CRF Blog

Understanding Stalin

by Bill Hayes

In Understanding Stalin for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reviews Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 by Stephen Kotkin.

Year by year, crisis by crisis, a fine-grained picture of Stalin’s intellectual development nevertheless emerges. It is easy to forget, but on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Stalin was in his late 30s and had nothing to show for his life. He had “no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry,” meaning that he wrote articles for illegal newspapers. He certainly had no training in statecraft, and no experience managing anything at all. The Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 brought him and his comrades their first, glorious taste of success. Their unlikely revolution — the result of Lenin’s high-risk gambles — validated their obscure and fanatical ideology. More to the point, it brought them personal security, fame, and power they had never before known.

As a result, most Bolshevik leaders continued to seek guidance in this ideology, and Stalin was no exception. In later years, outsiders would listen incredulously to the wooden pronouncements of the Soviet leadership and ask whether they could possibly be sincere. Kotkin’s answer is yes. Unlike the uneducated cynic of Trotsky’s imagination, the real Stalin justified each and every decision using ideological language, both in public and in private. [more]