By 1928, the Soviet economy could be described, in Marxist terms, as socialism in the industrial cities and capitalism in the agrarian countryside. But, according to Marx, the form of politics was determined by the organisation of the means of production—paraphrasing Brietbart, politics is downstream of economics. This meant that preserving capitalism in a large sector of the country, one employing a large majority of its population and necessary to feed the cities, was an existential risk. In such a situation it would only be normal for the capitalist peasants to eventually prevail over the less numerous urbanised workers and destroy socialism.
Stalin was a Marxist. He was not an opportunist who used Marxism-Leninism to further his own ambitions. He really believed this stuff. And so, in 1928, he proclaimed an end to the NEP and began the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture. Private ownership of land would be abolished, and the 120 million peasants essentially enslaved as “workers” on collective or state farms, with planting, quotas to be delivered, and management essentially controlled by the party. After an initial lucky year, the inevitable catastrophe ensued. Between 1931 and 1933 famine and epidemics resulting from it killed between five and seven million people. The country lost around half of its cattle and two thirds of its sheep. In 1929, the average family in Kazakhstan owned 22.6 cattle; in 1933 3.7. This was a calamity on the same order as the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, and just as man-made: during this period there was a global glut of food, but Stalin refused to admit the magnitude of the disaster for fear of inciting enemies to attack and because doing so would concede the failure of his collectivisation project. In addition to the famine, the process of collectivisation resulted in between four and five million people being arrested, executed, deported to other regions, or jailed.
Many in the starving countryside said, “If only Stalin knew, he would do something.” But the evidence is overwhelming: Stalin knew, and did nothing. Marxist theory said that agriculture must be collectivised, and by pure force of will he pushed through the project, whatever the cost. Many in the senior Soviet leadership questioned this single-minded pursuit of a theoretical goal at horrendous human cost, but they did not act to stop it. But Stalin remembered their opposition and would settle scores with them later.
By 1936, it appeared that the worst of the period of collectivisation was over. The peasants, preferring to live in slavery than starve to death, had acquiesced to their fate and resumed production, and the weather co-operated in producing good harvests. And then, in 1937, a new horror was unleashed upon the Soviet people, also completely man-made and driven by the will of Stalin, the Great Terror. Starting slowly in the aftermath of the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934, by 1937 the absurd devouring of those most loyal to the Soviet regime, all over Stalin’s signature, reached a crescendo. In 1937 and 1938 1,557,259 people would be arrested and 681,692 executed, the overwhelming majority for political offences, this in a country with a working-age population of 100 million. Counting deaths from other causes as a result of the secret police, the overall death toll was probably around 830,000. This was so bizarre, and so unprecedented in human history, it is difficult to find any comparable situation, even in Nazi Germany. As the author remarks,
To be sure, the greater number of victims were ordinary Soviet people, but what regime liquidates colossal numbers of loyal officials? Could Hitler—had he been so inclined—have compelled the imprisonment or execution of huge swaths of Nazi factory and farm bosses, as well as almost all of the Nazi provincial Gauleiters and their staffs, several times over? Could he have executed the personnel of the Nazi central ministries, thousands of his Wehrmacht officers—including almost his entire high command—as well as the Reich’s diplomatic corps and its espionage agents, its celebrated cultural figures, and the leadership of Nazi parties throughout the world (had such parties existed)? Could Hitler also have decimated the Gestapo even while it was carrying out a mass bloodletting? And could the German people have been told, and would the German people have found plausible, that almost everyone who had come to power with the Nazi revolution turned out to be a foreign agent and saboteur?
Stalin did all of these things. The damage inflicted upon the Soviet military, at a time of growing threats, was horrendous. The terror executed or imprisoned three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union, 13 of 15 full generals, 8 of the 9 admirals of the Navy, and 154 of 186 division commanders. Senior managers, diplomats, spies, and party and government officials were wiped out in comparable numbers in the all-consuming cataclysm. At the very moment the Soviet state was facing threats from Nazi Germany in the west and Imperial Japan in the east, it destroyed those most qualified to defend it in a paroxysm of paranoia and purification from phantasmic enemies.
