Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941
Penguin Press, 2017, 1184pp., $40
Richard Aldous: Hello, and welcome. My guest this week on The American Interest Podcast is Stephen Kotkin, professor of history at Princeton and author of a new book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. Stephen, welcome to the show.
Stephen Kotkin: Thank you for the invitation.
RA: Congratulations on the new book, this is volume two on the life of Stalin. What do we need to know as we pick up in 1929?
SK: Stalin is enveloped in mythologies. For example, his father beat him as a child, and as a result, he killed millions of people. He usurped Lenin’s position in the party, when it should have gone to Trotski or somebody else. He committed a genocide in Ukraine during a famine in 1931-33. He trusted no one, but somehow he trusted Hitler, and went into the pact with Hitler blinded by what was at stake.
There’s this caricature of Stalin’s mediocrity, that Stalin wasn’t quite as good or as smart as the rest of the intellectuals around him, that he somehow ended up in power, somehow stayed in power for 40 years, somehow presided over a victory against the German land army in World War Two, somehow built a nuclear superpower.
This version of Stalin is extremely large in the historiography and in the imagination. The trick, though, is to check the documentation. We have an unbelievable amount of new material that has come forward in the last 20 years. What does that documentation say? That’s what I’m embarking on with this book.
RA: One of the things that I remember from volume one, which you show again in the second volume, is this fascinating sense of Stalin as someone who is on the one hand a rigid Marxist Leninist, devoted to Lenin, but who is also somebody who has this unbelievable work ethic about him. As you say, he is somebody who is not a mediocrity, but rather is quite clearly somebody who is brilliant right from the very early stage, or at least certainly from the revolution.
SK: He’s a very talented individual. You don’t ever get into power fully by accident, but even if you do get into power by accident, you don’t stay in power by accident. In order to survive in a system like that and to build what he built—that is to say, a personal dictatorship inside the Bolshevik dictatorship that Lenin created—in order to build something like that, you have to have a certain kind of talent. Now, it’s not the talent we would associate with some of our heroes in a moral sense. I don’t share the values that Stalin espoused and that motivated him to build what he built, but it’s really awesome, what he did.
RA: While thinking about the story that you tell over the two volumes, I was struck that about through the first few hundred pages, you describe Stalin as a dictator, and then you start describing him as a despot. Is that really the story that has been going on in these first two volumes, from dictator to despot?
SK: Yes. First, we have a person who’s born on the periphery of the Russian empire to a poor family—father a cobbler, mother a seamstress—there’s no way to imagine that anybody like him could get near power. Of course he does, and that’s in large part because World War One destroys the old order. There’s a leveling process that happens with World War One, and after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, Stalin is appointed as Lenin’s right hand, because Stalin is very effective at organization. Lenin has a stroke and gets incapacitated, Stalin takes his place, and then we watch Stalin build what I was describing, this personal dictatorship.
Now, this process is not something that was foreordained. We debate who the right successor to Lenin was, who deserves to inherit the mantle. The real questions, though, are how could somebody have created and amassed that much power in that system, and how could that person have exercised that power on the day to day basis that Stalin did? This is a guy who folds together in one person the equivalency in the U.S. of Washington DC, New York, and Hollywood—politics, the economy, and culture. He answers for all of these spheres simultaneously, and moreover, he does it as a single person.
However, no matter how much power he gets, just like you pointed out, it’s never enough. After he builds this dictatorship, he then breaks the men surrounding him who have facilitated his rise in dictatorship. He breaks them psychologically and politically in order to form a despotism. This one of the big stories in the second volume.
RA: One of the really striking things about the story that you tell of what we sometimes describe as the Great Terror is how Stalin effectively destroys the upper cadre of the revolutionary class, and in their stead creates this new intelligentsia who are effectively his people, and his kind of people as well: ones who will deliver on Stalinism.
SK: You’re right, Richard. It’s very hard to explain why anybody would murder that many loyal people. If you compare it to the Nazi regime, for example, Hitler does not murder his own officer core, he doesn’t murder the SS leadership, the provincial Nazi bosses, his diplomats abroad, his intelligence agents. Stalin does murder them. He kills and he destroys large numbers of loyal people. This is mind boggling, because not only do we have to understand what motivated him to do that, but how he was able to pull it off and not destabilize his own regime.
