Terrible Talent
Studying Stalin

Unpacking the Great Terror, the Holodomor, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. (A transcript from our podcast.)

Published on: November 8, 2017
Richard Aldous is the host of The American Interest Podcast, the Eugene Meyer Professor at Bard College, and a TAI Contributing Editor. Stephen Kotkin is a professor in history and international affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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  • AnonymoussSoldier

    The spin masters in the Kremlin and their channels on RT and sputnik do crack me up about as often as the lying, overwhelmingly corrupt and biased western MSM. Listening, some days you’d think Russia was only as old as the end of the Cold War, and that this Russia doesn’t hold any responsibility for anything done before 1991. But the next day might be VDay and they’ve got the red flags out and the big parade and they want some kind of congratulations. What a bizarre spectacle. Oh yes, congratulations. Your dictator was stabbed in the back by his partner in starting World War II in Europe, so he effectively switched sides and ended up on the winning team lol.

    • Z’ing Sui

      Correction. USSR didn’t “end up on the winning team”. It WAS the winning team, pretty much. And I’d say what Russians and the rest of the former Soviet Union celebrate is personal heroism of their family members who fought and lost their lives in the war, not just, you know, Stalin.

      • AnonymoussSoldier

        Pure sophistry. Oh, FYI, after he changed sides, Stalin begged for the Italian and French fronts to open. Stalin asked for the fire bombings to intensify. Needed pressure to be relieved.

        • Jim__L

          Also, airdrops of Spam probably saved beseiged Leningrad from starving to death.

          Not to mention the donated fleets of 10-ton Chevy trucks that gave Russia something resembling logistical capabilities.

          Russia bled (heroically) for Stalin’s mistakes, and they “ripped the guts out of the Nazis”, it’s true. Stalin forced the civilian population to remain in Stalingrad, which wiped out the civilians but probably helped starve (and thus defeat) the Germans.

          On the other hand, without Stalin’s wanton disregard for human life, the Russians might have ended up at at the mercy of Hitler’s wanton disregard for human life.


          • Z’ing Sui

            Agreed on all points except for the admiration of Hitler, Stalin was quite bad enough by himself, and this one seems like a conjecture to explain the pact that can be explained just as easily without it.

            Implying there was an effective and consistent anti-Hitler ‘team’ that Stalin ‘joined’ in June 1941 is just as mistaken a notion, I’d say.

          • Jim__L

            A could of data points —

            I saw a quote once of Stalin’s reaction to Hitler’s suppression of the brownshirts (SA), which was something along the lines of, “You see? That’s how you do it! What a guy!”

            Also, apparently when Hitler started Barbarossa, Stalin was not to be found at the Kremlin; when Beria and (I think) Khruschev went to his house to fetch him, he answered the door a shaken man. “Why have you come?” he said gruffly; apparently he expected them to haul him out and shoot him for making such a breathtaking strategic blunder as trusting Hitler. (I expect it’s what he would have done in their place.)

            Sure, these maybe just colorful anecdotes, and I’m not feeling like digging up references this morning. Still, makes a great story. 🙂

        • Z’ing Sui

          I guess he did. To bad it didn’t help. Look, we all know what portion of the Nazi machine was dismantled by the hateful Stalin and evil commies, and what portion by the noble and brave democracies of the time. No, USSR carrying out the war pretty much on its own isn’t sophistry.

          Yes it got some much-needed help. Perhaps it would had lost if it wasn’t for allies, like a football team would probably loose it it had one less player. But that doesn’t make one player’s efforts somehow equal to that of the rest of the team. The team was USSR. The “side” was USSR. And then there were some nations that helped USSR, but deliberately helped just enough not to empower the hateful commies too much.

