Pulitzer Prize-finalist Stephen Kotkin has written the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin, from collectivization and the Great Terror to the conflict with Hitler's Germany that is the signal event of modern world history In 1929, Joseph Stalin, having already achieved dictatorial power over the vast Soviet Empire, formally ordered the systematic conversion of the world's largest peasant economy into "socialist modernity," otherwise known as collectivization, regardless of the cost. What it cost, and what Stalin ruthlessly enacted, transformed the country and its ruler in profound and enduring ways. Building and running a dictatorship, with life and death power over hundreds of millions, made Stalin into the uncanny figure he became. Stephen Kotkin's Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 is the story of how a political system forged an unparalleled personality and vice versa. The wholesale collectivization of some 120 million peasants necessitated levels of coercion that were extreme even for Russia, and the resulting mass starvation elicited criticism inside the party even from those Communists committed to the eradication of capitalism. But Stalin did not flinch. By 1934, when the Soviet Union had stabilized and socialism had been implanted in the countryside, praise for his stunning anti-capitalist success came from all quarters. Stalin, however, never forgave and never forgot, with shocking consequences as he strove to consolidate the state with a brand new elite of young strivers like himself. Stalin's obsessions drove him to execute nearly a million people, including the military leadership, diplomatic and intelligence officials, and innumerable leading lights in culture. While Stalin revived a great power, building a formidable industrialized military, the Soviet Union was effectively alone and surrounded by perceived enemies. The quest for security would bring Soviet Communism to a shocking and improbable pact with Nazi Germany. But that bargain would not unfold as envisioned. The lives of Stalin and Hitler, and the fates of their respective dictatorships, drew ever closer to collision, as the world hung in the balance. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 is a history of the world during the build-up to its most fateful hour, from the vantage point of Stalin's seat of power. It is a landmark achievement in the annals of historical scholarship, and in the art of biography.
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The reader gains an understanding of how Stalin built his regime. The only time he could’ve been removed was during the great famine when millions died because of his policies of forced collectivization and de-kulakization. He cemented his power by controlling information, constructing a multi-media cult of personality, and through the brute violence of terror and purges. His dictatorship spun around ideology, acceptance of authoritarian rule in the name of the masses, cult personality, party discipline, and the necessity of violence.
I have to say, this is not an easy, or enjoyable read. It very meticulously sets out the seemingly endless diplomatic and bureaucratic machinations carried out between 1929 and 1941. The first part details Stalin’s solidification of absolute power following the death of Lenin. It covers the dekulakization and collectivization of agriculture and the attendant famines that resulted. It then devolves into the terror that followed, in which Stalin murdered or exiled virtually every competent Soviet government official and military officer, in an orgy of paranoia fed violence. Page after page of Russian names soon blend together, making it impossible for me to follow. This middle part of the book is very slow going.
Finally, with the arrival of Hitler on the international scene, my interest level rose. While I was certainly well versed in the basics of pre-World War II diplomacy, this book certainly covers all of the bases. The never ending diplomatic dances involving the British, French, Russians, Germans, Italians, Polish, Chinese (Nationalist and Communist) and Japanese (not to mention the various Balkan and Baltic states) frequently resulted in temporary non-aggression agreements and trade pacts between very strange bedfellows. That the Germans and Soviets could climb into bed together after a decade of demonization from both sides tells you the complexity of the diplomatic landscape. The Soviets were shipping raw materials to Germany and the Germans were shipping finished military hardware to the Soviet Union right up to the eve of Barbarossa.
This is an extremely comprehensive and well researched piece of work. That, in itself, makes it somewhat difficult to wade through. I can usually read a book of this length (1,000 pages of text) in two weeks, three at most. It took me six weeks to finish this beast, albeit with two different four day breaks. I would recommend this work only to those with a pre-existing background or interest in the subject, looking for in-depth historical background and analysis. This is not pleasure reading.
One thing that I appreciated was the author’s tendency to break each long chapter into numerous two or three page topics, each with their own descriptive heading, making it easy to find a stopping point each evening.