cover image Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941

Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, $40 (1184p) ISBN 978-1-59420-380-0

Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton, follows Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 with a magisterial second entry in this multivolume biography. He integrates a massive body of newly available documents with extant scholarship, comprehensively detailing the development of the U.S.S.R. and the nature of Stalin’s rule. Stalin’s commitments to reshaping Eurasia into a multinational communist empire and reconstructing Russia as an industrial socialist society necessitated a synergy of foresight and micromanagement, Kotkin writes. The fundamental challenge faced by the Soviets, initially posed by global capitalism and later embodied by Hitler’s Third Reich, required not merely a dictator, posits Kotkin, but a despot. That despotism began with agricultural collectivization in the early 1930s and advanced during the mass terror of 1936–1938, shaping the U.S.S.R. into a warfare state “unprecedented for even a military-first country.” Kotkin addresses crucial subjects that remain contentious: he presents the famine of 1931–1933 as a result of Stalin’s “magical thinking” rather than a deliberate campaign of rural genocide and interprets the great terror as “a matter of statecraft” necessary for Soviet survival in the total war Stalin sought to avoid. Stalin’s obsession with Nazi power resulted in policies of “deterrence as well as accommodation”—and generated miscalculation leading to war. Kotkin’s account is a hefty challenge, but an eminently worthwhile one. Maps. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)