Stephen Kotkin’s Book, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power. 1878-1928”

Here have been many biographies about Josef Stalin published in recent years, but Stephen Kotkin’s book, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” is unique when compared to the rest. In one aspect, Kotkin doesn’t start the book off with Stalin’s childhood, but rather the world in which he is born. Throughout the book, Kotkin expresses three main themes; geopolitics, institution, and ideas about the politicians. These themes show Stalin’s power in Russia and Russian power in the world.

The first theme Kotkin talks about is geopolitics and the way Stalin’s life was influenced by it. Three major events in world history would affect Stalin’s life. The British and French fought a 100-year war for global supremacy, and surprisingly, the British won. Now, the British are dominating the world economy, infrastructure, and world trade. The second one is Bismarck’s unification of Germany, which was the joining of German states to form the nation of Germany. This resulted in ideas of nationalism rising throughout Germany.

The third event is the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Which was a political program, following the destruction of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in which young leaders set Japan on a path of industrialization, imperialism, and centralization. This is the world that Stalin is born into, and he is going to try to manage Russian power with all of that happening.

When Kotkin talks about the world Stalin is born into, which is a British dominating world with new German power on the continent and rising Japanese power, he expresses a theme about modernization.

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Today, most countries are modern (in a sense) and for a traditional country, let’s say, for example, Japan, trying to convert your traditional society to a more modern one will be a hard task. Kotkin explains modernization is about geopolitics like a country with a more advanced (modern) society comes and tries to rule this smaller country with little or no power. The only way this country would be able to fight them off is by developing these modern attributes. And this is exactly what Japan did. They developed these modern attributes and were able to compete in the international system that Stalin would be born into and would experience as he rises as a dictator. Russia was struggling with this challenge of changing into a modern society, and not having modern attributes meant that it was easy to be preyed on in the brutal international system. The Tsar’s regime failed at grasping these modern attributes, but the Soviet regime succeeded, only for a while. After some time, the attributes of modernity shifted, and the Soviet attributes didn’t, and they then experienced collapse because of it.

Flash forward to Stalin’s time, and you get the rise of Germany and the rise of Japan, these being the big stories of the 1870s, and the Russian power must deal with these events. Germany and Japan are both on each side of the Russian empire, so a whole new problem. They lost a war to Japan in 1904-1905 and lost to Germany in 1914-1918 on the eastern front (World War I). These are important because Stalin is going to have to deal with this and he is also struggling with the dissolution where Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia broke off and are out of his control. They want to have their foreign policy, but Stalin sees them as instruments in the hands of Britain, France, Germany, or whatever capitalist imperial power there was. But it looks like Stalin will beat this problem because eventually, they will defeat Germany and Japan in late World War II in 1945. Stalin would have been part of the major defeat of Germany and a small part of Japan (most done by the United States).

Stalin will look like he’s won and has solved the problems of geopolitics for Russian power in the world, but he loses peace in the country. It takes over a century to see that he has lost it, and while he is trying to grapple with this, it shows how politics influenced his personality (I will talk about this later). The core geopolitical bedrock of Russia has been because they have natural borders, to defend its security and it must expand to the areas surrounding it. Therefore, those areas won’t be used by Russia’s enemies to undermine Russian power, and as the result, Russia is aggressive toward the west and defensive to itself. This brings up an argument that Kotkin is trying to show how Stalin and Putin are the same people.

Putin once said that Ukraine is not a state, meaning that Ukrainian is not a sovereign state in that international system because small states’ sovereignty is not real, and they are only instruments in the hands of larger states. So, if Putin doesn’t control Ukraine then other western powers will eventually control them and use it in their interest to subvert Russia or contain/dismember Russia just like the Soviet Union and Tsarist regime were dissolved. Therefore, this has been Russia’s core bedrock in geopolitics before and after Stalin. When Stalin got to Berlin, he seized those smaller states because they lacked sovereignty. This remained Stalin’s core thinking like a dictator in a communist regime.