          • TNI Censors Comments Now

            I don’t think you understand why he’s calling you a sophist. You are making an extraordinary claim for which there is no evidence and there never will be because your putting forth a hypothetical as if it’s fact. You can’t make claims about who won the war in Europe. It was a team effort. Russia did initially work with Hitler to carve up Poland and start the war. Russia was invaded in summer 1941. By January 1945 Germans still hadnt been been pushed back into Germany from the east, but they had been in the west. Hmm. What if the 500,000 men and thousands of vehicles used against the Italian and French landings could’ve been directed at the Russians? What if there had been few allied bombings all those years and the German army had been able to mass produce 10x the number of STG44s (a game changing weapon)? You don’t know. You have no idea how it would’ve turned out. That’s the point.

          • Z’ing Sui

            Isn’t that exactly what I address in my post? I completely agree that Allied help to USSR might have been decisive. It doesn’t touch on my argument in any way that I can see

            In fact, us not actually knowing whether USSR would have eventually lost had Allied help been smaller or not been there at all speaks volumes, if you ask me.

          • TNI Censors Comments Now

            “USSR didn’t “end up on the winning team”. It WAS the winning team, pretty much.”

            “No, USSR carrying out the war pretty much on its own isn’t sophistry…”

            “Yes it got some much-needed help. Perhaps it would have lost if it wasn’t for allies, like a football team would probably loose it it had one less player.”

            That’s sophistry because you don’t even know whose efforts were really more important, or if any one effort was critically important over the others. More men were deployed on the eastern front because it was the larger front. It’s just wide up plains riding into Russia. That’s all. Too many variables. It’s not a football team. That’s equivocation.

          • Z’ing Sui

            So not just sophistry, but equivocation too? You could also say that my argument is invalid, because Hitler chose to attack USSR and we can’t know what would have happened if he attacked some different random country, so that makes Soviet effort pretty much irrelevant.

            Yes I know military alliance is not a football team, and you may bring up new sorts of rhetoric or cognitive bias I supposedly used and fell prey to. If we were actually discussing a football team perhaps you’d come out and say that the key effort involved was that of the sportswear maker, because no player would play naked, so perhaps players are entirely secondary.

            But let me specifically tell you how I came to the conclusion that I have. Soviet Union, through actual military action that actually happened, has dispatched the overwhelming majority of German and Axis troops involved, having to deal with the cream of the crop of Wehrmacht, so the quality of troops it opposed unit for unit was on average greater that that which faced the other allies. Now you can claim that without Allied supplies and military assistance USSR might have failed, if it was putting exactly the same effort against 90% of the troops instead of what it was, roughly 60-80% depending on the year. It seems abundantly clear however, that had Allies put in exactly the same effort, USSR being either neutral or being just endless plane of grass or another ocean, war in Europe wouldn’t have been a thing at all. Because there’s no team, and I specifically mean no players.

          • Unelected Leader

            I agree. I’ve thought about that myself. You know, the Battle of Seelow Heights just east of Berlin saw massive Soviet casualties. Far more than what the Germans suffered! By that time in Spring 1945 the German army was fundamentally defeated, yet the Soviets still struggled so. The Luftwaffe was even still dropping bombs at Seelow, although not many. The MP44/StG44, even in it’s few numbers on the western front, had a devastating effect in the Bulge, helping to facilitate the German retreat that kept most units from being destroyed.

          • Jim__L

            USSR would have lost quickly, had it not been for logistical support from the other Allies.

          • len

            It was the battle of Stalingrad that broke the back of the Wehrmacht, that was the turning point of the war and anybody who knew anything in Germany knew that the war was lost after that, except Hitler. Everything else was a sideshow! Whether Stalin brought it upon his people or not can be debated forever but had it not been for the Russian geography which sucked in the German armies, the Russian weather which came as predicted and as fierce, oh and let’s not forget the Soviet army with it’s supposedly endless masses and it’s endless casualties we might just all be speaking German. We can look back in our comfortable armchairs and argue that the arsenal of Democracy provided Stalin with the necessary tools to continue the fight to the end but after everything is said and done in your heart of hearts where would you rather be, taking your orders from Eisenhower or Zhukov ! I know what I would choose. If you can’t just take a look at the casualty reports on both fronts on both sides! Feeling lucky by any chance or would you just want to play the odds with your survival.

