Historian Anne Applebaum reviews for The Atlantic a nearly 1,000-page book on the first 50 years of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s life. Among author Stephen Kotkin’s most interesting observations: Stalin’s murderous regime did not result from some perversion of a communist ideal.
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. It is a mistake not to take this language seriously, for it proves an excellent guide to his thinking. More often than not, he did exactly what he said he would do.
Certainly this was true in the realm of economics. The Bolsheviks, Kotkin rightly notes, were driven by “a combination of ideas or habits of thought, especially profound antipathy to markets and all things bourgeois, as well as no-holds-barred revolutionary methods.” Right after the revolution, these convictions led them to outlaw private trade, nationalize industry, confiscate property, seize grain and redistribute it in the cities—all policies that required mass violence to implement. In 1918, Lenin himself suggested that peasants should be forced to deliver their grain to the state, and that those who refused should be “shot on the spot.”
Although some of these policies, including forced grain requisitions, were temporarily abandoned in the 1920s, Stalin brought them back at the end of the decade, eventually enlarging upon them. And no wonder: they were the logical consequence of every book he had read and every political argument he had ever had. Stalin, as Kotkin reveals him, was neither a dull bureaucrat nor an outlaw but a man shaped by rigid adherence to a puritanical doctrine. His violence was not the product of his subconscious but of the Bolshevik engagement with Marxist-Leninist ideology.
This ideology offered Stalin a deep sense of certainty in the face of political and economic setbacks. If policies designed to produce prosperity created poverty instead, an explanation could always be found: the theory had been incorrectly interpreted, the forces were not correctly aligned, the officials had blundered. If Soviet policies were unpopular, even among workers, that too could be explained: antagonism was rising because the class struggle was intensifying.
Whatever went wrong, the counterrevolution, the forces of conservatism, the secret influence of the bourgeoisie could always be held responsible. These beliefs were further reinforced by the searing battles of 1918–20 between the Red and White Armies. Over and over again, Stalin learned that violence was the key to success. “Civil war,” Kotkin writes, “was not something that deformed the Bolsheviks; it formed them … [providing] the opportunity to develop and to validate the struggle against ‘exploiting classes’ and ‘enemies’ (domestic and international), thereby imparting a sense of seeming legitimacy, urgency, and moral fervor to predatory methods.”
Given the degree to which Stalin’s policies complied with communist doctrine, it’s no surprise so many communist sympathizers were duped by the brutal dictator for years.