cover image Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

Stalin, Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, $40 (976p) ISBN 978-1-59420-379-4

How did the “fugitive vagrant” Ioseb Jugashvili—poet, bank robber, student of Esperanto, and Marxist revolutionary—become Joseph Stalin, the architect of Soviet collectivism and the Great Purges? In this first volume of a planned three-volume biography, Kotkin (Uncivil Society) begins unraveling Stalin’s strange, monstrous life. This is an epic, thoroughly researched account that presents a broad vision of Stalin, from his birth to his rise to absolute power. The details Kotkin reveals of Stalin and the revolution seem absurd: as a youth he went by aliases including Pockmarked Oska and Oddball Osip and wore an Islamic veil on occasion to escape the attention of czarist authorities. At the beginning of Soviet rule, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky holed up in a former finishing school for girls where the headmistress was still living, even as they dismantled czarist Russia. Kotkin tracks the changing revolution, noting how Stalin and the Bolsheviks benefited from the disintegration of the old order. After Lenin died and his opponents were sidelined, Stalin plunged into “collectivization,” even as Soviet citizens cried out for “butter not socialism.” How did Stalin accomplish so much, and unleash so much terror? Kotkin identifies an essential quality: “Stalin did not flinch.” (Nov.)