Part of the answer is that he had in mind who their replacements would be, and he promoted them. He cultivated an entire new elite, a replacement elite that was in the mold that he himself had come through: strivers, partly educated, men and women from the people, up from modest roots. These people were as loyal or even more loyal than the elite that he destroyed. The problem for them, however, was that they were all morally compromised, because they rose up and took the places of people who had been murdered by Stalin for no good reason.
RA: Let’s talk about some of the effects of his policy, and in particular, collectivization. Can you explain to us exactly what that is, and can you also tell us a little bit about the controversy surrounding this? For example, we had Anne Applebaum on the show recently to talk about her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. As you know, she says that this was not a genocide, but Stalin is very clearly targeting and punishing Ukraine. You have a very different take, so can you explain what that is?
SK: Let’s start with collectivization. What you have in 1917—and by the way, today is the exact 100th anniversary, November 7th, 1917—what you’ve got are separate revolutions. There is an urban Bolshevik theater of power in the cities, obviously, which will take over industry so that it’s state-owned and state-managed. But there is also a separate parallel peasant revolution where the peasants—not the Bolsheviks, not the socialists in the cities—eliminate the gentry class themselves and seize the land, and become de facto landowners. That’s about 25 million peasant households, about 120 million souls.
This parallelism is troubling for the regime because the regime believes, as most Marxists will tell you, that the political structure is determined by the underlying socioeconomic structure, or what they call the mode of production. If you have capitalism in the countryside, where the vast majority of people live, over the long term a socialist regime in the cities cannot survive. Therefore they must eradicate capitalism in the countryside, and build socialism there too, in order for the urban regime to survive. This is what they call collectivization of agriculture. What that means is that the property is not only collectively owned, but collectively worked.
The problem for the Bolsheviks—and this is where Stalin’s will and personality come in—is that the peasants don’t want to be collectivized. Only 1 percent of all the arable land in the Soviet Union as of 1928 was worked collectively, which is to say, collectivized. 99 percent of the arable land was worked by households and individuals who then sold their produce on the market, in the style of capitalism. Stalin decided that this couldn’t go on any longer, and to the shock of everybody, including the other Bolsheviks, who supported the idea of collectivization but just didn’t think it was feasible, he imposed forced total wholesale collectivization across all of Eurasia. The result is what the critics called dislocation, but on a bigger scale than they anticipated, because there was a horrific famine. This second Bolshevik famine, from 1931 to 1933, was a result of the social engineering of this collectivization that Stalin embarked on.
RA: In terms of the famine, what do you make of Anne Applebaum’s argument that Ukraine was particularly punished?
SK: I’m an empirical person. Today, in our country, it’s more important than ever to have facts and to line up your facts and to substantiate, to document. You can’t just argue what you want to be true, you have to argue on the basis of evidence. What’s the evidence we have on this question of the intentionality or not of the famine of 1931-33?
First, there is no question of Stalin’s responsibility for the famine, his policy caused the famine. The controversy, to the extent that there is one, is about his intentions. We have an unbelievable number of documents showing Stalin committing intentional murder, with the Great Terror, as you alluded to earlier, and with other episodes. He preserved these documents—he would not try to clean up his image internally–and these documents are very damning. There is no shortage of documentation when Stalin committed intentional murder.
However, there is no documentation showing that he intended to starve Ukraine, or that he intended to starve the peasants. On the contrary, the documents that we do have on the famine show him reluctantly, belatedly releasing emergency food aid for the countryside, including Ukraine. Eight times during the period from 1931 to 1933, Stalin reduced the quotas of the amount of grain that Ukrainian peasants had to deliver, and/or supplied emergency need. Ask yourself, why are there no documents showing intentional murder or genocide of these people when we have those documents for all the other episodes?
Secondly, why is he releasing this emergency grain or reducing their quotas if he’s trying to kill them? No one could have forced him to do this, no one on the inside of the regime could force him. These are the decisions that, once again, were made grudgingly, and they were insufficient—the emergency aid wasn’t enough. Many more people could have been saved, but Stalin refused to allow the famine to be publicly acknowledged. Had he not lied and forced everyone else to lie, denying the existence of a famine, they could have had international aid, which is what they got under Lenin, during their first famine in 1921-23. Stalin’s culpability here is clear, but the intentionality question is completely undermined by the documents on the record.
