A review of Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928: Part two

By Fred Williams
2 June 2015



Kotkin’s style

Despite occasional claims to the contrary, Kotkin is a poor writer. Some of his formulations deserve little more than derision: “Lenin clung to imperial Germany like sea rust on the underside of a listing ship” [284]; “Here was the eureka moment: from bottom to top, and places in between, the ideas and practices of revolutionary class war produced the Soviet state” [291]; “A far cry from the hissing and cursing Stalin had undergone five years earlier in Tiflis, when he had left a meeting hall with his head between his legs” [600]; “Stalin had fought on the Boredom and Mosquito Front—that is, he had wallowed for years as a political exile in the alternately frozen or thawed swamps of the far north” [949]; “Be that as it may, it was not Kamenev who had initiated the cockamamie tête-a-tête in the territory of the tightly watched Kremlin” [716].

Kotkin at Strand Bookstore

Kotkin’s bad writing comes from the fact that he cannot find a language that is appropriate to the subject. There is an aesthetic component of historical writing that simply eludes him. The metaphors he chooses are impossible, and one wonders where he comes up with these and other examples.

For a venerable Princeton professor and UC Berkeley Ph.D., Kotkin often slips into substandard colloquialisms: “a young political climber named Lavrenti Beria ate him for lunch”[854]; Lenin was “badmouthing the other Marxists in the Soviet” [200]; “The idea of counterrevolution was the gift that kept on giving” [290]; “But if Lenin sensed that his war commissar had gotten too big for his britches, the Bolshevik leader continued to give every indication that Trotsky remained indispensable” [329].

At times Kotkin indulges in inappropriate vulgarity: “The young Stalin had a penis, and he used it” [8]; [Rasputin] “was rumored to smell like a goat (from failing to bathe), and to screw like one, too” [159]. Such passages are crude and sophomoric; they beg the question: Who is Kotkin’s audience? He is writing for an unserious, right-wing readership.

And then there are simple banalities: “Revolutions are like earthquakes: they are always being predicted, and sometimes they come” [164]. “Lenin supposedly expressed surprise. (He could feign surprise.)” [789]. Or displays of adolescent cynicism: “John Reed, the former Harvard cheerleader” [201]. Is this really the best way to characterize the socialist author of one of the most vivid portrayals of the October Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World? Perhaps Kotkin is trying to suggest that Reed is not a figure to be taken seriously because his eyewitness accounts barely mention Stalin (only twice in passing). Kotkin has quite a different agenda in his biography of the man who simply went unnoticed in the crucial days of October.

One last note: to grasp the vast amount of material in Russian that Kotkin claims to have read, he would need to have a strong command of the Russian language. His knowledge of Russian, however, is questionable. Although most of the passages Kotkin translates from Russian appear acceptable, there are enough mistakes to wonder what is going on. They should have been caught in the editing process, but ultimately they are Kotkin’s responsibility. While all nonnative speakers make mistakes, the way that Kotkin mispronounces names in his online videos, for instance, does not inspire confidence (endnote 4). One gets the impression that, despite frequent name-dropping in his interviews, he has rarely discussed the historical figures he describes with native Russians. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Or perhaps he just has a tin ear when it comes to names or places. But at the very least, he mispronounces Evdokimov, Fotiyeva, Volodicheva, Vozdvizhenka… In the written text, he confuses the name of the prominent Left Oppositionist Eltsin (Эльцин) with Yeltsin (Ельцин); throughout the book, he misspells Zinoviev’s surname (Radomylsky instead of Radomyslsky).

Kotkin compounds the errors by needlessly de-Russifying the names of any Bolsheviks who were of non-Russian origin: Dzerzhinsky becomes Dzierżyński, Menzhinsky becomes Mężyński, Yan Rudzutak is Jānis Rudzutaks, and Sultan-Galiev morphs into Soltanğäliev [the index even misspells this one]. The many readers who may already struggle with the standard transliteration of Russian names are not helped by this added layer of linguistic difficulty. And I doubt that it assists the Anglophone reader to see Iosif Dzhugashvili turned into Ioseb Jughashvili [necessitating a “see Stalin, Iosif” in the index]; I suppose we should be thankful for not being presented with სტალინი [Georgian]. Kotkin claims in one of his public lectures that he wanted to stress the multicultural composition of the Russian Empire. There are better ways to make that point than by burdening the reader with an idiosyncratic presentation of names.