Another argument that Kotkin shows is that it is not Stalin’s personality that gives you the politics and ideas, it’s the politics and ideas that give you his personality. He argues that through the politics and ideas, you see him becoming this sociopath because if you look at the evidence during that time, not the evidence that shows up 30 years later, with the people he worked with and people close to him, they didn’t notice any suspicious behavior at the start. It was later that his closest comrades, started to think he was exhibiting sociopathic behavior, and this was during the years 1927-1928. From the years 1920-to 1925, no evidence shows Stalin fighting all these demons and was ready to murder people in the 1930s. It’s the experience of building a dictatorship and exercising that power that created the person we know. Because when you have that amount of power, when you have life or death power over 200 million people, it starts to influence you. We can see this same situation with smaller organizations and when they have the amount of power. For example, Stalin was dictating the Bolshevik regime, which he built. He has control over the secret police, the military, the entirety of the Russian state, and the embassies abroad, and when you have the decision to decide whether people live or die if nations are deported, it starts to affect him. Especially when he enslaves the peasants in what is called collectivization, which causes the peasants to lose more than 50% of their livestock and over 2 million people to die because of famine that was a result of this order. Exercising that kind of power had a bad effect on his personality.

Stalin wasn’t a big fan of the dissolution where Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia broke off from the Tsarist regime. This happened after World War I when they didn’t get folded back into the Soviet Union. Stalin didn’t like this because they are out of his control and feels threatened almost. Józef Unszlicht, a person Stalin was close to and who ran the military intelligence, would come to Stalin and they would both decide to do a coup in Estonia to try to overturn the regime. They get some money to buy some weapons and infiltrate 100 gangsters into the country in January 1924 to do a coup. It ends within just five hours and several people are killed and injured. This is a good example of what this regime is like, Stalin and Trotsky struggled for power after Vladimir Lenin is incapacitated. The book builds toward the most extreme crime Stalin enacted, which was collectivism. After the effects of collectivism, the peasant revolution rose, and these two events are in parallel the regime was an attempt institutional to control the peasantry. Stalin’s dictatorship was then destabilized.

The second theme in the book is the theme of the attempt institution attempt, at the way power works in terms of the political institutions of the country. By October 1917, the Bolsheviks have a coup but don’t have a functioning state, yet they have meetings and decrees. They begin to build a better functioning state in late 1918 up until the civil war in attempts to overthrow Bolshevism. When they were building the state, they introduced a commissar, which is the basic function of the state. They did this because they had a hard time trusting people. For example, if they had officers from the Tsarist army, who swore an oath to the Tsar, who is going to serve on their side, they needed to trust them because they are military experts. But if they serve the Tsar, are they doing it because they are faithful or because they will eventually end up stabbing you in the back? That’s why they place a commissar next to them, so you have a military expert and you have a commissar, and a commissar is supposed to countersign all the orders. SO how the Bolsheviks have two different functions now, the commissars will end up being members of the Communist Party and the military officers will be born in the Soviet Union, trained in the Soviet Union, and eventually, become members of the Communist Party.

This dualist structure that is born during the Civil War is put in place so there are two meetings in every Soviet institution. The party has a meeting and the regular institution has a meeting, even if it’s the same. In the archives, there are two different ones for each, a party archive and an instate during bringing toward the archive. Kotkin explains that this is crucial in understanding this regime because the same thing applies, not just to the military where this institution was first in place with the commissar shadowing the expert, but to even the school system. In the school system, teachers were trained under the Tsar in not only knowing the basic subjects but also the politics. The regime put a party commissar inside the school to watch everyone, so no one went the wrong way when it came to politics. In the book, Kotkin talks a lot about institutions and how this regime used to keep a functioning state. About Stalin, this is applied to how builds his dictatorship with geopolitics and its institution story.