          • Muhammad Peace be Upon Me

            Stalingrad did some damage to the German army, as well as to the Russian army. But in early 1943 nobody’s army was broken. Not even close. The German army was deep in Russia, the allied landings in the west had not even happened. German subs were disrupting supplies throughout the entire Atlantic. V1 and V2 rockets were raining down on London. Nobody had a clue how the war was going to end, and it still could’ve been a German victory, or at least a favorable truce. Stalingrad is a great example of the myths by the Russians in their attempt to rehabilitate themselves during and right after the war, since they had worked with Hitler initially to invade Poland.

          • adk

            “Stalingrad is a great example of the myths by the Russians in their attempt to rehabilitate themselves during and right after the war…”

            What is this supposed to mean?

          • len

            Stalingrad and the damage it caused the Wehrmacht was no myth! You don’t have to take my word for it just read about the battle and its aftermath from well known historians and strategists that have evaluated this battle since the day it was over.They are too numerous for me to list here,just do an “old fashion” internet search will set you straight!And if you don’t believe them read the diaries of the Germans themselves in real time and in post war biographies! They have no need to propagate myths for the Russians. The only myth that existed and was shattered by Stalingrad was the “Superman” myth of the German army and the German soldier! There was much fighting yet to be done for sure and the lonely soldier on both sides of the war understood that there was going to be much dying and hardships to play out in the coming years but from that point on the War initiatives and momentums fell on the side of the Allies of which the Soviet Union would be mainly fighting and dying for many more months to come! I for one need to give credit where credit is due and the credit for turning the tide of the Second World War in the European theater whether we approve or not belongs to the Red Army as the Battle of Midway turned the tide for the Allies in the Pacific!

          • Muhammad Peace be Upon Me

            It took a heavy toll on both armies. It is also a stone cold fact that if you can take your time machine back to early 1943 then the war and its conclusion were/are by no means certain. The German army was not fundamentally defeated or broken in February 1943. Not even close. If you happen to know of a historian that would make such an absurd claim then they need to go to their university and ask for a refund, or they’re just on Kremlin payroll I suppose. Either way. That’s all.

          • len

            I guess we will not see eye to eye over this so called “cold stone fact”, have your historians contact my historians and let them fight that particular issue before it falls into the “dustbin of history”. Maybe they will subpoena the necessary witnesses from the netherworld ,ask them what did they know and when did they know it and we will be able to come to some final conclusion! Ultimately I decided to put my two cents in on this article to argue I believe justifiably that it was the Red Army that, for the many varied reasons sympathetic,unsympathetic and neutral, took the major brunt of what the German Wehrmacht had to give and gave back eventually as good as they got ,making all the other Theater of Operations against the Nazis that much easier.

          • adk

            You sure? And have hard facts to back it up?

      • adk

        “…what…Russians and the rest of the former Soviet Union celebrate is personal heroism of their family members…”

        True, but that’s not all what they celebrate, and maybe not even the greatest part of “what”. Their “greatest generation” is mostly gone — somebody who was, say, 18 in 1945 (just drafted into the Red Army) would now be 90, and, given their life expectancy, not too many of them remain. So the knowledge of their real heroic deeds for the present generation is mostly impersonal, and a lot of it comes from the official propaganda and movies.

        And the official propaganda made victory in WWII (or the Great Patriotic War as it’s known in Russia) the main source of national pride and the pillar of the Putin’s regime legitimacy. Every year, V-Day celebrations in Russia grow ever more elaborate. The basic line connecting the past with the present goes like this: we were fighting the Nazis (almost) all alone, won and saved the world, and only a truly great people could do that. Today, our enemies (the US/NATO) are again plotting against us and gathering on our borders, but we (under the leadership of Putin) are still great and ready for any challenge.

        Thus Stalin is still a great hero to way too many Russians, and the Ukrainians turned out to be “fascists” (Russians use that more often then “Nazis”).