And then, it all stopped, or largely tapered off. This did nothing for those who had been executed, or who were still confined in the camps spread all over the vast country, but at least there was a respite from the knocks in the middle of the night and the cascading denunciations for fantastically absurd imagined “crimes”. (In June 1937, eight high-ranking Red Army officers, including Marshal Tukachevsky, were denounced as “Gestapo agents”. Three of those accused were Jews.)
But now the international situation took priority over domestic “enemies”. The Bolsheviks, and Stalin in particular, had always viewed the Soviet Union as surrounded by enemies. As the vanguard of the proletarian revolution, by definition those states on its borders must be reactionary capitalist-imperialist or fascist regimes hostile to or actively bent upon the destruction of the peoples’ state.
With Hitler on the march in Europe and Japan expanding its puppet state in China, potentially hostile powers were advancing toward Soviet borders from two directions. Worse, there was a loose alliance between Germany and Japan, raising the possibility of a two-front war which would engage Soviet forces in conflicts on both ends of its territory. What Stalin feared most, however, was an alliance of the capitalist states (in which he included Germany, despite its claim to be “National Socialist”) against the Soviet Union. In particular, he dreaded some kind of arrangement between Britain and Germany which might give Britain supremacy on the seas and its far-flung colonies, while acknowledging German domination of continental Europe and a free hand to expand toward the East at the expense of the Soviet Union.
Stalin was faced with an extraordinarily difficult choice: make some kind of deal with Britain (and possibly France) in the hope of deterring a German attack upon the Soviet Union, or cut a deal with Germany, linking the German and Soviet economies in a trade arrangement which the Germans would be loath to destroy by aggression, lest they lose access to the raw materials which the Soviet Union could supply to their war machine. Stalin’s ultimate calculation, again grounded in Marxist theory, was that the imperialist powers were fated to eventually fall upon one another in a destructive war for domination, and that by standing aloof, the Soviet Union stood to gain by encouraging socialist revolutions in what remained of them after that war had run its course.
Stalin evaluated his options and made his choice. On August 27, 1939, a “non-aggression treaty” was signed in Moscow between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But the treaty went far beyond what was made public. Secret protocols defined “spheres of influence”, including how Poland would be divided among the two parties in the case of war. Stalin viewed this treaty as a triumph: yes, doctrinaire communists (including many in the West) would be aghast at a deal with fascist Germany, but at a blow, Stalin had eliminated the threat of an anti-Soviet alliance between Germany and Britain, linked Germany and the Soviet Union in a trade arrangement whose benefits to Germany would deter aggression and, in the case of war between Germany and Britain and France (for which he hoped), might provide an opportunity to recover territory once in the czar’s empire which had been lost after the 1917 revolution.
Initially, this strategy appeared to be working swimmingly. The Soviets were shipping raw materials they had in abundance to Germany and receiving high-technology industrial equipment and weapons which they could immediately put to work and/or reverse-engineer to make domestically. In some cases, they even received blueprints or complete factories for making strategic products. As the German economy became increasingly dependent upon Soviet shipments, Stalin perceived this as leverage over the actions of Germany, and responded to delays in delivery of weapons by slowing down shipments of raw materials essential to German war production.
On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, just a week after the signing of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. On September 3rd, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Here was the “war among the imperialists” of which Stalin had dreamed. The Soviet Union could stand aside, continue to trade with Nazi Germany, while the combatants bled each other white, and then, in the aftermath, support socialist revolutions in their countries. On September 17th the Soviet Union, pursuant to the secret protocol, invaded Poland from the east and joined the Nazi forces in eradicating that nation. Ominously, greater Germany and the Soviet Union now shared a border.
After the start of hostilities, a state of “phoney war” existed until Germany struck against Denmark, Norway, and France in April and May 1940. At first, this appeared precisely what Stalin had hoped for: a general conflict among the “imperialist powers” with the Soviet Union not only uninvolved, but having reclaimed territory in Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia which had once belonged to the Tsars. Now there was every reason to expect a long war of attrition in which the Nazis and their opponents would grind each other down, as in the previous world war, paving the road for socialist revolutions everywhere.
