“Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?”
– Chico Marx
It is nearly one thousand pages long.
And it is only the first of three volumes.
Stephen Kotkin has engaged in a dark undertaking. The Princeton professor of history and international affairs (and fellow at the august Hoover Institution) is writing a definitive biography on one of history’s greatest monsters, Joseph Stalin. The aforementioned first volume came out in 2015 (Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928). The second volume (Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941) was just released in October of last year. And the anticipated final volume carries the working title of Stalin: Miscalculation and the Mao Eclipse, 1942-1953.
While reading Kotkin’s first volume, I have simultaneously enjoyed the pleasures of YouTube interviews with the professor. (It is striking how much the style and character of an author can provide indispensable background of the mind engaged in such intense research.) Driving long distances, I would listen to summaries of his studies at intellectual haunts such as New York’s Strand Bookstore, Washington D.C’s Politics and Prose as well as interviews at the New York Public Library or with Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge.
Professor Kotkin, I have found, is an intriguing figure. Sporting cropped, thinning, grey hair (almost military issue), he is paunchy and invariably sits deeply slouched in a chair. When speaking, he has a professors cadence softened by an East Coast accent. He lazily holds his microphone close to his mouth with the bottom side up. For the most part he is winsome and witty, but at rare times, possesses a pugilist’s style in responding to questions. The concluding sentence on his author’s website says, “I try to stay lean by eating a lot of thin spaghetti.” After watching the polish of Soviet scholar Anne Applebaum or the the British gentlemanliness of Hitler historian Ian Kershaw, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this man.
But when Professor Kotkin begins to talk about Stalin, his insight into human nature is striking. He is meticulously fluent (without pedantry) in the roles of the most arcane Russian bit players in Joseph Stalin’s drama. He relies, almost exclusively, on sources contemporary to Stalin (e.g., an observance of a fellow revolutionary of Stalin in 1917 is used to describe who Stalin was in 1917) as opposed to conveniently crafted reminiscences (e.g., a friend who grew up with Stalin who decades later – if he survived – retrospectively considers that an off-handed playground comment foretold the horrors of Stalin’s gulags). He recognizes that to honestly attempt a reassessment of who Stalin truly was requires peeling the countless barnacles of bad research off the hull of a hulking ship.
As someone who has taught about Joseph Stalin for many years, I was struck by a number of his observations. When pouring through newly released (once secret) archives, Kotkin says “the great secret from the secret archives is that the Communists were…Communists.” This means that when the ruthless men who comprised the murderous regime of the Soviet state reclined and relaxed together in full privacy and full power, they didn’t speak cynically of power and how they had fooled every one. Rather, they discussed plans for the worker’s utopia, philosophical points of Marx and Lenin, nuances of the proletariat and bourgeois capitalism. When one audience member questioned the reliability of papers from such a mendacious regime, Kotkin whimsically replied that even if Stalin were to go to such an effort to concoct a false archive out of millions of documents, you would think he would have done away with the damning papers in which he orders indiscriminate executions. For years, I had read interpretations that Stalin was about power and that he nefariously used ideology as a fig leaf or vehicle to achieve power and consolidate it. Not so, says Kotkin. Whilst he was a masterful intriguer who crafted a personal as well as political dictatorship, it turns out Joseph Stalin was a true believer (not simply a cynical Machiavellian). And perhaps was even more ruthless as a result.
Kotkin also criticizes the tendency of historians to propose all-encompassing theories to explain the evil that Stalin was or that he perpetuated. There is no shortage of books that assign childhood beatings, art school rejections, or spurned overtures of love as the seminal events that created the monsters of Stalin, Hitler or Mao. Kotkin waves his hand at this Monday morning psychoanalysis admitting, “I was beaten as a child…and I didn’t go on to murder millions of people. There is something so much more than this to explain Stalin.” His point was not to say that these events were non-contributory, but that the mystery of who we are as people is not so easily explained as simple cause-and-effect. Human experience is infinitely more complex than pat linear events and consequences. Sometimes our theories give short shrift to the unfathomable nature in each human being. There are depths to who Stalin is – heck, there are depths to who you and I are – that we will never fully plumb. Avoiding the arrogance of convenient total explanations means that we are starting to wise up about the ultimately ineffable mystery of the human condition.
Professor Kotkin does well to remind us of the humility necessary to approximate Truth. And that first requires recognizing that, in our search, we will only approximate Truth. There will always be unknowns, uncertainties, and mystery. If we fail to comprehend this, we risk engaging in (as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed) “a bustle of infinite enquiry and research, [which] may be employed to evade and shuffle off real labour – the real labour of thinking.”
Recently, a friend pointed me to an essay by Columbia professor Jacques Barzun. In The Search for Truths, Barzunsaid this,
We must recognize that our work to attain truth succeeds only piecemeal. Where our hope of truth breaks down is at the stage of making great inferences from well-tested lesser truths. Still, we cannot help inferring. Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles. We need them both for comfort and for action…As the historian knows [though], the breakup up old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement which are a part of man’s fate. It should only strengthen tolerance and lessen our pretensions.
At root, Stalin is a mystery. But an intriguing, horrific one worthy of study. We should enter our consideration of Stalin, of other figures and especially of ourselves and our loved ones with a humility that knows that we may never fully know. Sometimes the object of understanding is in the search, not the earthly arrival.
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