        • len

          The only heroic thing Stalin did for the Russian People in the Great Patriotic War and for all the USSR was for him to stay in his bunker in Moscow’s Kremlin and hand over the strategy of fighting the War to his General Staff! Putin and his cronies for sure are rallying their people under the banner of Stalingrad and other battles won and lost in that Holocaust ! Maybe the saddest part of the WW2 legacy for the world is not learning from the lessons that needed to be taken from it so that future generations can know no more War! But battles fought won and lost in history gives you no guaranties of its analysis in the future which makes War seem even more futile than it already is!

  • But Stalin patiently demolished the fabric of hostile propaganda about his person. Only one case is known, when Stalin ridiculed the works of the American press. On October 26, 1936, he wrote to the head of the Associated Press Bureau, Charles Nutter, responding to his request for reports of a serious illness and even Stalin’s death: “Dear Sir! As far as I know from the reports of the foreign press, I long ago left this sinful world and moved to the next world. Since it is impossible not to relate to the messages of a foreign press without trust, if you do not want to be struck from the list of civilized people, then I ask you to believe these reports and not to disturb my peace in the silence of the other world. Sincerely I. Stalin. “…

    Но Сталин терпеливо сносил вымыслы враждебной пропаганды относительно своей персоны. Известен лишь один случай, когда Сталин высмеял сочинения американской печати. 26 октября 1936 г. он написал заведующему бюро «Ассошиэйтед Пресс» Чарльзу Наттеру, отвечая на его запрос по поводу сообщений о тяжелом заболевании и даже смерти Сталина: «Милостивый государь! Насколько мне известно из сообщений иностранной печати, я давно уже оставил сей грешный мир и переселился на тот свет. Так как к сообщениям иностранной печати нельзя не относиться с доверием, если Вы не хотите быть вычеркнутым из списка цивилизованных людей, то прошу верить этим сообщениям и не нарушать моего покоя в тишине потустороннего мира. С уважением И. Сталин»…

  • Fat_Man

    I am sure that Mr. Kotkin’s book is excellent, and a true contribution to scholarship. But, I think that his understanding of the Anglo American law, and the English language need some enlargement. The classic definition of murder is that a man commits murder when he causes the death of another human being, without lawfull excuse, and with malice aforethought, express or implied.

    Stalin committed murder when he ordered that Trotsky be killed, and a Soviet agent used an ice axe to split open Trotsky’s head.

    But, the law presumes that a man intends the natural and probable consequences of his actions. Thus, the man who fired a rifle into a crowd of concert goers a few weeks ago killing 59 of them was guilty of 59 counts of murder, even though he had never meet and did know the names, faces, or identities of his victims. That is a case where the law will imply malice, even though it was not expressed.

    Similarly, the recent terrorist attacks where the terrorist drove a motor vehicle into a crowd crushing and killing many are also murders. And the perpetrator could not defend himself from the charge by saying that sometimes human beings are crushed by motor vehicles and survive. No, he must know that what he did would cause deaths. The law will in that circumstance imply malice.

    When you say that: “First, there is no question of Stalin’s responsibility for the famine, his policy caused the famine.” you have provided all of the evidence required to convict him of murder at the Common Law. A ruler whose policy causes a famine has murdered the human beings who die as a result of the famine in the same way and to the same extent as the terrorist truck drivers have murdered the hapless pedestrians they crushed.

    Further saying that: “He [Stalin] needed the peasants to produce more grain, and to export the grain to buy the industrial machinery for the industrialization. Peasant output and peasant production was critical for Stalin’s industrialization.” cannot be held to be a lawful excuse. If he had, as the Nazis later did, simply sent them to abattoirs and salvaged their gold teeth. That too might have help the implementation of his policy, but it would not justify the murders.

    In sum the law would find no legal difference between the assassination of Trotsky and the Holodomor, and neither should any civilized man find any moral or ethical difference. They were the mosntrous acts of one of history’s most infamous monsters.

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