Major errors of historical interpretation and direct falsification

Whatever other errors abound in the book, the overall historical narrative that Kotkin produces is the most objectionable. Earlier, in his dissertation (1988) and resultant book, Magnetic Mountain (1995), Kotkin paid special tribute to the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, a notoriously eclectic thinker influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Today, he modestly recalls that Magnetic Mountain “is a case study of the Stalin epoch from a street-level perspective in the form of a total history of a single industrial town” [xi]. Whether the earlier approach taken by Kotkin can be attributed to Foucault is a topic that would require special investigation. In the new Stalin biography, however, what Kotkin promises is nothing less than “a history of the world from Stalin’s office,” albeit “less granular in examination of the wider society—the little tactics of the habitat” [ibid.].

In contrast, let us consider the tasks of the historian as described by someone Kotkin despises:

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of some preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task [Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, 1977, p. 17].

Trotsky, of course, wrote as a Marxist, as one of the most brilliant advocates of the materialist approach to history. At the heart of discovering the laws expressed in the unfolding historical events, Trotsky would meticulously examine “the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes” in the society “seized by revolution, [where] classes are in conflict” [Ibid.].

Trotsky also addressed the question of the historian’s “impartiality”:

The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies—open and undisguised—seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself [Ibid., p. 21].

Kotkin will have none of this. His antipathy toward Marxism, and toward Lenin and Trotsky in particular, is unrestrained throughout the book. As an undisguised proponent of postmodernism, he evinces a persistent rejection of any objective laws that must be discovered, or, for that matter, of the very concept of class. Some examples:

“Lenin, notwithstanding all the fog of his class categories, well understood the possibility of a German-Japanese alliance” [266]. “Trotsky, for all his Marxist invocation of the supposed laws of history, would feel constrained to admit that without Lenin, there would have been no October Revolution” [222]. “But the Bolsheviks, unlike their enemies, boasted that they had an all-encompassing, scientific answer to everything, and they expended considerable resources to disseminate their ideology” [292]. “The documents, whether those made public at the time or kept secret, are absolutely saturated with Marxist-Leninist ways of thinking and vocabulary—the proletariat, Bonapartism, the petit bourgeoisie, imperialism, capitalist encirclement, class enemies, military specialists, NEPmen, Kulaks, socialism” [420]. “Beyond Moscow’s two-faced foreign policy, aiming to foment revolution in the very countries they were trying to have normal relations and trade with, lay the debilitating class-based worldview” [443].

Lenin, photo by Nappelbaum

Kotkin certainly does not conceal his “sympathies and antipathies.” He treats both Lenin and Trotsky with undisguised contempt, while elevating Stalin to something of a demiurge by the end of the book. Having earlier asserted that “Lenin was essentially a pamphleteer” [229], Kotkin condescendingly states: “Lenin understood next to nothing of Russian agriculture, land utilization, migrant labor, or the actual operations of the peasant commune, let alone market incentives” [299]. Anyone the least bit familiar with Lenin’s masterful writings on the development of capitalism in Russia, or his detailed studies of Russian and world agriculture, would be astounded by Kotkin’s statements.

Two more ludicrous claims: “Once in power, Lenin elevated political violence to principle” [409], and “Lenin was running foreign affairs as a personal fief” [446.] Meanwhile, as Stalin was “learning on the job, and often failing” [419], Kotkin assures the reader, “That was not merely because of his plentiful shortcomings but also because Lenin had helped conjure into being both an ideologically blinkered dictatorship and a costly global antagonism” [Ibid.]. But Kotkin’s Stalin rises to the challenge, and in doing so seems to tower over Lenin: “It was Stalin who formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, helped make the recuperative New Economic Policy work, and spelled out the nature of Leninism for the party mass” [ibid.].

