- Master of PowerStalin and the Evolution of the Soviet System of Terror
Yet another Stalin biography? This time in three volumes? Who needs such a biography, and what can it explain to a reader already familiar with Stalin’s life? Stephen Kotkin has not written a Stalin biography but rather a fascinating and unsurpassed history of power in the early Soviet Union.1 It is actually the volume title that reveals what the book is about: the paradoxes of power. Accordingly, Stalin enters the stage only late in the book. Kotkin introduces him at the beginning, describes his youth in Georgia, but then allows him to disappear. Only toward the middle of the book does he appear once more.
Kotkin tells a story of power and its effects, of the autocracy and its prime ministers, of peasants and revolutionaries and of the Great War that ultimately destroyed the tsarist empire. We see how the revolutionaries were in no way certain about their cause, with liberals, Socialist Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks just as uncertain as the Bolsheviks. They understood that they also had to adapt themselves to the circumstances that had sealed the fate of the tsar’s government: the size of the country and the weakness of its [End Page 131] institutions. Lenin was not a strategist. He had no plan when he decided to overthrow the government in October 1917. There was not even a clear idea about how the new state and its government were supposed to be formed. They had no control over the chaotic events unfolding. Day by day, Lenin and his comrades had to reckon with the possibility of being driven out of power.
The government, Kotkin writes, consisted of only four people: Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotskii, Iosif Stalin, and Iakov Sverdlov—men who had had encounters with the tsarist police or been sent into exile or imprisoned but had no idea about how a state should be governed. They gave free rein to whatever happened because they did not know to which outcome they should direct events. The result was chaos and anarchy, a rule designed for one day at a time. A contemporary who worked at Smolny, the headquarters of the regime, remembered seeing fear on the faces of the Bolshevik people’s commissars. This fear grew because the authorities refused to cooperate with the Bolsheviks, because theft and violence ruled the streets, because the German kaiser’s troops threatened the heart of the empire, and because no one knew whether the opponents of the Bolsheviks would ultimately gain the upper hand. In the beginning, there was not even a state police force, and the new rulers had no choice but to cede power to the looters and robbers. Even Lenin himself, the leader of the revolution, was dragged out of a car in 1918, robbed, and left standing on the street. It was a period of “Dada and Lenin,” as Kotkin describes the events of 1918 (227–88).
Power means either imposing one’s will on another or preventing another from exercising power. But such power is only temporary and does not itself establish rule; power becomes durable only when it is institutionalized. Rule arises when the vanquished themselves perform what those with power demand from them.2 Lenin’s state was based on exploitation and redistribution, on intimidation and terror, on privilege and disenfranchisement. Its police resembled a band of marauders; its governmental agencies were commanded by men who transformed improvised terror into a strategy of rule. As the Civil War (1918–21) broke out, the Bolsheviks got the opportunity of a lifetime. They could turn all the improvisation and management of crises through force into the foundation for their regime. They learned how to overcome crises, fight battles, and destroy enemies; it was in this context that the Soviet state was...