There are many other examples of this, but let’s take one more piece. There is a story about how Stalin blocked peasants’ movement from the regions of starvation to the areas where there might have been more food. With all those documents, we also know that of the roughly 17 million farmers in Ukraine, about 200,000 peasants were caught up in this interdiction process. The regime’s motivation for this was to prevent the spread of disease that accompanied the famine that the regime caused, however unintentionally. It was a foreseeable byproduct of the collectivization campaign that Stalin forcibly imposed, but not an intentional murder. He 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.
RA: You’re very good in the book on presenting the “human” Stalin, if you like, the real man. Some of the details are fantastic, where you talk about his bowel complaints for example, and his addiction to tobacco and many of his human frailties. You’re talking there as well about getting inside the man’s head—presumably he’s Georgian, so he must be thinking in both Russian and in Georgian. I just wonder what kind of challenges that presents you as a historian, not just the fact that he’s a monster, but also that he has this kind of complex worldview and different perspectives and even different languages.
SK: You’re right, you know the more I get inside, and the closer I get, the more I feel I understand, and I have now levels of insight into his personality that I didn’t have before I started this project, given the amount of documentation that I’ve been able to use. But as close as you get to him, he’s still an enigma. This is a guy who had no patience for what we would call the sanctity of human life. If people died in big numbers, he didn’t then have pangs of conscience, he didn’t go back and wonder if he had done the right thing.
On the contrary, he reacted most strongly when he was criticized by others. As far as we can see, the peasant deaths in the famine didn’t give him a second of hesitation or regret or remorse, but he became obsessed with those people who criticized the imposed forcible collectivization. Part of the story I’m telling in the book is how he became the Stalin that we know, this monstrosity. The answer is: it’s the politics. We sometimes think that a person’s personality is formed from childhood experiences or other influences, which then gets expression in their life and what they do, but I’m considering the opposite. It’s the experience of building the dictatorship, it’s the experience of amassing and exercising this kind of power, holding life and death power over hundreds of millions of people, it’s this experience that makes Stalin who he is.
The more we see him through the earlier episodes chronicled in volume one, about the so-called Lenin Testament calling for Stalin’s removal, through the collectivization campaign for which he was criticized, the more we see him exercising power and the politics influencing his personality, and the more we can see the Stalin we know emerge. The politics creates a personality more than the personality creates the politics.
RA: You take issue in the book with Henry Kissinger, who in Diplomacy described Stalin as the ultimate realist, that he’s patient, shrewd, and implacable, but as you point out, there is also another side to Stalin—the gratuitous mayhem, the mistrust—so we really we have to understand both of those things in order to get closer to the man.
SK: Yes, the sadist and the charmer is the same person, and the realist or the real politicker in also the communist ideologue and the gratuitous murderer. The problems that we sometimes have with Stalin’s behavior we separate out, we fragment, we compartmentalize. We have the chapters on the Great Terror, when he seems to be gratuitously murdering everybody, and then we have the chapters on foreign policy, where he seems to be a far-thinking realist and acting to preserve or enhance state interests.
The problem with that type of compartmentalization is that he’s the same guy when he’s gratuitously murdering his own elite, and he’s engaging in foreign policy. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to weave the foreign policy considerations all through the rest of the terror and the murder, not because they’re causing the arrests, terror, and the murder—they’re not—but because this is what Stalin’s day to day life looked like. He could line edit a novel, he could screen a film, he could write a diplomatic communiqué, or sign a foreign treaty, or have one of his minions sign a treaty, he could sign execution lists, he could give instructions for torture of exactly how someone should be tortured and to what degree. All of this is Stalin.
RA: The book is subtitled Waiting For Hitler, and in many ways, I found this to be one of the most radical parts of the book. The traditional view of Stalin is that he trusted Hitler too much, but in some ways, you almost argue that he didn’t trust Hitler quite enough. You have this amazing scene where Ribbentrop offers Molotov the opportunity to essentially carve up the world together with Japan and Italy. Stalin decides that Hitler is trying to trick him, and he turns this down, and it’s this moment when Hitler really decides, “We have to deal with the Soviet Union.” Is that a fair summary, and what was it that put you on the track of thinking about Hitler and Stalin in that way?
SK: When I was looking at the Hitler-Stalin pact, and as you pointed out at this pact in August 1939 that Ribbentrop signs on behalf of Hitler and Molotov signs on behalf of Stalin, I was saying, “What did this piece of paper mean to Stalin?” Hitler had never kept his agreements before—there were shredded agreements all up and down Europe, including the recent Munich pact in 1938, the infamous Munich pact, the negotiations to which Stalin was not invited, nor was any Soviet representative. I said, “Why would Stalin believe that Hitler would all of the sudden begin to honor his word, when he hadn’t before, when the track record was the opposite?”