Kotkin on Trotsky

The image of Trotsky that emerges in Kotkin’s book rarely surpasses a Stalinist caricature of Trotsky’s life and politics. Although he vowed that there would be no speculation in the book, when it comes to Trotsky, Kotkin accepts the most unfounded assertions of the Stalinist historian Valentin Sakharov and gleefully quotes obvious lies repeated by Viacheslav Molotov (1890-1986) in late-life interviews with Felix Chuev. In their reported accounts of the period, Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich (1893-1991) served as two of the most long-lived and unapologetic Stalinists of all time. Kotkin uncritically accepts every epithet they hurl at Trotsky.

Kotkin spends pages using Trotsky as a foil to illustrate Stalin’s supposed greatness. In almost every historical episode he describes, therefore, Kotkin denigrates Trotsky’s role and lauds Stalin’s. To accomplish this feat, Kotkin has to refute almost every non-Stalinist historian who has come before. This is no small task. To diminish Trotsky as a historical figure, Kotkin not only has to debunk Deutscher, Carr, Lewin, Rabinowitch, Daniels, Knei-Paz, Day, Rogovin and others, but also those less sympathetic to Trotsky like Souvarine, Volkogonov, Medvedev and Cohen.

Leon Trotsky, 1940

Even Trotsky’s sharpest critics usually acknowledge his skill as a writer. Kotkin, however, brazenly refers to Trotsky’s writings as “gobbledygook” [524] and “rants” [632]. The latter comment refers to a principled letter from Trotsky to Krupskaya on 17 May, 1927, in which he writes: “Stalin and Bukharin are betraying Bolshevism at its very core, its proletarian revolutionary internationalism… The defeat of the German revolution in 1923, the defeats in Bulgaria and Estonia, the defeat of the [1926] general strike in England, and of the Chinese revolution in April have all seriously weakened international Communism.”

This passage, for Kotkin, passes for “rants,” but he has no misgivings about Stalin’s denunciation of Trotsky at a Politburo meeting on 8 September, 1927: “You are pathetic, without any sense of truth, a coward, a bankrupt, insolent and impudent, who allows himself to speak of things utterly at variance with reality” [642-643; as happens all too frequently, Kotkin incorrectly cites these words. They are on page 594 rather than on 597 as given in endnote 239, p. 850: “Vatlin, Stenogrammy zasedanii Politbiuro, II: 597.” Kotkin also conflates this excerpt with another outburst by Stalin that follows two pages later in the transcript, on page 596. He reverses their order so that Stalin’s words cited above appear to address Trotsky’s reference to Lenin’s “Testament,” whereas in fact they refer to Trotsky’s objections over lies that Stalin was spreading about Trotsky’s role in the Civil War].

Kotkin strikes all the wrong notes when he deals with Trotsky’s Jewish origins. Most recently, Robert Service discredited himself with his ham-fisted treatment of this issue in his biography of Trotsky. (endnote 5) Kotkin follows in Service’s footsteps as he writes the following:

Trotsky was Jewish but, like almost all intellectuals and revolutionaries in the Russian empire, wholly assimilated into Russian culture, and to boot, he had striking blue eyes and an unprominent nose, yet he claimed to feel his Jewishness as a political limitation. Peasants certainly knew he was a Jew [340].

Leaving aside the “striking blue eyes” and “unprominent nose” (apparently contradicting Kotkin’s zoological concept of Jewishness), let us consider the claim that “Peasants certainly knew he was a Jew.” Kotkin was obviously determined to insert this sweeping generalization into his book—it is repeated twice with only slight variation in the same paragraph, and dutifully cited twice in the endnotes. But repeating the citation does not make it any more compelling. It refers to a single incident recounted by N. Valentinov in his book published by Hoover Institution Press in Russian in 1971, The New Economic Policy and the Party Crisis after the Death of Lenin:

I first learned about the great respect [for Lenin] among the peasants in 1922, when I happened to be in the village of Vasilievskoe about 60 versts [60 km] from Moscow. One local peasant began to explain to me in great detail that Lenin was a Russian, that he respected the peasants and didn’t allow them to be robbed or driven into collective farms. But the other ruler—Trotsky—was a Jew who didn’t care about the peasants; he didn’t know, value or want to know about their labor or [way of] life [Valentinov, p. 88].