But then, disaster ensued. In less than six weeks, France collapsed and Britain evacuated its expeditionary force from the Continent. Now, it appeared, Germany reigned supreme, and might turn its now largely idle army toward conquest in the East. After consolidating the position in the west and indefinitely deferring an invasion of Britain due to inability to obtain air and sea superiority in the English Channel, Hitler began to concentrate his forces on the eastern frontier. Disinformation, spread where Soviet spy networks would pick it up and deliver it to Stalin, whose prejudices it confirmed, said that the troop concentrations were in preparation for an assault on British positions in the Near East or to blackmail the Soviet Union to obtain, for example, a long term lease on its breadbasket, the Ukraine.
Hitler, acutely aware that it was a two-front war which spelled disaster to Germany in the last war, rationalised his attack on the Soviet Union as follows. Yes, Britain had not been defeated, but their only hope was an eventual alliance with the Soviet Union, opening a second front against Germany. Knocking out the Soviet Union (which should be no more difficult than the victory over France, which took just six weeks), would preclude this possibility and force Britain to come to terms. Meanwhile, Germany would have secured access to raw materials in Soviet territory for which it was previously paying market prices, but were now available for the cost of extraction and shipping.
The volume concludes on June 21st, 1941, the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. There could not have been more signs that this was coming: Soviet spies around the world sent evidence, and Britain even shared (without identifying the source) decrypted German messages about troop dispositions and war plans. But none of this disabused Stalin of his idée fixe: Germany would not attack because Soviet exports were so important. Indeed, in 1940, 40 percent of nickel, 55 percent of manganese, 65 percent of chromium, 67% of asbestos, 34% of petroleum, and a million tonnes of grain and timber which supported the Nazi war machine were delivered by the Soviet Union. Hours before the Nazi onslaught began, well after the order for it was given, a Soviet train delivering grain, manganese, and oil crossed the border between Soviet-occupied and German-occupied Poland, bound for Germany. Stalin’s delusion persisted until reality intruded with dawn.
This is a magisterial work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled. There is abundant rich detail on every page. Want to know what the telephone number for the Latvian consulate in Leningrad was in 1934? It’s right here on page 206 (5-50-63). Too often, discussions of Stalin assume he was a kind of murderous madman. This book is a salutary antidote. Everything Stalin did made perfect sense when viewed in the context of the beliefs which Stalin held, shared by his Bolshevik contemporaries and those he promoted to the inner circle. Yes, they seem crazy, and they were, but no less crazy than politicians in the United States advocating the abolition of air travel and the extermination of cows in order to save a planet which has managed just fine for billions of years without the intervention of bug-eyed, arm-waving ignoramuses.
Reading this book is a major investment of time. It is 1154 pages, with 910 pages of main text and illustrations, and will noticeably bend spacetime in its vicinity. But there is so much wisdom, backed with detail, that you will savour every page and, when you reach the end, crave the publication of the next volume. If you want to understand totalitarian dictatorship, you have to ultimately understand Stalin, who succeeded at it for more than thirty years until ultimately felled by illness, not conquest or coup, and who built the primitive agrarian nation he took over into a superpower. Some of us thought that the death of Stalin and, decades later, the demise of the Soviet Union, brought an end to all that. And yet, today, in the West, we have politicians advocating central planning, collectivisation, and limitations on free speech which are entirely consistent with the policies of Uncle Joe. After reading this book and thinking about it for a while, I have become convinced that Stalin was a patriot who believed that what he was doing was in the best interest of the Soviet people. He was sure the (laughably absurd) theories he believed and applied were the best way to build the future. And he was willing to force them into being whatever the cost may be. So it is today, and let us hope those made aware of the costs documented in this history will be immunised against the siren song of collectivist utopia.
Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-59420-380-0.
Author Stephen Kotkin did a two-part Uncommon Knowledge interview about the book in 2018. In the first part he discusses collectivisation and the terror.
In the second, he discusses Stalin and Hitler, and the events leading up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.