- The Leader and the System
Do new biographies of the dictator provoke deeper analysis of the Soviet system? Will the life of Stalin open up new ways of understanding Stalinism? Past experience, it has to be said, raises doubts. Of all the biographies of Stalin, few have integrated, much less altered, the state of the art in Soviet history.1 The main reason for this fact also explains why so many Stalin biographies get written: they sell. The temptation is perennial for semilearned amateurs to pen sensationalist blockbusters. More sober-minded academic biographies, when written by those focused on the leader more than the system, tend to elide the much more difficult conceptual questions of how Stalin shaped—and, crucially, was shaped by—first revolutionary Russia and then the broader Soviet political system, culture, and ideology.
The Russian field has never had anything like Ian Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler biography. Kershaw came to Hitler’s life steeped in historiographical [End Page 119] analysis: his interpretation of the literature on National Socialism went through four editions. Through his famous concept of “working toward the Führer,” Kershaw linked the Nazi system in new ways to the leader, thus helping to transcend the intentionalist-functionalist split.2 If one were to pick any two Soviet historians capable of producing something analogous for our own field, it would be Stephen Kotkin, the American historian who helped the field move beyond the totalitarian-revisionist divide with his notion of “Stalinism as a civilization,” and Oleg Khlevniuk, the Russian authority on the archival holdings related to Stalin-era high politics and a world-renowned expert on Stalinism.
In many ways, the two works are very different. If Kotkin’s opus resembles a tank, seeking to awe if not shock the reader with its sheer scope and force, Khlevniuk’s deceptively simple craftsmanship is more akin to a fine watch. Kotkin’s sprawling 949 pages takes the story up until the onset of collectivization, constituting but one of three projected volumes. Yet one could justifiably say that volume 1 is really three books in one: the first, the biography of Stalin, is a story that develops very slowly, because the gradually increasing importance of the Georgian’s improbable trajectory is placed within the second book-within-a-book, a history of the Russian and Soviet states, punctuated by the history of the Russian Revolution. The third dimension is a geopolitical narrative about Russia, its foreign policy, and the world of the great powers. In a kind of treasure hunt for specialists, long textbook-like sections are strewn with brilliant insights, striking turns of phrase, and original interpretations; the research and synthetic interpretation of Stalin and his role are integrated into this grand récit. The modest and hardworking Khlevniuk, by contrast, delivers concise coverage of Stalin’s entire life and times in under 400 pages and delineates a consistent focus on Stalin’s political methods of rule, especially in terms of the top political elite.
Given these differences in form, the similarities and tacit consensus between them are just as striking. Both see the vozhd´ emerge squarely from the revolutionary movement and political struggle rather than, say, the alleged abnormalities of his childhood or personality. Both focus on high politics, with Kotkin putting special stress on foreign policy and [End Page 120] giving strong coverage to issues of empire and economics, while Khlevniuk highlights repressions and the Politburo elite. Both repudiate the tradition of depicting Stalin as a mediocrity or mere praktik. Both, quite rightly, take it as a given that, despite the condescension of elite Old Bolshevik theoreticians, he was very much a member of the party intelligentsia.3 For Kotkin, the seminarian was a striver with “tremendous dedication to self-improvement” who “devoured books, which, as a Marxist, he did so in order to change the world” (10...