Deciphering Stalin, the man and tyrant: Stephen Kotkin discusses the second volume of his series, “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941”

Watch the event video here

On Monday March 5th, the NYU Jordan Center hosted a book talk with Stephen Kotkin, Birkelund Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and author of Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. The talk was introduced and moderated by Yanni Kotsonis, Professor of History and Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU.

The book is the second volume in a three-part biography of Stalin, highlighting both the centrality of geopolitics as a driver of history and the development of Communist ideology. Kotkin’s close analysis of Stalin aims not only to explain his role in industrializing the Soviet Union but also to paint a more detailed portrait of Stalin the person. Conventionally, we conceptualize Stalin as a psychopath responsible for the deaths of between 16 and 20 million people. However, his work habits, decision-making processes and relationships with others are equally crucial to fully understanding his political motivations.

The first argument of the book revolves around the centrality of geopolitics as a driver of 20th century history. Kotkin began by noting that the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty was not widely supported; Britain and France largely shrank away from enforcing it. Retrospectively, this would have been the most ideal time to implement the treaty, as both Russia and Germany were in the weakest positions politically since Bismarck’s takeover of Germany. As Britain actively worked to strengthen the treaty, Soviet geopolitics was simultaneously unfolding under its own terms. Stalin considered that if the socialist revolution had already occurred successfully in Russia, the Soviet Union should continue moving forward, rather than waiting for the international proletarian revolution. Such was the foundation of the “Socialism in One Country” policy. Stalin viewed not only class struggle, but also war, as critical to revolution. If capitalists waged war amongst themselves, the Soviets would be protected and socialism would continue to thrive. However, Hitler’s rise also represented an imminent geopolitical threat and both the British and Soviets worked to gain Germany as an ally. Ultimately, the British and Soviets possessed the common goal of overcoming Nazi Germany, but unfortunately, the emergent crisis wasn’t clear until later.

Kotkin’s second argument addresses the implementation of Communist ideology. The overarching goal of leftist socialists was clear: elimination of capitalism and transfer of power to the soviets. Ideology provided the framework for these common goals, which encompassed many possible approaches, which Kotkin characterized as “tactical flexibility to implement rigid core convictions.” Another point of agreement was the necessity of collectivizing agriculture as a means to achieving a modernized socialist state. The question of the use of coercion in achieving such goals, however, represented the main point of contention among the left. In 1928, only 1% of usable land in the Soviet Union was collectivized voluntarily. This statistic functioned as a justification for those socialists who advocated for coercive means toward modernization. Moderate socialists argued that it was possible to eliminate capitalism through non-violent parliamentary reform. Stalin’s perspective, of course, settled the debate: “Either you pay the costs to eliminate capitalism, or you’re a revisionist.” According to Kotkin, this gap between the social democrats and the communists was ultimately unbridgeable. This “tragedy of the Left” consequently made the consolidation of a popular front impossible.

Kotkin concluded the talk by highlighting the “social earthquake” instigated by new socialist policies, leading new kinds of people into new positions. Such re-positioning generated more questions about contemporary notions of class structure. The new ruling class was no longer the soviet intelligentsia, but rather the working class. Nevertheless, members of the traditional ruling class were still living the more privileged lifestyles. Such re-structuring of society consequently transformed traditional notions of social status.

Kotkin’s discussion was followed by a Q and A. Yanni Kotsonis asked Kotkin to elaborate on the notion of the “tragedy of the Left.” Kotkin characterized the issue as a “misunderstanding” that the only way to achieve freedom is through the elimination of capitalism. On the contrary, maintaining private property is actually a core component of maintaining individual liberties. A second audience member asked, to what is the terror of 1936-38 attributable? Kotkin noted that some scholars would suggest anti-Semitism or Stalin’s paranoia as possible answers. However, anti-Semitism was largely the norm at this point and neither is paranoia a sufficient answer, as Stalin was in fact making many other rational decisions during this time.