The third theme is the idea that the politicians didn’t talk like they did in their propaganda, but communist archives show that even behind closed doors they talked the same way as they did in their propaganda. They were communists. The Communist Party archives revealed that they talked for hours on end about the bourgeoisie and imperialism behind closed doors, not expecting anyone to find out. This is important according to Kotkin because if you don’t make sense of this the other themes of geopolitics and institutions are hard to grasp. Even Stalin was a true-believing communist and a man of ideas. When he was younger, he didn’t believe the Tsarist regime was just, and therefore he dedicated his life to bringing justice, according to his beliefs. Stalin will try to revive Russian power in a communist fashion.

It is clear Stalin is a dictator, but how did get there? One man who helped pave his way towards becoming a successful dictator is Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was a major factor was establishing  Bolshevism in Tsarist Russia. The country moved towards Lenin because of World War I, and the entire Russian Revolution also takes place during WWI. It was an achievement because they built a state. In April 1922, a new position was created by Lenin, which was called the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and he created this special position to formalize Stalin. Stalin was already, before, running the party and he was basically in charge, and now with this new position, he was the new right hand of the government and was Lenin. Then in May 1922, Lenin has a stroke and becomes incapable to continue his duties, and Stalin becomes the next person in charge. After that Stalin tries to revive Russia’s power in a communist fashion.

There was a fight for control between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Trotsky a great person when compared to Stalin. When he fought in the Civil War, 1918-1921, he was the head of the army and war commissar. One day Józef Unszlicht, one of Stalin’s closest comrades and the leader of the secret police, approached him and says to Trotsky that Stalin is pouring poison into Lenin’s ear behind his back. Trotsky brushes it off and says it is just gossip. If Stalin were put in that situation, he would have been interested to hear more and make Unszlicht his ally. After Lenin has the stroke stroke stroke stroke,d Stalin is put in charge, Unszlicht is the second guy in the secret police and Stalin asks the guy in charge after Unszlicht to keep an eye on the top and second guy in the secret police. This pattern continues in the army and the party. Being a dictator is perceiving an opportunity, seizing opportunity, and turning it t your advantage. Stalin continues this pattern of seeing whether his appointed people are loyal and endedarchives up building this personal dictatorship.

The sources Kotkin uses are mainly archives (former Communist party archives, Hoover Institution Archive) and personal research. He is very comprehensive and has read every new material that has come out of the Soviet Union. The primary sources are Stalin’s archives, KGB archives, military archives, and foreign policy archivearchivesarchive archives. The overall argument of the book, Stalin is the person who he was due to the politics and ideas of that time, is very convincing with the evidence the author uses. Kotkin uses a bunch of sources from the time that Stalin is alive and connects back to how that affected his personality and made him into the sociopath he was.

There are many strengths in Stephen Kotkin’s very detailed book about Stalin’s power in Russia and Russia’s power in the world. He talks very minimally about Stalin’s childhood, but to make up for it, Kotkin writes about Russia’s role in World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the days of the Tsar. The story of Stalin will always be fascinating no matter what because of how he built his persona dictatorship. Kotkin doesn’t seem to miss a detail, but this turns into, what I think, is a weakness of the book. There is simply too much detail in this 700-page book (but I can understand why some history enthusiasts would enjoy this book). At times it was hard to comprehend what I had just read because some sentences were just too complex. The title also seems to be misleading because it gives you the impression that the book will be a full-on biography about Stalin, but once you get into it, you find out how little of a role Stalin has. What I don’t agree with the author is the fact that he doesn’t think Stalin’s childhood had a major impact on the person he eventually became. I believe Kotkin should have included his childhood because that is what shapes what a person is, it sets the groundwork for the person they become.

Overall, Stephen Kotkin’s book, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” is a very detailed book about Russian power and Stalin’s power in Russia that explains very well every aspect of what happened and how that caused Stalin to become a sociopath. With the three major themes of geopolitics, institution, and ideas about the politicians, Stephen Kotkin did an excellent job arguing how it was the politics and ideas that formed the famous Joseph Stalin.

Cite this page

Stephen Kotkin’s Book, “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power. 1878-1928”. (2022, May 08). Retrieved from

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