By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Stephen Kotkin
Narration by: Paul Hecht
Stephen Kotkin offers a remarkable and comprehensive view of the 1917 Russian Revolution in “Stalin, Volume I”. In historical context, Kotkin profiles the three most important characters of the revolution; e.g. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky. “Stalin, Volume I” documents the personalities and circumstances of the pre-U.S.S.R.’ economy; i.e. an economy based on the disparity between wealth and poverty, federalization and centralization, political idealism and pragmatism.
Turmoil surrounds Russia in 1917. The beginning of WWI and Germany’s invasion exaggerate the paradox of power in Russia. The Czar and wealthy aristocracy depend on a population of the poor to defend the government. Russian peasants are faced with defending a government that sees them as serfs, agricultural laborers indentured to wealthy landowners. On the one hand, the peasant is a proud Russian; on the other, he is a slave of the landed gentry; indentured to preserve the wealth of others at the cost of his/her life.
Russian social and economic inequality is a breeding ground for a Leninist/Marxist revolution. Marx’s dialectic view of the wealth-of-nations suggests that governments will change based on growing recognition of the value of labor; i.e. beginning with agrarian feudalism, growing through industrialized capitalism, and socialism, and reaching a state of equilibrium in communism (a needs-based and communal sharing of wealth). Marx suggests all nations will go through this dialectic process. Lenin bastardizes Marx’s dialectic idealization. Lenin believes the process can be accelerated through revolution and centralized control of the means of production.
This oversimplification of Kotkin’s explanation of Lenin’s form of communism suggests even Lenin is conflicted about how Russia will grow into a communist society. Lenin recognizes the social, economic, and educational distance that Russian peasants must travel to gain an appreciation of a new form of government. Much of the population is illiterate and living at a subsistence level; bounded by a non-mechanized agrarian economy in the largest geographic territory of the world. Lenin vacillates between growth through education and growth through command. Kotkin suggests that Lenin gravitates toward centralized command because consolidation of power is the only way of preserving the goal of revolution.
Putin exemplifies Lenin’s belief in consolidation of power as the way to achieve the goals of a Russian nation state. Any challenge to Putin’s consolidation of power is severely dealt with by today’s apparatchik; as evidenced by character defamation, imprisonment and/or mysterious death of critics.
On the international stage there is Russia’s condemnation of America for violating sovereignty of Syria for gassing its citizens. The purpose of any government is to protect its citizens but Syria’s leader chooses power over principal; a characteristic of Lenin, Stalin, and now Putin.
What Lenin needs are followers that can get things done. Before being felled by brain disease and stroke, Lenin relies on the abilities of men like Joseph Stalin. Kotkin argues that Stalin became close to Lenin as a result of his organizational skill and his penchant for getting things done without regard to societal norm. Stalin becomes the most powerful enforcer in Lenin’s revolution.
Though Stalin wields great enforcement powers, Kotkin infers Trotsky is the intellectual successor to Lenin. Stalin and Trotsky are shown to be at odds on the fundamental direction of the Bolshevik party, the successor party of Russian communism. However, the exigency of getting things done, as opposed to understanding Leninist/Marxist communism, were paramount for consolidating power. Kotkin explains how Stalin became a defender of Leninist doctrine while Trotsky became an antagonist and eventual apostate. Trotsky’s arrogance and Stalin’s manipulation of events doomed Trotsky’s rise to power.
Kotkin explains that Stalin gains an intimate understanding of Lenin’s doctrines while Trotsky chooses to compete with Lenin’s philosophical positions. The threat of factionalism accompanies Trotsky’s doctrinal departures.
The irony of the differences between Stalin and Trotsky are crystalized by Kotkin. Stalin’s intelligence is underestimated by both Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin carefully catalogues and memorizes Lenin’s communist beliefs. In contrast, Trotsky chooses his own doctrinal path based only, in part, on Lenin’s writing.
Kotkin suggests Lenin views Trotsky as a more likely successor than Stalin as leader of the country. Lenin appreciates Stalin’s organizational ability but views Stalin’s temperament as too volatile for long-term government control. In 1922, Lenin is said to have dictated a “testament” saying that Stalin should be removed from his position as General Secretary. Lenin’s “testament” critiqued the ruling triumvirate of the party (Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev) and others like Bukharin, Trotsky and Pyatakov but the pointed suggestion of removal for Stalin is subverted by the triumvirate. After Lenin dies, the triumvirate chooses to ignore Lenin’s “testament” for Stalin’s removal. After all, Stalin is a doer; i.e. he gets things done.
The title of Kotkin’s book is Stalin because Stalin is the successor to Lenin. Kotkin’s research suggests young Stalin is something different from what is portrayed in many earlier histories. Stalin grows close to Lenin because he is the acting arm of Lenin’s centralized command. Lenin relies on Stalin. He is Lenin’s executor. At the same time, Lenin turns to Trotsky as an economic advisor to ensure a more comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done to stabilize the revolution. Trotsky believes in the importance of centralized control of the economy.
Kotkin puts an end to any speculation about Lenin being poisoned by Stalin. Kotkin argues that Lenin died of natural causes, strokes from a brain disease. What Kotkin reveals is the internecine war that is waged between Stalin and Trotsky while Lenin is dying. The strokes steadily debilitate Lenin and suspicious written pronouncements are made that may or may not have originated with Lenin. Lenin’s secretary is his wife. Some evidence suggests a missive from Lenin saying Stalin should not be his successor, and Trotsky is a better choice, is suspect. Lenin seems to have had his doubts about both men.
Trotsky is characterized as an intellectual while Stalin is a pragmatist. Trotsky is highly opinionated and arrogant. Stalin is street smart and highly Machiavellian. Trotsky thinks right and wrong while Stalin thinks in terms of what works. Stalin is reputed to be temperamental while Trotsky is aloof. Though Trotsky insists on centralized control, Stalin argues for federalization. Stalin paradoxically argues for federalization because he knows Russian satellite countries want independence but he will act in the short-term for centralization to get things done. And of course, Stalin clearly adopts centralized economic planning for the U.S.S.R.; i.e. another of Kotkin’s paradoxes of power.
Kotkin ends his first volume on the Russian revolution with the conclusion that, contrary to the belief of Leo Tolstoy, great men, whether famous or infamous, create history. Kotkin argues that without Stalin, the revolution would either have failed or morphed into something other than Leninist/Marxist communism. Kotkin suggests Stalin’s iron will and understanding of Lenin’s form of communism could only have survived with Stalin’s amoral, intelligent, and duplicitous actions.
There is much more in Kotkin’s powerful first volume exploration of Stalin and the Russian revolution. Germany’s role in the revolution is a case in point. The writing is crisp and informative. The narration is excellent. After listening to “…Volume I”, one looks forward to Kotkin’s next.