Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Illustrated. 1,154 pp. Penguin Press. $40.
A review by Mark Atwood
Dictators lend themselves to caricature. We label them sociopaths, paranoiacs or just victims of bad childhoods. We flatten them in order to explain our own times. Saddam Hussein is Hitler; Vladimir Putin is Peter the Great; Donald Trump is Mussolini. Sometimes, we are told, they simply defy explanation. In a 1939 radio address, Winston Churchill conceded defeat in his efforts to understand Stalin’s Soviet Union. “It is,” Churchill said, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Stephen Kotkin demolishes such simplicities in his monumental “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941,” the second part of a projected three-volume biography of the Soviet leader whose reign of cruelty stretched from the mid-1920s to his death in 1953. Drawing on an astonishing array of sources, Kotkin paints a richly variegated portrait, delving into Stalin’s peculiar personality even while situating him within the trajectories of Soviet history and totalitarianism more generally.
This multilayered analysis has a downside: The densely packed, 1,154-page tome — roughly a page for every four days of the period it covers — is no easy read. Yet the book unquestionably rewards the patience that it demands. Slowly but inexorably, Kotkin teases out his subject’s contradictions, revealing Stalin as both ideologue and opportunist, man of iron will and creature of the Soviet system, creep who apparently drove his wife to suicide and leader who inspired his people.
And a compelling central thread holds it all together: Stalin’s unwavering determination to transform his country into a fully Communist nation capable of holding its own in a world of hostile powers. “Stalin did what acclaimed leaders do,” Kotkin writes. “He articulated and drove toward a consistent goal, in his case a powerful state backed by a unified society that eradicated capitalism and built industrial socialism.”
An eminent scholar of Soviet history at Princeton University, Kotkin picks up where he left off in Volume 1 — the eve of Stalin’s 1929 decision to collectivize Soviet agriculture — and carries his
The first section focuses on the Communist Party’s drive to abolish private landholding in the Soviet countryside from 1929 into the early 1930s. Aiming to feed a growing urban work force and increase exports, Stalin’s henchmen forced peasants onto collective farms and eliminated relatively well-off peasants known as kulaks. The human consequences were, in Kotkin’s word, nothing short of an “apocalypse.” Famine resulting from social upheaval and drought killed between five million and seven million people, while five million kulaks were arrested, deported or murdered.
Why did Stalin embark on such a scheme and then double down when catastrophe loomed and critics within the party called for a change of course? In part, Kotkin argues, he acted on “deep Marxist premises” about the need to extirpate capitalist class relations. But Kotkin also attributes the drive for collectivization to a broader determination to wrench the Soviet Union, no matter the cost, into a state of social and economic, albeit anticapitalist, modernity.
The dictator believed, Kotkin contends, that the world’s most powerful countries “achieved and maintained their great-power status by mastery of a set of modern attributes: mass production, mass consumption, mass culture, mass politics.” If the Soviet Union failed to keep up with modern nations like Britain and Germany, it risked perpetual “backwardness” and subordination.
Stalin was motivated in part, Kotkin asserts, by his determination to break the will of critics and rivals. In this sense, the terror “constituted a form of rule, a matter of statecraft” that sprang readily from a mind steeped in paranoia but capable of impeccable self-control. Kotkin also suggests another, more intriguing explanation: Stalin used the purges to open opportunities for younger, well-educated functionaries he judged better able to advance the nation’s industrial development.
Kotkin’s most striking contribution, though, is to probe reasons Stalin encountered little opposition as he wrought mayhem on his nation. Careerism and bureaucratic incentives in the Soviet Union’s formidable apparatus of repression had something to do with it, Kotkin writes, but so too did the party’s monopoly on information and the public’s receptiveness to wild claims about the danger of subversion from within. Stalinism was, in this way, as much enabled from below as imposed from above.
In the third section of the book, Kotkin turns to geopolitics, which increasingly preoccupied Stalin as Nazi Germany and militarist Japan upended the global status quo in the late 1930s. Well aware of Soviet military weakness yet eager to expand his nation’s borders and enhance his power, Stalin faced difficult decisions: Should he cut deals with the aggressors, despite their rabid anti-Communism, or throw in his lot with Britain? The answers he reached from 1939 to 1941 reveal Stalin as both consummate opportunist and narrow-minded ideologue.