I came to the conclusion that Stalin perhaps didn’t believe that Hitler would honor this. You’ll recall that Hitler invades Poland on September 1st, 1939, and that a little bit more than two weeks later, the Soviet Union strikes into Poland from the other side, and they carve up Poland together. There’s an episode described in the book in the second and third weeks of September when the German army crossed the line that had been agreed in Stalin’s office. Right then, the division of Poland, on the map agreed in Stalin’s office, was violated by the German land army. They had gone farther east than had been agreed, and no coincidence, this was where the Elysium oil fields were.
The Wehrmacht—the German army—had captured very valuable oil fields that were supposed to be on Stalin’s side of the map. Stalin called the German military attaché in Moscow and the German ambassador into his office, and he let them know that in fact the Soviet Union was going to take back those oil fields which had been agreed were on the Soviet side. Stalin took them back by force, and in this clash both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht each took casualties. The pact still held, but it was an indication of the distrust and the conflict of interest. Stalin had no guarantee that the Wehrmacht would stop anywhere in Poland. Why wouldn’t they just march all the way to Moscow? By retaking those oil fields, he demonstrated that he had force at his command.
In the middle of this, Hitler, by the way, was in Poland, near the guns. He called the Wehrmacht back from their occupation, and as they were retreating under Soviet fire, they returned fire. This kind of episode leads you to think that we need a better understanding of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Falsely, many people characterize the Hitler-Stalin pact as an alliance, when in fact it was a non-aggression pact, and neither side wanted an alliance in the summer of 1939 when it was signed.
The negotiations to convert the non-aggression pact into a full-fledged alliance, which took place in Berlin in November 1940, failed, but it’s clear that Stalin contemplated signing a formal alliance with Germany, which could have redirected Germany away from the Soviet Union and spared the Soviet Union the war. But Stalin proved incapable of the kind of clever manipulative sophistication in November 1940, because by then, Hitler had the upper hand. When Stalin negotiated the pact originally with Hitler’s representative Ribbentrop, in August 1939, Stalin had the upper hand, but by November 1940, after the fall of France in June 1940, Hitler had the upper hand and Stalin misplayed his hand.
RA: Now finally, Stephen, let’s talk about you for a moment. A historian writing about Abraham Lincoln doesn’t have the kind of emotional and psychological challenges that perhaps you have, studying someone like Stalin, or which historians or biographers of Hitler might have. How do you deal with living with Stalin on a day to day basis?
SK: You know you’re right, and it’s been a number of years now, having worked through volume one and volume two. I still have another one to go, which goes through World War Two, the Cold War, and Stalin’s death. It’s oppressive, there’s no question. Imagine that there are some documents which are interrogation protocols, that concern people who were beaten to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and on those documents, there are lingering traces of those people’s blood. It’s dried up, it’s discolored now, it’s not the original red, and it’s fading, but nonetheless it’s there, and you see that again and again and you read the words in addition to the bloodstains. It’s hard, it’s very hard.
At the same time, the arc of the story is so grandiose, something like the story of Russian power in the world, where you’re getting someone who’s going to build a military-industrial complex far greater than this country ever had, who’s going to have the communist movement with global reach, who’s going to command a huge flourishing of production in the arts—quality issues were difficult, but nonetheless, a massive amount of culture that’s produced. This story is a big one, and it’s breathtaking, and it’s the story that got me into this in the first place. All through the mayhem and the horror and the tragedy, it’s the part that keeps you going.
RA: You’ve been going at a fair clip, 1,000 pages in three years. When are you expecting to bring out volume three?
SK: This is the problem, Richard, with a multi-volume work, there’s no victory lap. You finish a volume, and naturally, rightfully, readers want to know where the next one is. I can confess that I have not yet written volume three, it lies ahead. I’m at it right now, but I can’t predict how long it would take. Patience.
RA: The book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, it’s written by my guest, Stephen Kotkin, and published by Penguin Press. I have to say, it really is a staggering feat of scholarship, but for now, Stephen, congratulations again, thanks for joining us on the American Interest podcast.
SK: Well, thank you so much, Richard, my pleasure.