As Kotkin should certainly know, to extend the views of this one peasant to the 120 million peasants in the Soviet Union of the time is simply unwarranted. But in attempts to bolster his case that Trotsky’s Jewishness was a dominant issue, he proceeds to cite “America’s Red Cross chief in Russia,” White-Guard periodicals, a single letter to Trotsky in 1919, a quote from the London Times of 1919, an émigré linguist’s book from 1923 [“Many Soviet Communists themselves could be overheard to say Shmolny for Smolny (Jewish ‘sh’) or prezhidium (Jew-sidium) for presidium”], and a 1921 German book depicting “all the Jewish Bolsheviks, with a preface to the text by Alfred Rosenberg”. In his citation of the Rosenberg reference, Kotkin also includes a quote from the Nazi propagandist’s book, Der jüdische Bolschewismus [Jewish Bolshevism].

Kotkin follows this incoherent string of examples with an astonishing few lines:

At the top, only the Georgian Jughashvili-Stalin was not partly Jewish. The Jewishness of Lenin’s maternal grandmother was then unknown, but other leaders were well known to be Jews and it did not inhibit them: Zinoviev had been born Ovsei-Gershon Radomylsky [sic!] and used his mother’s surname Apfelbaum; Kamenev, born Lev Rozenfeld, had a Jewish father; both had Jewish wives (ft. 353). Trotsky-Bronstein managed to be a lightning rod not just in his Jewishness but in all ways [340-341].

This passage is not an exploration of how, for instance, Stalin used anti-Semitism in his fight against his political opponents, and against Trotsky in particular (endnote 6). It is an awkward and error-filled repetition of drivel usually found in fascistic screeds. In reading it, one suspects that someone either inserted material, unbeknownst to Kotkin, or Kotkin carelessly contradicted himself by adding passages that he had himself written at an earlier time. Thus, for example, Kotkin inserts a “(!)” when he writes: “The London Times asserted (March 5, 1919) that three quarters (!) of the leading positions in Soviet Russia were held by Jews” [340]. One might conclude that Kotkin feels that the figure of three quarters was an exaggeration. But on the same page we learn in Kotkin’s own words that “At the top, only the Georgian Jughashvili-Stalin was not partly Jewish.” First of all, this is factually untrue, but any reader would be justified in asking the real Kotkin to stand up. And would he please explain why the Jewishness of Lenin’s maternal grandmother is relevant here at all?

Before passing on to other issues, this reviewer would also like Kotkin to explain how “Trotsky-Bronstein managed to be a lightning rod not just in his Jewishness but in all ways.” This is not history but falsification.

To be continued

[4] See, for example, the video of Kotkin speaking at NYU’s Jordan Center in September 2014. [return]

[5] See David North, In Defense of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books, 2013, pp. 114-121. [return]

[6] On March 4, 1926, Trotsky wrote to Bukharin about the use of anti-Semitism in attacking the Left Opposition. He proposed visiting a factory where such slander had been reported: “Let us take a trip to the cell together and check into the matter. I think that you and I—two members of the Politburo—have after all a few things in common, enough to calmly and conscientiously verify: (1) whether it is possible that in our party, in Moscow, in a workers’ cell, propaganda is being conducted with impunity which is vile and slanderous, on the one hand, and anti-Semitic, on the other; and (2) whether honest workers are afraid to question or verify or try to refute any stupidity, lest they be driven into the street with their families.” [Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), NY: Pathfinder Press, 1980, p.46. See also Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 258-259]. Bukharin’s response is unknown. [return]

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