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Review: Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

I have never seen a cleverer title for a book than Stalin: Paradoxes of Power. The title encapsulates the essence of Stephen Kotkin’s study. On the one hand, there was the agent, Joseph Jughashvili — Stalin, son of an artisan father and a serf mother who, through his own intellect and cunning, ended up at the top of Soviet Russia. On the other hand, there were domestic and international power structures that aligned to allow Stalin to fulfill his destiny. This conjunction is at the heart of Kotkin’s work.

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power is about the national and international political, social, and cultural structures that created and enabled Stalin, who himself would end up shaping the very same structures. Kotkin’s study “aims to show in detail how individuals, great and small, are both enabled and constrained by the relative standing of their state vis-à-vis others, the nature of domestic institutions, the grip of ideas, the historical conjuncture (war or peace; depression or boom), and the actions or inactions of others.” (xii)

The connection between agency and structure is crucial: Kotkin argues that the historical forces and structures of the time — and their eventual downfall — permitted Stalin and his communist comrades to take and maintain power in Russia. Stalin could not have become an influential member of the Politburo without the Bolshevik ideologue’s cosmopolitan leanings — ironic, considering Stalin’s later crimes. At the same time, Stalin’s decision to side with Lenin during the February and October Revolutions had tangible effects that allowed the Bolsheviks to unilaterally claim power.

Intellectually, Kotkin’s examination of Stalin the social animal could be placed as something in between Christopher Bayly’s and Christopher Clark’s approaches to modern history. Bayly focused on forces behind the peoples’ actions. While the structures that Bayly mentioned, such as industrious revolution or nationalism, are more abstract than those of Kotkin, the approaches the authors used are similar. Both authors describe agents as people who were affected by outside forces while at the same time shaping the form of those very same forces.

Kotkin, however, is more specific: He pinpoints exactly who created and shaped the forces affecting Stalin. In many ways, it was Nicholas II and his ministers, who indirectly brought economic and social chaos to Russia. Foreign political figures, such as German diplomats in Brest-Litovsk, Petrograd and Moscow, or Entente’s political leaders, also contributed to the geopolitical isolation of Russia. In a way, Kotkin’s approach is similar to Clark’s when describing the zeitgeist where Stalin materialized: structured, yet man-made, where Stalin could become one of the few who would shape the structure.

This ultimate interpretation is interesting, because the intellectual assumptions differ from another book of Kotkin’s, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. While Kotkin is keen on exposing a link between Stalin and societal structures in Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, in Armageddon Averted he focuses almost exclusively on structure in explaining why the dissolution of the Soviet Union was peaceful. Agency did not seem to matter: The collapse of the Soviet state, for Kotkin, was more the result of deep-rooted planned economy inefficiencies. Only the firmness of regional institutional structures allowed for a smooth transition to a post-Soviet world. One reason why Kotkin might have had a different approach in explaining Stalin’s Russia could have to do with the extreme totalitarian nature of the Bolshevik movement. Lenin’s Politburo — and, later on, Stalin himself — would single-handedly transform the Soviet economy and meddle with the foundational structures of the liberal (if short-lived) world order after the First World War. The post-Stalinist Soviet Union was, after all, quite different from the Revolutionary regime.

The connection of structure and agency and how they influence each other is what makes Kotkin’s argument in Stalin: Paradoxes of Power so convincing. Stalin is hard to understand. His personal life lacks proper documentation. Therefore, explaining the reasoning behind Stalin’s choices might be difficult, because there is simply no relatively objective information on why he made one or another decision. On the other hand, framing Stalin’s actions as effects of Russia’s societal structure provides for an effective explanation of how Stalin might have reasoned about his life.

The relationship between agency and structure also allowed Kotkin to avoid taking stances on Stalin’s life. It is very easy to be critical of the Soviet leader, as he ended up imposing a totalitarian dictatorship, instituting a personality cult, and murdering millions of people. There are also those who praise him for the industrialization of the Soviet Union and victory in the Second World War (both of which are beyond the scope of Kotkin’s book). A broader focus on structures, however, actually captures Stalin as an individual whose decisions were both shaped and enabled by the society he lived in. In other words, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power allows the reader to see how Stalin might have accommodated his often-cruel decisions with his communist ideology. Stalin was brutal, but so was the system: Being a good Bolshevik meant “speaking Bolshevik,” and Stalin knew that everything was fair game.

One critique of Kotkin’s argument that could be made is that he chose a particularly convenient character, Stalin, to present how structures made the Russian Revolution highly probable. Stalin was not at the center of the Bolshevik regime at the very beginning. Lenin, Trotsky, and even Kamenev were more involved in decision-making processes of the late 1910s. While Stalin’s actions could be rationalized through the structures of the time, Lenin seemed to be much more independent, as it was his thoughts and decisions that decisively shaped early Soviet politics. It seems then that the tale told in Stalin: Paradoxes of Power might be somewhat case-specific. It would be interesting to research other major dictators such as Adolf Hitler and see if Kotkin’s methodology could be adapted in different contexts to explain the totalitarianism and bloodshed across various societies.

Audrius Rickus is a third year doctoral student at the University of Virginia, specializing in International History. He graduated from Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies) in 2018 and obtained an MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Texas of Austin in 2020. His research focuses on the Cold War and the impact of the "shocks of the 1970s" on Western Europe and, more specifically, on France.

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